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"The Reality of Realities": On God, Conversion, and the Priesthood | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 13, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

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"Neither material things, nor money, nor buildings, nor any of the things I can possess constitute the essential, or reality. The reality of realities is God. This invisible reality seemingly far away from us, is the reality."
-- Pope Benedict XVI, Audience with Parish Priests of Rome, March 10, 2011 ( "Faithful Workers in the Lord's Vineyard," L'Osservatore Romano, English, March 23, 2011)


The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861. On March 27th of that same year, Rome, though still in the hands of the Papacy, was declared the capital of united Italy. This year, 2011, is also the sixtieth anniversary of the Holy Father's ordination to the priesthood. In letters to the Italian President (March 16) and in a discourse to the National Association of Italian Municipalities (12 March), the Pope noted the unique relation of Italy with regard to the Church in its midst. To Mr. Georgio Napolitano, the Italian President, Benedict wrote of the "history of this beloved country, capital if which is Rome, the city in which "divine Providence has established the See of the Successor of the Apostle Peter." The See of Peter, then, is not in Rome for merely technical or political reasons, though there is a lively history of its being and remaining there.

To the Italian mayors, Benedict recalled the broader context of the presence of the Church in any civil society: "The Church demands no privileges but only asks to be able to carry out her mission freely, as effective respect for religious freedom requires. In Italy religious freedom permits the collaboration that exists between the civil and ecclesial communities. Unfortunately in other countries Christian minorities are all too often victims of discrimination and persecution." The Pope does not name the countries in which this "discrimination and persecution" exists.

The Pope likewise addresses the Roman clergy, whom he meets every year. He goes over a "lectio divina," with them. The reflective reading together this year was of a passage from the Acts of the Apostles (20: 17-38). Here, Paul explains nothing less than how to be a priest. But Benedict also begins with a reference to the uniqueness and importance of Rome and its clergy. He thanks this clergy "for the work you do for the Church of Rome, which—according to St Ignatius (of Antioch)—presides in charity and must also always be exemplary in her faith. Let us do all we can together to ensure that this Church of Rome measure up to her vocation...."


The first thing that the Pope tells the Roman clergy is that "We cannot be part-time priests; we are priests for ever, with the whole of our soul, with the whole of our heart." Christ did not come to be served but to serve. This Christ is the prime example of what the priesthood is about. "We (priests) are servants. And; serving means not doing what I propose for myself which would be what I should like best; serving means letting myself take on the Lord's burden, the Lord's yoke; serving means not being swayed by my own preferences, my priorities, but letting myself truly be 'taken on in service' for others."

Benedict is aware of the details with which the parish priest must deal. "All of us, from the Pope to the lowliest parochial vicar, have to do administrative work, temporal work; yet we do it as a service, as part of what the Lord imposes on us in the Church and we do what the Church tells us and expects of us." While there is room for innovation and variety of styles, essentially the priest is known for his representing the Church, not himself. He does not make up the rules. He does not ignore the ones that are to guide him. "We work as the Church tells us, where the Church calls us, and we try to be precisely this: servants who do not do their own will, but the will of the Lord." The average priest, I think, is relieved to be reminded that what he does is not of his own making or concoction.

The Pope recalls the meaning of the word "humility" in the Gospel. It is a key word. It goes back to Christ's lowering himself to become man. "Humility does not mean false modesty...yet, anything we can do is a gift of God; it is given for the Kingdom of God." The priest must be conscious that he is not about his own business. The best things he does will rarely be praised. "It does not matter what may be said of us in the newspapers or elsewhere; what matters is what God says. This is true humility, not to appear before men and women but to be in God's presence, to work humbly for God and thus really to serve humanity and men and women."

Next, Benedict recalls Paul's admonition to tell us the whole of what Christ taught. "He (Paul) did not preach a Gospel to suit his own favorite theological ideas; he did not shrink from the commitment to proclaiming the whole of God's will, even an inconvenient will and even topics of which he was personally not so enamoured." This passage reminds me of the parish in which the faithful have never heard any topic but love for twenty five years, or another which hears of hell and sin but seldom of grace and forgiveness.

Priests are to speak of the whole of God's will. "If the contemporary world is curious to know everything, even we ourselves must be more curious to know God's (will)." What must be made known is the Creed "from Creation until the Lord's return, until the new world. Doctrine, liturgy, morals, prayer—the four parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church—indicate this totality of God's will." It is not as if we do not have sources from which we can draw. On the other hand, we are not to give the impression that "Christianity is an immense packet of things to learn." The fact is that Christ was and is God. "God revealed himself in Christ...it is essential to make the ultimate simplicity of faith understood."

Faith gives answers to our questions "even answers which in the first instance we do not like but which are nevertheless the path of life, the true path." Benedict is always conscious of the fact that, at some level, we may not personally "like" what the Church teaches. This is why one of the most important services to the Church is the mission of faithful intelligence. Chesterton's "orthodoxy" is our guide. There are reasons why what does not seem, at first sight, to make sense does in fact make sense when we insightfully comprehend it.


