Addresses, Speeches, Homilies 1984

Meeting with clergy, St. Joseph’s Oratory

SEPTEMBER 11, 1984

Dear brothers in the priesthood:

It is a great joy for me to meet you here, priests from Quebec and French-speaking priests from a number of other parts of Canada. The conversation with my brothers in the priesthood is always a high point in my travels. I undertake it in association with your bishops, whose principal collaborators you are. They transmitted to you the powers of Christ; each, in his own diocese, is the father of the presbyterium. Every year, on Holy Thursday, I write a letter to all the priests of the Catholic Church; I do it in order to strengthen them in their sublime vocation and in their indispensable mission to the people of God.

It is indeed a demanding mission. But it is, above all, a gift, for which we must unceasingly give thanks to God. In spite of our unworthiness, Christ has called us to proclaim his Good News, to communicate his life! A difficult responsibility, perhaps, but one which I call on you to fulfil [sp] in hope. The words addressed by Saint Paul to the Christians of Rome are even more relevant for you, you who share in the apostolic ministry. “May the God of hope bring you such joy and peace in your faith that the power of the Holy Spirit will remove all bounds to hope!” (Rm 15,13).

Mark these words: “… in your faith!” Everything depends on the faith which inspires your life as priests.

Your bishops and particularly those of Quebec, when they came for their “Ad Limina” visit – and this in addition of course to all the reports or letters I received before this trip – have made me familiar with your religious and social situation, that situation which has existed now for twenty years or so and which continues to evolve. Relatively speaking there are still large numbers of priests here in spite of a recent reduction in the number of ordinations. Like your predecessors, who have left such a strong impression on the life of the Church in Canada, you have been working in faithful union with your bishops. At this time, and in conformity with the general directions indicated by Vatican II, you are seeking for ways to meet the “crisis” facing your Christian people.

You have been witnessing, in fact, a deep seated process of change, one which heralds the appearance of a new culture, of a new society, but which poses too a number of questions about the meaning of life. You are facing as well a crisis of values: values of faith, of prayer, of religious practice, moral values, family values, a more materialistic, more selfish attitude to life. The Church is no longer alone in suggesting anwers [sp] or attitudes; it sometimes feels on the margin of things, some go so far as to speak of being “in exile”.

In the face of this new situation most Canadian pastors do not seem discouraged. They are inclined to see here a test, an opportunity for sacrifice, purification, reconstruction and all this, in humility and hope.

The successor of Peter says to you: you must rise to the challenge; do not allow yourselves to be paralyzed; recover your freedom and the dynamism of your faith.

In no way should a sense of realism and meekness of spirit lead to resignation. You cannot allow Christianity to be removed, even temporarily, from the convictions or daily concerns of your compatriots. The novelty of this cultural situation presents in a sense some positive aspects, if one understands by that that faith can now express itself more freely, that it depends less on social pressures and more on personal convictions, that it more easily goes beyond formalism and hypocrisy, that it is able to deal better with new scientific questions, with the possibilities of technological progress or social communications, that it fosters a more active and responsible form of participation in more flexible communities, that it may more readily engage in dialogue with others while respecting both their moral convictions and the jurisdiction of civil authorities.

But when we turn to essentials – the sense of a living God, the acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, salvation through faith, the basic practices of religious life by which faith is expressed and nourished, such as the sacraments of the eucharist and reconciliation, the sense of human love in marriage, the theology of the body, respect for life, sharing with the poor and weak, and generally speaking the beatitudes – no Christian, let alone a priest, can be content with silence, or with standing meekly aside on the grounds that ours is a pluralistic society, crossed and recrossed by various currents of thoughts of which many are inspired by scientism, materialism, even atheism. True the Gospel does speak of the seed that must die so that it may rise again in a new life (cf. Jn 12, 24-25), but this death is not one of fear or withdrawal, but one rather of a life totally offered in witness in the very midst of persecution.

In other words we must, more than ever, see to it that the voice of Christianity has a right to be heard in this country, that it might be freely accepted into the mentality of men and women, that its witness be expressed, at all levels, in convincing fashion, so that the developing culture may at the very least feel challenged by Christian values and take them into account. Christ became man, sacrificed his life and rose from the dead so that his light could shine in the eyes of the world, so that his leaven might cause the bread to rise; incorporated in the dough it must be constantly renewing it, on condition, however, that it retains its quality as leaven.

