Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis states: "Brother priests, we want to express our appreciation to you, who are our most important collaborators in the apostolate. Your priesthood is absolutely vital. There is no substitute for it. You carry the main burden of priestly ministry through your day-to-day service of the faithful. You are ministers of the Eucharist and ministers of God's mercy in the sacrament of Penance. It is you who bring comfort to people and guide them in difficult moments in their lives.
"We acknowledge your work and thank you once again, urging you to continue on your chosen path willingly and joyfully. No one should be discouraged as we are doing God's work; the same God who calls us, sends us and remains with us every day of our lives. We are ambassadors of Christ."
These words remind all of us that our faithful God continues to promise His people the effective presence of the pastors that must assemble and guide them, according to His heart. The Catholic tradition is sacramental, and full of the conviction that community life and God's grace are expressed in real actions instituted by Jesus Christ.
It is in the ministerial priesthood that we see visibly today Jesus' actions and witness to the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, Baptism, Scripture and in countless other ways. In the words of the Holy Father, without the ministerial priesthood there can be no Catholic Church.
It is through the ministerial priesthood that the faithful are guided to an awareness of their common priesthood and how to live it (cf Eph 4,11-12). For this reason the Second Vatican Council reminds parish priests of their obligation: "Parish priests ensure that the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is the centre and the culmination of the entire life of the Christian community" (Christus Dominus, n.30).
On one hand, the role of the priest is clear and never changing; however, in recent times there has been a significant change in what priests do and in the number of active clergy in ministry within the Catholic Church within Australia today.
If we reflect upon the role of the priest before the Second Vatican Council compared with it today we can see great differences along with the significantly fewer priests available for parish ministry. Today more than ever the Catholic priesthood faces huge challenges. The realities of fewer priests, the extra workload with the pressures and headaches of administration, the everyday struggles that have always characterised the human side of the Church are always challenging.
Yet with these challenges the priesthood continues to function even with fewer priests. Masses continue to be celebrated and parish life attended to, as are the sacraments and preaching, areas that many priests identify as among the greatest joys of their priesthood.
The majority of Catholics, both practising and non-practising, are probably unaware that there are significantly fewer priests having to carry the additional workload. This is why the Holy Father's Pastores Dabo Vobis is of such significance for all members of the Church, for it endorses and affirms the ministerial priesthood as essential for the Church's continued existence.
Today's priests continue to respond generously in their service of the People of God, often at great personal cost, and sometimes with limited acknowledgement or appreciation from those they serve through the power of the Sacraments and the joy of helping people connect with the sacred in their ordinary, everyday lives.
The priesthood needs to be celebrated, appreciated and acknowledged positively. It is truly a gift from God.
Fr Dennis W. Byrnes is the parish priest of All Saints Church, Kempsey, NSW (Lismore Diocese).