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Enthralled by Christ, Heralds of Hope: Priestly Identity and Mission in the Theology of
Pope Benedict XVI | Chris Burgwald, S.T.D. | June 11, 2010 | Ignatius Insight
As this Year for
Priests draws to a close it seems appropriate to look again at the theology of
the priesthood in the work of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict. In this essay I
intend to examine what Pope Benedict has said and written about the identity
and mission of the Catholic priest. My source material covers both papal
documents and his personal, non-Magisterial remarks, as well as some of his
personal theological work prior to his election as pope. In particular, I focus
on his essays on the priesthood in the works Called to Communion (CC)
Fellowship of Faith (PFF),
as well as some relevant comments from the first volume of Jesus of
In terms of his official, pontifical remarks on the issue, I've naturally
looked to the homilies, addresses and letters pertaining to this Year for
Priests as well as his homilies from the Chrism Masses during his pontificate.
The title of this essay comes from the Holy Father's letter last June
proclaiming this Year for Priests, as well as from his homily on the Solemnity
of the Sacred Heart which inaugurated this Year. He concluded the letter this
way: "Dear priests, Christ is counting on you. In the footsteps of the
Curé of Ars, let yourselves be enthralled by him. In this way you too will be,
for the world in our time, heralds of hope, reconciliation and peace!" In
this short passage, it seems to me that we find many of the central themes of
Pope Benedict's theology of the priesthood, and it it to that theology that we
will now turn.
The outline for this presentation is as follows: I'll begin with Benedict's
analysis of the historical context: the post-conciliar crisis in the
priesthood. Following that, we'll focus in on a central theme in his vision of
priestly identity and mission: the Christological roots and foundation of both.
I'll conclude by examining what Benedict calls the "spiritual
applications" of these theological considerations.
Benedict was and is a man of the Council. He was a peritus at the Council for
Cardinal Frings of Cologne, and he played an important role in the unfolding of
the Council's work in general and in the development of several of the
conciliar texts, particularly Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium.
But like so
many others, Benedict was surprised at the events which unfolded both in the
Church and in the world after the Council. Focusing in particular on the
priesthood, decades later he spoke of the "profound crisis" which the
Catholic priesthood entered after Vatican II. His analysis of the roots of this
crisis is interesting both on its own account and also insofar as it points to
his understanding of the way out of the crisis.
In short, Benedict argues that the basic framework for Vatican II's theology of
the priesthood is essentially that of the Council of Trent. While the texts of
Vatican II most certainly incorporated biblical motifs in a greater way than
did Trent, Benedict nonetheless believes that the framework remained
essentially Tridentine in nature.
One might fairly ask, "So what?" After all, the decrees of Trent on
these lines are dogmatic, they belong to the deposit of faith. Benedict
certainly agrees with this; he has never called the dogmatic points into
question. Rather, his concern mirrors the reasons for which Pope John called
the Council to begin with: to initiate a renewal within the Church which would
enable her to respond more adequately to the problems and questions of the age.
As with the Council in general, Benedict does not call the doctrines of the
priesthood into question, but instead proposes that a new framework for those
doctrines is required to more ably respond to the challenges raised with regard
to our theology of the priesthood. Specifically, he argues that after the
Council, Catholic theology was incapable of adequately responding to a
combination of Reformation-era arguments together with findings of modern
biblical exegesis. In Benedict's words, the conclusions of these challenges was
"It appeared indisputably clear that the teaching of Trent concerning the
priesthood had been formulated on false assumptions and that even Vatican II had
not yet found the courage to lead the exodus from this misguided history. On
the other hand, the inner tendency of the Council seemingly required that we
now finally do what it had not dared to do itself: to abandon the ancient
conceptions of cult and priesthood and to seek a Church at once biblical and
modern that would resolutely take up the challenge of the profane world and
would be organized solely according to functional considerations" (CC, p. 109;
"Functional" is a key term here: as Benedict sees it, these
challenges to our theology of the priesthood hold that in the apostolic and
post-apostolic era, ministerial offices had a purely functional character,
concerned entirely with practical utility.
It seems to me that such a perspective remains both dominant and ubiquitous.
I'm reminded of some of the comments made by Catholics faced with the prospect
of having to go to another parish for liturgies: we can run the parish, we just
need Father to come on Saturday night or Sunday morning to say Mass. Both the
priesthood (the office) and the priest (the man) are reduced to what they
can do, to
the role, the function they play. In essence, both priesthood and priest are
regarded as little more than vending machines, candy dispensers for the soul.
