“In the Church, Christ Is Never Absent”
This is a translation of the address Pope Benedict XVI gave on Wednesday 14th April 2010 during the general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
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In this Easter season, which leads us to Pentecost and also directs us to the celebrations closing the Year for Priests, planned for next June 9, 10 and 11, I cherish dedicating again some reflections to the topic of the ordained ministry, pausing on the fruitful reality of the priest’s configuration to Christ the Head, in the exercise of the three “munera” he receives, that is, the three offices of teaching, sanctifying and governing.
To understand what it means to act “in persona Christi Capitis” — in the person of Christ the Head — on the part of the priest, and to understand also what consequences stem from the task of representing the Lord, especially in the exercise of these three offices, it is necessary to clarify first of all what is intended by [the word] “representation.” The priest represents Christ. What does it mean, what does it signify to “represent” someone? In ordinary language it means — generally — to receive a delegation from a person to be present in his place, to speak and act in his place, because the one who is represented is absent from the concrete action.
We ask ourselves: Does the priest represent the Lord in the same way? The answer is no, because in the Church, Christ is never absent, the Church is his living body and he is the Head of the Church, present and active in it. Christ is never absent; in fact he is present in a way totally free of the limits of space and time, thanks to the event of the Resurrection, which we contemplate in a special way in this Easter season.
Hence, the priest who acts “in persona Christi Capitis” and in representation of the Lord, never acts in the name of someone who is absent, but in the very Person of the Risen Christ, who makes himself present with his truly effective action. He really acts and does what the priest could not do: the consecration of the wine and the bread so that they will really be the presence of the Lord, [and] the absolution of sins. The Lord makes present his own action in the person who carries out such gestures. These three tasks of the priest — which Tradition has identified in the different mission words of the Lord: teach, sanctify, govern — in their distinction and in their profound unity, are a specification of this effective representation. They are in reality the three actions of the Risen Christ, the same one who today teaches in the Church and in the world and thus creates faith, gathers his people, creates the presence of truth and really builds the communion of the universal Church; and sanctifies and guides.
The first task of which I wish to speak today is the “munus docendi,” namely, that of teaching. Today, at the height of the educational emergency, the “munus docendi” of the Church, exercised concretely through the ministry of each priest, is particularly important. We live amid great confusion about the fundamental choices of our life and the questions about what the world is, from where it comes, where we are going, what we must do to carry out the good, how we must live, what are the really pertinent values. In relation to all this there are so many contrasting philosophies, which arise and disappear, creating confusion about the fundamental decisions, how to live, why we do not know more, ordinarily, from what thing and for what thing we were made and where we are going.
Fulfilled in this situation is the word of the Lord, who has compassion on the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd (cf. Mark 6:34). The Lord had made this confirmation when he saw the thousands of people who followed him in the desert because, in the diversity of currents of that time, they no longer knew the true meaning of Scripture, what God was saying. The Lord, moved by compassion, interpreted the word of God, he himself is the Word of God, and thus he gave guidance. This is the function in persona Christi of the priest: to render present, in the confusion and disorientation of our times, the light of the Word of God, the light that is Christ himself in this our world. Hence the priest does not teach his own ideas, a philosophy that he himself has invented, has found and that pleases him; the priest does not speak of himself, does not speak by himself, to create perhaps admirers or his own party; he does not say his own things, his own inventions, but, in the confusion of all the philosophies, the priest teaches in the name of Christ present, he proposes the truth that is Christ himself, his word, his way of living and of going forward. True for the priest is what Christ said of himself: “My teaching is not mine” (John 7:16); that is, Christ does not propose himself, but, as Son, is the voice, the word of the Father. The priest must also speak and act like this: “My doctrine is not mine, I do not propagate my ideas or what pleases me, but I am the mouth and heart of Christ and make present this unique and common doctrine, which the universal Church has created and which creates eternal life.”
