Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Priests Are Set Apart in Order To Be True Servants of God's People

by Pope Saint John Paul II


The Holy Father's Address of September 25, 1999 to a group of Bishops from Canada who were making their ad limina visit to Rome.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, September 29, 1999

Your Eminence,

Dear Brother Bishops,

1. In the love of the Holy Spirit, I greet you, the Bishops of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, joined today by Cardinal Ambrozic and the Auxiliary Bishops of Toronto, as you come on pilgrimage ad limina Apostolorum: "Grace and peace to you in all abundance through knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord" (2 Pt 1:2). Here in Rome, at the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, you renew the bonds of communion which bind you to the Successor of Peter and you rekindle the spiritual energies which your ministry demands. These are the tombs of martyrs, and they recall the power of Christian witness in every age and remind us that the Church is born from the shedding of blood — the blood of the Lamb which flows for ever in the heavens, and the blood of those who have washed their robes white in his blood (cf. Rv 7:14). Here you celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice on altars raised in memory of "those who were slain for the witness they bore lo the word of God" (Rv 6:9); and you join them in singing the great hymn of the Church: "To the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour, glory and power, for ever" (Rv 5:13). You journey back in time to the very origins of Christianity, but you do so in order to see more clearly and confidently the future which God has in mind for the Church in the millennium about to dawn.

Complementarity and communion

2. At the heart of God's plan for the Church today there stands that great moment of grace, the Second Vatican Council. The decades since the Council have not been untroubled, but everywhere there are signs of the wondrous fruits which the Spirit can bring when we respond in faith to his promptings. Unquestionably, one of the fruits of the Spirit in the years since the Council has been the stirring of new spiritual vitality and apostolic energies among the lay faithful. Catholic lay women and men are living the grace of their Baptism in ways which show forth more splendidly the full array of charisms which invigorate and beautify the Church. We cannot cease to praise God for this.

Continuing the reflection begun with the previous groups of Canadian Bishops in this series of ad limina visits, today I wish to share with you some brief thoughts on the relationship between priests and lay faithful in the pastoral life of your communities and in the Church's witness before society. We readily speak of Bishops and priests as "pastors", drawing upon the biblical and patristic tradition, in which the image of the shepherd is rich and evocative. Sometimes, though, this has been accompanied by a certain reluctance to speak of lay people as "the flock", as if to do so condemned the laity to a strictly passive and dependent role. Certainly this is not what the Council had in mind, nor is it what the Church needs now. It is therefore worthwhile to revisit the biblical image in order to rediscover the sense of complementarity and communion which it implies.

The image comes from a world in which the flock was the cornerstone of economic life and the key to human survival. The shepherd fed and watered the sheep and protected them day and night against predators and disease; and in that sense, the sheep lived because of the shepherd. The flock in turn provided food, clothing and even shelter not only to the shepherd but also to the entire family or tribe. In that sense the shepherd was as dependent upon the flock as the flock was upon him. What the biblical image offers therefore is a vision of life-giving reciprocity: the sheep live by the shepherd and the shepherd lives by the sheep. The same vision finds expression in what St Paul writes to the Church in Thessalonica: "Now we live, for you stand firm in the Lord" (1 Thes 3:8). The Apostle has given life to the community and now, by their fidelity, they give life to him.

3. More radically still, the sheep become the body of the shepherd especially as the source of food. Here the imagery is so profound that it introduces us to the notion of the Church as the Body of Christ. Jesus Christ is the eternal Shepherd of the flock in whose name all pastors serve; but the flock is Christ's Body in the world. Again we have a dramatic reciprocity of self-giving, which in this case is not just a matter of material life and human survival, but the great mystery of Jesus' self-giving sacrifice for the world's salvation, made present whenever the Eucharist is celebrated. Here we come to the very heart of the mystery of Christian shepherding, since Christ the Shepherd is also the Lamb. Indeed, he is the Shepherd because he is the Lamb. No pastor can be a true shepherd of God's flock unless he is one with the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world. We cannot hope to be shepherds conformed to Christ unless we live the mystery of his Cross (cf. Phil 3:10). This is no less true of pastors in the Church today than it was of the Apostles to whose tombs you come as pilgrims. In dying a martyr's death, they were made completely one with the Lamb of God and thus they are for ever the shepherds who "from their place in heaven ... guide us still" (Preface of the Apostles I). What is true of the pastors is also true of the whole Church, the priestly People of God, in the world. The heart of all pastoral activity and of every form of apostolate is union with Christ's paschal mystery. By becoming one with the crucified and risen Lord through the grace of the Holy Spirit, all the baptized become capable of taking part in the Church's evangelizing mission and in her service to the human family. Shepherd and sheep have complementary vocations of service.

