PASTORAL CHARITY, THE HEART OF THE VOCATION OF THE PRIEST
HOMILY – MASS OF ORDINATION TO THE PRIESTHOOD
June 7, 2014
(Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4; John 10:11-16)
The earliest examples of Christian art we have are wall paintings found in the catacombs of Rome. There we see the first image of our Lord depicted in Christian art: the figure of a young man with a lamb on his shoulders and feeding lambs at his side – precisely the image of the Good Shepherd which we hear Jesus ascribe to himself in the Gospel reading just proclaimed. From the very beginning, this has been one of the most beloved images our Lord uses to describe himself in the gospels.
It is a beloved image which goes all the way back to Old Testament times: there, through His prophets, God refers to Himself as the Shepherd of Israel. But God had human instruments. Recall the story of the choosing and anointing of David to be king. He was the youngest of Jesse’s sons, not even present when the prophet Samuel came to him to determine which one of Jesse’s sons God had chosen. No, David was off tending the sheep. He is the shepherd-king; the role of a king is to rule, to govern. But the kings of God’s people were to govern as a shepherd caring for his sheep. This is indicated even in the very language spoken by God’s original chosen people, in which the word that means “to rule” also means “to shepherd.” We just prayed the most beloved of all psalms: “The Lord is my shepherd.” In Hebrew, this means, “The Lord rules me.”
Now, this might sound quite strange to our ears, we who are English speakers in this contemporary culture. But let us think again of who this Good Shepherd is who rules us: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I know mine and mine know me … and I will lay down my life for the sheep.” This is good! It is also how we make sense of the fact that in our religious tradition the head is the servant.
I am very grateful to the faculty of Saint Patrick’s Seminary for the formation they give to our future priests. I am grateful for many things, but one of them is the solid grounding the seminarians receive in the foundational document on priestly formation, Pastores dabo vobis. There, St. John Paul II explains at length the key to understanding how it is that the head is the servant: it is pastoral charity. He explains that Jesus presents himself as the Good Shepherd because “[h]is whole life is a continual manifestation of his ‘pastoral charity’” (n. 22). Jesus lives out this pastoral charity through the compassion he shows to the crowds, feeding them spiritually and physically, healing them, teaching them, and, ultimately, offering his life for them through his death and Resurrection – literally laying down his life for them. This pastoral charity of Jesus gives to the priest the very meaning and definition of his identity: “By virtue of their consecration, priests are configured to Jesus the good shepherd and are called to imitate and to live out his own pastoral charity” (n. 22).
Charity is love in action, the practical, concrete ways that love is lived out and realized. For the priest, the highest expression of this kind of love in his vocation is his pastoral charity, which John Paul defines as “the virtue by which we imitate Christ in his self-giving and service.” He says that pastoral charity “is not just what we do, but our gift of self, which manifests Christ’s love for his flock. Pastoral charity determines our way of thinking and acting, our way of relating to people. It makes special demands on us” (n. 23; emphasis added).
It makes special demands on us. Those special demands manifest themselves in a whole myriad of ways: how the priest spends his time, his attention to detail in caring for the people of God, meeting them in their moments of need, instructing them, preaching to them, leading them in divine worship, being truly and totally present to them. This is the way in which he lives his Priesthood with integrity, the way in which he fulfills what John Paul calls “the essential and permanent demand for unity between the priest’s interior life and all his external actions and the obligations of the ministry” (n. 23).
Total Gift of Self
For the priest, a most particular and great demand which pastoral charity requires of him is priestly celibacy. I fear that this ancient discipline of the Church is sorely misunderstood and under-appreciated in our time, seen as just a practical provision so that the priest can have more time to do his job, or, even worse, as something oppressive. Rather, this is a way in which the Church seeks to preserve our understanding of the truth that the Priesthood is a vocation, and not simply a job.
In Pastores dabo vobis, St. John Paul makes a particularly compelling statement on the rationale for this extraordinary commitment of the priest. He says:
It is especially important that the priest understand the theological motivation of the Church’s law on celibacy. Inasmuch as it is a law, it expresses the Church’s will …. But the will of the Church finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ the head and spouse of the Church. The Church, as the spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her head and spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to his Church and expresses the priest’s service to the Church in and with the Lord [n. 29].
