On 19 June, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI sent a Letter to the priests of the world for the Year for Priests, called to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of St Jean Vianney and to inaugurate a Jubilee Year for Priests.
The following are extracts from the Pope's Letter.
The saintly Curé of Ars would often say, 'The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus'. This touching expression makes us reflect, first of all, with heartfelt gratitude on the immense gift which priests represent, not only for the Church, but also for humanity itself.
I think of all those priests who quietly present Christ's words and actions each day to the faithful and to the whole world, striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts and their will, their sentiments and their style of life. How can I not pay tribute to their apostolic labours, their tireless and hidden service, their universal charity?
And how can I not praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests who, even amid difficulties and incomprehension, remain faithful to their vocation as 'friends of Christ', whom He has called by name, chosen and sent?
How can we not also think of all those priests who are offended in their dignity, obstructed in their mission and persecuted, even at times to offering the supreme testimony of their own blood?
There are also, sad to say, situations which can never be sufficiently deplored where the Church herself suffers as a consequence of infidelity on the part of some of her ministers. Then it is the world which finds grounds for scandal and rejection.
What is most helpful to the Church in such cases is not only a frank and complete acknowledgment 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, religious afire with love for God and for souls, and insightful, patient spiritual guides.
Curé of Ars
Here the teaching and example of St Jean Vianney can serve as a significant point of reference for us all. The Curé of Ars was quite humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: 'A good shepherd, a pastor after God's heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy ...
'Without the priest, the passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption on earth.'
The Curé arrived in Ars, a village of 230 souls, warned by his bishop beforehand that there he would find religious practice in a sorry state. He devoted himself completely to his parish's conversion, setting before all else the Christian education of the people in his care.
He immediately set about this patient and humble task of harmonising his life as a minister with the holiness of the ministry he had received, by deciding to 'live', physically, in his parish church.
He regularly visited the sick and families, organised popular missions and patronal feasts, collected and managed funds for his charitable and missionary works, embellished and furnished his parish church, cared for the orphans and teachers of the 'Providence' (an institute he founded), provided for the education of children, founded confraternities and enlisted lay persons to work at his side.
St Jean Vianney taught his parishioners primarily by the witness of his life. It was from his example that they learned to pray, halting frequently before the tabernacle for a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. 'One need not say much to pray well' - the Curé explained to them - 'We know that Jesus is there in the tabernacle: let us open our hearts to Him, let us rejoice in His sacred presence. That is the best prayer'.
He was convinced that the fervour of a priest's life depended entirely upon the Mass: 'The reason why a priest is lax is that he does not pay attention to the Mass! My God, how we ought to pity a priest who celebrates as if he were engaged in something routine!'
This deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Cross led him from the altar to the confessional. In France, at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion. Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence.
From St Jean Vianney we can learn to put our unfailing trust in the Sacrament of Penance, to set it once more at the centre of our pastoral concerns, and to take up the 'dialogue of salvation' which it entails.
In today's world, as in the troubled times of the Curé of Ars, the lives and activity of priests need to be distinguished by a forceful witness to the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI rightly noted, 'modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses'.
The celebration of the 150th anniversary of the death of St Jean Vianney (1859) follows upon the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Lourdes (1858).
To the Most Holy Virgin I entrust this Year for Priests. I ask her to awaken in the heart of every priest a generous and renewed commitment to the ideal of complete self-oblation to Christ and the Church which inspired the thoughts and actions of the saintly Curé of Ars.