Fr. Berg on the Year for Priests

Fr. John Berg, FSSP
Fr. John Berg, FSSP

This interior renewal of all priests is very important to the life of the Church, to the health of the whole Mystical Body. In the face of continued secularization and its rejection of God and the supernatural life, a corresponding lack of understanding and appreciation of the priesthood has inevitably developed. This has become immediately and unfortunately clear in the first reaction to the ‘Year for Priests’ by some, who have used it as an opportunity to speak out against such constitutive elements of the priesthood as celibacy and the office of governing.
In this atmosphere of negativity and confusion there is the heightened danger for the priest himself of losing his sense of identity as a priest. In his address to the Congregation for Clergy, where he first announced the ‘Year for Priests,’ the Holy Father alludes to just such a threat of ‘undervaluing the ministerial priesthood’: “The centrality of Christ brings with it the correct appreciation of the ministerial priesthood, without which neither the Eucharist nor, consequently, the mission and the Church herself would exist. In this connection it is necessary to watch so that the ‘new structures’ of pastoral organizations are not thought out for a time in which the ordained ministry is ‘undervalued,’ starting from an erroneous interpretation of the correct promotion of the laity, because in such a case the premises would be established for an ultimate dissolution of the ministerial priesthood and the eventual presumed ‘solutions’ would coincide dramatically with the real causes of the current problems linked to the ministry.”

All too often, wherever it finds a distinction between men, this secularized world tends to try to cultivate a state of continual class warfare or at least seeks to introduce the specter of ongoing status-rivalry. It posits struggles between men and women, employer versus employee, and even the laity against the priest as if everything could be reduced to a struggle for power.

Unfortunately, this perspective has encouraged some erroneously to conclude (either implicitly or explicitly) that the best way to underline the dignity of the laity is by diminishing the character of the priesthood in its three offices of teaching, sanctifying and governing. This is to reduce the relation of priest and laity to a conflict about subordination, ignoring the corresponding duties and responsibilities in each state which, having been established by Christ in constituting His Church, are in fact fully complementary.

This error is exemplified in the general practical reaction to the attempt of Vatican II to address the situation of the Church in the modern world and thus to aid the Church in finding the best means to reassert its voice in a world which had already become dramatically secularized by the 1960s. The actual goal in view was to alert the laity to their particular duty and role within human society and its culture (Lumen Gentium 30, 31). They would exercise an ecclesial service in which, through their own insertion into the world, politicians, lawyers, scientists, doctors and others who determine policy and direction in our society would have an opportunity to encounter in them the truth of the Gospel. In a secularized world very few of these would ever stumble first into a church to hear a sermon from the priest, but all of them would rub shoulders with the Catholic laity in the workplace and general society.

Unfortunately this signally important duty of the laity to bring the faith with them into the proper exercise of their state in life has become too often obscured or altogether forgotten in the scramble for ‘power’. The proper position and contribution of the laity to the life of the Church has been replaced in many minds with an idea that the best way to stress the dignity of the laity is to ‘clericalize’ them, especially within the sanctuary and in the context of the sacred liturgy. Such a simplistic response does nothing to promote understanding either the identity of the priest or the real and important duties of the faithful in the world. If the Church is to have its voice in the current culture it must have faithful clearly and carefully instructed and inspired to serve the Gospel by the way they live their lives in accord with their duties of state instead of being encouraged to evaluate their value as dependent on the attainment of elements proper to the clerical state.

The model for the priest offered by the Holy Father in this year is of course the patron of parish priests, St. John Marie Vianney, who spoke often to his flock about the great gift of the priesthood: “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.” He stressed the priesthood as essential to the salvation of souls: “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.” Finally, he marveled at the gift which he himself had received: “If the priest really knew what he was, he would die, not of fear, but of love.”

With all of this in mind, it seems especially opportune this year to speak about priestly identity. Just before the moment of his ordination the bishop exhorts the young man to do precisely this throughout his priesthood: Agnoscite quod agitis; imitamini quod tractatis; quatenus mortis Dominicae mysterium celebrantes, mortificare membra vestra a vitiis et concupiscentiis omnibus procuretis. “Understand that which you do; imitate that which you treat; as you celebrate the mystery of the death of the Lord, look to mortify yourself from all vice and every evil desire”

Given that “the object of the Fraternity of St. Peter is the sanctification of priests through the exercise of the priesthood, and in particular, to turn the life of the priest towards that which is essentially his raison d’être” (Constitutions, 7), it seems only fitting for the Fraternity to offer a small contribution in celebrating this year by providing sources which will help in the work of deepening our knowledge of the priesthood in order to promote a clearer understanding of this immense gift and thereby to encourage the corresponding response of generosity that it demands of the ordained.

Our Seminary in Wigratzbad will begin the academic year with a pilgrimage and Mass at the tomb of the Holy Curé of Ars in September. Along with other sources which we hope will be an aid for priests throughout the course of this year we would like to provide a series of meditations on aspects of the priesthood which Pope Benedict XVI himself emphasizes in his Apostolic Letter proclaiming the ‘Year for Priests.’ These aspects will be especially considered in light of the life of St. John Marie Vianney.

July-August : The office of sanctifying: the Mass and Confession
September-October : The office of teaching
November-December : The office of governing
January-February : The priest and poverty
March-April : The priest and chastity
May-June : The priest and obedience

May this series provide encouragement to the members of the Confraternity of St. Peter and all the faithful for pray ardently for priests. Most of all we hope that it will be a small aid to priests in understanding the riches of their vocation to bring about the “interior renewal” hoped for by the Holy Father, and the imitation of the Sacred Heart of Christ, the one High Priest. “For in the end, God is the only richness that men wish to find in a priest” (Benedict XVI, address to Cong. for Clergy).

June 19, 2009, Feast of the Most Sacred Heart, Opening of the Year for Priests

Very Rev. Fr John Berg
Superior General

July 8, 2009