Set apart for the service of the Gospel

4. Such a vision of complementarity in communion between priests and laity will generate styles of priestly living and seminary formation which make it clear that the priest is a man set apart for a particular service. In the liturgy and in the pastoral care of the community, the priest continues the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, "the chief Shepherd" (1 Pt 5:4). In shepherding the flock and leading its worship, the priest lifts up to God and ennobles the Christian vocations of all the faithful, whose servant he is. It is important that priests be both "set apart" and "servants", and that one be the condition of the other. If the priest is not clearly set apart, then he will not provide the service which the Church requires; and if he is not a true servant, he will end in a self-absorbed and sterile remoteness which is alien to an authentic shepherd. Priestly celibacy, the discipline of prayer, simplicity of life and clerical dress are among the signs that the priest is a man set apart for the service of the Gospel. The fruitfulness of these is undeniable, especially in a culture which looks anxiously for signs of the transcendent, a culture which is searching for true shepherds and convincing witnesses.

5. The complementarity of the distinct vocations of priests and laity must be the framework for efforts to marshal the Church's forces for the new evangelization in Canada. This complementarity, which responds to the symphonic character of the body of Christ in which all are members but not all have the same function, is the condition for grace-filled cooperation in the Church's mission. Effective priestly leadership will in no way stifle lay initiative or reduce lay people to passivity or dependence. Rather, it will foster the kind of lay witness that will not only make the Church's presence in the world more effective but will in turn produce good and abundant priestly vocations. Care must be taken, however, to avoid blurring the distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the lay vocation: such was certainly not what the Council Fathers had in mind when they asked for greater cooperation between priests and laity, seeking in particular to strengthen the lay vocation in the Church and the world. An imprecise idea of the distinct missions of priests and laity has sometimes led to a crisis of identity and confidence among priests, and also to forms of lay activity which are either too clericalized or too "politicized".

Shine forth in glory as Bride of Christ

The prime arena of the lay vocation is the secular world of society, culture and enterprise, which stretches far beyond the visible bounds of the Church. There, lay men and women are called to live their baptismal vocation as promoters of the great art of Christian citizenship in the world. In a time of diminished religious affiliation and practice, it may seem strange that the Church should stress the secular vocation of the laity. Yet it is precisely the evangelizing witness of lay people in the secular world which is the heart of the Church's response to the malaise of indifferentism that is often described as "secularization". This unique mission of lay women and men today was a central theme of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America, which reminded us that "while the intra-ecclesial apostolate of lay people needs to be promoted, care must be taken to ensure that it goes hand in hand with the activity proper to the laity, in which their place cannot be taken by priests: the area of temporal realities" (n. 44).

6. We must not forget that the intention of the Second Vatican Council was to unleash new evangelizing forces within the Church, in the wake of the devastation caused by the two World Wars and looking to the prospects of the new millennium. A new kind of missionary commitment was required, a new evangelization, and the Council, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, became the means of setting that dynamism in motion. This has been the overriding purpose of every new provision for the life of the Church resulting from the Council. Therefore, we must carefully avoid any form of ecclesial introversion that would be unfaithful to the Council's intention, since it would diminish rather than increase the missionary thrust needed to meet the needs of the new century.

Dear Brother Bishops, we are called to listen with a disciple's ear to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches (cf. Rv 2:7), so that we may speak as teachers in Christ's name, joyfully declaring with St John Damascene: "O glorious people of the Church, towering mountain, pure and clear, you who rely on the help of God, you in whom God takes his rest, receive from our lips the true faith of Christ untainted by error as it is handed down to us, which builds up and strengthens the Church" (Statement of Faith, 1). I pray most fervently that you will succeed in this great pastoral task, so that the Church in Canada will shine forth in all her glory as the Bride of Christ, whom he has taken to himself in infinite love. Entrusting your apostolic mission to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who in every age is the bright Star of Evangelization, I gladly impart my Apostolic Blessing to you, and to the priests, the women and men religious, and the lay faithful of your Dioceses.

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