After the Year for Priests
The Church is concluding the special Year for Priests, but the focus on the priesthood must not be allowed to dissipate.
For the past 12 months, the Church has prayed in a special way for the world’s 400000 priests, and reflected in many forms and from different perspectives on the nature of the priestly ministry and on the future of the priesthood. The intentions behind the Year for Priests will not be accomplished by a closing ceremony, however; the reflections, introspections and prayers of the past year must serve as a foundation in our communal endeavour to perfect the priesthood.
We have prayed for our priests, as a collective and as individuals in the selfless service to the People of God who continually seek renewal in their commitment to give witness to the Gospel. Our prayers will have intensified as a result of the abuse scandals, which have tarnished the reputation and dignity of the clerical office, unfairly so but perhaps irrevocably. The scandal doubtless deflected our focus from many important issues, and certainly diminished what should have been a pure celebration of our priests.
At the same time, however, it will have concentrated prayers for that great majority of priests that is living Christ’s call to serve and to strive for sanctity with fidelity. Perhaps for the first time, many people will have seriously examined what it means to be a priest. Priests themselves, much hurt by the poisonous atmosphere of the scandal, must be encouraged by the support they receive from parishioners who stand by them.
Significantly, Pope Benedict seems to have anticipated that the abuse scandal would be present in our celebrations of the priesthood, though he might not have foreseen the extent of that presence. Opening the Year for Priests on June 19, 2009, he said: “Nothing makes the Church and the body of Christ suffer so much as the sins of its pastors, especially those who transform themselves into ‘robbers of sheep’.”
The scandal has given the calls for a reform of the priesthood new impetus. While those who call for reform, clergy among them, are not challenging the nature of the sacramental priesthood, they are seeking a new understanding of the priesthood’s ministerial nature. Fair discussions on this theme, including the complex question of obligatory celibacy in the Latin-rite Church, should not be discouraged. Indeed, there are leaders in the Church, such as Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a long-standing confidant of Pope Benedict, who are calling for a prudent review of various areas of Church life — even obligatory clerical celibacy.
But such debates must also be mindful of Pope Benedict’s warning that diluting the priesthood could destroy it. And without the priesthood there would be no Mass and no Eucharist, and therefore no Church.
The priesthood does not exist in a vacuum, however. Having focused on the clergy, the Church surely would profit from a Year for Laity and, indeed, a Year for Religious.
The Year for Priests was instituted to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of St John Marie Vianney, the patron of priests. That celebration may be over, but Catholics must continue to support and pray for our priests in their sacred calling and various ministries, and for young men to hear Christ’s call to follow him.