My dear brother priests, the challenge of secularization calls for greater faith among Christians, first of all among priests. To that world, our world, Christ offers salvation, truth, authentic liberation: the Holy Spirit pursues its work of sanctification; the Good News retains its force; conversion is possible, is necessary. Yes, as I said recently to your Swiss confrères in another context, but one which is not dissimilar to yours – their society, like yours is an affluent one – the more a society becomes dechristianized, the more it is touched by uncertainty or indifference, the more it needs to find in the person of priests that radical faith which is like a beacon in the night or like a rock on which it can stand (cf. Speech to Priests, Einsiedeln, June 15, 1984, No. 7).

I know that you have this faith within you. But it must bring about a new pastoral zeal, in all areas, a zeal like that which moved the founding priests and those who, with so many devout religious and members of the laity, have laboured to the point that French Canada has drawn its inspiration from Christian and Catholic convictions. Yes we must speak of supernatural lucidity and courage of faith which make it possible to resist winds contrary to the Gospel, currents destructive of all that is great in humankind. We must be bold enough to undertake a new effort for the formation of consciences.

With zeal, confident in the Spirit’s gift of discernment, encourage those who have managed to renew their faith and their prayer, those who have so generously devoted themselves to apostolic works in the Church and in society. But you will also be careful not to allow the Christian people to remain in a kind of spiritual vacuum or fatal religious ignorance. Should you find your people in confusion with new things, remember that they need, more than ever in these days of change, “visible signs of the Church, props, helps, points of reference…” and community support, as I was saying to your bishops. When he sees members of his flock disconcerted the humble pastor must always be ready to welcome them, to listen to them, to understand them. He should on occasion show himself to be receptive to criticism directed at what might well be questionable practices in regard to liturgy, catechesis or education. In all cases he will try to lead his people to a positive attitude and a deepening of their faith.

You are putting a great hope on the co-responsibility of laity and priests, not only to assist the clergy – whose members have been reduced -but because it is the role of baptized and confirmed laypersons to participate as living members, unreservedly and fully, in the progress of the Church and its sanctification (cf. Lumen Gentium, No. 33). They must share in its witness, especially in regard to temporal realities. If the Church is to have a social role, that role must of necessity be played by the laity, united with their pastors and inspired by the Magisterium. Along with your bishops I urge you to continue along this road to which you have committed yourselves so very much since the Council. The fields of activity are many. In addition to the various forms of the apostolate, there are charisms exercised for others, ecclesial tasks, even formally instituted ministries. In the latter case the presupposition is that the layperson be committed with a certain stability to an important service of the Church.

However, this morning, I will not be dealing with the role of the laity. I will be doing so later, with those that I shall be meeting, notably in Halifax. Because of the lack of time, I would like to turn immediately to your specific role, there being no substitute for the ordained ministry.

“The role of priests”, says Vatican II, “to the extent that they are associated with the episcopal order, participates in that authority by which Christ himself builds up, sanctifies and governs his Church” (cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, No. 2). You have been chosen from the Christian community, and you have been chosen to be at its service. To be a priest is a grace for the whole community. But your role does not derive from the community; you are not delegated by it. To be a priest is to participate in that very act by which the risen Christ builds up his Church which is his body. Christ, the good shepherd continues to act in his Church. By your ministry you represent in a very real and efficacious way the good shepherd who gives his live for his sheep. You act in the name of Christ the Head who builds up his Church.

The grace of ordination, which has shaped you in the likeness of Christ the priest and good shepherd, permits you to exercise the ministry of the word and of the sacraments. It also enables you to act as an animator of the community thus making manifest the initiative and kindness that Christ has for his Church. Your ministry invariably reminds the community that the word comes from God, that the sacraments are acts of the risen Christ, that the Church is assembled by and in the Spirit. Indeed, nothing can replace your ministry as a sign and means of gathering the faithful into the body of Christ. May God increase your faith so that you may fulfill the ministry he has entrusted to you!

