I am sure all of us here have known priests throughout our lives who have been for us an example, an inspiration, an encouragement. Tonight we remember such a priest, a parish priest who belongs to us all in the communion of saints and helps us to see what is at the heart of the Catholic priesthood yesterday, today and to the end of time. It is a vital moment to see anew what is always at the heart of the priesthood after events of scandal have involved the ordained ministry and left hurt and confusion in their wake. We need so often to re-set our course with the saints who show us a heart truly given and encourage us in the words of Scripture to, “keep running steadily in the race we have begun” (Heb. 12:1). Together with the jubilarians who represent more than 200 years of ordained ministry between them, we begin this pilgrimage of prayer tonight. We set out in the company of St John Mary Vianney to pray for fresh heart in the priesthood and diaconate, in the mission of our parishes and for those called to continue the sacred ministry for generations still to come. The relic of the heart of a saint encourages us to hear the promise of the Lord ever-renewed in the life of the Church and in the witness of his saints: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezekiel 36:26).
Tonight we begin with a Mass of Thanksgiving for the faithful ministry of every bishop, priest and deacon represented by the jubilarians beside me. When visiting primary schools I often ask the children: what does your parish priest do? The children’s answers can be interesting! Yet beyond the familiar list of things a priest might do, I hope this might help the children to glimpse what the ordained ministry of the priest, the deacon and even the bishop truly is for them. In his direct way of speaking the Curé of Ars invited his parishioners to make a similar list in order to lead them to what seems an astonishing conclusion: “without the Sacrament of Holy Orders,” he said, “we would not have the Lord.” He explained this by begging these questions: “Who put him in the tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest/the deacon. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for life’s journey. The priest. Who will prepare you to appear before God, bathing your soul one last time in the Blood of Jesus Christ? The priest. The priest always the priest,” he said, “And if this soul should die (as a result of sin) who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace. Again the priest …”
This true pastor, St John Vianney wanted his parishioners to recognise in the ministry of those who share His Ministerial Priesthood is always Christ Himself. For “the Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” (Psalm 22:1). Every priest “by the anointing of the Holy Spirit,” the Catechism explains is, “configured to Christ the priest in such a way that he is able to act in the person of Christ the Head” (CCC 1563). As St Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only the ministers” (CCC 1545). So it is truly Christ who baptises, Christ who absolves, Christ who offers Himself as Priest and Victim in the Mass through this sacred ministry. In the light of this we quickly understand the words of the Curé of Ars that “without the priest, the death and passion of our Lord would be of no use. It is the priest who continues the work of Redemption on earth.”
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is composed of three degrees. The Compendium of the Catechism sets this out in summary: the Bishop with the fullness of the sacrament, is the successor to the apostles and teaches, sanctifies and governs in the name of Christ. Priests, as co-workers with the bishop and depending on him, preach the Gospel, celebrate divine worship, especially the Holy Eucharist, and shepherd the faithful. And deacons, configured to Christ the Servant, assist with the Ministry of the Word, with divine worship and with pastoral care and charity (Compendium of the Catechism 326, 328-330). As the Curé of Ars expressed this, “the priest does not exist for himself, he exists for you.” So bishops, priests and deacons as pastors of the Church are always servants, as the Second Vatican Council taught (LG 24). In this service, and this is the wonder of it, “It is Christ Himself,” the Council taught, “who is present to his Church as Head of the Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth” (CCC 1548, LG 10, 28. PO 2, 6). As Blessed John Paul II explained in Ars the bishop, priest and deacon, “are at one and the same time in the Christian assembly and in front of it, to signify that the initiative comes from God, from the Head of the Body” (6th October 1986). For the Sacraments derive their efficacy not from our merits but always from Christ. Do we always recognise this? Can we say as confidently as the Curé of Ars who always saw himself as a very poor man called to share so great a life and ministry: “How great is the priest,” “a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish,” he declared, “and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.”
Tonight with the jubilarians I would like us to remember those pastors who gave us the Sacraments from our earliest years, who offered the Mass for us, who taught us and cared for our souls throughout the course of our lives. In parish after parish people speak to me of the need of such priests for the future. Tonight we must translate this sense of need into something more than human appreciation to a recognition in faith of the irreplaceable gift of Holy Orders and especially of the ordained priesthood. It was Blessed John Paul II who said at Ars in 1986 we cannot be resigned to see the number of priestly vocations diminish, “this resignation,” he said, “would be a bad sign for the vitality of the Christian people and would put its future and its mission at risk.” “Let us ask ourselves,” he appealed, “if we are doing all that is possible to awaken in the Christian people the awareness of the beauty and necessity of the priesthood, to awaken vocations, to encourage them and bring them to maturity” (6th October 1986). This is the question I wish to ponder this evening.
As social status and human affirmations have diminished, when there is no applause for those who set out to live this calling, it may help us to see what is at the very heart of the Catholic priesthood, the Church’s sacred ministry, its true “beauty” and “necessity” in Blessed John Paul’s words. No other recognition can renew the heart of the ministerial priesthood or the diaconate except to discover and re-discover in St John Mary Vianney’s striking words which found there way into the Catechism of the Church: the priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.
Tonight as we pray for all bishops, priests and deacons, we pray that will remain true to the essence of our vocation seen vividly in the life, in the heart we might say, of the Curé of Ars. The dark shadows which have been cast of late on Holy Orders have led people sometimes to wonder what is really at the heart of the priesthood. Public perception can be distorted by the grave sins and failures of a few, by those who have drifted in their doctrine or their moral life, and by those who have grown lax or who no longer seek to live out the ideals. Whilst we would never wish to minimise evil, we know this is never the true face of the Catholic priesthood as it has been given to the Church and lived in countless, often heroic lives. “What is most helpful,” the Holy Father said, “is not only a frank and complete acknowledgement of the weaknesses of her ministers, but also a joyful and renewed realisation of the greatness of God’s gift, embodied in the splendid example of generous pastors … Here the teaching and example of St John Vianney can serve as a significant point of reference for us all” (Letter Proclaiming the Year for Priests 2009).