This fact — that the priest does not invent, does not create and does not proclaim one’s own ideas inasmuch as the doctrine he proclaims is not his, but Christ’s — does not mean, on the other hand, that he is neutral, almost like a spokesman who reads a text which, perhaps, he does not appropriate. Also in this regard Christ’s example is applicable, who said: I am not of myself and I do not live for myself, but I come from the Father and I live for the Father. That is why, in this profound identification, the doctrine of Christ is that of the Father and he himself is one with the Father. The priest who proclaims the word of Christ, the faith of the Church and not his own ideas, must also say: I do not live from myself and for myself, but I live with Christ and from Christ and because of this all that Christ has said to us becomes my word, even if it is not mine. The life of the priest must be identified with Christ and, in this way, the word that is not his own becomes, however, a profoundly personal word. On this topic, St. Augustine said, speaking of priests: “And we, what are we? Ministers (of Christ), his servants; because all that we contribute to you is not ours, but we bring it out from his storeroom. And we also live from it, because we are servants like you” (Discourse 229/E, 4).
The teaching that the priest is called to give, the truth of the faith, must be internalized and lived in an intense personal spiritual journey, so that the priest really enters into a profound, interior communion with Christ himself. The priest believes, accepts and tries to live, first of all as his own, all that the Lord has taught and the Church has transmitted, in that journey of identification with the very ministry of which St John Mary Vianney is an exemplary witness (cf. Letter for the proclamation of the Year for Priests). “United in the very same charity — affirms again St. Augustine — we are all hearers of him who is for us in Heaven the only Teacher” (Enarr. in Ps. 131, 1, 7).
Consequently it is not rare that the voice of the priest might seem the “voice of one crying in the desert” (Mark 1:3), but precisely in this consists his prophetic force: in not ever being homologated, or homologable to some prevailing culture or mentality, but in showing the unique novelty capable of bringing about an authentic and profound renewal of man, namely that Christ is the Living One, and the nearby God, the God who operates in the life and for the life of the world and gives us truth, the way to live.
In the careful preparation of his Sunday preaching, without excluding the weekday preaching, in the effort of catechetical formation, in schools, in academic institutions and, in a special way, through that unwritten book that is his own life, the priest is always “docent,” he teaches. But not with the presumption of one who imposes his own truth, rather with the humble and happy certainty of one who has found the Truth, who has been gripped and transformed, and because of this, can do nothing less than proclaim it. In fact, no one can choose the priesthood for himself, it is not a way to arrive at security in life, to win a social position; no one can give it to him, or seek it by himself. The priesthood is response to the call of the Lord, to his will, to become heralds not of a personal truth but of his truth.
Dear brother priests, the Christian people ask to hear from our teachings the genuine ecclesial doctrine, by which to be able to renew the encounter with Christ who gives joy, peace, salvation. Sacred Scripture, the writings of the Fathers and doctors of the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church constitute, in this regard, indispensable points of reference in the exercise of the munus docendi, so essential for conversion, the journey of faith and the salvation of men. “Priestly ordination means: being immersed […] in the Truth” (Homily for the Chrism Mass, April 9, 2009), that Truth which is not simply a concept or a whole of ideas to transmit and assimilate, but which is the Person of Christ, with which, by which and in which to live. And thus, necessarily, is also born the timeliness and comprehensibility of the proclamation. Only this awareness of a Truth made Person in the incarnation of the Son justifies the missionary mandate: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Only if it is the Truth is it destined to every creature, it is not an imposition of something, but the opening of the heart to that for which it is created.
Dear brothers and sisters, the Lord entrusted a great task to priests: to be heralds of his Word, of the Truth that saves; to be his voice in the world to carry that which helps the true good of souls and the authentic journey of faith (cf. Corinthians 6:12). May St. John Mary Vianney be an example for all priests. He was a man of great wisdom and heroic strength in resisting the cultural and social pressures of his time to be able to lead souls to God: simplicity, fidelity and immediacy were the essential characteristics of his preaching, the transparency of his faith and of his holiness. The Christian people were edified and, as happens with authentic teachers of every era, recognized in him the light of Truth. Recognized in him, in a word, was that which must always be recognized in a priest: the voice of the Good Shepherd.