Acting in the name of Christ, presbyters administer the sacraments which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, bestow the new life of grace
The mission of priests in the sacramental ministry was the topic of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 5 May. In this 57th talk in the series on the mystery of the Church, the Pope returned to his discussion on the mission of presbyters that he had begun on 31 March. Here is a translation of the Holy Father's address, which was given in Italian.
1. In speaking of the evangelizing mission of presbyters, we already saw that in the sacraments and through the sacraments a methodical and effective instruction on the word of God and the mystery of salvation can be imparted to the faithful. In fact, the priest's evangelizing mission is essentially related to the ministry of sanctification through the sacraments (cf. CCC, n. 893).
The ministry of the word cannot be limited merely to the immediate, proper effect of the word. Evangelization is the first of those "apostolic endeavours" which, according to the Council, have as their goal "that all who are made children of God by faith and Baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in the Sacrifice and to eat the Lord's Supper" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10). And the 1971 Synod of Bishops stated: "The ministry of the word, if rightly understood, leads to the sacraments and to the Christian life, as it is practised in the visible community of the Church and in the world" (cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1179).
Any attempt to reduce the priestly ministry to preaching alone or to teaching would misunderstand an essential aspect of this ministry. The Council of Trent had already rejected the proposal to make the priesthood consist merely of the ministry of preaching the Gospel (cf. DS 1771). Since some, even recently, have too one-sidedly extolled the ministry of the word, the 1971 Synod of Bishops stressed the unbreakable covenant between word and sacrament. It said: "The sacraments are celebrated in conjunction with the proclamation of the word of God and thus develop faith by strengthening it with grace. They cannot be considered of slight importance, since through them the word is brought to fuller effect, namely communion in the mystery of Christ" (cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1180).
No division between preaching and sacramental ministry
2. Regarding this unitary nature of the evangelizing mission and the sacramental ministry, the 1971 Synod did not hesitate to say that a division between evangelization and the celebration of the sacraments "would divide the heart of the Church to the point of imperiling the faith" (cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1181).
The Synod, however, recognizes that for each priest there can be different ways of concretely applying this principle of unity, "for the exercise of the priestly ministry in practice needs to take different forms in order better to meet special or new situations in which the Gospel is to be proclaimed" (Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1182).
A wise application of the principle of unity must also take into account the charisms each presbyter has received. If some have a particular talent for preaching or teaching they should use it for the good of the Church. It is helpful to recall here the case of St Paul, who, although convinced of the need for Baptism and even having occasionally administered this sacrament, nevertheless thought of himself as having been sent to preach the Gospel and devoted his efforts primarily to this form of ministry (cf. 1 Cor 1:14, 17). In his preaching, however, he did not lose sight of the essential task of building up the community (cf. 1 Cor 3:10), which this preaching must serve.
This means that today too, as throughout the history of the pastoral ministry, the division of labour can stress preaching or worship and the sacraments, according to the individual's abilities and the assessment of the situation. However, one can never doubt that for presbyters teaching and preaching, even at the highest academic and scholarly level, must always retain their purpose of serving the ministry of sanctification through the sacraments.
3. In any case, the important mission of sanctification entrusted to priests cannot be called into question. They can exercise this mission above all in the ministry of worship and the sacraments. Doubtless it is a work carried out primarily by Christ, as the 1971 Synod pointed out: "Salvation, which is effected through the sacraments, does not come from us but from God; this demonstrates the primacy of action of Christ, the one priest and mediator, in his body, which is the Church" (cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1187; cf. also the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, n. 12). In the present economy of salvation, however, Christ makes use of the presbyters' ministry to sanctify believers (cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 5). Acting in the name of Christ, the priest achieves effective sacramental action through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the principle and source of the holiness of the "new life".
The new life that the priest imparts, nurtures, restores and increases through the sacraments is a life of faith, hope and love. Faith is the basic divine gift: "This makes clear the great importance of preparation and of a disposition of faith on the part of the person who receives the sacraments; it also makes clear the necessity for a witness of faith on the part of the minister in his entire life and especially in the way he values and celebrates the sacraments themselves" (cf. EnchiridionVaticanum, IV, 1188).
Sacramental ministry has divine fruitfulness
The faith communicated by Christ through the sacraments is unfailingly accompanied by a "living hope" (1 Pt 1:3), which instils in the hearts of the faithful a powerful dynamism of spiritual life, an impulse towards "what is above" (Col 3: 1-2). On the other hand, faith "works through love" (Gal 5:6), the love of charity, which springs from the Saviour's heart and flows into the sacraments to spread throughout Christian life.
4. The sacramental ministry of presbyters is thus endowed with a divine fruitfulness. The Council clearly recalled this. Thus, by Baptism priests "introduce people into the People of God" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 5): and therefore they are responsible not only for worthily celebrating the rite, but also for providing a good preparation for it, by forming adults in the faith, and in regard to children, by educating the family to cooperate in the celebration.
Moreover, "in the spirit of Christ the Shepherd, they instruct them to submit their sins to the Church with a contrite heart in the sacrament of Penance, so that they may be daily more and more converted to the Lord, remembering his words, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' (Mt 4:17)" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 5). For this reason priests too must personally live with the attitude of men who acknowledge their own sins and their own need for forgiveness, in a communion of humility and repentance with the faithful. Thus they can more effectively show the greatness of the divine mercy and give heavenly comfort, as well as forgiveness, to those who feel oppressed by the weight of their guilt.
Jesus devoted large part of his ministry to the sick
In the sacrament of Matrimony, the presbyter is present as the one responsible for the celebration, testifying to the faith and receiving the consent on behalf of God, whom he represents as the Church's minister. In this way he participates deeply and vitally not only in the rite, but in the deepest dimension of the sacrament.
Finally, by the Anointing of the Sick, priests "relieve those who are ill" (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 5). It is a mission foreseen by St James, who taught in his Letter: "Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the Church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord" (Jas 5:14). Knowing then that the sacrament of Anointing is meant to "relieve" and to bring purification and spiritual strength, the presbyter will feel the need to make sure that his presence brings the sick person the effective compassion of Christ and give witness to Jesus' kindness toward the sick, to whom he devoted such a large part of his evangelical mission.
5. This discussion of the dispositions which are necessary when one approaches the sacraments, celebrating them with awareness and a spirit of faith, will be completed in the catecheses that, please God, we shall devote to the sacraments. In the next catecheses we will discuss another aspect of the priest's mission in the sacramental ministry: the worship of God, which is carried out especially in the Eucharist. For now let us say that this is the most important element of his role in the Church, the principal reason for his ordination, the purpose that gives meaning and joy to his life.
L'Osservatore Romano May 12, 1993