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Towards a Renewed Vision of Priestly Ministry and Identity

by Fr. Thomas Rosica

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Fr. Thomas Rosica Address at International Eucharistic Congress


Fr. Thomas Rosica, founding CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Television, Canada’s national Catholic Television network, gave this address on June 14, 2012, at the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Ireland.

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Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, June 14, 2012

Dear Friends,

It is a great honor and privilege to have been invited to address the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Ireland on the topic of “A Renewed Vision of Priestly Ministry and Identity.” Upon receiving the invitation last year, I spoke with the organizers of this congress to seek some advice on the presentation. Their response to me was simply this: “Speak about the joy of the priesthood.” “We need to hear that there is still joy in the priesthood of Jesus Christ during these days of great turbulence and sadness for the Church.” I have taken their advice seriously as I prepared this presentation over the past few months.

Rather than presenting some lovely theories of what the priesthood should be, allow me to begin by sharing with you something of my own call to the priesthood and religious life. Last year I celebrated twenty-five years of ordained priestly ministry and I have been a member of a religious congregation, the Basilian Fathers for thirty-one years. I realized once again that my own journey was part of a much bigger picture than I ever imagined as a kid and young man in high school and university; my response was part of a long, beautiful and deep biblical tradition – that of the call.

So the first part of my presentation today will be about that tradition and that call. It goes back to a hesitant and tongue-tied Moses at the burning bush; Amos, the shepherd boy of Tekoa, hardly thinking of himself as called to anything religious; Isaiah rendered mute by a deep sense of his own shame and sinfulness, and having his lips purified by a burning coal in a majestic temple vision. It includes Hosea, crushed by a failed marriage, and drawing from his own suffering a deep insight into God’s enduring love for him and his people; Jeremiah trembling, hesitant and fearful, too young for such a daunting mission; Mary of Nazareth, a teen-ager who happened to be home alone one day when she entertained a strange, heavenly visitor who would challenge her to do something beyond her wildest imagination. But this dynamic tradition didn’t stop there… it continued with an impetuous Peter, falling to his knees before a boat filled with abundant catch of 153 fish; a shady Matthew bounding up from his toll both on the extension of the Via Maris near Capernaum and embracing a new life. How could we forget the highly catechized Samaritan woman whose life would never be the same after a routine visit to the village well at high noon?

These and so many more powerful, stirring and compelling stories form the biblical tradition of call. At the top of the list is Paul of Tarsus, that great apostle to the Gentiles who lived at a time of such upheaval for the early Church… . Paul must have had sleepless nights in Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Jerusalem and Rome when he lay awake questioning if he had made the right decision about his life and future direction.

But this great apostle never abandoned his basic experience of faith: the love of the Crucified Christ for him was the pledge of God’s unbreakable covenant, of God’s unceasing redemptive love for the world: “Can anything separate us from the love of God?” in Paul’s heart wrenching words. This is the searing question that wells up in the bosom of committed men and women of the Gospel, of those called to mission, of people who refuse to be broken by scandal, frustrations and missteps, of those who in the beginning had lofty ideals of church and community but also knew the sad realities of divisions and conflicts; of those who know painfully the reality of suffering, pain and rejection and yet continue to nourish great, realistic hopes. Not even the “mysterium iniquitatis” can sidetrack those who have their hearts and minds fixed on Jesus Christ who makes all things new!

Each of us, like Paul of Tarsus, needs individuals in our lives like Ananias, who help us to shed our blindness and see our life and the people around with the lenses of Christ. I give thanks to God everyday for the many Ananiases in my life who took me by the hand and led me through the fog, the storm and the night.

We are priests because we are first servants who have been seduced by the Lord and have responded to this mysterious call, receiving from the Lord a summons, a mission and an authority to go forward. This new authority and power found in the priesthood is Gospel authority that comes from living the Paschal mystery. Seals, diplomas, degrees, certificates, proficiencies, robes and Orders, and even Sacred Chrism, only confirm the confidence an authentic priestly person and leader must already possess within himself.

The only authority and power found in the priesthood is Gospel authority that comes from living the Paschal mystery. Jesus teaches us that the true source of authority in the Church comes from living the life of servanthood, from laying down our lives for our friends. If I am a ministerial priest and am called “Father”, it is not simply because I have a prestigious academic background, a good formation, a title, a place of privilege, and important office in the Church. No, I am a priest because I am first of all a servant. A priestly person is one who spends himself gladly for others. Authentic priests are foot washers and servants, who have patterned their living and dying on Jesus Christ, the eternal priest of compassion and service.

