In many places, the image of the Catholic priesthood is in disarray. Many priests are discouraged by the failings of a few of their brother priests. Some are even afraid to wear the clerical collar or habit out in public, out of fear about what people will think or say. There is good news and hope that was proclaimed this entire year starting on June 19, 2009 and ending the following June 19, 2010. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has proclaimed this year the Year of the Priesthood. You can expect a year filled with catechesis and instruction on the nature of the priesthood and I dare say an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life will follow.
When announcing the Year of the Priesthood, Pope Benedict XVI also extolled and put fouth for all priests a model whose life and virtues are worthy of reflection, St. John Marie Vianney, also known as the Curé of Ars. During this year, the Pope will proclaim St. John Vianney the patron Saint of all priests. This is very significant. Up until this year, the Holy Curé was patron Saint of all parish priests because he himself was a parish priest in Ars, France. There could be a very specific reason why Pope Benedict is proclaiming him patron of all priests. It is because in this humble priest, God chose to manifest the dignity and essence of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. St. John Marie Vianney exemplifies what every priest, whether diocesan or religious, should aspire and strive to be.
Despite what some see as a disfigured image of the priesthood today, the priesthood of Jesus Christ remains timeless and still magnificent in its essence. In every age and I dare say even more so in our own, the priesthood is in constant need of reform and renewal. The essence or nature remains the same and unchanged, but how exactly that priesthood is lived out in the world is always in need of purification. St. John Marie Vianney although not bound by the evangelical counsels, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience certainly lived them as radically as someone who professes them. In any age, a closer adherence to these Gospel counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, is what sparks reform in the priesthood and religious life.
The Holy Curé of Ars lived the Gospel counsel of poverty as radically as St. Francis did, to whose Third Order he was a member. He was a celibate man to whom scores of spiritual children flocked to his little parish in Ars to have him hear their Confession. He was an example of obedience, always doing what his Bishop asked of him, especially when he was told “There is not much love in Ars, it is your job to put it there.” If there is going to be any renewal in the priesthood, whether in diocesan or religious, the evangelical counsels are not optional. They are not optional because Christ Himself lived them and it is His Priesthood that every priest shares.
Sometimes, it may be the temptation of a priest to wish that he lived in another time, when perhaps the priesthood was portrayed in better light. This is an illusion. St. John Marie Vianney was called in the midst of the disastrous effects of the French Revolution to confront the challenges and evils of his society. We perhaps think that to be a priest during any age but our own would have been somehow “easier” or “better.” This is false. Priests today are called as the Holy Curé was, to confront the evils and address the needs of the contemporary culture that so desperately is thirsting for truth and meaning. It is much easier to swim with the current, but if one is asked to turn around and go directly opposed to it, it is humanly speaking near impossible. This is the lofty vocation that every priest faces, that by God’s Grace, he is going directly against the current of the contemporary culture and bringing the light and truth of the Gospel to those who starve for it.
There is a reason why Pope Benedict XVI opened this Year of the Priesthood on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Simply stated in the words of St. John Marie Vianney, “The priesthood is the Love of the Heart of Jesus.” He says, “If one were to understand the Priesthood, one would die, not out of fear, but of love.” The Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ was and still continues to be how God manifests His Love to the world. Through the hands of a priest, God still continues to feed His flock, who are so desperately starving for the Bread of Life. Through the hands of a priest, God still continues to wipe away perhaps the crusted filth of decades and reconcile sinners to a life of grace. Through the hands of a priest, God continues to bless marriages and witness the love of Christ and His Church as expressed through the love of man and woman. Through the hands of the priest, the sick, suffering and dying are consoled and brought healing and strength.
Finally, the Holy Curé of Ars shows that it is Christ at work in His priests. It is not any power or merit of their own. God’s power is made more perfect through weakness. It can be said that God wanted to transform the world by transforming a little section of it, an insignificant town of Ars. Through this humble parish priest, God showed us once again that he uses what seems to the world as small and insignificant to manifest His greatness and mercy. May the example and witness of St. John Marie Vianney renew the hearts of all those who are already priests and inspire and inflame those who are aspiring to be priests. St. John Marie Vianney, pray for us.
Br. John Paul Mary, MFVA