The Pope Takes Questions, Part V

From August 6th. This question strikes me as a little impertinent, and I enjoyed the Pope's mild remonstrance: this isn't the place to open every file on the desk!

Fifth Question: Fr. Franz Pixner, Dean

Holy Father, my name is Franz Pixner and I am the pastor of two large parishes. I myself, together with many brother priests and also laity, am worried about the growing burden of pastoral care due to, for example, the situations which are being created: the heavy pressure of work, the lack of recognition, difficulties with the magisterium, solitude, the falling numbers not just of priests but also in the community of the faithful. Many wonder what God is asking of us, in this situation, and in what way the Holy Spirit wants to encourage us. In this context many questions arise, for example about priestly celibacy, the ordination of viri probati to the priesthood, the participation of various charisms, in particular the charisms of women, in pastoral life, and the employment of male and female collaborators formed in theology to confer baptism and to give homilies. The question also arises of how we priests, facing these new challenges, can support one another in fraternal community at the different levels of the diocese, dean’s regions, pastoral centers and parishes. I ask you, Holy Father, to give us some good counsel on all these questions. Thank you!

Benedict XVI

My dear dean, you’ve opened the entire binder of questions which concern and worry pastors and all of us in this time, and certainly you know that I’m not able right now to respond to them all. I imagine that you’ll have the chance to discuss all of this repeatedly with your bishop, and for our part we discuss these questions in the Synod of Bishops. All of us, I believe, need this dialogue among ourselves, a dialogue of the faith and of responsibility, in order to find the right way in this time, which is difficult in many respects for the faith and which puts great burdens on priests. No one has a ready recipe, and we are all searching together.
With this reservation, which is that together with you I find myself in the midst of this process of effort and interior struggle, I’ll try to say a few words, precisely as part of a much larger dialogue.
In my response, I’d like to consider two fundamental aspects. On the one hand, there is no substitute for the priest, for the meaning and the mode of priestly ministry today; on the other hand – and this stands out more clearly today than before – there’s also the multiplicity of charisms, and the fact that all of us together are the church, we build up the church, and for this reason we must commit ourselves to awakening the charisms. We must keep them alive together, and they in turn sustain the priest. He sustains the others, the others sustain him, and only in this complex and diverse unity can the church today grow toward the future.
There will always be a need for the priest who is completely dedicated to the Lord, and for this reason completely dedicated to humanity. In the Old Testament there was the call to sanctification which more or less corresponds to what we today intend with consecration, and also with priestly ordination; something was being consigned to God, and for this reason it was removed from the sphere of the ordinary and given to God. That meant, however, it was now at the disposition of all. Because it was removed and given to God, precisely for that reason it was no longer isolated but was lifted up for all. I think that this can also be said of priesthood in the church. It means that, on the one hand, we are consigned to the Lord, taken out of the common lot, but, on the other hand, we are consigned to Him so that in this way we can belong to him totally and totally belong to others. I think we must continually try to make this clear to young people – to those who are idealists, who want to do something for the community. We have to show that this ‘extraction from the ordinary’ means ‘consigned to the community,’ and that this is an important way, the most important way, to serve their brothers and sisters. Part of this is putting oneself completely at the disposition of the Lord, and thus finding oneself completely at the disposition of other human beings. I think celibacy is a fundamental expression of this totality, and for that reason it’s a great reminder in this world. It makes sense only if we truly believe in eternal life, if we believe that God commissions us and that we can be for him. There is no substitute for the priesthood, because in the Eucharist, beginning with God, the priest always builds up the church. In the sacrament of penance the priest confers purification upon us. In all the sacraments, the priesthood is involved in the “for” of Jesus Christ.
But I know well how difficult it is today – when a priest finds himself running not just a single parish that’s fairly easy to administer, but several parishes and pastoral centers; when he has to be available for this council and the other, and so on – how difficult it is to live such a life. I believe that in this situation it’s important to have the courage to limit oneself, and the clarity to set priorities. A fundamental priority of priestly life is being with the Lord, and thus having time for prayer. St. Charles Borromeo always said: ‘I couldn’t care for the souls of others if I let my own waste away. In the end, I wouldn’t be able to do anything for anyone else. You have to take time for your own being with God.’
I would therefore like to underline: as much as commitments may pile up, it’s a true priority to find every day, I would say, an hour of time for being in silence for the Lord and with the Lord, as the church proposes with the breviary, with the prayers of the day, in order to be able to enrich yourself interiorly, in order to return – as I said responding to the first question – to the rays of the breath of the Holy Spirit. On that basis, it’s important to get one’s priorities right. I have to learn to see what is truly essential, what absolutely requires my presence as a priest, which I can’t delegate to anyone. At the same time, I have to humbly accept those times when there are many things I should do, and for which my presence is requested, but which I can’t do because I know my own limits. I believe this kind of humility will be understood by the people.
Now I have to bring in the other aspect: to know how to delegate, to call people to collaboration. I have the impression that the people understand it, and for that matter appreciate it, when a priest spends time with God, when he takes seriously his duty to pray for others: We – they say – aren’t able to pray a great deal, you have to do it for me: at bottom, it’s your duty, so to speak, to be the one who prays for us. They want a priest who honestly commits himself to living with the Lord, and then being at the disposition of everyone – the suffering, the disabled, children and young people (these, I would say, are the priorities – but who also knows how to identify those things which others can do better than him, and who gives space to those charisms. I think of the movements, and multiple other forms of collaboration in the parish. On all these matters there should be conversation in the diocese itself, creating new forms and promoting exchanges. Rightly, you said that in this area it’s important to look beyond the parish towards the community of the diocese, for that matter towards the community of the universal church, which, for its part, must be concerned for what’s happening in the parish and what its consequences are the individual priest.
You also touched on another point which is very important in my eyes. Priests, even if they live geographically quite far from one another, are nevertheless a true community of brothers who must sustain one another and help one another. This communion among priests is today even more important. Precisely to avoid falling into isolation, into solitude with their sadnesses, it’s important for priests to meet one another regularly. It should be the duty of the diocese to establish how best to realize meetings of priests – today cars make moving around easier – so that we can experience being together, learning from one another, encouraging each other and helping each other, giving one another heart and consoling each other, so that inn this communion of the presbyterate, together with the bishop, we can render our best service to the local church. Now, this beautiful idea of communion, which everybody recognizes on a theological level, has to be translated into practice in the ways determined by the local church. It also has to be expanded, because no bishop is a bishop by himself, but rather a bishop within the College of Bishops, in the great communion of bishops. We have to commit ourselves to this communion. I think this is a particularly beautiful aspect of Catholicism: through the primacy, which is not an absolute monarchy, but a service to communion, we can have the certainty of this unity, so that just as in a grand community of many voices, everyone together can make the great music of the faith in this world.
Let’s pray to the Lord for consolation whenever we think we can’t go on; let’s sustain one another, and the Lord will help us to find together the right paths.