Because the priest is sacramentally configured to Christ, he must be a man of prayer, as one ordained to continue the High Priestís mission
The prayer life of priests was the subject of the Holy Father's weekly catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 2 June. Speaking in Italian to thousands of pilgrims from every continent, the Pope stressed the need that priests have to meditate, celebrate Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, and frequently to receive the sacrament of Penance. Here is a translation of the Pope's address.
1. Today we return to some ideas already mentioned in the preceding catechesis in order to underscore further the demands and repercussions stemming from the reality of being a man consecrated to God, as we have described them. In a word we can say that, consecrated in the image of Christ, the priest must be a man of prayer like Christ himself. This concise definition embraces the whole spiritual life that gives the presbyter a true Christian identity, defines him as a priest and is the motivating principle of his apostolate.
The Gospel shows Jesus in prayer at every important moment of his mission. His public life, inaugurated at his Baptism, began with prayer (Lk 3:21). Even in the more intense periods of teaching the crowds, he reserved long intervals for prayer (Mk 1:35; Lk 5:16). Before choosing the Twelve he spent a night in prayer (Lk 6:12). He prayed before asking his Apostles for a profession of faith (Lk 9:18); he prayed alone on the mountain after the miracle of the loaves (Mt 14:23; Mk 6:46); he prayed before teaching his disciples to pray (Lk 11:1); he prayed before the extraordinary revelation of the Transfiguration, having ascended the mountain precisely to pray (Lk 9:28); he prayed before performing some miracles (Jn 11:41-42); he prayed at the Last Supper to entrust his future and that of his Church to the Father (Jn 17). In Gethsemane he offered the Father the sorrowful prayer of his afflicted and almost horrified soul (Mk 15:35-39 and par.), and on the cross he made his last invocations, full of anguish (Mt 27:46), but also of trustful abandon (Lk 23:46). It could be said that Christ's whole mission was animated with prayer, from the beginning of his messianic ministry to the supreme priestly act: the sacrifice of the cross, which was made in prayer.
Let priests be diligent in personal prayer
2. Those called to share Christ's mission and sacrifice find in his example the incentive to give prayer its rightful place in their lives, as the foundation, root and guarantee of holiness in action. Indeed, we learn from Jesus that a fruitful exercise of the priesthood is impossible without prayer, which protects the presbyter from the danger of neglecting the interior life for the sake of action and from the temptation of so throwing himself into work as to be lost in it.
After stating that "the norm of priestly life" is found in Christ's consecration, the source of his Apostles' consecration, the 1971 Synod of Bishops also applied the norm to prayer in these words: "Following the example of Christ who was continually in prayer, and led by the Holy Spirit in whom we cry, ĎAbba, Fatherí, priests should give themselves to the contemplation of the word of God and daily take the opportunity to examine the events of life in the light of the Gospel, so that having become faithful and attentive hearers of the Word they may become true ministers of the word. Let them be assiduous in personal prayer, in the Liturgy of the Hours, in frequent reception of the sacrament of Penance and especially in devotion to the mystery of the Eucharist" (cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1201).
3. For its part, the Second Vatican Council did not fail to remind priests of the need to be habitually united to Christ, and to this end it recommended diligence in prayer: "In various ways, in particular through the approved practice of mental prayer and the different forms of vocal prayer which they freely choose to practise, priests are to seek and perseveringly ask of God the true spirit of adoration which unites them with Christ, the Mediator of the covenant" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 18). As we see, among the possible forms of prayer the Council calls attention to mental prayer, which is a way to pray that is free from rigid formulas, does not require the recitation of words and responds to the Holy Spirit's lead in contemplating the divine mystery.
The Council recommended the Liturgy of the Hours
4. The 1971 Synod of Bishops insisted particularly on "contemplation of the word of God" (cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1201). One should not be frightened by the word "contemplation" and the spiritual commitment it entails. It could be said that, independently of forms and life-styles, among which the "contemplative life" remains the most splendid jewel of Christ's Bride, the Church, the call to hear and meditate on the word of God in a contemplative spirit is valid for everyone, so that hearts and minds may be nourished on it. This helps the priest to develop a way of thinking and of looking at the world with wisdom, in the perspective of its supreme purpose: God and his plan of salvation. The Synod says: "To examine the events of life in the light of the Gospel" (cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1201).
