By Carmen Elena Villa
ROME, JUNE 4, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Priests need to know that the Church loves them and is proud of them, which is why Benedict XVI has called for a Year for Priests, according to the prefect of the Vatican’s clergy congregation.
This celebratory year begins in just over two weeks, with vespers on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, June 19. It will close in June of 2010.
ZENIT spoke with the prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, about what this year is all about and why the Pope decided to convoke it.
ZENIT: What is the principal objective of the Year for Priests?
Cardinal Hummes: In the first place, the circumstance: It will be a jubilee year for the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Maria Vianney, better known as the holy Cure of Ars. That is the opportunity, but the fundamental motive is that the Pope wants to give priests a special importance and to say how much he loves them, how much he wants to help them to live their vocation and mission with joy and fervor.
This initiative from the Pope takes place in a moment of a great expansion of a new culture: Today a postmodern, relativistic, urban, pluralistic, secularized, laicist culture dominates, in which priests must live their vocation and mission.
The challenge is to understand how to be a priest in this new time, not to condemn the world but to save the world, like Jesus, who did not come to condemn the world but to save it.
The priest should do this from his heart, with a lot of openness, without demonizing society. He should be integrated within it with the missionary joy of wanting to bring Jesus Christ to the people of this society.
It is necessary to have this opportunity so that everyone prays with and for priests, to convoke the priests to pray, to do this in the best possible way in the current society and, moreover, eventually to come up with initiatives so that priests can have better conditions to live their vocation and mission.
It is a positive and propositive year. It’s not about, first of all, correcting priests. There are problems that should always be corrected and the Church cannot be blind to them, but we know that the vast majority of priests have a great dignity and adhere to their ministry and their vocation. They give their lives for this vocation that they have freely accepted.
Unfortunately the problems we’ve learned of in recent years arise, related to pedophilia and other grave sexual crimes, but at the most, this could maybe apply to some 4% of priests. The Church wants to say to the other 96% that we are proud of them, that they are men of God and we want to help them and recognize all they do as a testimony of life.
It is also an opportune moment to intensify and go deeper into the question of how to be priests in this world that is changing and that God has put us in front of to save [it].
ZENIT: Why has the Pope presented St. John Maria Vianney as a model for priests?
Cardinal Hummes: Because for a long time now he has been the patron of parish priests. He is part of the world of the presbyterate. We also want to encourage various nations and episcopal conferences or local Churches to choose some local exemplary priest and present him to the world and to the youth: Men and priests who would be true models, who could inspire and renew a conviction about the great value and importance of the priestly ministry.
ZENIT: For you as a priest, what is the most beautiful aspect of your vocation?
Cardinal Hummes: This question brings to mind something from St. Francis of Assisi. He once said, “If I were to meet on the road a priest and an angel, I would first greet the priest and then the angel. Why? Because the priest is the one who gives us Christ in the Eucharist.” This is what is most fundamental and marvelous: The priest has the gift and the grace of God to be a minister of the this great mystery of the Eucharist.
The priesthood was instituted by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. When he said, “Do this in memory of me,” he gave to the apostles this commend and also the power to do this, to do the same thing that Jesus did at the Last Supper. And those apostles have in turn transmitted this ministry and this divine power to the men who are bishops and priests.
This is what is most important and at the center. The Eucharist is the center of the Church. Pope John Paul II said that the Church lives off the Eucharist. The priest is the minister of this great sacrament, which is the memorial of the death of Jesus.
And then we also have the sacrament of reconciliation. Jesus said, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). He came to reconcile the world with God and human beings among themselves. He gave the Holy Spirit to the apostles, breathing upon them.
He gave to the apostles in the name of God and his name that which he had acquired with his blood and with his life on the cross, transforming violence into an act of love for the forgiveness of sins. And he says to the apostles that they will be the ministers of this pardon. This is fundamental for everyone. Everyone wants to be forgiven of his sins, to be in peace with God and with others. The ministry of reconciliation is very important in the life of the priest.
There are many other activities, like evangelization, the proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ, dead and risen, and of his Kingdom. The world has a right to know and to learn about Jesus Christ and everything that his Kingdom means. This is also a specific ministry of the priest who shares it with the bishops and with the laity who proclaim the Word, and who should bring people to an intense and personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
ZENIT: What do you think are the biggest difficulties and the new challenges that today face youth who want to be priests?
Cardinal Hummes: I want to repeat that we shouldn’t demonize the current culture that is spreading more and more and that is becoming a dominant culture in the whole world, despite the presence of other cultures.
This new culture no longer wants to be Christian or religious. It wants to be secular and reject and want to reject any religious interference. Adolescents and youth find themselves in a different situation than the one we lived, we who were born in a very religious culture and one that was recognized as Christian and Catholic. Now it is no longer that way.
I think that for adolescents and youth it is truly more difficult to have the courage to accept an invitation from God, which is born in their interior. To respond today is more complicated, because society no longer values the priesthood. Before, society valued it. Then again, a work of faith and evangelization will always be possible, because God always gives all the graces when he calls to this.
Parishes should offer youth and adolescents the opportunity to speak about that which they carry in their hearts, about this call, because if they do not have the opportunity to speak with someone they can trust, little by little this voice will disappear. Here vocational ministry comes into play, which we need so much.
