VATICAN CITY, DEC. 7, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is the Advent reflection delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa the preacher of the Pontifical Household for Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia. The talk was titled “Servants and Friends of Jesus Christ.”
* * *
1. At the source of every priesthood
In the choice of subject to propose in these homilies in the Papal Household I always try to be guided by the particular grace that the Church is living. Last year it was the grace of the Pauline Year, this year it is the grace of the Year of Priests, for whose proclamation, Holy Father, we are profoundly grateful.
Vatican Council II dedicated to the subject of the priesthood an entire document, “Presbyterorum Ordinis”; in 1992, John Paul II addressed to the whole Church the post-Synodal exhortation “Pastores Dabo Vobis,” on the formation of priests in the present circumstances; the present Supreme Pontiff, in proclaiming the present Year of Priests, has sketched a brief but intense profile of the priest in the light of the life of the Holy Curé d’Ars. Innumerable are the interventions of individual bishops on this subject, not to speak of the books written on the figure and mission of the priest in the century that just ended, some of which are literary works of great worth.
What can be added to all this in the brief time of a meditation? I am encouraged by the saying with which, I remember, a preacher began his course of exercises: “Non nova ut sciatis, sed vetera ut faciatis”: what is important is not to know new things, but to put into practice those that are known. Hence, I give up any attempt of doctrinal synthesis, of global presentations or ideal profiles on the priest (I would not have either the time or the capacity) and I try, if possible, to make our priestly heart vibrate on contact with some word of God.
The word of Scripture that will serve as the guiding thread is 1 Corinthians 4:1, which many of us remember in the Latin translation of the Vulgate: “Sic nos existimet homo ut ministros Christi et dispensatores mysteriorum Dei”: “Thus all of us should consider ourselves: servants of Christ and administrators of the mysteries of God.” Alongside it we can place, for certain aspects, the definition of the Letter to the Hebrews: “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God” (Hebrews 5:1).
These phrases have the advantage of referring us to the common roots of every priesthood, that is, to that stage of revelation when the apostolic ministry was not yet diversified, giving place to three canonical degrees of bishops, presbyters and deacons, that, at least, in regard to their respective functions, became clear only with St. Ignatius of Antioch, at the beginning of the second century. This common root is brought to light in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which defines Holy Orders as “the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of Apostolic ministry” (No. 1536).
And it is to this initial stage that we attempt to refer to as much as possible in our meditations, for the purpose of grasping the essence of the priestly ministry. In this Advent, we will take into consideration only the first part of the Apostle’s phrase: “Servants of Christ.” If God so wills, we will continue our reflection in Lent, meditating on what it means for a priest to be “administrator of the mysteries of God” and what are the mysteries that he must administer.
“Servants of Christ!” (with the exclamation mark to indicate the greatness, dignity and beauty of this title): see the word that should touch our heart in the present meditation and make it vibrate with holy pride. We are not speaking here of practical and ministerial services, how to administer the word and the sacraments (of this, I said, we will speak in Lent); in other words, we are not speaking of the service as act, but of service as state, as essential vocation and as identity of the priest and we speak of it in the same sense and with the same spirit of Paul who at the beginning of his letters always introduces himself thus: “Paul, servant of Christ Jesus, apostle by vocation.”
On the invisible passport of the priest, the one with which he presents himself every day in the presence of God and of his people, to the call “profession,” one should be able to read: “Servant of Jesus Christ.” All Christians of course are servants of Christ, but the priest is so in a wholly particular title and sense, as all baptized persons are priests, but the ordained minister is so in a title and sense that is different and higher.
2. Continuators of the work of Christ
The essential service that the priest is called to render Christ is to continue his work in the world: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). In his famous Letter to the Corinthians, Pope St. Clement comments: “Christ is sent by God and the Apostles by Christ. … They, preaching everywhere in the country and in the city, appointed their first successors, having been put to the test by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons” (1 Clementis 42: 1-2). Christ was sent by the Father, the apostles by Christ, the bishops by the apostles: It is the first clear enunciation of the principle of apostolic succession.
However, this word of Jesus does not have only a juridical and formal meaning. It does not only found, in other words, the right of ordained ministers to speak as “sent” by Christ; it also indicates the motive and the content of this mission which is the same for which the Father sent the Son to the world. And why has the Father sent his Son to the world? Here we also give up global and exhaustive answers for which it would be necessary to read the whole Gospel; we will focus only on some programmatic declarations of Jesus.
