The International Synod of Bishops, meeting in Rome in 1991, gave to Pope John Paul II the account of their deliberations, from which he drew up an extensive document about the Catholic priesthood which he entitled "I Will Give You Shepherds" ("Pastores Dabo Vobis" - Jeremiah 3:15). In that document, as well as in many other papal teachings, of course, there is an abundance of reflections and considerations very suitable for all as we go toward the close of the special Year for Priests (Year of the Priest).
The Pope said, "The truth of the priest, as it emerges from the Word of God, that is, from Jesus Christ Himself and from His constitutive plan for the Church, is thus proclaimed with joyful gratitude by the Preface of the Liturgy of the Chrism Mass: By Your Holy Spirit You anointed Your only Son as High Priest of the new and eternal covenant. With wisdom and love You have planned that this one priesthood should continue in the Church. Christ gives the dignity of a royal priesthood to the people He has made His own. From these, with a brother’s love, He chooses men to share His sacred ministry by the laying on of hands. He appointed them to renew in His name the sacrifice of redemption as they set before Your family His paschal meal. He calls them to lead Your holy people in love, nourish them by Your word, and strengthen them through the sacraments. Father, they are to give their lives in Your service and for the salvation of Your people, as they strive to grow in the likeness of Christ and honor You by their courageous witness of faith and love."
The Holy Father noted: "In their final message (to the world about the priesthood) the Synod Fathers summarized briefly but eloquently the truth, or better, the ‘mystery and gift’ of the ministerial priesthood, when they stated: We derive our identity ultimately from the love of the Father. We turn our gaze to the Son, sent by the Father as the High Priest and Good Shepherd. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we are united sacramentally to Him in the ministerial priesthood. Our priestly life and activity continue the life and activity of Christ Himself. Here lies our identity, our true dignity, the source of our joy, and the very basis of our life.”
The Bishop of Rome states, “The priest’s fundamental relationship is to Jesus Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the Catholic Church. But, intimately linked to this relationship is the priest’s relationship with the Church. It is not a question of relations which are merely juxtaposed, but rather of ones which are interiorly united in a kind of mutual immanence. The priest’s relation to the Church is inscribed in the very relation which a priest has to Christ, such that his sacramental representation of Christ serves as the basis and inspiration for the relation of the priest to the Church.”
The Synod itself said, “Inasmuch as he represents Christ, the Head, Shepherd, and Spouse of the Church, the priest is placed not only in the Church but also in the forefront of the Church. The priesthood, along with the word of God and the sacramental signs which it serves, belongs to the constitutive elements of the Church. The ministry of the priest is entirely on behalf of the Church. It aims at promoting the exercise of the common priesthood of the entire People of God. It is ordered not only to the particular Church, but to the Universal Church in communion with the Bishop, with Peter and under Peter. Consequently, the ordained priesthood ought not be thought of as existing prior to the Church, because it is totally at the service of the Church. Not should it be considered as posterior to the ecclesial community, as if the Church could be imagined as already established without the priesthood.”
While the priesthood is profoundly and intrinsically related to the Church, it must not be held, however, that the call to the priesthood, the priestly vocation, comes from the community of the Church. The call can only validly come, as an invitation, from Christ, although He occasionally can use others, such as parishes, family, friends, school situations, and the like as external actual graces to accomplish His purposes. This is why the Second Vatican Council said that the entire Christian community is responsible for praying for priestly vocations, helping young men to discern the authenticity of a call from Christ to the priesthood, and then supporting the formation, education, and development of such a call. The final decision about the authenticity of a priestly vocation rests, according to Catholic doctrine, with Bishops of the Church.
The Pope said, “The sacramental priesthood is a hierarchical priesthood and at the same time a ministerial priesthood. It constitutes a special ‘ministerium’, that is to say, ‘service’ in relation to the community. It does not, however, take its origin from that community, as though it were the community that ‘called’ or ‘delegated’ a man to be a priest. The sacramental priesthood is truly a gift for the community and comes from Christ Himself, from the fullness of His priesthood. This fullness finds expression in that fact the Christ, while making everyone capable of offering the spiritual sacrifice, calls and enables some men to be ministers of His own sacramental sacrifice, the Eucharist, in the offering of which all the faithful share, but only the ordained priest confects. Conscious of this reality, we can understand how the ministerial priesthood is ‘hierarchical’, that is to say, connected with the power of forming and governing the priestly people, and precisely for this reason is ‘ministerial’. It is an office carried out through Christ, Who unceasingly serves His Father in the work of our salvation.”
Sign of Grace
The Synod remarked, “By his very nature and sacramental mission, the priest appears in the structure of the Church as a sign of the absolute priority and gratuitousness of the grace given to the Church by the risen Christ. Through the ministerial priesthood the Church becomes aware in faith that her being comes not from herself but from the grace of Christ in the Holy Spirit. The Apostles and their successors, inasmuch as they exercise an authority which comes to them from Christ, the Head and Shepherd, are placed with their ministry in the front of the Church as a visible continuation and sacramental sign of Christ in His own position before the Church and the world, as the enduring and ever new source of salvation (Ephesians 5:23).
Therefore, by its nature the ordained ministry can be carried out only to the extent that the priest is united to Christ through sacramental participation in the priestly order, and thus to the extent he is in hierarchical communion with his own Bishop. Reference to Christ is thus the absolutely necessary key for understanding the reality of the priesthood. Priests are called to prolong the presence of Christ, the one High Priest, embodying his way of life and making Him visible in the midst of the flock entrusted to their care.”
An Ordinary Viewpoint
Some Thoughts For A Special Year - IV