Those to whom the Lord gives the mission of being shepherds through priestly ordination are called to embody the heroic love of Jesus himself
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 7 July, the Holy Father continued his catechesis on priestly spirituality, this week discussing the priest as a man of charity who models himself on Christ, the Good Shepherd. The address is the 64th in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. In the preceding catecheses devoted to presbyters we have already mentioned several times the importance of fraternal charity in their lives. Now we want to discuss this more explicitly, beginning with the very root of this charity in the priest's life. This root is found in his identity as a "man of God". The First Letter of John teaches us that "God is love" (4:8). Since he is a "man of God" the priest must be a man of charity. He would have no true love for God (nor even true piety or true apostolic zeal) without love for his neighbour.
Jesus himself showed the connection between love for God and love for neighbour, since "loving the Lord, your God, with all your heart" cannot be separated from "loving your neighbour" (cf. Mt 22:36-40). Consistently, therefore, the author of the Letter cited above reasons: "This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother" ( 1 Jn 4:21).
2. Speaking of himself, Jesus describes this love as that of a "good shepherd" who does not seek his own interest, his own advantage, like a hired hand. He notes that the Good Shepherd loves his sheep to the point of giving his own life (cf. Jn 10:11, 15). Thus it is a love to the point of heroism.
We know to what extent this was realized in the life and death of Jesus. Those who, in virtue of priestly ordination, receive the mission of shepherds are called to present anew in their lives and witness to with their actions the heroic love of the Good Shepherd.
3. In Jesus' life one can clearly see the essential features of the "pastoral charity" that he had for his brothers and sisters, "men", and that he asks his brother "shepherds" to imitate. Above all, his love was humble: "I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29). Significantly, he urges his Apostles to renounce their personal ambitions and any spirit of domination so as to imitate the example of the "Son of Man" who "did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28; cf. Pastores dabo vobis, nn. 21-22).
As a result the mission of shepherd cannot be carried out with a superior or authoritarian attitude (cf. 1 Pt 5:3), which would irritate the faithful and perhaps drive them from the fold. In the footsteps of Christ the Good Shepherd, we must be formed in a spirit of humble service (cf. CCC, n. 876).
Jesus also gives the example of a love filled with compassion, i.e., a sincere, active sharing in the sufferings and problems of the faithful. He feels compassion for the crowd without a shepherd (cf. Mt 9:36); for this reason he is concerned to guide them by his words of life and begins to "teach them many things" (Mk 6:34). With this same compassion he healed many of the sick (Mt 14:14), as a sign of his intention to give spiritual healing; he multiplies the loaves for the hungry (Mt 15:32; Mk 8:2), an eloquent symbol of the Eucharist; he is moved by the sight of human misery (Mt 20:34, Mk 1:41), and wants to bring healing; he shared the pain of those who mourn the loss of a dear relative (Lk 7:13; Jn 11:33-35); he shows mercy even to sinners (cf. Lk 15:1-2), in union with the Father who is full of compassion for the prodigal son (cf. Lk 15:20) and prefers mercy to ritual sacrifice (cf. Mt 9:10-13); and there are cases in which he rebukes his adversaries for not understanding his mercy (Mt 12: 7).
4. In this regard it is significant that the Letter to the Hebrews, in the light of Jesus' life and death, again sees an essential feature of the authentic priesthood in solidarity and compassion. Indeed, it reaffirms that the High Priest, "taken from among men and made their representative before God, ... is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring" (Heb 5:1-2). Therefore, the eternal Son of God too "had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest before God to expiate the sins of the people" (ibid., 2:17). As a result our great consolation as Christians is knowing that "we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin" (ibid., 4:15).
The presbyter thus finds in Christ the model of a true love for the suffering, the poor, the afflicted and especially for sinners, because Jesus is close to human beings with a life like our own; he endured trials and tribulations like our own; therefore he is full of compassion for us and "is able to deal patiently with erring sinners" (Heb 5:2). Finally, he is able effectively to help those sorely tried: "Since he was himself tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are tempted" (ibid., 2:18).
Priest reproduces in himself the Good Shepherd's love
5. Continuing in this light of divine love, the Second Vatican Council presents priestly consecration as a source of pastoral charity: "The priests of the New Testament are, it is true, by their vocation to ordination, set apart in some way in the midst of the People of God, but this is not in order that they should be separated from that people or from anyone, but that they should be completely consecrated to the task for which God chooses them. They could not be the servants of Christ unless they were witnesses and dispensers of a life other than that of this earth.
"On the other hand they would be powerless to serve men if they remained aloof from their life and circumstances" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 3). At issue are two demands on which the two aspects of priestly behaviour are based: for presbyters, "their very ministry makes a special claim on them not to conform themselves to this world; still it requires at the same time that they should live among men in this world and that as good shepherds they should know their sheep and should also seek to lead back those who do not belong to this fold, so that they too may hear the voice of Christ and there may be one fold and one Shepherd" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 3). This explains Paul's intense activity in collecting aid for the poorest communities (cf. 1 Cor 16:1-4), and the recommendation made by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews to practise a sharing of possessions (koinonÍ a) in supporting one another as true followers of Christ (cf. Heb 13:16).
6. According to the Council, the presbyter who wants to be conformed to the Good Shepherd and reproduce in himself his charity for his brothers and sisters will have to be committed to some very important tasks today, even more so than in other times: to know his own sheep (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 3), especially by contacts, visits, relations of friendship, planned or occasional meetings, etc., always for a reason and with the spirit of a good shepherd; to welcome, as Jesus did, the people who come to him, remaining ready and able to listen, wanting to understand, open and genuinely kind, engaging in deeds and activities to aid the poor and unfortunate; to cultivate and practise those "virtues which are rightly held in high esteem in human relations. Such qualities are goodness of heart, sincerity, strength and constancy of mind, careful attention to justice, courtesy, etc." (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 3), as well as patience, readiness to forgive quickly and generously, kindness, affability, the capacity to be obliging and helpful without playing the benefactor. There are a myriad of human and pastoral virtues which the fragrance of Christ's charity can and must determine in the priest's conduct (cf. Pastores dabo vobis, n. 23).
Grace of the altar must spread to the priest's activities
7. Sustained by charity, the presbyter can, in the exercise of his ministry, follow the example of Christ, whose food was to do his Father's will. In loving submission to this will the priest will find the principle and source of unity in his life. The Council states that priests can achieve this unity "by joining themselves with Christ in the recognition of the Father's will.... In this way, by adopting the role of the Good Shepherd they will find in the practice of pastoral charity itself the bond of priestly perfection which will achieve unity in their life and activity" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 14). The source on which to draw this charity is always the Eucharist, which is "the centre and root of the priest's whole life"; therefore, his soul must strive "to make his own what is enacted on the altar of sacrifice" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 14).
The grace and charity of the altar thus spreads to the pulpit, the confessional, the parish office, the school, recreational activities, homes and streets, hospitals, public transportation and the communication media, wherever the priest has the opportunity to carry out his task as a shepherd: in every case it is his Mass which is spread; it is his spiritual union with Christ the Priest and Victim that leads him to be, as St Ignatius of Antioch said, "God's wheat in order to become pure bread" for the good of his brothers and sisters (cf. Epist. ad Romanos, IV, 1).
L'Osservatore Romano July 14, 1993