April 26, 2019

Christ the Cornerstone

This Easter season, let’s rejoice with our priests

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2: 5–6).

Since last summer, our attention has been focused on those priests and bishops who have sinned grievously or who have covered up crimes. When the spotlight is on those who have failed in their sacred responsibilities, it is easy to forget the majority who faithfully serve God’s people, day in and day out, without seeking recognition or earthly rewards. In fact, as Catholics, one of the many reasons we have to rejoice during the Easter season is the gift of good and holy priests.

In his apostolic exhortation “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (“I Will Give You Shepherds”), Pope St. John Paul II reminds us that “priests by means of the sacrament of orders are tied with a personal and indissoluble bond to Christ. The sacrament of holy orders is conferred upon each one of them as individuals, but they are inserted into the communion of the presbyterate united with the bishop” (#74).

A priest’s primary bond, the fundamental and indispensable relationship that creates and sustains his ministry, is with Christ. Nothing can replace this intimate, indissoluble connection between Christ and his priests. At the same time, this bond of love between Christ and his priests has a communal dimension. When a priest receives the sacrament of holy orders, he is joined with his brother priests—and his bishop—in a “presbyterate” (from the scriptural term for elders or leaders in the early Church).

A bishop and his priests are true partners in ministry. Although they have different responsibilities, the Lord calls them to be brothers united for the sake of the Church’s mission. Individually and as a body, they are called to love the Lord with their whole heart and soul, and they are commanded to tend and feed the Lord’s sheep.

Bishops and priests are called to become shepherds and guides for their flock, sharing the love they have received in the depth of their hearts from the Father as they take up their role as spiritual fathers. This sense of spiritual fatherhood is described in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians: “As you know, we treated each of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you conduct yourselves as worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thes 2:11–12). St. Paul knows that the surest sign of his apostolic authority is his love for others in Christ, which he recognizes as a grace from God.

The spiritual father must give himself completely in proclaiming the Gospel. Bishops and priests who truly are spiritual fathers to the people entrusted to their care are called to be a positive influence, to lead transparent and virtuous lives, to base their ministry only on spiritual authority (not on power or manipulation), to show genuine affection toward those they are called to serve, and, finally, to be known for unselfish living.

Therefore, we understand that preaching the Gospel is not merely pronouncing words, but it is the giving of oneself in love. The role of spiritual fatherhood is expressed through “attentive listening” and anchored in one’s prayer and discernment. Priests who are united with their bishops and one another invite the people they serve to open themselves to the love that God the Father has for them, sharing the experience of the Father’s love in their own daily lives.

In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul describes the way bishops and priests should exercise their ministry as members of a presbyterate: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vain glory, rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:1-3).

It’s important for a bishop to pray for and with his priests. It is also important for priests to gather with each other—and with their bishop—as a presbyterate.

When a bishop and his priests are growing in holiness together, they are in the best possible position to effectively preach the Gospel, celebrate the sacraments and serve the pastoral needs of the people entrusted to their care as spiritual fathers and brothers in Christ to all.

This Easter season, let’s rejoice in our priests. Let’s pray that the risen Lord will walk with them as they pray for, and with, the people they are called to serve. †

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