On August 4th, we celebrate the feast of St. John Vianney. St. John is the patron saint of the parish priest. He had a great passion for serving the Church, spending close to 42 years in pastoral ministry in the town of Ars, France. While not viewed as an academic, St. John Vianney is known for his guidance and love of souls, often spending hours in the confessional. He understood the unique vocation of the priest and desired to bring the heart of Christ to all those he encountered.
St. John Vianney is known for frequently saying, “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”. This profound mission of the priesthood, becoming the love of the heart of Jesus, is necessary for our times. We live in a world much in need of an encounter with the humanity of Christ, brought to us most tangibly in the Sacraments priests administer. How then can we support our priests, so that they may be able to live this vital mission more fully?
1. Honor the Dignity of the Priesthood
The vocation of the ordained priesthood is necessary and distinct from the universal Christian call to priesthood through baptism. The Catechism describes this unique vocation saying, “The ministerial priesthood has the task not only of representing Christ – Head of the Church – before the assembly of the faithful, but also of acting in the name of the whole Church when presenting to God the prayer of the Church, and above all when offering the Eucharistic sacrifice” (CCC 1551). The faithful should be encouraged to learn more about this vocation, recognizing the great gift we have in the priesthood.
It is through this unique vocation that we, the faithful, are able to receive the Sacraments, most especially the Eucharist and Confession. Pope Benedict XVI describes this most beautifully, saying, “No man can dare on his own to use the ‘I’ of Christ as his ‘I’ without blaspheming. No one can say on his own authority: ‘This is my body.’ ‘This is my blood.’ ‘I absolve you from your sins.’… So this is the most profound and at the same time the most exciting gift of the priestly ministry, which only the Lord himself can give: not only to relate his words as words of the past, but to speak here and now with his ‘I’”. The lay faithful receive the Lord himself through the ministry of the Priesthood. Honoring the dignity of the Priesthood involves showing a profound appreciation for the gift we receive through this unique vocation.
As the Catechism remarks, the priest, through his yes, acts as Christ the high priest, and presents himself to the Lord in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Unfortunately, in our wounded world, some of us may have witnessed priests who have abused or misunderstood this call. The priesthood, however, is higher than the failings of individual men who compose it (CCC, 1584), and we as Catholics must work to safeguard the state itself, as instituted by Christ.
2. Recognize the Humanity of Priests
It can be easy to place priests into the category and role of priest, as “other” from the rest of humanity. While we have a responsibility to understand, defend, and reverence the vocation of the priesthood, it is also necessary to understand that these men are also men, who need our support and friendship. Just as Christ had living and authentic friendships with others, like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, whom Christ clearly loved and spent intentional lifegiving time with, so too do priests need friendships with the laity. As we know, all people are created for community and relationships with others. Priests, who forgo marriage for the sake of serving the Kingdom of God, are still persons created by God who benefit from community. It is our role as the laity, while respecting each person’s vocational state, to welcome priests into our families and into our lives, desiring friendship with them, and allowing them to be essential persons in our communities. Not only are the faithful blessed by these friendships, but priests also benefit by seeing the world through the different lens of family life. St. John Paul II’s life is a perfect example of the fruits of these friendships, with much of his teaching on the Theology of the Body stemming from his friendships with single and married couple friends while living out his priesthood in Poland.
3. Pray for Our Priests
Our modern world is more critical of the Church now than in much of our 2,000 year history. Unfortunately, this is only heightened by more recent scandals within the clergy. Because the priesthood is such a high calling, it should not come as a surprise that abuses of the priesthood hurt our hearts more deeply and that the forces of evil attack it more intently. This crisis and the many critical news articles on the priesthood and the Church in general further push the great majority of holy priests to the margins of society.
Priests have the difficult task of entering into our modern world and proclaiming the truth of Christ and the call of the Christian. As we all know, this is often against what is “comfortable” in our time. This, combined with the fact that the number of men being ordained to the priesthood continues to decrease, causes an increase in workload and pressures for many parish priests as well. Our prayers for our priests are more vital now than ever. We need strong, courageous priests who love their vocation and love the Lord. To show our love and support for the priesthood, we must continue to pray for these men and for those who are being called to this vocation.
St. John Vianney leads us in this prayer, writing:
“God please give your Church today many more priests after your own heart. May they be worthy representatives of Christ the Good Shepherd. May they wholeheartedly devote themselves to prayer and penance; Being examples of humility and poverty; Shining models of holiness; Tireless and powerful preachers of the Word of God; Zealous dispensers of your grace in the sacraments. May their loving devotion to your Son Jesus in the Eucharist and to Mary his Mother be the twin fountains of fruitfulness for their ministry. Amen.”
Let us thank God for the gift of these men who have answered this call and live out their priesthood seeking to bring the person of Christ to the faithful. As we acknowledge our need for walking with community for our whole health and wellness, let us invite our parish priests into this community as well, grateful for their vocation and the unique role they can play in our lives.
St John Vianney, pray for our priests.