Part Two of "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 | Part One
This is also seen, according to Benedict, in that the second imperative of the passage -- "observe my commandments" -- only comes after the imperative to abide in the Lord and in his love. Benedict observes, "'Abide' comes first, at the ontological level, namely that we are united with him, he has given himself to us beforehand and has already given us his love, the fruit." Benedict affirms that Christ's being, Christ's loving comes first, and that it is only because we abide in His being and love that we are able to act: we are only able to act in Christ because we have first been rooted in Christ. The priest, then, is only able to act in the person of Christ precisely because he is first in the person of Christ.
Benedict also notes that it is in this context of abiding in Christ and His love that Jesus speaks of the twelve as His friends: "I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." Again the previous theme: Christ has nothing of his own, but rather, everything He has has been given to Him by His Father, and He in turn shares everything He has received from the Father -- His teachings, but also His life, His love, His very being -- with these men. Friends are those who share with one another, and here Jesus affirms that the twelve are not merely servants, but are also His friends, because He has shared everything He has received from His Father with them.
So for Benedict, it is because of this ontological union which begins at baptism and is given a new configuration at ordination that the priest truly becomes a friend of Christ and is able to act in His name.
The same theme is also present in another lectio from this year, this one with the parish priests of Rome. Commenting here on passages from the Letter to the Hebrews, Benedict notes that it was the author of this letter who first introduced a second way of understanding Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament; the first saw Him above all as the fulfillment of the Davidic promises: Jesus as the true King of Israel and in fact of all of creation. The author of Hebrews, however, finds in Psalm 110:4 ("You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek") an indication that Jesus also fulfills the expectation of the true Priest. It is this author who realized that Jesus fulfilled both the promise of a true King as well as the promise of a true Priest.
Beginning with this introduction, Benedict unfolds the theme of Christ's priesthood as Hebrews presents it, in three levels: the priesthood of Aaron, of Melchizedek, and of Christ Himself. For the purposes of our present theme I'd like to look briefly at Benedict's remarks regarding the first level: Christ's priesthood -- and thereby the New Testament priesthood -- as a fulfillment of the Aaronic priesthood as presented in Hebrews.
According to Benedict, the author of Hebrews indicates that the Law tells us two things about the priesthood: first, that if the priest is to be a mediator between God and man, the priest must be a man; and it was for this reason that Christ became man. Second, though, is this: the man who would be a priest is intrinsically unable to make himself a mediator for God; man lacks the power, the ability to become a priestly mediator of his own accord. He needs to receive divine authorization, he needs to be divinely instituted in order to be the bridge that a mediator is called to be.
Benedict is not content, however, to make the simple point that the priest must be "picked for God's team" in order to truly become a priest. He goes farther, or rather, deeper: for a man to truly be on God's team, for a man to truly become a bridge, a mediator, a priest, his being must be introduced into Christ's divine being. Benedict affirms that the priest can accomplish his mission only by means of the sacrament of ordination which brings him into communion with Christ, which introduces him into participation in Christ's mystery, His being. Again: the New Testament priesthood requires, demands an ontological bond, a communion with Christ at the deepest level of one's being. Anything else is incapable of enabling a man to be the bridge that brings God and man together which the priesthood requires. Benedict also gives some practical thoughts on this, but we'll save those for the final portion of this presentation.
For the final block in the Christological foundation of Benedict's theology of the priesthood I'd like to focus on one of his discussions of Augustine's treatment of the New Testament priesthood, particularly two series of images which the Doctor of Grace employed in his theological exegesis. As we will see, it is in Benedict's analysis of these images that the points we've been considering here come together.
The first scriptural image is of the priest as servus Dei or servus Christi: the priest as the servant of Christ. The Scriptural background and context for this image is found in the great Christological hymn found in Philippians 2:5-11: "Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men..."
Benedict focuses on the fact that the term "servant" implies a relationship: to be a servant means to serve someone, to serve another. So if we understand the priest to be a servant of Christ, we are saying that the life of a priest is oriented towards and determined in a substantial way by Jesus; to be a priest means, fundamentally, to be in relationship with Jesus. Benedict affirms that the essence of the office of priesthood -- even the essence of the priest himself, of his being -- is to be oriented towards Christ as a servant.