Benedict gives a short history of the word "conversion." In Greek, it is metanoia, which means "changing our way of thinking." In Latin, the word is poenitentia. This word refers rather "to my own action to let myself be transformed." The Hebrew word means "a new direction in life"; it refers to a change in "our perception of reality." Benedict then adds something we might not expect: "Since we are born in original sin, for us 'reality' means the tangible things, money, my position, the everyday things we see in the news on television: this is the reality. And spiritual things appear a little 'behind' reality." Thus, conversion will mean to invert the impression."

The real thing, the "reality of realities," is God. Conversion means to reorient our perception of what is important. Our criterion becomes "what does God say about" whatever we do. "God is reality. Christ is reality and is the criterion of how I act and how I think." The Latin phrase, poenitentia, "means to exercise my self-control, to let myself be transformed, with my whole life, by the Word of God." So the issue is not just of thought or of mind, but the question of the totality of my being

"The unity of the Church deserves martyrdom." We think of Sir Thomas More. Sheer biological survival at the cost of principle in effect denies the principle. Socrates also taught this. To lose one's life is to save it, when the choice is between truth and survival. "Of course, we must take care of our health, we must work reasonably, but we must also know that the ultimate value is being in communion with Christ...." And the Pope has a kindly word for old priests. "Even in old age, even if we are getting on in years, we do not lose our enthusiasm, our joy of being called by the Lord."

The whole title of the Gospel is "good news." Yet, we must be alert. Benedict cites Peter Canisius: "You see, Peter is asleep, Judas is awake." It is significant that a Pope cites this passage. He adds this similar admonition from Pius XI: "It is not the negative forces that are the great problem of our time, but rather the somnolence of the good.'" The English philosopher Edmund Burke said something like this. So we are to "watch," to "take heed." "A well-intentioned activism exists but (one) in which a person forgets his own soul, his own spiritual life, his own being with Christ."


"The sacramental character of the presbyterate and of the priesthood appears clearly. It is not a profession that must be carried out because someone has to run things, someone has to preach. It is not something we do, simply. It is election by the Holy Spirit and in this will of the Holy Spirit, the will of God, we live and ceaselessly seek to let the Holy Spirit, the Lord himself, take us by the hand." That reminder that the priesthood is not simply another profession is a welcome one. It is not just another job. It is not a selecting but a having been selected.

Benedict discusses the origins of the words bishop (episcopoi) and priest. He explains their development as they emerged from Greek and Roman conditions. There is a pastoral background to these words. The holders of these offices are to tend the flock. Into this background also falls the notion of a king, who too is conceived as a shepherd. "Perhaps there are the two central concepts for this office of 'shepherd'; to nourish by making the Word of God known, not only with words but by testifying to it for God's will, and to protect it with prayer, with the full commitment of one's life."

The development of Church offices did not mean that it was not yet founded. Just the opposite is true. "The Church is not an organization that was founded gradually; the Church was born from the Cross. The Son acquired the Church on the Cross and not only the Church of that moment, but the Church of all epochs."

The Church is not just another worldly corporation. "The Church is a gift." We must then relearn the joy of being in the Church. "The fear of triumphalism has perhaps caused us to forget a little that it is beautiful to be in the Church and that this is not triumphalism but humility, being grateful for the gift of the Lord." The cause of joy is given to us. We do not "create" it ourselves.

"The Church is constantly threatened," Benedict reminds us. "There is always the danger, the opposition of the devil, who does not accept the presence the new People of God in history or that God should be present in a living community." There will be always difficulties in Church, no surprise. But I have never seen the danger to the Church quite put the way the Pope does here. The devil still does not accept the Incarnation, the presence of God's people in the world. Still, "we must be confident with joy, that truth is stronger than falsehood, love is stronger than hatred, God is stronger than all the forces in opposition to him."

The Pope ends with a reminder of the poor and the weak, of the fact that people expect priests to love them, "even if we do not like them." And he adds a final reflection that in the Garden of Olives, Christ "prayed on His knees. Praying on one's knees means adoring God's greatness in our weakness, grateful that the Lord loves us, precisely in our weakness."

Isaiah says that the whole world will "kneel before the God of Israel." Humility transforms our gestures. "Kneeling is no longer an expression of servitude, but rather of the freedom that God's love gives us, the joy of being redeemed, of standing together, with Heaven and earth, with the entire cosmos, to worship Christ, to be united to Christ and thus to be redeemed." This is indeed a lectio divina to be remembered. In the city of Rome, the See of Peter, the capital of Italy, to the priests of the Eternal City, we are told of the "reality of realities." This is as it should be. This is why Rome is a city also of Providence.

Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Jesus of Nazareth (Part 2) available March 10, 2011
Other Recent Books by Pope Benedict XVI
All books by or about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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