The priesthood has suffered much over the past few years, and this biblical image of service and divine authority have been blemished, tarnished and in some cases obliterated. Against our contemporary backdrop of the world and the Church, we must rediscover the essence and heart of priesthood in our day, beginning with the initial call given to us. Allow me to share with you six perspectives or pillars of a renewed priestly vocation and mission. I wish to consider the priest as the man of the Eucharist, a bearer of joy, a beacon of hope, a model of compassion, and an agent and translator of the New Evangelization. and of holiness.

1. The Priest is the man of the Eucharist

To properly understand the priest as a man of the Eucharist, we must first understand the notion of sacrifice in the New Testament. The word ‘sacrifice’ describes the self-giving of Jesus and the Christian. Jesus’ self-giving was a dedication of himself to the Father on behalf of all people. The sacrifice of the Christian consists in the giving of oneself in union with Jesus. The Eucharist is a summary of Jesus’ life, a call to lay down one’s life for others. The laying down of Jesus’ life for the whole of humankind is not simply a gift but that which gives life; he dies in order to live and give life. Thus the body of Jesus was not simply slain, but “given for you.” In fact, Paul’s consistent emphasis is that Christ died “for others” (I Corinthians 8:11; Thessalonians 5:10), which in turn also shows us the way God wants us to live. “He died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves” (II Corinthians 5:15).

If we are to become authentic priests of Jesus Christ, we must become people who are living sacrifices; people who are grateful and live lives of gratitude. It is a terrible disjunction to preside at the Eucharist and to be someone without a grateful heart. To be a priest fully is to be a grateful person. When we receive the Eucharist, we partake of the one who becomes food and drink for others. So must it be for us who receive the Lord’s body and blood: our lives, too, must become a feast for the poor. We too must become food and drink for the hungry.

The pillar of the renewal of priestly life is the liturgy. If the priest does not rediscover the true meaning of the holy sacrifice of the Mass, he cannot find himself. The protagonist of the liturgy is Christ, not the Pope, the Cardinals in Rome, and not even the parish priest. By living the liturgy, we can enter into the life of God, and only thus can we priests journey effectively with the men and women of our time and of all time. Nevertheless the liturgical reform must concern itself not only with texts and ceremonies, rubrics and rituals, external appearances, but also with the spiritual hungers of human communities that we serve. Without authentic evangelization, participation in the liturgy is ultimately hollow– an aesthetic pastime or a momentary palliative; without the works of justice and charity, participation in the liturgy is ultimately deceptive, playing church rather than being church.

2. The Priest is a Bearer of Joy

The great English Catholic apologist. G.K. Chesterton speaks about joy in the conclusion of his masterful work “Orthodoxy.” He writes:

“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. …The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

The joy of the priesthood finds its origin in the heart and mind of Christ. Before taking leave of the Apostles on Holy Thursday Jesus said to them: “I tell you this that my joy may be full!” Certainly this wish is not addressed only to the priest, but is ratified and confirmed in the heart of a priest. The priest experiences Christ when He is received with faith and served with love, as a fount of inexhaustible and unalterable joy!

I have often wondered why we don’t depict Jesus smiling or laughing. So many of our images of Jesus dwell on the rather bleak, serious and sad images of Christ that are reflective of the late Middle Ages- a period when black plagues and death ravaged Europe. While it is true that the New Testament is silent about Jesus smiling, laughing, or enjoying himself and those around him, the Scriptures are not afraid to tell us that he did express other human emotions. We know that he wept bitter tears at his friend Lazarus’ death. He was not afraid to show his anger in the Temple when people turned it into a shopping mall. He expressed irritation at the traps being set for him by some religious leaders of his time. How many times did he get frustrated with his disciples’ inability to grasp the situation and meaning of his words, parables, predictions of the passion and imminent departure from them? We must ask ourselves: how is it that the Scriptures don’t mention anything about Jesus smiling or his humorous responses to his slow disciples? How could he not have laughed and smiled when he was swarmed by children who obviously loved his company?

