Throwback Thursday: Love and the Priesthood

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, giving thanks to God for the mission he entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his successors, including now, Pope Francis.

Above all else, the Petrine ministry is one of love.  Indeed, while God calls people to a variety of walks of life – the priesthood, marriage, consecrated life and the single life – this is the primary calling of us all, the vocation to love.

After his Resurrection, Jesus revealed himself to Peter and the other apostles on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias.  John’s Gospel recounts the stirring exchange.  Three times, Jesus asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  And each time, Simon Peter replied, “Lord you know that I love you.” Jesus’ three questions about love were followed by three commands: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.  Then Jesus said, “Follow me” (John 21:15-19).

Giving the point particular emphasis, Jesus spoke of love three times.  But what is love?  Pope Benedict XVI explored the question in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est.  Specifically, given all the ways that love might manifest itself, how are we to understand the question of love with respect to the priesthood?  How might we characterize the relationship of a priest to Christ, the Church and the people?

One of the more obvious things about a priest is what we call him – “Father.”  This is not incidental.  Priests are called to show a paternal love and affection for those entrusted to their care, protecting and providing for them.  And this love should be so dynamic that it displays a spiritual fruitfulness such that, like a father, with Mother Church through the sacraments, new spiritual children are brought into the fold (cf. Matthew 28:19).

A priest is not only a spiritual father, he is also a son and like the Son, he has an everlasting love for God our Father in heaven.  Also as a child of God, he has a fraternal love for his fellow brothers and sisters in the human family.

In all the various expressions of his love, a priest is not confined to extrinsic functions.  His ministry is more than a job.  Rather, a priest finds the full truth of his identity in being united to Christ so that in his priestly ministry he manifests a unique participation in and continuation of Christ himself.  By the sacrament of holy orders, he is configured to the Lord in a profound manner that affects his being so as to be the living image of Jesus Christ.

One of the great legacies left us by Saint John Paul II is an apostolic exhortation which has guided priestly formation for over two decades.  I had the privilege to participate in the 1990 Synod on Priestly Formation under the month-long guidance of Pope John Paul II.  This gathering of bishops undertook the study of the formation of future priests.  Out of this effort came much of the material that the Pope used to produce the apostolic exhortation, Pastores dabo vobis, that continues to guide that task today.  In that teaching, he explains that “Christ’s gift of himself to his Church, the fruit of his love, is described in terms of that unique gift of self made by the bridegroom to the bride”  (Pastores dabo vobis, 22, see also Ephesians 5:23-32).  In the outpouring of the Spirit, the priest walks united with Christ in that gift of himself to his Bride, the Church.

The ramifications of that teaching are shown by Jesus in the Paschal mystery.  On the night before his Passion, Jesus asked the apostles to be like him, to love as he loves, which is fully and unconditionally, adding, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).  Christ the Bridegroom made such a complete gift of self, laying down his life for the Church on the Cross.  Then, after he rose, Jesus said, “Follow me” (John 21:18-19).  The priest’s participation in the extension of Christ’s mission also requires a love of complete and permanent self-giving.

At every ordination, this free giving of self to Christ by a new priest is always a source of great encouragement and profound joy for me and all of us.  May God bless our priests, our seminarians and all those discerning a vocation to the priesthood.