Benedict goes on to note that it is only by and because of his orientation towards Christ that the priest is able to serve the Church; the priest cannot be servus Ecclesiae unless he is first servus Christi. As Benedict puts it, it is precisely because the priest belongs to Christ that he is able to belong to others, and in a radical manner. For Benedict, the ontological truly enables the functional: understanding that to be a priest is to be in relationship with Jesus Christ & to share His being is in fact the only solid basis by which the priest is able to fulfill his priestly duties and responsibilities in the radical way necessary.
Benedict sees the concept of servant as deeply connected with the image of the indelible character, the notion of a ineradicable mark on the soul of the man who is ordained. The connection is seen in that in late antiquity, "character" referred to the seal or stamp of possession which was placed on a thing, even on a person, a seal which could no longer be removed or erased. By virtue of this stamp, the recipient of the stamp was forever and irrevocably marked as belonging to its master. Continuing the line of thought just seen, "character" thus indicates a belonging which becomes a part of the recipient's very existence: character thus implies being in relationship with another. And of course, in the case of ordination, the owner is Christ. With the imposition of hands, Christ says to the man being ordained: "You belong to me": He has taken possession of him.
And again, as we've seen previously in other contexts, the initiative for this character comes from the master, the proprietor: it comes from Christ. As Benedict puts it, to be ordained thus means that I am only the recipient of the action of Christ: I cannot ordain myself, I cannot declare that I am on God's side in this radical way, but rather He must first act, He must first declare me and make me his own, and only then can I enter into this acceptance and make it my own. I am only able, then, to actively receive, and nothing more.
The second series of images of priestly service which Benedict explores comes from Augustine's contemplation of the figure and role of John the Baptist. In the Gospels, John is presented as the voice which prepares the way for the coming of the Word: vox (voice) and verbum (word): the relationship between the two characterizes the relationship between the priest and Jesus. The word is prior to the voice: the word is present in my mind, in my heart before it is uttered by my voice. But it is through the mediation of the voice that the word becomes perceptible to the other and is thereby able to become present in the heart of the other, while remaining present in the heart of the one who spoke the word. So: the voice is the transitory mediator; the word remains present in the heart of the speaker and then of the hearer, but the voice passes away. The application thus becomes clear: the task of the priest, Benedict notes, is simply to be a voice for the word. Referring to John the Baptist's affirmation of his own transitory role ("He must increase, but I must decrease"), Benedict affirms that the voice has no other purpose than to pass on the word, after which it passes away. The priest is, in the entirety of his existence, vox, and in this light we can see his radical and complete dependence upon and orientation towards the Verbum, Jesus Christ.
What application, then, does Benedict see these theological observations having on the life and ministry of the Catholic priest today? To begin with, it's helpful to consider Benedict's grasp of the difficulties which being a priest in our age entail. In an essay in PFF written just over ten years ago, he wrote the following:
"A parish priest who may today be in charge of three or four parishes is forever traveling from one place to another; this situation, well known to missionaries, is becoming more and more the rule in the heartlands of Christianity. The priest has to try to guarantee the availability of the sacraments to the communities; he is oppressed by administrative work; problems of all kinds make their demands on him in addition to the personal troubles of so many people, for whom he can often—because of the rest—hardly find any time. Torn to and fro between such activities, he feels empty, and it becomes more and more difficult for him to find time for recollection, from which he can draw new strength and inspiration. Outwardly torn and inwardly emptied, he loses all joy in his calling, which ends by seeming nothing but a burden and scarcely bearable any longer. Escape increasingly seems the obvious course" (PFF, p. 169).
What, then can be done to address and prevent such a situation? Benedict turns to the conciliar decree on the life and ministry of the priest -- Presbyterium Ordinis -- as the starting point from which he elaborates his proposed solutions.
First, Benedict notes that the reality of the ontological unity which the priest has with Christ might be present and alive in the priest's consciousness and therefore in his actions. The priest, in other words, must have a clear and conscious understanding that everything he does, he does with Christ. It's important to note that the ontological is prior to the epistemological: Benedict and the Council Fathers are not saying that it is by the power and force of my awareness that I am in union with Christ, but rather that the already-real ontological fact must pervade my consciousness. The intimacy of being which the priest has with Christ must rise to the level of intentionality, of awareness, of consciousness, and it must usher forth in every aspect of his life and ministry. For Benedict, "the priest must be a man who knows Jesus intimately, who has encountered him and has learned to love him" (CC, p. 128).