Total and exclusive: this is the love of spouses, which opens us up to the true meaning of the priest’s commitment to celibacy. As John Paul also says in this passage:
In … celibacy, chastity retains its original meaning, that is, of human sexuality lived as a genuine sign of and precious service to the love of communion and gift of self to others. This … makes evident, even in the renunciation of marriage, the ‘nuptial meaning’ of the body through a communion and a personal gift to Jesus Christ and his Church which prefigures and anticipates the perfect and final communion and self-giving of the world to come.
This is a profound truth of our human nature: chastity exists for the sake of communion, it enables the individual to live his or her vocation as the way God calls that individual to love according to what love truly is. In the words of John Paul II – to cite that phrase of his used here and which he used repeatedly in all of his teachings, and is the key to understanding his thought – the true meaning of love is the “gift of self.” The free and total gift of self is what love is and is how we attain true happiness in life, and chastity is what enables us to get there. This is why, when treating the three evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience), the Second Vatican Council taught that, of the three, chastity is preeminent (Lumen Gentium, n. 42).
For the priest this means that his pastoral charity, as expressed and lived out in his priestly celibacy – a total and exclusive gift of himself to Christ’s bride, the Church – is paramount to all he is and does.
This brings into everyday reality those “special demands” that pastoral charity places on him. That is, it doesn’t simply remain at the level of theory, but is played out in very real, concrete ways for the sake of his own personal holiness, so that he can then in turn sanctify his people. It is one’s vocation that brings the demands of love down into the concrete.
Perhaps the prophet Jeremiah already foresaw this at the time of his call, and therefore is why he was resistant to that call. He tried to find excuses to get out of it – he doesn’t know how to speak, he’s too young, and all that. But in the end he can’t fight it; as with everyone else, God put that vocation in his heart at the very first moment of his existence, and to turn away from it would be to violate his very identity, no matter how high the price. And for Jeremiah, that was a very, very high price.
So it is with the priest: the priest whose Priesthood has become a job has turned his back on his vocation, he has become the “hired man, who is not a shepherd” whom our Lord describes in the Gospel, who “works for pay and has no concern for the sheep”; he does not see the sheep as his own, and when he “sees a wolf coming [he] leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them.” This can happen easily, even imperceptibly. This happens when those special demands seem just overwhelming; it is then that the priest becomes stingy with his time, stingy with his affection, selective in what he does. He easily refuses to suffer for the sake of the Gospel, in whatever form of suffering that might take, whether simply inconvenience or ridicule or loss of popularity. Ultimately, the priest ends up not knowing his people. Yet, charity is love, and love means presence. When you love someone, the most important, most delightful, thing is simply to be with them. The essence of pastoral charity is pastoral presence.
In his homily at the ordination of priests a month ago, Pope Francis cited the well-known sermon of Saint Augustine on this point. He said:
[C]onsider what St Augustine said regarding pastors who seek to please themselves, who use God’s sheep to feed and clothe themselves, to invest themselves with the majesty of a ministry they knew not whether it was of God. Finally, participating in the mission of Christ, Head and Shepherd, in filial communion with your Bishop, seek to bring the faithful together into one single family, so that you may lead it to God the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Keep always before your eyes the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and who came to seek out and save those that were lost.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our priests in the Archdiocese who do precisely that, who keep the example of the Good Shepherd before their eyes. In the opportunities I have had to be with you in your parishes, I have seen your pastoral charity in action, your presence to your people and the positive rapport you have with them. I have been encouraged by the love our people have for their parish and their priests, and their energetic commitment to the wide array of ministries in which they are involved. Thank you!
And to you, my dear brothers and sons who are about to be ordained priests: it is now for you to continue this legacy. You are no longer your own. No, you now belong to Christ and his Church; you belong totally and exclusively to Christ’s bride, with all that this vocation demands. You will live this out in concrete, day-to-day ways with those brothers and sisters of yours you are called to serve with your pastoral charity. Love them with the love of Jesus Christ, and at all times live, proclaim and witness to his truth in charity, in compassion, laying down your life for them as the Good Shepherd for his sheep.