07 May 2010

The sanctifying office

Wednesday Pope Benedict XVI again devoted his general audience address to the priesthood, this time about his minsistry of sanctification.

His text follows, with my emphases:

Dear brothers and sisters,

Last Sunday, in my pastoral visit to Turin, I had the joy of pausing in prayer before the Holy Shroud, joining the more than 2 million pilgrims that during the solemn exposition of these days, have been able to contemplate it. This sacred Cloth can nourish faith and reinvigorate Christian piety, because it impels one to go to the Face of Christ, to the Body of Christ crucified and resurrected, to contemplate the Paschal Mystery, the center of the Christian message. Of the Body of the resurrected Christ, living and operating in history (cf. Romans 12:5), we, dear brothers and sisters, are living members, each one in our own function, namely, with the task that the Lord has entrusted us.

Today, in this catechesis, I would like to return to the specific tasks of priests, which, according to tradition, are essentially three: to teach, to sanctify, to govern. In one of the preceding catecheses I spoke about the first of these three missions: teaching, the proclamation of the truth, the proclamation of the God revealed in Christ or, in other words, the prophetic task of putting man in contact with the truth, of helping him to know the essential of his life, of reality itself.

Today I would like to reflect briefly with you on the second task the priest has, that of sanctifying men, above all through the sacraments and the worship of the Church. Here first of all we must ask ourselves: what does the word "saint" mean? The answer is: "Saint" is the specific quality of God's being, that is, absolute truth, goodness, love, beauty -- pure light. Hence, to sanctify a person means to put him in contact with God, with his being light, truth, pure love. It is obvious that this contact transforms the person. In ancient times there was this firm conviction: No one can see God without dying right away. The force of truth and light is too great! If man touches this absolute current, he does not survive. Moreover, there was also this conviction: Without a minimum contact with God, man cannot live. Truth, goodness, love are fundamental conditions of his being. The question is: How can man find this contact with God, which is fundamental, without dying, overwhelmed by the grandeur of the divine being? The faith of the Church tells us that God himself creates this contact, which transforms us little by little into true images of God.

Thus we return again to the task of the priest to "sanctify." No man on his own, by his own strength, can put another in contact with God. An essential part of the grace of priesthood is the gift, the task to create this contact. This is done in the proclamation of the Word of God, in which He comes to meet us. It is done in a particularly profound way in the sacraments. Immersion in the Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ happens in baptism, is reinforced in confirmation and in reconciliation, is nourished in the Eucharist, the sacrament that builds the Church as People of God, Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation 'Pastores Gregis,' No. 32).

Hence, it is Christ himself who makes us saints, namely, who attracts us to the sphere of God. But as an act of his infinite mercy he calls some to "be" with him (cf. Mark 3:14) and to be converted, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, despite human poverty, into participants in his own priesthood, ministers of this sanctification, dispensers of his mysteries, "bridges" of the encounter with him, of his mediation between God and men and between men and God (cf. po, 5).

In the last decades there have been tendencies oriented to having the dimension of proclamation prevail in the identity and mission of the priest, separating it from that of sanctification: It has often been affirmed that it would be necessary to surmount a merely sacramental ministry. But, is it possible to genuinely exercise the priestly ministry "surmounting" the sacramental ministry? What does it mean exactly for priests to evangelize, in what does the so-called primacy of proclamation consist?

As the Gospels state, Jesus affirms that the proclamation of the Kingdom of God is the objective of his mission; this proclamation, however, is not only a "speech," but includes, at the same time, his very action; the signs, the miracles that Jesus does indicate that the Kingdom comes as a present reality and that it coincides in the end with his very person, with the gift of himself, as we have heard today in the reading of the Gospel. And the same is true for the ordained minister: he, the priest, represents Christ, the One sent by the Father, he continues his mission, through the "word" and the "sacrament," in this totality of body and soul, of sign and word. In a letter to Bishop Honoratus of Thiabe, St. Augustine says, referring to priests: "The servants of Christ, the ministers of his word and of his sacrament must, therefore, do what he commanded or permitted" (Epist. 228,2). It is necessary to reflect if in some cases this undervaluing of the faithful exercise of the munus sanctificandi did not represent, perhaps, a weakening of the faith itself in the salvific efficacy of the sacraments and, in short, in the present action of Christ and of his Spirit, through the Church, in the world.

