During yesterday’s General Audience, Pope Benedict XVI concluded his brief examination of the priest’s exercise of the tria munera Christi—the three offices of Christ—by focusing on the pastor’s duty to govern the portion of the Christian flock entrusted to him. Like many of the texts he composes, the Pope’s reflection is worth a slow and deliberate reading. His remarks yesterday offer the Church yet another penetrating reflection on priestly life and ministry that cuts through contemporary controversy and sees clearly to the essence of Christ’s priestly grace and its exercise in the Church. Step by step, the Holy Father carefully leads his reader to a proper understanding of the reason and purpose of the Church’s hierarchical structure, a mystery too often misunderstood today.
GENERAL AUDIENCE ADDRESS
May 26, 2010
Dear brothers and sisters,
The Year for Priests is coming to an end; that is why in the last catecheses I began to speak about the essential tasks of the priest, namely: to teach, to sanctify and to govern. I have already given two catecheses, one on the ministry of sanctification, above all the sacraments, and one on teaching. Hence, it remains for me today to speak about the mission of the priest to govern, to guide — with the authority of Christ, not his own — the portion of the people that God has entrusted to him.
In contemporary culture, how can such a dimension be understood, involving as it does the concept of authority and with its origin in the Lord’s own mandate to feed his flock? What is authority really for us Christians? The cultural, political and historical experiences of the recent past, above all the dictatorships in Eastern and Western Europe in the 20th century, made contemporary man suspicious in addressing this concept. A suspicion that, not rarely, is expressed in upholding as necessary an abandonment of all authority that does not come exclusively from men and is subject to them, controlled by them. But precisely a glance at the regimes that in the past century sowed terror and death, reminds us forcefully that authority, in every realm, if it is exercised without reference to the Transcendent, if it does away with the supreme Authority, which is God, ends inevitably by turning against man.
Hence, it is important to recognize that human authority is never an end, but always and only a means and that, necessarily and in every age, the end is always the person, created by God with his own intangible dignity and called to relationship with the Creator himself, in the earthly journey of existence and in eternal life. It is an authority exercised in responsibility before God, before the Creator. An authority thus understood, which has as its only objective to serve the true good of persons and to lucidity to the only Supreme Good that is God, not only is not foreign to men but, on the contrary, is a precious help in the journey toward full realization in Christ, toward salvation.
The Church is called and is committed to exercise this type of authority that is service, and she exercises it not in her own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ, who received from the Father all power in heaven and on earth (cf. Matthew 28:18). In fact, Christ feeds his flock through the pastors of the Church: It is he who guides it, protects it, corrects it, because he loves it profoundly.
But the Lord Jesus, Supreme Shepherd of our souls, willed that the Apostolic College, today the bishops in communion with the Successor of Peter, and priests, their most valuable collaborators, should participate in his mission to take care of the People of God, to be educators in the faith, guiding, animating and sustaining the Christian community or, as the Council says, seeing to it that the “faithful are led individually in the Holy Spirit to a development of their own vocation according to the Gospel, to a sincere and practical charity, and to that freedom with which Christ has made us free” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 6).
Hence, every pastor is the means through which Christ himself loves men: It is through our ministry — dear priests — it is through us that the Lord gathers souls, instructs them, protects them, and guides them. In his commentary to the Gospel of St. John, St. Augustine says: “may it be, therefore, a commitment of love to feed the flock of the Lord” (123,5); this is the supreme norm of conduct for the ministers of God, an unconditional love, such as that of the Good Shepherd, full of joy, open to all, attentive to neighbors and solicitous toward those far away (cf. St. Augustine, Discourse 340, 1; Discourse 46, 15), gentle with the weakest, the little ones, the simple, the sinners, to manifest the infinite mercy of God with the reassuring words of hope (cf. Id. Letter 95, 1).
If such a pastoral task is founded on the sacrament, nevertheless its efficacy is not independent of the personal existence of the presbyter. To be a pastor according to the heart of God (cf. Jeremiah 3:15) there must be a profound rootedness in living friendship with Christ, not only of the intelligence, but also of liberty and of the will, a clear awareness of the identity received in priestly ordination, an unconditional willingness to guide the entrusted flock where the Lord wishes and not in the direction that, apparently, seems more suitable and easy. That requires, first of all, the continuos and progressive willingness to let Christ himself govern the priestly existence of the presbyters. In fact, no one is really capable of feeding Christ’s flock if he does not live a profound and real obedience to Christ and to the Church, and the docility itself of the people to their priests depends on the docility of priests to Christ; because of this, at the base of pastoral ministry is always the personal and constant encounter with the Lord, profound knowledge of him, conforming one’s will to the will of Christ.