The shrine of the heart of St John Vianney is placed outside the church and basilica of Ars. It might seem at first a little strange that the heart is separated from the body but it points to a heart completely given. The giving of our hearts surely lies at the foundation of every Christian vocation and it lies at the foundation of every calling to priesthood and diaconate which we celebrate tonight. I think of a consecrated woman some years ago who in a meeting where many problems were being discussed suddenly began to speak very simply of the joy of giving our hearts to Jesus. Yes, she went to the heart of the matter because in this recognition all problems begin to fall into their place. At the end of this pilgrimage with the young people considering their vocation I want to tell them that every Christian calling begins with the heart, with a heart which is joyfully given. And the heart of this Saint of Ars will surely invite each of us to keep our hearts in the right place.
St John Vianney with the incisive prognosis of a physician of souls had no doubts where problems begin for us, the reason we grow lax in our vocation, “is because we do not pay attention at Mass,” we are not attentive to the Holy Eucharist, he said. The Second Vatican Council would repeat this conclusion in its teaching that the Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of the whole Christian life and that it is from the Sacrifice of the Mass that the whole priestly ministry draws its strength. If the Blessed Eucharist is not at the centre of our lives then we have no strength, no life. If we begin becoming careless or neglectful of the mystery and reality of the Eucharist: it is from this, the Curé of Ars warns, that coldness, indifference, the loss of apostolic energy follows. In Blessed John Paul II’s striking phrase: “were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our own deficiency?” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia n. 60).
I know many of us are already familiar with the life of the Curé of Ars who grew up amidst the turmoil of the French Revolution, whose path to the priesthood seemed all but impossible, who was sent after ordination to one of the smallest and perhaps most indifferent of parishes where he remained for 41 years bringing about not only its radical conversion but the conversion of countless thousands who journeyed there. Yet we might ask why have the popes across a century and more been concerned to raise up the figure of this particular saint in the sight of the whole Church? I can still remember myself three decades ago being almost struck by those words addressed by the now Blessed John Paul II to priests that they would find in this Parish Priest: “an incomparable guide” “an unequalled model” “a matchless example” for our life, our parishes our ministry, today. “His example cannot be forgotten,” Pope John Paul wrote to all priests in 1986, “More than ever we need his witness, his intercession, in order to face the situations of our times …” (Letter to Priests 1986). This is the saint the relic of whose heart has been brought amongst us tonight.
Divine Providence wished to make something clear by John Vianney’s disrupted education, his undistinguished military career which saw him ranked as a deserter after two days, his contested admission to Holy Orders after failing every conventional exam: he was simply, entirely, faithfully to be a priest. No other human claim could be made. It makes St John Vianney a truly anti-clerical figure, no trace of the distorted caricature of clericalism is found in him. Pope Benedict reminded us in his letter to priests three years ago in a phrase the Curé would surely have approved of: what is necessary to be effective in our ministry is to be “heart to heart” with Christ. As he did this and lived this all Hell, we might say, broke loose! The opposition he faced in carrying-out his ministry is sometimes suppose to have only come from his encounters with supernatural evil, with the Devil, incidents he was always most reluctant to speak of. Yet the sadder reality is that the opposition often came from his parishioners and his own fellow clergy and was not without some malice.
It would have undermined any human confidence from the ostentatiously loud yawns of his parishioners in his first, stumbling efforts to preach the Gospel and the Catholic faith anew in his parish; the campaign of intimidation which pursued him with threats of violence and went as far as allegations suggesting his frail appearance resulted from a life of total debauchery. His fellow clergy most cruelly reminded him of his obvious deficiencies. A petition declaring him unfit, too ignorant for his office eventually came into St John Vianney’s hands, he looked at it and signed it himself! But the most striking example is a letter he received from a young parish priest telling him he was incapable of his office. The reply of this Saint came from his heart and it is worth repeating in its first two sentences: “My dear and most venerable confrere,” the Curé of Ars wrote back, “what good reason I have for loving you! You are the only person who really knows me.”
Heaven wanted us somehow to see where his rock-like confidence and, indeed, our own confidence must always be placed: in the grace, the gift of the priesthood. In the priesthood purely and simply to which a man by ordination must give himself wholeheartedly, completely, the Curé of Ars shows us. We must expect opposition and if true to our mission then we must all Hell will inevitably break loose. Yet what we must fear most of all is indifference, lukewarmness, the cooling of our hearts the Saint of Ars wishes to tells us. This leads us to a conclusion: a very disturbing conclusion for those sharing the ordained ministry that, as a recent biographer observed, St John Vianney shows us that any priest could do what he did in Ars by simply, completely being a priest! There is no other secret. The Curé believed this himself. When seeking to leave his parish he was quite convinced that not only would all continue as it had done but with a new priest (and to his mind a better priest!) the mission of the parish would go from strength to strength. We cannot help but feel sorry for those who followed him in succession as the parish priests of Ars! Tonight we do not seek the replication of this saint’s life and times but we do seek, as this relic so powerfully reminds us, to recognise what must be at the heart of our calling today. He wished us to see how simple, how direct our response should be. To a lady who once asked how best we should approach the Lord he replied with characteristic directness, “straight madam like a bullet!” To the Lord who calls us in this moment of history St John Vianney invites us all to give nothing less than our hearts for he shows us how then our mission can be accomplished! Amen.