What did Jesus look like when he stared at Zacchaeus hiding in that Jericho sycamore tree? I am certain that there were smiles, laughter, and humor. When the crowds took leave of him on that Galilean hillside, having eaten their fill… how could Jesus not have smiled in relief? There are many in the Church today who have difficulty in the image of a smiling happy Jesus. They would prefer a stern, dour, tragedy-stricken figure who leads people into deep depression and doesn’t seem to offer much hope!

Why should priests be joyful? Why must we be joyful? Because it is in our DNA as priests to be bearers of joy! Each day we perform miracles of changing bread and wine into our Lord’s body and blood, forgiving sins in his name, and representing him to others. No wonder why the frail, curé of a little French village would take a lost little boy and show him the way to heaven! No wonder Lacordaire could exclaim, “My God, what a life!” No wonder Maximillian Kolbe could answer the Gestapo commandant with such tranquility, “I am a Catholic priest”. No wonder people expect us to be men of joy. No wonder why a young Jerzy Popieluszko would preach the Gospel with such fervor under Martial Law in Poland, and continue until his martyrdom. Of what and of whom should we be afraid?

3. The Priest is a Beacon of Hope

“The world needs God, otherwise it remains without hope,” wrote Pope Benedict in his magnificent encyclical letter “Spe Salvi.” The Holy Father noted that in the New Testament “the word hope is closely connected with the word faith.” Hope, he added, “is a gift that changes the life of those who receive it, as the experience of so many saints demonstrates.” Benedict asked: “In what does this hope consist that is so great and so ‘trustworthy’ as to make us say that ‘in it’ we have ‘salvation’? “In substance it consists in the knowledge of God, in the discovery of his heart as a good and merciful Father.”

Through prayer, we can attain the virtue of hope, and become witnesses of the theological virtue for others, says Benedict XVI. He highlighted the life of one brilliant light and witness of hope in his encyclical on hope: the life of Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002). Benedict XVI wrote: “The late Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, a prisoner for thirteen years, nine of them spent in solitary confinement, has left us a precious little book: Prayers of Hope. During thirteen years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope–to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude.”

The media exerts a powerful influence on the thinking, the attitudes and the faith of people, and easily influences despair more than hope. At times it feels like a tsunami of disaster has come upon us. This flash flood bears down with immense force on all of us. Some view our present situation with great pessimism and grow disheartened, depressed, and even cynical. Some don’t want to admit what is happening and go whistling in the dark, clinging to the illusion that things definitively past can be recovered and the claims of the present ignored. Others look at it all only from the data of sociology, from polls and predictions, and foresee an inevitable, almost deterministic future designed more or less by social and economic forces, a future which is dismal and dark.

For the world of sound bites, hope usually means that we make ourselves believe that everything is going to turn out all right. We use the word hope lightly and cheaply. This is not the hope of Christians. We must be icons of hope, and ambassadors of hope: people with a new vision, people that learn to see the world through the lenses of Christ and the Church, and bring to the Church the lessons of the world. Polls, petitions, charts, demographic diagrams and elaborate reports are not a substitute for a new, ecclesial vision. They are not a substitute for priestly leadership rooted in faith in Jesus Christ and energized by the forces of biblical and ecclesial hope.

4. The Priest is a Model of Compassion

In his days on earth, Jesus shared our flesh and blood, crying out with prayers and silent tears. He was heard because of his reverent submission or piety. The Old Testament never dreamed of requiring the high priest to make himself like his brothers and sisters, but was preoccupied on the contrary with separating him from them. It is all the more striking, therefore, that on one essential point, no distinction was made: No text ever required that the high priest should be free from all sin. In the Old Testament, an attitude of compassion toward sinners appeared to be incompatible with the priesthood.

Unlike the Levitical priests, the death of Jesus was essential for his priesthood. He is a priest of compassion. His authority attracts us because of his compassion, the authority of his words, his penetrating, loving gaze at each one of us, the steadfastness of his faith. Ultimately, he exists for others: He exists to serve. He has been tested in all respects like us – he knows all of our difficulties; he is a tried man; he knows our condition from the inside and from the outside – only by this did he acquire a profound capacity for compassion. He was a priest – one who lived for others, who offered up everything of this sad but beautiful world to the God who loved him. That’s the only kind of priesthood that makes a difference, and that matters, then and now.

