During the month of August, the Church celebrates the feast days of St Jean Vianney, the famous 19th Century Frenchman who was made patron saint of priests, as well as St Maximilian Kolbe, the heroic Polish Franciscan who was martyred in Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941.
At a time when the priesthood is being assailed from all sides, their witness shines forth as a model of what the priesthood truly is.
The essential function of the priest, in both the Old Testament and the New, is to offer sacrifice to God. In the Catholic tradition, the priest stands "in persona Christi" in offering the sacrifice of the Mass, fulfilling the command which Jesus gave to the Apostles and which they transmitted to their successor priests and bishops, "Do this in memory of Me."
But the priesthood is more than this. Christ gave to the Apostles the certain power to forgive sins, no matter how grave, to preach and baptise in His name, and to dispense the sacraments, so that every person might be prepared in this life for the eternal reward of the next. It is no exaggeration to say that the priesthood is indispensable to salvation, and that without the priesthood, there is no Church.
A key to obtaining holy and inspiring priests is the quality of seminary training. Recognising that the scandalous behaviour of some priests had caused the greatest injury to the Church, St Pius X, whose feast day is also celebrated in August, directed that seminarians must show that their lives will be characterised by firmness of faith and high standards of personal morality.
One reason (among others) for the recent problems afflicting the priesthood is that St Pius X's exhortation seems to have been forgotten, with personal holiness and sound moral judgement no longer regarded by some as indispensable in priestly formation. Recent reforms in seminary training, in Australia at least, will help address these problems.
In the meantime, we must recognise that as priests are subject to the normal range of human weaknesses, they need the continuing prayers and support of lay people, their fellow priests and bishops.
- Peter Westmore is Publisher of AD2000