Herein lies supernatural wisdom, above all as a gift of the Holy Spirit, who makes it possible to exercise good judgement in the light of the "ultimate reasons", the "eternal things". Wisdom thus becomes the principal factor in identifying with Christ in thought, judgement, the evaluation of any matter however large or small, so that the priest (like every Christian, only more so) reflects the light, obedience to the Father, practical zeal, rhythm of prayer and action and, one could almost say, the spiritual breath of Christ. This goal can be reached by allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit in meditating on the Gospel, which fosters a deeper union with Christ, helps one to enter ever further into the Master's thought and strengthens the personal attachment to him. If the priest is diligent in this he remains more easily in a state of conscious joy arising from his perception of the intimate, personal fulfilment of the word of God, which he must teach others. In fact, as the Council says of presbyters, "by seeking more effective ways of conveying to others what they have meditated on they will savour more profoundly the 'unsearchable riches of Christ' (Eph 3:8) and 'the manifold wisdom of God' (v. 10)" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 13). Let us pray the Lord to grant us a great number of priests who in their prayer life discover, assimilate and taste the wisdom of God, and like the Apostle Paul (cf. ibid.), sense the supernatural inclination to proclaim and bestow it as the true reason for their apostolate (cf. Pastores dabo vobis, n. 47).
5. In speaking of the priests' prayer, the Council also mentions and recommends the Liturgy of the Hours, which joins the priest's personal prayer to that of the Church. "In reciting the Divine Office", it says, "they lend their voice to the Church which perseveres in prayer in the name of the whole human race, in union with Christ who 'always lives to make intercession for them' (Heb 7:25)" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 13).
By virtue of the mission of representation and intercession entrusted to him, the presbyter is formally obliged to this form of "official" prayer, delegated by the Church and made in the name not only of believers but of all mankind and, one could say, of the whole universe (cf. CIC, can. 1174, §1). Sharing in Christ's priesthood, he makes intercession for the needs of the Church, the world and every human being, knowing that he represents and expresses the universal voice that sings the glory of God and seeks the salvation of mankind.
Priests must frequently use sacrament of Penance
6. It is good to recall that, in order to give greater assurance to their prayer life and to strengthen and renew it by drawing on its sources, priests are asked by the Council to devote (in addition to time for the daily practice of prayer) longer periods to intimacy with Christ: "They should be glad to take time for spiritual retreat and should have a high regard for spiritual direction" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 18). This will serve as a friendly and fatherly hand to help them on the way. As they experience the benefits of this guidance, they will be all the more ready to offer this help, in turn, to those who are entrusted to their pastoral ministry. This will be a great resource for many people today, especially young people, and will play a decisive role in solving the problem of vocations, as the experience of so many generations of priests and religious show.
In the preceding catechesis we already mentioned the importance of the sacrament of Penance. The Council urges the presbyter to make "frequent use" of it. Obviously whoever exercises the ministry of reconciling Christians with the Lord through the sacrament of forgiveness must himself have recourse to this sacrament. He will be the first to acknowledge that he is a sinner and to believe in the divine pardon expressed by sacramental absolution. In administering the sacrament of forgiveness, this awareness of being a sinner will help him better to understand sinners. Does not the Letter to the Hebrews say of the priest, taken from among men: "He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness" (Heb 5:2)? In addition, the personal use of the sacrament of Penance motivates the priest to make himself more available to administering this sacrament to the faithful who request it. This too is an urgent pastoral need in our day.
7. The presbyters' prayer, however, reaches its apex in the Eucharistic celebration, "their principal function" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 13). This is such an important point for the priest's prayer life that I want to devote the next catechesis to it.
L'Osservatore Romano June 9, 1993