Before Pilate, he affirmed solemnly: “for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). To continue the work of Christ implies therefore for the priest to give witness to the truth, to make the light of what is true shine. It is only necessary to take into account the double meaning of the word truth, aletheia, in John. It oscillates between divine reality and knowledge of divine reality, between an ontologic or objective meaning and a gnoseologic or subjective one. Truth is “eternal reality in so far as it is revealed to men, whether referring to reality itself or to its revelation.”
The traditional interpretation has intended “truth” above all in the sense of revelation and knowledge of truth; in other words, as dogmatic truth. This is certainly an essential task. The Church, on the whole, absolves it through the magisterium, the councils, theologians, and the individual priest by preaching the “holy doctrine” to the people.
Not to be forgotten, however, is John’s other meaning of truth: that of the known reality, more than knowledge of the reality. In this light, the task of the Church and of the individual priest is not limited to proclaiming the truth of the faith, but to helping to experience it, to enter into profound and personal contact with the reality of God, through the Holy Spirit.
“Faith, St. Thomas Aquinas has written, does not end in the proclamation, but in the thing" (“Fides non terminatur ad enuntiabile sed ad rem”). Similarly, the teachers of the faith cannot be satisfied to teach the so-called truth of faith, they must help persons to get the “thing,” to not only have an idea of God, but to experience Him, according to the biblical sense of knowing, different, as is noted, from the Greek and philosophic.
Another programmatic declaration of intentions is the one Jesus pronounced before Nicodemus: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16). This phr
ase is read in the light of that which precedes it immediately: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus came to reveal to men the salvific will and merciful love of the Father. All his preaching is summarized in the word that he addresses to the disciples in the Last Supper: “For the Father himself loves you!” (John 16:27).
To be continuators in the world of the work of Christ means to make one’s own this basic attitude in confrontations with others, even the most distant. Not to judge but to save. The human quality on which the Letter to the Hebrews most insists in delineating the figure of Christ as Priest and of every priest should not go unobserved: likeableness, the sense of solidarity, compassion in confrontations with others.
Of Christ it is said: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” Affirmed of the human priest is that he “is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people” (Hebrews 4:15-5:3).
It is true that Jesus, in the Gospels, also shows himself severe, judges and condemns, but with whom does he do it? Not with the simple people who followed him and came to listen to him, but with hypocrites, the self-sufficient, the teachers and guides of the people. Jesus was not in fact, as is said of certain political men: “strong with the weak and weak with the strong.” All to the contrary!
3. Continuators, Not Successors
But in what sense can we speak of priests as continuators of the work of Christ? In every human institution, as the Roman empire was at that time and as religious orders and all worldly enterprises are today, the successors continue the work, but not the person of the founder. This at times is correct, surmounted and even disavowed. But it is not like this in the Church. Jesus does not have successors because he is not dead, but alive; “risen from death, death no longer has power over him.”
What, then will the task of his ministers be? That of representing him, that is, of making him present, of giving visible form to his invisible presence. In this consists the prophetic dimension of the priesthood.
Before Christ, prophecy consisted essentially in proclaiming a future salvation, “in the last days,” after him, it consists in revealing to the world the hidden presence of Christ, in crying out like John the Baptist: “In your midst is one you do not know.”
“One day some Greeks came to the apostle Philip with the question: “We wish to see Jesus!” (John 12:21); the same question, more or less explicit, is in the heart of one who approaches a priest today.
St. Gregory of Nissa coined a famous expression, which is usually applied to the experience of mystics: “Feeling of presence.”  The feeling of presence is more than simple faith in the presence of Christ; it is to have the lively feeling, the almost physical perception, of his presence as risen. If this is proper to mysticism, then it means that every priest should be a mystic, or at least a “mystagogue,” one who introduces people to the mystery of God and of Christ, as though holding him by the hand.
The priest’s task is no different, even if subordinated, in regard to that which the Holy Father pointed out as absolute priority of the Successor of Peter and of the whole Church in the letter of last March 10, addressed to bishops: “In our time in which in a vast area of the earth faith is in the danger of being extinguished as a flame that no longer finds nourishment, the priority above all is to render God present in this world and to open to men access to God. Not to any god, but to the God who spoke on Sinai: to that God whose face we recognize in the love spent to the end (cf John 13:1) — in Jesus Christ crucified and risen. … To lead men to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: this is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter in this time.”