Now, I'm certainly not saying that Catholics have been reading Martin Luther
and Karl Barth. But I do think that the theology which is the subject of
Benedict's analysis here is "in the air", and given that the
Christian roots of our culture are basically Protestant, it's not surprising
that a function vision of Christian ministry has found its way into the minds
even of Catholics.
What, then, does Benedict propose by way of a solution to this post-conciliar
crisis in the priesthood? His answer to this question is the same as his answer
to every other question which in some way pertains to the human heart: Jesus of
If we look at the pontificate of Benedict XVI from a superficial
public-relations perspective, it's apparent that within the first year of his
election, Benedict's public image was rehabilitated, to put it mildly. Gone
were monikers like "Dr. No" and "der Panzerkardinal".
Instead, we saw a man who -- despite his lack of "stage presence" --
saw more people attending his Wednesday audiences than did his predecessor,
John Paul the Great! We saw a man who entitled his first encyclical Deus
Caritas Est (DCE)
and who said that we must emphasize the "Yes!" of Christianity.
those who were familiar with his personal writings knew, this rehabilitation
was largely in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. The themes of Benedict's
pontificate are essentially in keeping with his previous personal theological
work. What is surprising,
at least to me, is the emphasis of that "Yes!" which he has been
making. To put it another way: because of his office, we are now seeing the
evangelical dimension of Benedict's work in a clearer way, even more then in
his prior work. To borrow a title of one of Fr. Robert Barron's works, in
Benedict's pontificate -- as in John Paul the Great's, albeit in his own way --
we are seeing "The Priority of Christ". Again, his work was always
christocentric, but this dimension has been amplified since his election as
pope. Consider, for instance, the conclusion to the Forward to volume one
of Jesus of Nazareth: explaining why he began his study with Jesus' public
ministry and not with the infancy narratives, he writes,
Part Two I hope also to be able to include the chapter on the infancy
narratives, which I have postponed for now, because it struck me as the
most urgent priority to
present the figure and the message of Jesus in his public ministry, and
so to help foster the growth of a living relationship with him" (JN, p. xxiv; emphasis mine).
These are not the words of sawdust theology, dry and coarse! Rather, they
reveal what is at the heart of Benedict and his work: Jesus Christ.
With this preface, we now look at the Christological foundations of Benedict's
theology of the priesthood.
The Priesthood as Participation in the Mission of Christ
Benedict's vision, the foundation of the ministerial office in the New
Testament is this: apostleship as participation in the mission of Jesus Christ.
As Benedict notes, both the novelty and the center of the New Testament is
Jesus. He says, "what is new about [the New Testament] is not, strictly
speaking, ideas -- the novelty is a person: God who becomes man and draws man
to himself" (CTC, p. 111).
This is a
point which Benedict has been making more repeatedly and more insistently in
the last couple of decades. Consider these words from the first article of DCE:
"Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea,
but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a
decisive direction." Or consider these words from his lectio
the seminarians of Rome last month: "It is not we who must produce
the abundant fruit; Christianity is not moralism, it is not we who must do all
that God expects of the world but we must first of all enter this ontological
mystery: God gives himself." Even in the context of this Year for Priests,
Benedict returns to this theme, which might rightly be considered the major key
of his pontificate: we cannot reduce Christianity to ideas -- ideology -- or to
moralism; while ideas (truths) and morality are certainly important to our
faith, they are not the center, they are not the novum: that place is held by Christ
alone. Remember, this is a theologian writing these things! We make our living
by reducing our living, vibrant relationship with Jesus to cures for
insomniacs! But not Benedict.