Jesus’ compassion is much more than a fleeting or temporary feeling of regret or sorrow. It is rather a deep anguish, a gut-wrenching type of anxiety and sorrow over the condition of people. Jesus felt gut-wrenching anguish over the souls of these people who were facing spiritual starvation without someone to feed them, teach them, and lead them to true spiritual nourishment. They were in danger without a shepherd to protect them from false teaching. Like sheep without the good shepherd, they were alone and vulnerable to the attacks of the evil one, who roams around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

The compassion of Jesus heals and feeds, forgives huge debts, nurses hurt bodies back to health and welcomes home sinners, restoring them to a place of honor. His strong emotion moved him to act, far beyond what any shepherd would be expected to do for his sheep. The authentic shepherd and priest who models his life on Jesus, must love the people entrusted to him and imitate Jesus.

Throughout his life, Jesus is a model of charity and compassion. He lives totally for others. The very opposite of a priest is a consumer, one who buys and amasses things. A priestly person is one who spends himself or herself gladly for others. We must look at our own priesthood, whether it be the priesthood of the baptized or the ministerial priesthood, and ask ourselves for whom we really live and who we really love. Do we spend ourselves gladly for others? Do we show compassion to our brothers and sisters who are broken, suffering, on the fringes of society and of the Church?

5. The Priest is an agent of the New Evangelization

In the Preface to the Lineamenta (Guidelines) for the XIII General Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will be held at the Vatican from October 7-28, 2012, a distinction is drawn between evangelization as a regular activity of the Church; the first approach “ad gentes”, to those who do not yet know Jesus Christ, and the new evangelization which is directed towards those who have moved away from the Church, those who have been baptized but not sufficiently evangelized.

In paragraph #25, the Lineamenta speaks about the requisite joy and enthusiasm in the process of evangelization. “A new evangelization means to share the world’s deep desire for salvation and render our faith intelligible by communicating the logos of hope (cf. 1 Pt 3:15). Humanity needs hope to live in these present times. The content of this hope is “God, who has a human face and who ‘has loved us to the end’.” For this reason, the Church is, by her very nature, missionary. We cannot selfishly keep for ourselves the words of eternal life, which we received in our personally encountering Jesus Christ. They are destined for each and every person. Each person today, whether he knows it or not, needs this proclamation.”

“To be unaware of this need creates a desert and an emptiness. In fact, the obstacles to the new evangelization are precisely a lack of joy and hope among people, caused and spread by various situations in our world today. Oftentimes, this lack of joy and hope is so strong that it affects the very tenor of our Christian communities. This is the reason for renewing the appeal for a new evangelization, not simply as an added responsibility but as a way to restore joy and life to situations imprisoned in fear.”

A priest by his very nature is an evangelizer, one who announces the good news through word and action. One of the greatest obstacles to the work of evangelization has always been routine or habit, which eliminates the freshness and persuasive power of Christian missionary outreach and witness. We must direct our efforts courageously and naturally at today’s modern Areopagus that is present in culture, in the mass media, politics and the economy. We must give special attention to those who suffer, to the poor and marginalized. We can no longer wait for those no longer practicing the faith to return to the Church on their own: we must seek them out. We do not hesitate to reach out by taking to the streets and public squares, by entering supermarkets, banks, schools, universities and colleges and wherever people can be found. Our missionary zeal must carry us “to the ends of the earth.”

Let me quote one of the most well known lines of the Servant of God, Paul VI from paragraph #41 of his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi,” “On the Evangelization of the Modern World”:

“…for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

6. The Priest is a Translator of Holiness

Jesus made his own the call to holiness already addressed by God to the people of the old covenant: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.” He repeated it continually by word and by the example of his life. Especially in the Sermon on the Mount he left to the Church a code of Christian holiness. Jesus exhorted his followers to a perfection modeled on that of God himself: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Since the Son reflects most fully this perfection of the Father, Jesus can say on another occasion, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).

The Church is the “home of holiness” and holiness is our most accurate image, our authentic calling card, and our greatest gift to the world. It describes best who and what we are and strive to be. Holiness is a way of life that involves commitment and activity. It is not a passive endeavor but rather a continuous choice to deepen one’s relationship with God and to then allow this relationship to guide all of one’s actions in the world. Holiness requires a radical change in mindset and attitude. The acceptance of the call to holiness places God as our final goal in every aspect of our lives. This fundamental orientation towards God even envelops and sustains our relationship with other human beings. Sustained by a life of virtue and fortified by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God draws us ever closer to Himself and to that day when we we will gaze upon him face to face.