In order for this to happen, in order for the priest to be vitally aware of his union and fellowship with Christ in all of his activities, Benedict makes his second proposal: ascetic discipline must not be allowed to become an additional burden, an extra program that you must fit into your schedule alongside all of your various pastoral activities. Rather, the work itself must be recognized and lived as asceticism, in that it is in one's priestly work that he learns to overcome himself, that he learns to let his life go and give it up to others; it is in the disappointments and failures of priestly work, Benedict proposes, that the priest learns renunciation and the acceptance of pain, of letting go of himself; it is in the joy of succeeding that the priest learns gratitude, and so on. For Benedict, the ascetic discipline that enables the priest to be aware of his fellowship with Christ is found in the very life and work of ministry itself.
But Benedict is clear with his third theme: for these things to happen, "I still need moments in which to catch my breath" (PFF, p. 170). Again drawing upon the Council, Benedict affirms that this conscious fellowship with Christ and ministry-as-asceticism can only occur if priests "penetrate ever more profoundly into the mystery of Christ" (ibid.). Benedict affirms that attention to the interior life is absolutely necessary and essential for the priest, in his life and in his work, noting that without an inner dimension, ministry degenerates into activism. Therefore, Benedict states that making time for God must be a pastoral priority for priests, even above all other priorities. As he puts it, "this is not an additional burden but space for the soul to draw breath, without which we necessarily become breathless -- we lose that spiritual breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit within us" (ibid.). He argues that inwardly seeking God's face is the only rest which enables the priest to love his work, the only rest which restores the priest's joy in God.
I conclude this section with a text from Saint Gregory the Great which Pope Benedict cites in this context:
"What else are holy men but rivers that... water the parched earth? Yet they would... dry up... if they... did not return to the place where they began their course. That is, if they do not abide in the interiority of the heart and do not bind themselves fast with chains of longing in love for the Creator..., their tongue withers up. But out of love they constantly return to this inner sanctuary, and what they... pour put... in public they draw from the well... of love. By loving they learn what they proclaim in teaching" (In Ezechielem 1, hom. 5, 16, cited in CC, p. 131).
Drawing these insights from the Holy Father together, we can draw the following conclusions: in order to overcome a flattened vision of the priesthood which reduces the priest to little more than a machine and which in fact flattens the man himself, we must recover the vision of the priest as a man united to Christ in the deepest levels of his being, a man who brings nothing of his own, but precisely in that nothingness brings Christ's love and life into a parched world, dying of thirst for Christ. The priest exists completely and totally for Christ; he is in a sense determined, ordered by his relationship with Christ, and it is this radical structuring for Christ which enables and empowers him to serve others. But for this ontological reality to bear fruit, it must rise to the level of awareness, and the priest must recognize and embrace his work as his own ascetic discipline. Finally, the priest must catch his breath, and make every effort to find time for that rest which brings him life: seeking after the face of Christ.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:
Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the "Dies Natalis" of the Curé of Ars
What Is Success For a Priest? Presence and Not Production | Fr. Alvaro Delgado
The Seminary as Nazareth: Formation in a School of Prayer | Dn. James Keating
Surrendering to the Healing Power of Christ's Own Chastity | Dn. James Keating, Ph.D.
St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan | Fr. John Cihak
The Blessed Virgin Mary's Role in the Celibate Priest's Spousal and Paternal Love | Fr. John Cihak
The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
Holy Christians Guarantee Holy Priests | Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
Priest as Pastor, Servant and Shepherd | Fr. James McCarthy The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest Why Preaching | Peter John Cameron, O.P.
Satan and the Saint | The Feast Day of St. John Vianney | Carl E. Olson
The Ingredient for Priestly Vocations | Rev. Jacek Stefanski
Becoming a Man of God | An interview with Fr. Larry Richards
The Year for Priests and Its Patron | Sandra Miesel
Chris Burgwald holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and has been the Director of Evangelization & Adult Catechesis for the Diocese of Sioux Falls in South Dakota for the past eight years. He and his wife have four children.
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