A saint for beleaguered priests

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A banner depicting St John Paul II hanging from the facade of St Peter's Basilica (CNS)

A banner depicting St John Paul II hanging from the facade of St Peter’s Basilica (CNS)

A love for priests was a vital part of St John Paul II’s pontificate

The 10th anniversary of the dies natalis of St John Paul the Great fell on Holy Thursday. A decade ago, he died on the vigil of Divine Mercy, a feast he had created himself.

That April 2 fell this year on Holy Thursday invites us to rediscover an important aspect of his pontificate – his love for priests, whom he did so much to encourage.

It is no secret that relations between Pope Francis and priests have had some rough spots, arising from a style of papal preaching that repeatedly highlights their failings.

The Holy Father addressed that himself when meeting last year with the priests of Rome: “Some of you have phoned, written a letter … ‘Father, what have you got against priests?’ Because they were saying that I bash priests! I do not wish to bash you here…”

Perhaps not there, but the “bashing” continued, culminating in the headline-grabbing lambasting of the Roman Curia during the exchange of Christmas good wishes in December.

Priests feeling a little beleaguered would do well this Holy Week to return to the annual Holy Thursday letters to priests which St John Paul wrote from 1979 to 2005. (Available on the Vatican website, and in a single volume from Midwest Theological Forum. The latter makes an excellent gift for priests.)

So devoted was John Paul to this annual epistolary encounter with his brother priests that he wrote his final one from the Gemelli hospital, just weeks before his death. Writing during the Year of the Eucharist, the Holy Father meditated upon the words of consecration amid his suffering.

“As I spend this time recuperating in hospital, a patient alongside other patients, uniting in the Eucharist my own sufferings with those of Christ, I want to reflect with you on some aspects of our priestly spirituality,” he wrote.

“I will take as my inspiration the words of Eucharistic consecration, which we say every day in persona Christi in order to make present on our altars the sacrifice made once and for all on Calvary: Tibi gratias agens benedixit. At every Mass we remember and relive the first sentiment expressed by Jesus as he broke the bread: that of thanksgiving. Gratitude is the disposition which lies at the root of the very word ‘Eucharist’. This expression of thanksgiving contains the whole biblical spirituality of praise for the mirabilia Dei.”

As a young man growing up in Nazi-occupied Kraków, John Paul developed a great admiration for the witness of heroic priests as a precious gift of the mirabilia Dei, the marvellous works of God. He lived this lofty sense of the priestly vocation himself, and, as pope, considered it his special task to strengthen the identity of priests amid post-conciliar confusion and defections.

While the final letter came from the hospital, they usually came from the Vatican. An exception was in the Great Jubilee 2000, when the letter was issued from the Cenacle in Jerusalem, claiming special citizenship for priests in the Upper Room, birthplace of the Church.

“From this Upper Room I would like to address this letter to you, as I have done for more than 20 years, on Holy Thursday, the day of the Eucharist and ‘our’ day par excellence,” John Paul wrote. “We must never cease meditating anew on the mystery of that night. We should often return in spirit to this Upper Room, where we priests especially can feel in a sense ‘at home’.

“With regard to the Upper Room, it could be said of us what the Psalmist says of the peoples with regard to Jerusalem: ‘In the register of peoples, the Lord will write: These were born here’ (Ps 86:6).”

The Holy Thursday letters began in 1979 with a heartfelt expression of fraternal affection for those “by virtue of a special grace and through a singular gift of our Saviour, bear the ‘burden of the day and the heat’ in the midst of the many tasks of priestly and pastoral ministry”.

Yet as full of consolation and shared joy as they are, the letters are also demanding. The 1979 letter effectively announced that the days of routine dispensations for priests who abandoned their ministry were over. John Paul spoke of a “test and responsibility” that was above all a matter of a priest “keeping his word”, freely given. Moreover, the entire Church, especially married couples, had a right to the fidelity of priests to encourage them in their own witness.

This Holy Thursday – the day the priesthood was born – we remember the birth into heaven of a great high priest. His words and his witness strengthen his brethren still.

Fr Raymond de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (03/4/15).