Do we still need Saints and priests? It was Benedict XVI who asked this question in the context of the Canonizations at which he presided in St Peter's Square and in his Letter to Seminarians.
And it is a radical question because it concerns God's presence in the world. The six Saints proclaimed by the Pope – among them four women, including the first Australian, Mary MacKillop, a truly exceptional and courageous leader – understood it, letting this presence shine out in all its splendour.
In the darkness of the Nazi fury, people were convinced that in the new Germany priests would no longer be needed, as Benedict XVI reminded the seminarians. He said so in a direct and important text that is not addressed exclusively to those preparing for the priesthood because it speaks of faith as in the verse of Luke's Gospel (18:8), on which the Pope commented in the Mass for the canonizations: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”.
The tone of Benedict XVI's Letter is once again almost confidential and lets a profound personal experience shine out. In the face of the conviction that priests belong to the past, the Pope answers that, on the contrary, today too there is a need for them, that is, as people who exist “to serve him and bring him to others”. In fact, “life grows empty”if God is no longer perceived. This is why becoming priests is worthwhile, on a journey that one does not make alone – this is the wisdom of the Seminary – but in a community.
Benedict XVI describes the priest as essentially “a man of God”. However, he is a man who is not some stranger who left the scene after the “big bang” but rather, one who showed himself in Jesus, the God who is close to us. And the priest, who is not just any kind of administrator, is his messenger. For this reason the priest must “never lose [his] inner closeness to God”: so it is in this sense, the Pope explains, that the Lord's exhortation to “pray constantly” should be understood.
But in practice how? By beginning and ending the day with prayer, by reading and listening to Scripture, becoming aware of our errors but also of all the beauty and goodness; by celebrating the Eucharist and understanding how the Church's Liturgy has developed in time, and how it has been shaped by countless generations in an uninterrupted continuity; by humbly receiving the sacrament of Penance in order to “resist the coarsening of our souls”.
What Benedict XVI describes in the Letter – with indications that deserve attention on account of their simplicity and wisdom – is truly a programme for the priest but useful to every believer. It recommends sensitivity to popular piety and at the same time shows the importance of study, which is nothing other than the attempt “to understand and appreciate the internal structure of the faith”, through familiarity with Scripture in its unity. This is achieved through knowledge of the Fathers and through the important Councils, an in-depth examination of the various branches of theology, with an orientation to the great religions, the study of philosophy and canon law, defined as the “condition of love”, with courage that goes against the tide.
It was to be expected that the attention of the media would once again focus on what the Pope writes about the scandal of the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests. But Benedict XVI went further by stressing that the dimension of sexuality must be integrated within the person, for otherwise it “becomes banal and destructive”. As the innumerable examples of authentic priests – and Saints – show, who are convincing for this very reason; above all by radiating the light of God who illumines every human being.
St. Peter’s Square
Feb. 24, 2020
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