Archbishop Paul S. Coakley May 1, 2016
As we look forward to ordinations in the weeks ahead, I have been reflecting on the gift and mystery of the priesthood. I am grateful for each of our priests. They are as varied in their gifts, talents and backgrounds as one could possibly imagine! The common denominator in such a diverse group of men is simply that we are priests of Jesus Christ.
Saint John Vianney (1786-1859), known as the Curé of Ars, is the patron saint of priests. At first glance he would have seemed an unlikely candidate to have had that distinction bestowed on him. He came from an obscure village in France. He was not distinguished by great learning. His poor performance in seminary almost prevented his ordination. He was not particularly dynamic, nor evidently much of an administrator. But what distinguished him was his goodness.
Through his humility, holiness and apostolic zeal, he transformed his parish and drew tens of thousands of people to Christ. He was a kind pastor and patient teacher who cared for the poor. He loved the Mass and celebrated it faithfully and reverently. But, it was especially through the confessional that he touched hearts and became a channel of divine mercy and healing. People flocked to him from all over France to confess and be absolved from their sins. He spent upwards of 15 hours each day in the confessional! His extraordinary endurance was itself evidence of the grace and power of Christ at work in his life. Saint John Paul II referred to the Curé of Ars as “the prisoner of the confessional.”
Saint John Vianney, in his catechism lessons on the priesthood, taught his parishioners, “The priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you!”
Every priest is ordained for service, to build up the Body of Christ. Without priests there can be no Eucharist, without the Eucharist there is no Church or mission. The priest is a man for others. Such is our high calling.
Admittedly, we don’t always live up to that high calling. We would be the first to admit it. None of us is without sin. Without minimizing the failings and harm that has been done by some priests, we ought to recognize that Christ’s Enemy, the Evil One, wishes nothing more than to bring discredit and dishonor to the priesthood.
The Curé of Ars, who lived in an age that was very hostile to religion and the Church, wrote: “When people wish to destroy religion, they begin by attacking the priests because where there is no longer any priest there is no sacrifice, and where there is no longer any sacrifice there is no religion.”
The Church in our age is undergoing similar trials. Christians around the world are being persecuted simply because they believe in Jesus and identify themselves as Christians. Christians, including priests, are being maligned and even martyred for their witness to Christ.
I invite you to pray for your priests each day and to show them your appreciation and support for their lifelong commitment of service to Christ and to his Church.
We priests are ordinary men with an extraordinary mission. We hold this treasure in “earthen vessels.” We may disappoint you at times. We may frustrate you at times. But, rather than tear us down by gossip and criticism, pray for us, encourage us. Like you, we are disciples on a journey.
Even we ourselves often fail to adequately appreciate the gift we have been given as priests of Jesus Christ. In spite of our weakness and unworthiness, however, the truest description of the priesthood comes from the lips of Saint John Vianney, who exclaimed: “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”