4. Servants and Friends
However, now we must take a step forward in our reflection. “Servants of Jesus Christ!”: This title must never be alone; alongside it must always be at least, in the depth of one’s heart, another title — that of friends!
The common root of all ordained ministries that were delineated later is the choice that Jesus made one day of the Twelve; this is what, from the priestly institution, goes back to the historical Jesus. It is true that the liturgy places the institution of the priesthood on Holy Thursday, because of the word Jesus pronounced after the institution of the Eucharist: “Do this in memory of me.” But even this word implies the choice of the Twelve, without saying that, taken alone, it would justify the role of sacrificer and liturgist of the priest, but not that, just as essential, of herald of the Gospel.
Now, what does Jesus say in this circumstance? Why does he choose the Twelve, after having prayed the whole night? “And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach (Mark 3:14-15). To be with Jesus and to go and preach: To stay and to go, to receive and to give: It is in a few words what is essential in the task of the collaborators of Christ.
To be “with” Jesus does not mean obviously only a physical closeness; it already contains all the richness that Paul will enclose in the meaningful formula “in Christ” or “with Christ.” It means to share everything of Jesus: his itinerant life, certainly, but also his thoughts, purposes, spirit. The word companion comes from the Medieval Latin and means he who has in common (cum, with-) the bread (panis), who eats the same bread.
In his farewell address, Jesus takes a step forward, completing the title of companions with that of friends: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
There is something moving in this declaration of love of Jesus. I will always remember the moment when it was given to me, for an instant, to know something of this emotion. In a prayer meeting, someone had opened the Bible and read that passage of John. The word “friends” struck me to a depth I have never experienced; it moved something in the depth of my being, so much so that for the rest of the day I kept repeating to myself, full of wonder and incredulity: He has called me friend! Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord, my God! He has called me friend! I am his friend. And it seemed to me that I could fly over the roofs of the city and even go through fire with that certainty.
When St. Paul speaks of the love of Jesus Christ he always seems “moved.”: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35), “he loved me and gave himself for me!” (Galatians 2:20). We are led to mistrust the emotion and finally to be ashamed. We do not know of what wealth we deprive ourselves. Jesus “is profoundly moved” and weeps before the widow of Nain (cf. Luke 7:13) and Lazarus’ sisters (cf. John 11:33.35). A priest capable of being moved when he speaks of the love of God and of the suffering of Christ or picks up the confidence of a great sorrow, convinces better than with infinite reasonings. To be moved does not mean necessarily to start weeping; it is something that is perceived in the eyes, in the voice. The Bible is full of God’s pathos.
5. The soul of every priesthood
A personal relationship, full of trust and friendship with the person of Jesus is the soul of every priesthood. In view of the Year of Priests I read again the book of Jean-Baptiste Chautard “The soul of the apostolate” that did so much good and shook so many consci
ences in the years preceding the Council.
In a moment in which there was great enthusiasm for “parish works”: cinema, recreation, social initiatives, cultural circles, the author brought back the discourse brusquely to the heart of the problem, criticizing the danger of an empty activism. “God, he wrote, wants Jesus to be the life of works.”
He did not diminish the importance of pastoral activity, on the contrary, he affirmed however that without a life of union with Christ, they were no more than “crutches.” Jesus says to Peter: “Simon, do you love me? Feed my sheep.” (cf. John 21: 15 f.) The pastoral action of every minister of the Church, from the Pope to the last priest, is but the concrete expression of the love for Christ. Do you love me? Then feed! Love for Jesus is that which makes the difference between the priest manager and the priest servant of Christ and dispenser of the mysteries of God.
Dom Chautard’s book could very well have been entitled “The soul of the priesthood,” because it is of him that one speaks, in practice, in the whole work, as agent and responsible in the front line of the pastoral care of the Church. At that time, the danger to which it was intended to react was so-called “Americanism.” The Abbot refers often, in fact, to the letter of Leo XIII “Testem benevolentiae” which condemned such a “heresy.”
Today this heresy, if one can speak of heresy, is no longer “American,” but a threat that, also because of the diminished number of priests, affects the clergy of the whole Church: it is called frenetic activism. (Many of the instances, after all, that came in that time from Christians of the United States — and in particular from the movement created by the Servant of God Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, stamped with the term “Americanism,” for example, liberty of conscience and the need for dialogue with the modern world –, were not heresies but prophetic instances that Vatican Council II, in part, made its own!).