Human beings become vehicles and instruments of God’s holiness for the world. This holiness is the fire of God’s Word that must be alive and burning within our hearts. It is this fire, this dynamism, that will burn away the evil within us and around us and cause holiness to burst forth, healing and transforming the society and culture surrounding us. Evil is only eradicated by holiness, not by harshness. Holiness introduces into society a seed that heals and transforms. The priest models this holiness and bears it to the world.

The Pruning of the Church Today

Over the past decade in particular, the tsunami of headlines about abuse of minors by priests and religious in many countries, including Ireland, as well as re-runs of old stories from various places have brought the Church to her knees once again. To watch television networks or read the newspapers, one would think that the sexual abuse of children is a uniquely Catholic problem, one indeed facilitated by a wicked lot of priests and bishops.

We know that in many cases the Church has responded poorly or inadequately in the past, putting more emphasis on “saving face for the institution rather than restoring dignity to the victim.” Every single abuse case involving a minor, no matter when it took place is a crime and we must respond to those who have been victimized and hurt by any person acting in the name of the Church. The Church stands by the victims and wishes to be an instrument of reconciliation and healing.

There are those who think incorrectly that obligatory celibacy contributes to depression and causes the sexual abuse of children. How easy it is to blame obligatory celibacy for the sexual abuse of children. Priests and religious who sexually abused children did so because of the sexual disorder of pedophilia or ephebophilia. They abused because of a sexual disorder, not because they were celibate. The studies are eminently clear on this point: most child abuse takes place within the family. Sexual abuse of a child by a family member results in serious, psychological trauma, especially in the case of parental incest. Studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that most sexual abuse of children is “intrafamilial” and constitutes incest.

The current scapegoating of the Church is fueled by the anger and guilt of vast numbers of people who still want to believe in the sexual revolution as a great boon to human liberation, men and women who have staked their lives on it in important ways, men and women who see the Catholic Church as the embodiment of all that threatens their beliefs and their life-choices, men and women who fear and detest the idea of judgment.

The Royal Road of the Cross

Let me leave you with the deeply moving words of Blessed John Paul II in his final homily at Canada’s 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto ten years ago. This great ecclesial event was prepared and took place under the terrible shadow of the sex-abuse crisis that erupted in the USA in early 2002. The Holy Father’s words were so important and consoling then as they are today:

“Even a tiny flame lifts the heavy lid of night. How much more light will you make, all together, if you bond as one in the communion of the Church! If you love Jesus, love the Church! Do not be discouraged by the sins and failings of some of her members. The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame. But think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good! There are many priests, seminarians and consecrated persons here today; be close to them and support them! And if, in the depths of your hearts, you feel the same call to the priesthood or consecrated life, do not be afraid to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross! At difficult moments in the Church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent. And holiness is not a question of age; it is a matter of living in the Holy Spirit…”

Priesthood is not, first and foremost, something we do, but someone we are. It is not an earned trophy. It is about an intimate relationship to the vine who is Christ. The Character of Christ the High Priest is branded on our hearts. We must never imagine that it is ourselves alone, in new-found power and privilege, who accomplish saving actions. It is Jesus, the Christ, who baptizes and preaches and spreads the feast of His body and blood and provides for the helpless and heals the hurt and grants us peace. He does it though weak, human beings like you and me. Who of us can ever be worthy of such a great calling? To victims, we must be an advocate; for the aimless, we must be shepherds; for the disheartened, heralds of good news; for sinners, disturbers of conscience; and for the guilty, forgivers. Let us take heart and be encouraged by the witness of the apostles and martyrs of the Early Church and the contemporary Church and never be afraid of giving our lives whole-heartedly to the Lord of the harvest, to Him who came to serve and not be served, to the one who laid down his life for us, his friends. May we do the same for others.

Fr. Thomas Rosica has been a priest in the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers) since 1986. A scripture scholar and lecturer in New Testament, he was chaplain of the University of Toronto before becoming National Director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 and the visit of Pope John Paul II to Canada. Following World Youth Day, he became the founding CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Television, Canada’s national Catholic Television network. In October 2008, he was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as the English-speaking Media Attaché of the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God at the Vatican. In February 2009, Fr. Rosica was appointed by Pope Benedict as Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. As of December 1, 2011, Fr. Rosica is also President of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario (Canada.)

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