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The Sacrament and the thirst of the world

Anyone who thought of the Year for Priests as the umpteenth invented celebration, worth little if not entirely useless, will have to think again in view of Benedict XVI's two interventions as, in closing the Year, he revealed its profound meaning.

These are truly important texts from a Pope who is both theologian and pastor, as few of his Predecessors have been, even to the point of evoking great Bishops of Christian antiquity. As an academic and a man of faith he has kept up with theology for more than 60 years and knows how to speak the language of our time.

Addressing an unprecedented number of priests – who were able to concelebrate with the Successor of Peter – the Bishop of Rome dwelled on the Catholic priesthood. It is not a profession like others; it is neither a closed caste nor a clerical reality but rather a sacrament; namely, a sign of an infinitely greater reality and, for this reason, the priesthood is open to the world.

Far from any form of clericalism, for the priest's gaze is fixed on the Heart of Jesus, pierced by the soldier's spear and from which streamed water and blood, symbols of Baptism and of the Eucharist that open wide to God the realities of this world.

The Year dedicated to the priesthood, an opportunity to reflect on and to restore the priesthood's radiance to people's eyes did not please the “enemy”. This was to be expected, the Pope stressed. And so it was that the scandal of the sins of priests came to light, particularly the terrible abuse of little ones. Once again, Benedict XVI humbly asked God and the victims for forgiveness for these crimes, without recrimination or bitterness but emphasizing the task of purification that has already begun and will be a long one.

He is aware that these scandals have cast a shadow over the authentic face of the Church, a reality for which even the secularized world is yearning, partly indicated by the scandal itself in the face of these very real crimes.

Men and women of today, if only vaguely, also feel the need for someone who can truly change the situation of their lives by pronouncing in Christ's Name words that absolve them from sin and open them to God. This is the meaning of sacrament: of Penance, of the Eucharist, of the Sacrament of Orders itself, visible signs in which is concealed the audacity of a God who entrusts himself to human hands.

And those who look at the Heart of Jesus realize that this God is not a distant God but is like a shepherd who can teach us  – if only we are prepared to listen to him – how to be people, in order not to squander our lives in meaninglessness.

With a lucid but not a pessimistic gaze at the perplexity in our day and at the inexorable destiny of every human creature – “the valley of the shadow of death, where no one can accompany us”, Benedict XVI once again raised his eyes to Christ: repeating the joyful proclamation of the Church that the Lord has risen from the underworld where he triumphed over the last enemy and, victorious over death, is close to each one of us in life's “valleys of darkness”, even when every light seems to have gone out.

In the face of conduct unworthy of the priestly sacrament –  as when she faces heresy and the disintegration of the faith – “the Church must use the shepherd's rod”, the Pope said forcefully. He added that this can actually be “a service of love” and that the rod is also a “staff”, a support in the hardships of the journey; and that the Church points out to men the Heart of Christ, the one source of living water that can quench the world's thirst.

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St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 22, 2019

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