"If priests could be formed....."

Pope Benedict, in declaring “The Year of the Priest”, has proposed to us as a model, St. John Mary Vianney. While the Curé of Ars speaks to the whole church, we Oblates may still seek additional inspiration from his contemporary, Saint Eugene. Rereading the Preface to our Constitutions and Rules we have ample material to meditate about priesthood.

“If priests could be formed”, he writes, “afire with zeal for men’s salvation, priests not given to their own interests, solidly grounded in virtue”, then “in a short while people who had gone astray might be brought back to their long-unrecognized responsibilities”. He calls these priests “apostolic men”. To form them he has two goals in mind: that they be filled with “zeal” for the salvation of others and that they be solidly grounded in “virtue”. He summarizes this ideal with a biblical quotation: “Take great care about what you do and what you teach,” was Paul’s charge to Timothy. “Always do this, and thus you will save both yourself and those who listen to you” (1 Tim 4: 16). Taking care of oneself, saving oneself, and saving those who are ready to listen: this is Saint Eugene’s formula of priestly life.

Most of what our Founder has to say applies, of course, not only to priests but to any Oblate, including our Brothers, those in initial formation and our Lay Associates – indeed to any Christian. If one of the characteristics of priesthood, as understood by St. Eugene, is a particular closeness to people, it probably comes from his awareness that the demands of Christian life are the same for priests and all others. Today we are very sensitive to the fact that Christians are first of all brothers and sisters. Christ has told us so, and therefore, fraternity under one Master and one Father only, overrides in importance all hierarchical distinctions. Baptism is the most important sacrament and makes every Christian a leader, a prophet and a priest.

In our Congregation, the presence of Brothers is very important to remind us of this fundamental Christian call and of brotherhood. The many lay persons who are inspired by our charism also make us aware of the same fraternity. And last but not least, Mary, our patroness, lets us realize that in the first place, we are all brothers and sisters. We venerate the Mother of God, under the invocation of the Immaculate, by contemplating her holiness. The universal call to holiness pointed out by Vatican II makes us all equal before God.

It is only on the firm ground of fraternity that we will be able to recognize what is so special in ministerial priesthood. Firstly, let us recognize with gratitude that it is special! The Church is rich in diversity – it suffices to have a look at the thousands of old and new spiritualities, organizations, cultural expressions of our faith, etc. Each one of these expressions becomes enriched through the others. The same also happens in the relationship between ordained priesthood and all the other gifts God has bestowed on the Church: all sides become enriched! It is safe to say that a very conscious and active laity makes priests better priests, whilst good priests are instrumental for laity to discover their specific mission in the world. Pope Benedict recently expressed it this way, in more elaborate terms: “The more aware the faithful become of their responsibilities in the Church the more clearly stand out the priest’s identity and his irreplaceable role as Pastor of the community overall, as a witness of the authenticity of the faith and a steward on behalf of Christ the Head of the mysteries of salvation” (Benedict XVI, September 17, 2009).

May we use a comparison: the relationship between man and woman is meant to enhance and not to diminish the sexual identity of both, not to make them just the same. The same way, a healthy relationship and interplay between the ordained and the non-ordained will make both sides stronger in their particular vocations. One could add: as in marriage, this relationship will become fruitful, bringing forth new vocations to laity and to priesthood.

Secondly, what is it in essence that makes the sacrament of orders so precious? Many things could be said and let us discover them again during this year of the priest. To conclude this meditation, let me say something that impresses me personally. Our faith tells us that ordained priesthood gives people a sacramental access to Christ; what strikes me is that there is somehow a guarantee in this, making the access to Christ very immediate. When the priest or the deacon baptizes or preaches, when the priest presides at the Eucharist, or forgives sins, anoints the sick, when the bishop ordains, when any of them takes care of the poor or acts as a leader of the faithful – it is “as if” Christ himself were acting there. Indeed Christ is mysteriously present through the sacrament of orders and priests, in spite of their human limitations, do bring us in touch with Christ.

Saint Eugene was aware of the precious gift of priesthood entrusted to the Church but he knew that it required attention and care. “If priests could be formed … afire with zeal for men’s salvation, priests not given to their own interests, solidly grounded in virtue …” - was he just dreaming, or could his dream become a reality, even today?

(Missionary Meditation - October 2009 by Superior General Fr. Wilhelm Steckling, OMI. Source: www.omiworld.org)

Eugene de Mazenod

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