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Witnesses of God

The Church's ongoing need for reform is the setting and root of the Letter that the Pope has addressed to his priests for the beginning of the Year for Priests that overlaps with the conclusion of the Year dedicated to St Paul. And precisely because Ecclesia semper reformanda, as the ancient saying of Christian tradition declares, Catholic priests too must be renewed inwardly.

The text which Benedict xvi, as their brother and friend, has addressed to all the priests of the world is intended to contribute to this. On the 150th anniversary of his death, the Pope has reinterpreted the spiritual development of John Mary Vianney, the “Curé d’Ars” who was proclaimed patron of parish priests 80 years ago by Pius xi – the Pope who had canonized him four years earlier – and who lives on as an ideal model of a priest for many Catholics, if somewhat faded by the inexhorable march of time.

A country parish priest spent his entire life in the heart of rural France which had first experienced the upheaval of the Revolution and then spiritual desertification due to anti-clericalism.

He was aware of being entrusted by his Bishop with a mission as difficult as it was challenging, as the papal text recalls: “There is little love of God in that parish; you will be the one to put it there” ( Letter proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the Dies Natalis of the Curé of Ars, see p. 3).  And this continues to be essential, as Benedict xvi insistently reminds us.

One hears it said time and again that priests are out of fashion in our day, at least in the well-off secularized society and that their profession is not a popular one. This may be true, just as the comfortless reflections on practical materialism and on the spreading de-Christianization in formerly Christian countries are also true. But when has the situation been essentially different?

And times have also always been difficult from the viewpoint of Catholic religious practice, as can be seen in a passage from the Pope's Letter: “confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day” ( ibid.).

In spite of all, Benedict xvi speaks of the priesthood “with heartfelt gratitude” for the the endeavours of priests “friends of Christ”. And he still treasures the memory of the first parish priest at whose side he exercised his ministry, to the point that the blatant infidelity relaunched by some is without a doubt a shameful burden, yet it is of infinitely less importance than the myriads of priests who day after day – despite their suffering and the misunderstanding they encounter, often offended in their dignity, obstructed in their mission or even persecuted and killed – are witnesses of Christ in the world, together with so many of their religious or lay brethren. They are the witnesses of an incarnate God who impress and fascinate contemporary man. Perhaps this is because they are signs of a different world.

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