On behalf of Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, and on behalf of the community of priests with whom I work in that Dicastery, I thank the German Episcopal Conference for your kind invitation to be with you for this meeting of the Commission on Priestly Vocations. It is a joy to gather with this Commission who are dedicated to the formation of priests and future priests, and to reflect on a common concern: priestly formation in Christ Jesus for the world of today.
1. Ministerial Priesthood at the Service of the of the Baptismal Priesthood
The RFIS explains the passage from Lumen Gentium, paragraph 10: The ministerial priesthood is understood both in its own specific nature and in its biblical and theological foundations, as a service to the glory of God and to the brothers and sisters in their baptismal priesthood (no. 31). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains so well in paragraph 1547: the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church.
I cannot emphasize enough those words: “as a SERVICE.” In a reflection I gave recently on The Foundations of Priestly Formation, I said:
The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood of the faithful and is complemented by it in the harmony of a one-and-only priestly people. This is why the Catholic priest is neither, firstly or mainly, a boss or an authority, but a brother among brothers in the common priesthood, called, like all the faithful, to donate his life as a spiritual offering pleasing to the Father. At the same time he is sent to exercise a fatherly function in the service of authority.
The Lord Jesus identified Himself with the figure of the Servant of the prophet Isaiah as well as with the image of the Shepherd, and declared that He did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). The priest, who is configured by the sacrament of Holy Orders as another Christ, must always act according to this spirit, making his ministerial exercise a path of humble service and personal self-giving for the good of the people of God. Therefore, any form of authoritarianism or of clericalism is totally illegitimate and profoundly contrary to the evangelical values that he proclaims. Consequently, seminarians must be educated in the giving of themselves, ridding their hearts of every type of desire for domination.
The Directory for the Ministry and the Life of Priests says so beautifully, all authority is exercised in a spirit of service as amoris officium and unpretentious dedication for the good of the flock (25).
That amoris officium which the Lord committed to the pastors of his people, is in the strict sense of the term a service. It is entirely related to Christ and to men. It depends entirely on Christ and on his unique priesthood; it has been instituted for the good of men and the communion of the Church. The Sacrament of Holy Orders communicates a “sacred power” which is none other than that of Christ. The exercise of this authority must therefore be measured against the model of Christ, who by love made himself the least and the servant of all. “The Lord said clearly that concern for his flock was proof of love for Him” (CCC 1551).
Pope Saint John Paul II says in Pastores Dabo Vobis:
The ministerial priesthood does not of itself signify a greater degree of holiness with regard to the common priesthood of the faithful; through it Christ gives to priests, in the Spirit, a particular gift so that they can help the People of God to exercise faithfully and fully the common priesthood which it has received (17).
It seems fitting in these days, to quote number 1550 of the Catechism:
This presence of Christ in the minister is not to be understood as if the latter were preserved from all human weaknesses, the spirit of domination, error, and even sin. The power of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee all acts of ministers in the same way. While this guarantee extends to the Sacraments, so that even the minister’s sin cannot impede the fruit of grace, in many other acts the minister leaves human traces that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel and consequently can harm the apostolic fruitfulness of the Church (1550).
In that same reflection I gave recently on The Foundations of Priestly Formation, I said: Priestly formation implies a process of configuration to Christ the Head, Shepherd, Servant and Spouse (Cf. RFIS, 35), which consists in a mystical identification with the person of Jesus, just as it is presented in the Gospels. This mystical process is a gift from God that will reach fulfilment through priestly ordination and constitutes a formative journey that will remain valid throughout all the ongoing formation. Every mystical gift demands the counterpart of ascetical practice, which is the human effort that follows the gifts of grace.