By Carmen Elena Villa
Zenit.org).- An image of the newly proclaimed patron of all priests was center stage this morning, hanging from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, as Benedict XVI and 15,000 priest-concelebrants closed the Year for Priests with a Mass for the feast of the Sacred Heart.
St. Peter’s Square was teeming with rows of white-vested priests from every corner of the globe, as well as 80 cardinals and 350 archbishops and bishops.
Priests began to file in at 7:30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. Mass — thousands of them have been in Rome for the three days of closing celebrations that culminated today. By 8:30, the procession was under way, and 15 minutes later, St. Peter’s bells sounded the final preparation for the Mass.
Hymns and texts alluding to the priestly vocation enabled the thousands of concelebrants and participants in this event to recollect themselves before the Eucharistic celebration.
As is customary for such events, the liturgy was carried out in several languages, with readings focusing on the theme of the Good Shepherd.
As the Mass progressed, the intense heat of a Roman late spring washed over the priests, but there was still an atmosphere of prayer and recollection as they prepared to renew their ordination vows after the Holy Father’s homily.
Benedict XVI’s words were full of encouragement for the priests. The Bishop of Rome told them that the priesthood is “a gift concealed in ‘earthen vessels’ which ever anew, even amid human weakness, makes [God’s] love concretely present in this world.”
ZENIT spoke with a few of the thousands of priests who came to Rome to close their year.
Father Thomas Surlis, of the Diocese of Achonry, Ireland, told us that one of the aspects he’s most considered during these days is that the priesthood “not only is a job but a vocation and a profound identification.”
He also referred to the difficult situation of the clergy in his country, where the scandal of sexual abuse by priests has been particularly intense. “The future is somewhat uncertain. However, many faithful are pleased with their priests. There is always hope for the future because Jesus is with us,” he said.
Father Armando Cruz Ventura, of the Diocese of San Miguel, El Salvador, reflected that during these days of meetings “we have said how proud we are to be Catholics and what satisfaction it is to come to the Rock of Peter to confirm that the Church opens doors to life and to hope!”
Father Alejandro Bertolini of the Diocese of San Isidro, Argentina, said that the greatest fruit the year brought for his life was that of “personal conversion.” A year that “allowed me to touch the signs of the times.”
“This media war against the Church, as a result of the sin of the Church, made me reflect and be in harmony not only with the Church but with the victims,” he said, affirming that this necessarily brings about a conversion.
At the end of the Mass, Benedict XVI entrusted the priests of the world to the Virgin Mary, asking her help to make priests worthy of their “sublime vocation” and to protect them from the “suggestions of the Evil One.”
“Not only with words but with our life,” he prayed, “we want to repeat humbly, day by day, our ‘here I am.'”
Though today’s service was the culminating event for the closing ceremonies, Thursday night’s vigil in St. Peter’s Square also was characterized by poignant moments.
Benedict XVI participated in the vigil, answering questions off-the-cuff and encouraging the priests in their vocation.
It was also a chance for the testimony of ordinary priests to encourage their brothers. Some testimonies were given live; others were transmitted by video on giant screens in the Square.
The video testimony that drew the most applause was that of Father José María di Paola, known as Pepe, a priest who works in poor neighborhoods in Argentina.
“In my country, favelas [slums] are called villas, and in my villa, 60,000 people live,” the priest explained, as the screen showed images of him playing soccer with boys of the villa, celebrating Mass and taking part in a procession.
“There is overcrowding, unemployment, under-employment, migratory problems and young people suffer the problem of drugs and violence,” he said. “Our job is to transmit a proposal from the Gospel. There are many problems, but the Catholic faith is very great.
“In this very poor place, with so many inequalities, we live our faith and, as priests, we feel happy to develop our faith here.”
Families, too, participated in the closing celebrations. The father of the Heereman family from Germany recounted how every night he tells God, “Lord, my children are yours. If you wish, take them all.”
Indeed, his six children are serving the Lord in a variety of capacities: a priest, a seminarian, a consecrated lay daughter, two married sons and a celibate daughter.
The father told the crowds of the joy he felt when he received the news that his son wanted to be a priest.
“I always wanted him to be a priest,” he said emotionally pointing to his son. And he ended by appealing to his listeners to support the vocations of their children. “If you let your children choose their Christian path you are making a good choice.”
“One doesn’t understand well where a vocation comes from. It is always an ineffable gift,” he added.
At the end of the vigil, ZENIT spoke with Nina, the consecrated daughter of this family. “I thank the Lord for the vocation to the priesthood of my two brothers because in Germany, the country where we live, this is not normal but it is very necessary,” she said.
Concluding with prayer
The vigil drew to a close with Eucharistic adoration and benediction, imparted by the Holy Father.
The Year for Priests thus came to its final moments in the same light with which it began: with the Pope inviting his priestly brothers to Christ.
In the letter with which the Holy Father proclaimed the year, he wrote: “Dear priests, Christ is counting on you. In the footsteps of the Curé of Ars, let yourselves be enthralled by him. In this way you too will be, for the world in our time, heralds of hope, reconciliation and peace!”