The first step, to make Jesus the soul of one’s priesthood, is to go from the Jesus personage to the Jesus person. A personage is one of whom one can speak as much as one pleases, but to whom and with whom no one dreams to speak. One can speak of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon as much as one wishes, but if someone said he speaks with one of them they would send him immediately to a psychiatrist. The person, on the contrary, is one with whom and to whom one can speak. As long as Jesus remains an ensemble of opinions, of dogmas or of heresies, someone who is placed instinctively in the past, a memory, not a presence, he is a personage. It is necessary to convince oneself that he is alive and present, and more important than speaking about him is to speak with him.
One of the most beautiful traits of Don Camillo of Guareschi, naturally taking into account the literary genre adopted, is his speaking in a loud voice with the Crucified of all the things that happen in the parish. If we made it a habit to do so, spontaneously, with our own words, how many things would change in our priestly life! We would realize that we never speak to a void, but to someone who is present, who listens and who responds, perhaps not in a loud voice like to Don Camillo.
6. To make “the large stones” safe
As in God the whole external work of creation, flows from his intimate life, “from the incessant flow of his love,” and as all the activity of Christ flows from his uninterrupted dialogue with the father, so all the works of a priest must be the prolongation of his union with Christ. “As the Father sent me, even so I send you,” also means this: “I came into the world without separating myself from the Father, you go into the world without separating yourselves from me.”
When this contact is interrupted, it is as when the electric current is cut off in a house and everything stops and is in darkness or, if it is a question of the water supply, the faucets no longer give water. One hears said sometimes: how can one be tranquil and pray when so many needs claim our presence? How can one not run when the house is burning? It is true, but imagine what would happen to a squadron of fire fighters that ran, to the sound of a siren, to extinguish a fire and then, arriving at the site, remembers that they have not even a drop of water in the tanks. This is how we are, when we run to preach or to another ministry empty of prayer and of the Holy Spirit.
I read somewhere a story that it seems to me applies in an exemplary way to priests. One day, an old professor was called as expert to speak on the more efficient planning of their time to the higher cadres of some large North American companies.
He decided then to attempt an experiment. Standing up, he took from under the table a large empty glass. At the same time he also took a dozen large stones like tennis balls that he deposited delicately one by one in the glass until it was full. When no more stones could be added, he asked his pupils: “Do you think the glass is full?” and they all answered “Yes!”
He bent down again and took out from under the table a box full of crushed stones which he poured over the large stones, moving the glass so that the crushed stones could infiltrate between the large stones to the bottom. “Is the glass full this time?”, he asked. Becoming more prudent, the pupils began to understand and answered: “Perhaps not yet.” The old professor bent down again and took out this time a small bag of sand that he poured into the glass. The sand filled the spaces between the stones and the crushed stones. Then he asked again: “Is the glass full now?” And all without hesitation answered: “No!” In fact, the old man took the decanter that was on the table and poured the water into the glass to the brim.
At this point he asked: “What great truth does this experiment show us? The most audacious replied: “This demonstrates that even when our agenda is completely full, with a bit of good will, we can always add some new endeavor, something else to do.” “No,” answered the professor. “What the experiment demonstrates is that if one does not put the large stones first in the glass, one will never succeed in making them go in afterward.” “What are the large stones, the priorities, in our life? The important thing is to put these large stones first in your agenda.”
Saint Peter pointed out, once and for all, which are the large stones, the absolute priority, of the apostles and of their successors, bishops and priests: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
We priests, more than anyone else, are exposed to the danger of sacrificing what is important for the urgent. Prayer, the preparation of the homily or for Mass, study and formation, are all important things, but not urgent; if they are postponed, apparently, the world does not collapse, while there are so many little things — a meeting, a phone call, a material task — which are urgent. Thus one ends up by postponing systematically the important things to a “later” that never arrives.
For a priest, to put the large stones first in the glass, can mean very concretely, to begin the day with time for prayer and dialogue with God, so that the activities and different commitments do not end up by taking up all the space.
I end with a prayer of abbot Chautard: “O God, give the Church so many apostles, but revive in their heart an ardent thirst for intimacy with You and at the same time a desire to work for the good of their neighbor. Give all a contemplative activity and an active contemplation.” So be it!
— — —
 H. Dodd, “L’interpretazione del Quarto Vangelo” [“The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel”], Paideia, Brescia, 1974, p. 227
 Gregory of Nissa, “Sul Cantico” [“On the canticle”], XI, 5, 2, (PG 44, 1001) (aisthesis parousias).