Papal Reflection at Vespers to Open Academic Year of Pontifical Universities
"As Priests, the One Legitimate Ascent ... Is Not That of Success But That of the Cross"
H.H. Benedict XVI
November 4, 2011
Dear brothers and sisters!
It is a joy for me to celebrate these Vespers with you the members of the great community of the pontifical Roman universities. I greet Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, thanking him for the courteous words that he has addressed to me and above all for his service as head of the Congregation for Catholic Education, assisted by the secretary and the other collaborators. To them, and to all of the rectors, professors and the other students I address my most cordial greeting.
Seventy years ago, Venerable Pius XII, with the motu proprio "Cum Nobis" (cf. AAS 33 , 479-481) instituted the Pontifical Work for Priestly Vocations, with the aim of promoting vocations to the priesthood, to spread an understanding and necessity of the ordained ministry and to encourage the faithful to pray for many worthy priests. On the occasion of that anniversary, this evening I would like to propose some reflections to you on the priestly ministry.
The motu proprio "Cum Nobis" represented the beginning of a vast movement of prayer initiatives and pastoral activities. It was a clear and generous response to the Lord's call: "The harvest is great but the laborers are few! Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest! (Matthew 9:37). Everywhere other ventures would develop following the launch of the Pontifical Work. Among these I would like to recall "Serra International," founded in the United States and named for Father Junípero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan friar, with the purpose of encouraging and supporting vocations to the priesthood and giving financial support to seminarians. I thank the members of Serra International, who are celebrating the 60th anniversary of their recognition by the Holy See.
The Pontifical Work for Priestly Vocations was instituted on the liturgical commemoration of St. Charles Borromeo, venerable patron of seminarians. We pray to him in this celebration to intercede for the reawakening, sound formation and growth of priestly vocations.
The Word of God too, which we heard in the passage from the First Letter of Peter, invites us to meditate on the mission of shepherds in the Christian community. From the beginnings of the Church there is an obvious prominence of the leaders of the first communities, who were appointed by the Apostles to proclaim the Word of God through preaching and celebrating the sacrifice of Christ, the Eucharist. Peter offers passionate encouragement: "I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder, a witness to the sufferings of Christ and a participant in the glory that must manifest itself" (1 Peter 5:1). St. Peter offers this exhortation on the basis of his personal relationship with Christ, which culminated in the dramatic events of the passion and in the experience of the encounter with him after his resurrection from the dead. Peter, furthermore, highlights the reciprocal solidarity of pastors in ministry, underscoring his and their belonging to the one apostolic order: He says, in fact, that he is "a fellow elder"; the Greek term is "sympresbyteros." Feeding the flock of Christ is the vocation and task common to them and links them in a particular way because they are united to Christ by a special bond. In fact, the Lord Jesus compared himself many times to a caring shepherd, attentive to each one of his sheep. He said of himself: "I am the Good Shepherd" (John 10:11). And St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his commentary on the Gospel of St. John: "Although the leaders of the Church are all shepherds, nevertheless, [Christ] is in a singular way. He says "I am the good shepherd" with the purpose of introducing the virtue of charity with sweetness. In fact, one cannot be a good shepherd without becoming one with Christ and his members through charity. Charity is the first duty of the good shepherd" (10, 3).
The Apostle Peter's vision of the call to the office of leading the community is a grand one, conceived in continuity with the unique election of The Twelve. The apostolic vocation exists through the personal relationship with Christ, nourished by assiduous prayer and animated by the passion for communicating the message received and the Apostles' same experience of faith. Jesus called The Twelve to be with him and to send them to preach his message (cf. Mark 3:14). There are some conditions for there to be a growing consonance between Christ and the life of the priest. I would like to focus on three, which emerge from the reading that we heard: the aspiration to work with Jesus to spread the Kingdom of God, the gratuity of the pastoral charge and the attitude of service.
First of all, in the call to the ministerial priesthood there is the encounter with Christ and being fascinated, struck by his words, by his gestures, by his very person. It is distinguishing his voice from many voices, responding like Peter: "You have the words of eternal life and we have believed and known that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68-69). It is like feeling the radiance of the Good and Love that emanate from him, feeling enveloped and involved to the point of desiring to remain with him like the disciples of Emmaus -- "stay with us for the day is nearly spent" (Luke 24:29) and bringing the proclamation of the Gospel to the world. God the Father sent the eternal Son into the world to realize his plan of salvation. Christ Jesus established the Church to extend the beneficial effects of the redemption through time. The vocation of priests has its root in this action of the Father realized in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The minister of the Gospel then is he who lets himself be drawn by Christ, who knows how to "remain" with him, who enters into harmony, in intimate friendship, with him, that all be done "as God wishes" (1 Peter 5:2), according to his will of love, with great interior freedom and profound joy of heart.
In the second place, priests are called to be administrators of the Mysteries of God "not for personal gain but with a generous soul," St. Peter says in the reading from these Vespers (1 Peter 5:2). It must never be forgotten that one enters the priesthood through the sacrament, Ordination, and this means precisely opening oneself to the action of God, choosing every day to give oneself for him and for the brothers according to the word of the Gospel: "Freely have you received, freely give" (Matthew 10:8). The Lord's call to ministry is not the fruit of special merits but a gift to be received and to which there corresponds a dedication of oneself not to one's own project but God's, in a generous and disinterested way, that he might dispose of us according to his will even if this does not concur with our desires of self-realization. It means loving together with him who first loved us and gave himself entirely. It means being open to letting oneself be involved in his full and complete act of love toward the Father and every person, consummated on Calvary. We must never forget -- as priests -- the one legitimate ascent for the ministry of shepherd is not that of success but that of the cross.
In this logic, being priests means being servants even with the exemplarity of life. "Be examples to the flock" is the invitation of the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 5:3). Priests are the dispensers of the means of salvation, of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance. They do not dispose of them according to their own will but they are their humble servants for the good of the People of God. It is one life, then, profoundly marked by this service: from the attentive care of the flock, from the faithful celebration of the liturgy, and from the prompt solicitude for all of the brothers, especially the most poor and needy. In living this "pastoral charity" on the model of Christ and with Christ, in whatever post the Lord calls one to, every priest can fully realize himself and his vocation.
Dear brothers and sisters, I have offered a reflection on the priestly ministry. But consecrated persons and laypeople, I think especially of the many religious women and lay women who study at the ecclesiastical universities of Rome, and of those who offer their service as professors or as staff of these schools, can also find useful elements [in what I have said] for living the time that they spend in the Eternal City more intensely. It is important for all, in fact, always to learn more to "remain" with the Lord, daily, in the personal encounter with him to let oneself be fascinated and be drawn by his love and to be proclaimers of his Gospel; it is important to seek in life to follow generously not one's own project but God's for each person, conforming one's will to the Lord's; it is important to prepare oneself, also through serious and demanding studies, to serve the People of God in the tasks entrusted to us.
Dear friends, live well, in intimate communion with the Lord, this time of formation: It is a precious gift that God offers you, especially here in Rome where one breathes the Church's catholicity in a completely singular way. May St. Charles Borromeo obtain the grace of fidelity for all those who attend the ecclesiastical institutes of Rome. May the Lord grant all of you, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, "Sedes Sapientiae," a profitable academic year. Amen.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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