A well organized parish is able to go out to meet youth and adolescents and give them the opportunity to speak about the call they feel. Also, prayer for vocations is more important now than it was in the past.
Another reason there might be fewer candidates is because families are smaller. They have few or no children. This makes it more difficult. The number of priests in some countries has gone down too much. We look at this situation with great concern.
ZENIT: How do you think a seminarian’s formation should be in the personal, spiritual, intellectual and liturgical realms? What elements cannot be lacking?
Cardinal Hummes: The Church speaks of four dimensions that should be cultivated in the candidates.
In the first place, the human dimension, the affective — the whole question of the person — his nature, his dignity and a normal affective maturity. This is important because it is the base.
Then there is the spiritual dimension. Today we find ourselves before a culture that is no longer Christian or religious. Therefore it is even more necessary to develop well the spirituality of the candidates.
Then there is the intellectual dimension. It is necessary to study philosophy and theology so that the priests will be capable today of speaking and proclaiming Jesus Christ and his message, such that all of the richness of the dialogue between faith and human reason emerges. God is the Logos of all and Jesus Christ is his explanation.
Afterward, obviously, is the dimension of the apostolate, that is, these candidates must be prepared to be pastors in the world of today. In this pastoral field today, the missionary identity is very important. Priests should have not only a preparation but also a strong motivation to not limit themselves only to welcoming and offering a service to those who come to see them, but should also go out in search of people who don’t go to Church, above all, of the baptized who have grown distant because they haven’t been sufficiently evangelized, and who have the right to be evangelized, because we have promised to bring Christ, to educate in the faith.
This, many times, has not been done or has been done very little. The priest should go on mission and prepare his community so that it goes to proclaim Jesus Christ to the people, at least those who are in the territory of his parish, but also beyond that.
Today, this missionary dimension is very important. The disciple becomes missionary with his enthusiastic and joyful adherence to Christ, capable of unconditionally covering all of his life with him. We should be like the disciples: fervent, missionary, joyful. This is the key, the secret.
ZENIT: What special activities are planned this year, both for youth and for the priests themselves?
Cardinal Hummes: There will be initiatives at the level of the universal Church, but the Year for Priests should also be celebrated at the local level. That is, in the local Churches, the dioceses and the parishes, because priests are the ministers of the people, and should include the communities.
Dioceses should motivate initiatives both of going deeper and of celebration to bring to priests the message that the Church loves them, respects, them, admires them and feels proud of them.
The Pope will open the Year for Priests on June 19, on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, because it is the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests. There will be solemn vespers celebrated in the Vatican basilica, the relics of the Cure of Ars will be present. His heart will be in the basilica as a sign of the importance that the Pope wants to give to priests. We hope that many priests will be present.
The closing will take place a year later. There is still to be defined a date for a great encounter of the Pope with priests, to which all the dioceses will be invited. There will be many other initiatives. We are also thinking of doing an international theological conference during the days before the closing. There will also be spiritual exercises. We also hope to be able to involve Catholic universities so that they can go deeper in the meaning of the priesthood, the theology of the priesthood, and in all the themes that are important for priests.
ZENIT: Can you talk to us about the challenges that a priest faces in this society that is so anti-religious? How do you think a priest can stay faithful to his vocation?
Cardinal Hummes: In the first place, the Church, through its seminaries and formators, should make a very rigorous selection of the candidates. Later, a good formation is needed, fundamentally in the human, intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and missionary dimensions. It is fundamental to remember that the priest is a disciple of Jesus Christ and to be sure that he has had this intense personal and communitarian encounter with Jesus Christ, to whom he has given his loyalty. Every Mass can be a very powerful moment for this encounter. But also the reading of the Word of God.
As John Paul II said, there are many opportunities to give testimony to the encounter with Jesus Christ. It is fundamental to be a missionary capable of renewing this priestly zeal, of feeling joyful and convinced of his mission and convinced that it has a fundamental meaning for the Church and for the world.
I always say that the priest is not only important because of the religious aspect within the Church. He also carries out a very great task in society, because he promotes the great human values, is very close to the poor with solidarity, with attention to human rights. I believe that we should help them so that they live this vocation with joy, with a lot of clarity, and also with heart, so that they are happy, given that it’s possible to be happy in sacrifice and in tiredness.
To be happy is not in contradiction with suffering. Jesus was not unhappy on the cross. He suffered tremendously, but he was happy, because he knew what he was doing for love and that this had a fundamental meaning for the salvation of the world. It was a gesture of fidelity to his Father.
ZENIT: What other saints do you think can be models for the priest of today?
Cardinal Hummes: Obviously the great ideal is always Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. In the case of the apostles, above all, St. Paul. We have celebrated the Pauline year. It’s obvious that he was a truly impressive figure and can always be a great inspiration for priests, above all in a society that is no longer Christian. He crossed the borders of Israel to be an apostle to the Gentiles, to the pagans. In a world that is making itself so distant from any religious manifestation, his example is fundamental. St. Paul was very aware of this: Jesus has come to save, not to condemn. This is the same awareness that we should have faced to the world of today.[Translation by Kathleen Naab]