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The Year for Priests explained: a quest for pastoral zeal June 18, 2009

The fundamental reason for a special Year for Priests is " to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal," Pope Benedict XVI explains in a letter to the world's priests that he released on June 18, on the eve of the ceremony that will inaugurate the worldwide observance.

The Holy Father will open the Year for Priests with a Vespers service on June 19, the feast of the Sacred Heart. That feast day, he points out at the beginning of his letter, has been traditionally dedicated to prayer for the spiritual welfare priests, and thus is an appropriate time to launch the year-long quest for spiritual revival. Moreover, the Pope reminds his readers, this year is the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests: another reason why this year's observance is timely.

Pope Benedict cites the words of the Curé of Ars as a simple summary of the central theme for the coming year: "The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus." That theme is woven through the entirety of the Pontiff's letter. The Pope also returns again and again to the words of St. John Vianney and the witness he offered with his life, as an example to be emulated by all priests today.

[The full text of the Pope's letter-- which was released in Italian, Spanish, French, German, Polish, and Portuguese as well as English-- is available on the Vatican web site.]

As he writes about the needs of the universal priesthood, the Holy Father first acknowledges "all those priests who quietly present Christ's words and actions each day to the faithful and to the whole world, striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts and their will, their sentiments and their style of life." He expresses his admiration and gratitude for the priest who strive to fulfill their vocation, pausing to mention the pastor with whom he worked immediately after his own priestly ordination.

Next the Pontiff recalls "the countless situations of suffering endured by many priests"-- those who are neglected or misunderstood, those who cope with illness or other adversity, those who perform their ministry in adverse situations, and especially those who risk their lives for the good of the faith.

Against that background-- having paid tribute to the many priests who serve their calling admirably-- the Pope acknowledges that there are also priests who fall short, and some who bring disgrace upon the priestly ministry. In his letter the Holy Father does not explicitly refer to the scandals that have plagued the priesthood in recent years. Instead he contrasts the failings of some priests with the lofty calling of their ministry, and emphasizes that the remedy for failure is a better sense of the dignity of the priesthood. In a crucial passage the Pope writes:

There are also, sad to say, situations which can never be sufficiently deplored where the Church herself suffers as a consequence of infidelity on the part of some of her ministers. Then it is the world which finds grounds for scandal and rejection. What is most helpful to the Church in such cases is not only a frank and complete acknowledgement of the weaknesses of her ministers, but also a joyful and renewed realization of the greatness of God's gift, embodied in the splendid example of generous pastors, religious afire with love for God and for souls, and insightful, patient spiritual guides.

Spiritual renewal is bound to come, the Pope argues, if priests recognize the ineffable dignity of their calling. He quotes St. John Vianney: "O, how great is the priest! ... If he realized what he is, he would die."

Dwelling at some length on the reverence that the Curé of Ars had for the priesthood, and the awe that he felt at his own role in confecting the Eucharist, the Pope encourages all priests to mediate on their dignity and to appreciate their vocation. In particular he invites priests to center their lives on the Eucharist.

Returning again to the patron of parish priests, the Pope recalls the prayer that St. John Vianney said when he was assigned to his parish in Ars: "[Lord,] grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer whatever you wish, for my entire life." This is the cry of a pastoral soul: the dedication and readiness to sacrifice for the people to whom he ministers.

To be an effective pastor means imitating Christ, the Pope continues. A priest must devote himself fully to his ministry: not as a career but as an offering of his entire self: "The first thing we need to learn is the complete identification of the man with his ministry."

One sign of the priest's dedication-- again a strength of the Curé of Ars-- is the wllingness to spend hours in the confessional, and to encourage the faithful to make proper use of that sacrament, the Pope says: "Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this Sacrament," the Pontiff adds.

A priest also sets the example for spiritual devotion in his parish, the Pope continues in his letter. People are more often taught by personal witness than by words, and a priest who is himself prayerful will inspire lay people to imitate his devotion. Yet again St. John Vianney offers a model:

By spending long hours in church before the tabernacle, he inspired the faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and offer forgiveness.

Again and again in his letter, Pope Benedict stresses the primary importance of spiritual renewal among priests: both as a remedy for scandal and as a route to pastoral success. He urges all priests to renew their dedication, revive their interior lives, and reinvigorate their zeal for souls. This is the purpose of the Year for Priests, the Pope repeats throughout his letter: to stimulate priestly piety and resist the gravitational pull of the routine.

Here too the Pope quotes the wisdom of St. John Vianney: "The great misfortune for us parish priests is that our souls grow tepid." The Year for Priests is intended as an antidote for that spiritual malaise.