In the last decades, the adjective “pastoral” has often been used almost in opposition to the concept of “hierarchical,” exactly as the idea “communion” has also been interpreted in the very same opposition. This is perhaps the point where a brief observation might be useful on the word “hierarchy,” which is the traditional designation of the structure of sacramental authority in the Church, ordered according to the three levels of the sacrament of holy orders: episcopate, presbyterate, diaconate. Prevailing in public opinion, for this reality of “hierarchy,” is the element of subordination and the juridical element; because of this for many the idea of hierarchy appears in contrast to the flexibility and the vitality of the pastoral sense and even contrary to the humility of the Gospel. But this is a badly understood sense of hierarchy, caused also historically by abuses of authority and careerism, which are in fact abuses and do not stem from the very being of the reality of “hierarchy.”
The common opinion is that “hierarchy” is always something linked to domination and thus does not correspond to the true sense of the Church, of unity in the love of Christ. But, as I have said, this is a mistaken interpretation, which has its origin in abuses of history, but does not correspond to the true meaning of what the hierarchy is.
Let us begin with the word. Generally, it is said that the meaning of the world hierarchy is “sacred dominion,” but the real meaning is not this, it is “sacra origine,” that is: This authority does not come from man himself, but has its origin in the sacred, in the sacrament; hence it subjects the person to the vocation, to the mystery of Christ; it makes of the individual a servant of Christ and only insofar as he is a servant of Christ can he govern, guide for Christ and with Christ. Because of this, whoever enters in the sacred order of the sacrament, the “hierarchy,” is not an autocrat, but enters in a new bond of obedience to Christ: he is tied to him in communion with the other members of the sacred order, of the priesthood. And even the Pope — point of reference for all the other pastors and for the communion of the Church — cannot do what he wants; on the contrary, the Pope is custodian of the obedience to Christ, to his word taken up again in the “regula fidei,” in the Creed of the Church, and must proceed in obedience to Christ and to his Church. Hence, hierarchy implies a triple bond: first of all, the one with Christ and the order given by the Lord to his Church; then the bond with the other pastors in the one communion of the Church; and, finally, the bond with the faithful entrusted to the individual, in the order of the Church.
Hence, it is understood that communion and hierarchy are not contrary to one another, but condition each other. Together they are only one thing (hierarchical communion). Hence, the pastor is pastor precisely when guiding and protecting the flock and at times impeding its dispersal. Outside a clearly and explicitly supernatural vision, the task of governing proper to priests is not comprehensible. But, sustained by true love for the salvation of each member of the faithful, it is particularly precious and necessary also in our time. If the goal is to take the proclamation of Christ and lead men to the salvific encounter with him so that they will have life, the task of guiding is configured as a service lived in total donation for the upbuilding of the flock in truth and in sanctity, often going against the current and remembering that the one who is the greatest must be made the smallest, and one who governs, must be as one who serves (cf. Lumen Gentium, 27).
Where can a priest today get the strength for such exercise of his ministry, in full fidelity to Christ and to the Church, with a total dedication to the flock? There is only one answer: in Christ the Lord. Jesus’ way of governing is not that of domination, but it is the humble and loving service of the washing of the feet, and Christ’s kingship over the universe is not an earthly triumph, but finds its culmination on the wood of the cross, which becomes judgment for the world and point of reference for the exercise of authority that is the true expression of pastoral charity. The saints, and among them St. John Mary Vianney, exercised with love and dedication the task of caring for the portion of the People of God entrusted to them, showing also that they were strong and determined men, with the sole objective of promoting the true good of souls, able to pay in person, to the point of martyrdom, to remain faithful to the truth and to the justice of the Gospel.
Dear priests, “tend the flock of God in your midst, (overseeing) not by constraint but willingly, [...] be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2). Hence, do not be afraid to lead to Christ each of the brothers that he has entrusted to you, certain that every word and every attitude, if stemming from obedience to the will of God, will bear fruit; know how to live appreciating the merits and acknowledging the limits of the culture in which we find ourselves, with the firm certainty that the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest service that can be done to man. In fact, there is no greater good in this earthly life, than to lead men to God, reawaken faith, raise man from inertia and despair, to give the hope that God is near and guides personal history and that of the world.
This, in sum, is the profound and ultimate meaning of the task of governing that the Lord has entrusted to us. It is about forming Christ in believers, through that process of sanctification that is conversion of criteria, of the scale of values, of attitudes, to let Christ live in every faithful. St. Paul thus summarizes his pastoral action: “My children, for whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19).
Dear brothers and sisters, I would like to invite you to pray for me, the Successor of Peter who has a specific task in governing the Church of Christ, as well as for all your bishops and priests. Pray that we will be able to take care of all the sheep of the flock entrusted to us, also those who are lost. To you, dear priests, I address a cordial invitation to the closing celebrations of the Year for Priests, next June 9, 10 and 11, here in Rome: we will meditate on conversion and mission, on the priestly gift, sustained by all the People of God. Thank you!