So even in
the case of the priesthood, he tells us that the point of departure must lie in
Christology, in our understanding of who Jesus is. In this context, Benedict's
emphasis is on Jesus' mission, on the fact that He is sent by the Father, that He
represents God's authority concretely in His person. Benedict hones in on
following formula from John's Gospel, and on the interpretation of this formula
given by Benedict's personal favorite theologian, St. Augustine: "My
doctrine is not my own but his who sent me" (7:16). Benedict makes this
point: Jesus both has and is nothing of his own aside from the Father... nothing. As Benedict sees it, in this
Johannine formula Jesus "is saying that precisely what is most intimately
his own -- his self -- is that which is altogether not his own. What is his is
what is not his" (CTC, p. 113). And it is by this very expropriation of
himself that Jesus is totally one with the Father.
this have to do with the priesthood? This: Jesus prolongs His own mission, His
own sending from the Father by the creation of the office of "those who
have been sent": the office of the apostles. According to Benedict,
"Jesus confers His power upon the apostles and thereby makes their office
strictly parallel to his own mission" (ibid.). As Jesus tells the Twelve
on numerous occasions, "he who receives you receives me" (Matthew
10:40). Or even more clearly: "As the Father has sent me, so I send
you" (John 13:20).
that Jesus' entire being is mission and relationship, Benedict sees this
statement of Jesus' as having enormous weight for the proper understanding of
the priesthood of the New Covenant, particularly when we look to the following
The Son can
do nothing of himself (John 5:19, 30)
Without me you can do nothing (John 15:5)
Benedict argues that the power and the impotency (the potency and impotency) of
the apostolic office -- and hence the priesthood in general -- derives
precisely from this "nothing" that the disciples share with Jesus.
It's worth quoting Benedict at length here:
that makes up the activity of the apostles is the product of their own
capabilities. But it is precisely in having 'nothing' to call their own that
their communion with Jesus consists, since Jesus is also entirely from the
Father, has being only through him and in him and would not exist at all if he
were not a continual coming forth from and self-return to the Father. Having
'nothing' of their own draws the apostles into communion of mission with
Christ." So somewhat counter-intuitively, what brings the apostles into
union with Christ's mission, what makes their own mission the extension of his,
is the nothingness of their own activity.
point, Benedict elaborates at length on the nature of the sacrament of
ordination. It is because the apostle's (and by extension, the priest's)
communion with Christ derives from having nothing of his own that ordination is
not about the development of one's own abilities and talents. Jesus
receives everything from the Father -- He has nothing which is His own -- and He
brings salvation to the world. The priest receives everything from Jesus -- he has nothing
which is his own -- and he brings salvation to the world. Just as
self-expropriation, self-dispossession and selflessness were necessary for the
High Priest to be one with the Father and to accomplish that for which He was
sent, so too are these things necessary for those who act in his person.
In this we
see the beginnings of a "Benedictine" response to a denuded,
functional conception of ministerial office: the priesthood is not about
developing one's personal powers and gifts, but rather it is about sharing our
very nothingness with Christ, and in so doing being united with Him to the
Father in the Spirit, and thereby bringing the life of the Father -- His grace
-- to the Church and to the world.
An Ontological Union
aspect of the Christological foundations of Benedict's theology of the
priesthood flows from the first: the priest's union with Christ is an
This is by
no means a new insight; the Church has always been very clear that the union
which the sacrament of holy orders effects is ontological in nature; it is not
a superficial union, but one which goes to the depths of human nature, to the
depths of our being. Nor is this union unique to orders: it occurs for all of
us in baptism, and is deepened in the other sacraments as well. We are joined
to Christ, conformed to Him, and this is true as well of ordination.
At the same
time, Benedict indicates that this truth -- an ontological union -- has been
somewhat obscured in our time, to the detriment of a proper understanding --
and therefore a proper exercise -- of the New Testament priesthood.
addresses this topic in a number of places. I've already referred to his lectio
the Roman seminarians from earlier this year. In that lectio, Benedict is commenting on John 15:1-17.
As you know, in this passage Jesus speaks of Himself as the true vine and of
the twelve (and ultimately, all his disciples) as the branches of the vine. In
Benedict keys in on Jesus' imperative, "Abide in me," affirming that
the idea of abiding in the Lord is fundamental as the first topic of this
passage. In order to be laborers in the vineyard, in order to be priests of
Christ's mystery, Benedict emphasizes that the union between Jesus and the
priest is an ontological one, for it is only by being deeply rooted in Christ,
it is only by being joined to Christ at the deepest level of his being that the
priest is capable of exercising his ministry. As Jesus says in this passage,
"as the branches cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the
vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me." For the priest -- as for
every Christian -- this abiding in Jesus, this ontological intimacy is
foundational and primary.
Read Part Two of "Enthralled by Christ, Heralds of Hope: Priestly
Identity and Mission in the Theology of Pope Benedict XVI"
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