Who, therefore, saves the world and man? The only answer we can give is: Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, crucified and resurrected. And where is the mystery realized of the death and resurrection of Christ, which brings salvation? In the action of Christ through the Church, in particular in the sacrament of reconciliation, in which from the death of sin one returns to the new life, and in every other sacramental act of sanctification (cf. po, 5). Hence, it is important to promote a suitable catechesis to help the faithful to understand the value of the sacraments, but it is also necessary, following the example of the Holy Curé d'Ars, to be available, generous and attentive in giving the faithful the treasure of grace that God has placed in our hands, and of which we are not the "owners," but custodians and administrators. Above all in this our time in which, on one hand, it seems that faith is weakening and, on the other, that a profound need and widespread search of spirituality is emerging, it is necessary that every priest remember that in his mission, the missionary proclamation, worship and the sacraments are never separated, and that he promote a healthy sacramental ministry to form the People of God and to help them live the liturgy, the worship of the Church, the sacraments in fullness as free gifts of God, free and effective acts of his saving action.

As I reminded in the Holy Chrism Mass of this year: "At the centre of the Church’s worship is the notion of 'sacrament.' This means that it is not primarily we who act, but God comes first to meet us through his action, he looks upon us and he leads us to himself. (...) God touches us through material things (...) that he takes up into his service, making them instruments of the encounter between us and himself" (Holy Chrism Mass, April 1, 2010). The truth according to which in the sacrament "it is not we men who do something" also affects, and must affect, the priestly awareness: Every presbyter knows well that he is a necessary instrument of the salvific action of God, but always as an instrument. This awareness must make one humble and generous in the administration of the sacraments, in respect of the canonical norms, but also in the profound conviction that one's mission is that of making all men, united to Christ, able to offer themselves to God as a living and holy host agreeable to him (cf. Romans 12:1).

Exemplary, on the primacy of the munus sanctificandi and of the correct interpretation of sacramental ministry, continues to be St. John Mary Vianney, who, one day, before a man who said he had no faith and wanted to debate with him, the parish priest answered: "O, my friend, you conduct yourself very poorly, I don't know how to reason ... but if you are in need of some consolation, place yourself there (his finger indicated the immobile footstool of the confessional) and believe me, that many others placed themselves on it before you, and they did not have to regret it" (cf. Monnin A., Il Curato d'Ars. Vita di Gian Battista Maria Vianney, vol. i, Turin, 1870, pp. 163-164).

Dear priests, live the liturgy and worship with joy and love: It is action that the Risen One carries out through the power of the Holy Spirit in us, with us and for us. I would like to renew the invitation I recently made to "return to the confessional as a place in which to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but also as a place in which 'to dwell' more often, so that the faithful may find compassion, advice and comfort, feel that they are loved and understood by God and experience the presence of Divine Mercy beside the Real Presence in the Eucharist" (Address to the Apostolic Penitentiary, March 11, 2010). And I would also like to invite each priest to celebrate and live the Eucharist with intensity, which is at the heart of the task of sanctifying; it is Jesus who wants to be with us, to live in us, to give himself to us, to show us the infinite mercy and tenderness of God; it is the only Sacrifice of love of Christ that makes itself present, is realized among us and reaches the throne of grace, the presence of God, embraces humanity and unites us to him (cf. Address to the Clergy of Rome, February 18, 2010).

And the priest is called to be minister of this great Mystery, in the sacrament and in life. If "the great ecclesial tradition has rightly separated sacramental efficacy from the concrete existential situation of the individual priest and so the legitimate expectations of the faithful are appropriately safeguarded," this does not take anything away from the "necessary, indeed indispensable, aspiration to moral perfection that must dwell in every authentically priestly heart": There is also an example of faith and witness of sanctity that the People of God rightly expect from their pastors (cf. Benedict XVI, Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy, March 16, 2009). And it is in the celebration of the Holy Mysteries where the priest finds the root of his sanctification (cf. po, 12-13).

Dear friends, be conscious of the great gift that priests are for the Church and for the world; through their ministry, the Lord continues saving men, making himself present, sanctifying. Know how to thank God, and above all be close to your priests with your prayer and support, especially in difficulties, so that they will be increasingly shepherds according to the heart of God. Thank you.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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