By your ministry you have been put in charge of Christian communities for which you are responsible. Such is the mandate you have received from your bishop. This is the basis for the responsible obedience you owe him, for your well-advised and confident co-operation with him. You cannot build the Church of God without him, while, conversely, it is with you and through you that your bishop discharges his own responsibility as pastor of a particular church, in unfailing communion with Peter’s successor.

Among all those acts of the ministry associated with the triple sacerdotal function, may I point out a few that have special relevance to the spiritual needs of your fellow countrymen at this time?

A certain number of young people have rediscovered prayer. But many have forgotten how or dare not pray. As it is, our secularized world will be open to faith and conversion only if it prays as it hears the Gospel. “That kind of devil can only be cast out by prayer and fasting” (cf. Mk 9,29 and Mt 17,21). The world needs teachers of prayer and spontaneously turns to the priest whom it sees praying in the name of the Church. But it is impossible to teach others to pray unless prayer is at the very centre of our own life, unless it accompanies all our pastoral efforts!

The daily celebration of the eucharist, with suitable dignity and with a consciousness of entering into the redemptive act of Christ remains obviously at the centre and the summit of your priestly lives.

When Christian people abstain from asking for the forgiveness of their sins, in a personal way, possibly prepared in common, is that not cause for concern? Must we not ask ourselves what importance we attach to this ministry? How available are we in this regard? Do we educate people sufficiently in regard to a sense of sin and of the mercy of God?

The increase in knowledge of mundane matters is matched, in contrast, by an increase in religious ignorance. How are we facing up to this fact in our catechesis of the young? What facilities for education have we provided for adults, in addition to homilies of real substance and serious, in-depth preparation for the sacraments? The proper exposition of the faith is extremely demanding; it must be done in terms that reach both heart and mind while yet remaining faithful to the tenets of the Creed.

My dear friends, you have been entrusted with the task of guiding consciences and therefore of answering in unequivocal terms, and with courage, the innumerable questions posed by contemporary events and discoveries.

All areas of life require this kind of illumination, as they require appropriate reflexion. I have in mind, among other things, all that could help families, the young, engaged couples and the newly married, to better grasp God’s plan in regard to love, to the meaning of the marriage bond, to responsible parenthood, to faithfulness, not only from a moral point of view, but from a theological and spiritual one as well.

I know that you have the task of educating people in the spirit of the beatitudes very much at heart, that you are concerned with respect for the human person, with justice, with sharing, with the dignity of the poor, with handicapped people, with the isolation of the old, with solidarity with the hungry masses. And this you must be concerned about in a society where excessive consumption co-exists with the insecurity of unemployment.

Living your daily lives alongside our separated brethern [sp] has helped you develop ecumenical relationships. But these still require more thorough theological investigation in conformity with the directives of the Secretariat for Unity.

And how could one not wish to see cultivated that missionary spirit which, in this very century, has so generously flourished in Canada?

I underline finally two points whose urgency cannot have escaped you. Vocations to the priesthood and to religious life must be awakened, through the radiance of your zeal and of your joy in being priests. But it must be associated as well with a pressing invitation to follow Christ who still calls us.

Generally speaking, it can be said that these young people, whom I am to meet this evening and who give evidence of so much goodwill in spite of their trials, need to find you attentive and able to inspire confidence. And you must be an example to them of disciples of Christ happy to be following his ways.

In my meetings with priests around the world, I have seen that they wish to live an intense spiritual life adapted to their vocation. It is from your ministry, fulfilled with conviction, and centred on the Eucharist, that there develops your spiritual vitality, which it is necessary for you to maintain also in moments of personal prayer. As servants of the word of God, may you yourselves be challenged, refreshed and revived by it. You who assemble communities and are responsible for unity, allow yourselves to stand in wonder at the works which God accomplishes in his people. As ministers of Sacraments, let yourselves be converted by what they celebrate. One cannot baptize without being invited himself to be born again. One cannot preside over a marriage without questioning one’s own way of giving oneself in love to the Lord and to one’s brothers and sisters: celibacy is a sign of this freedom with a view to service. One cannot celebrate the Sacrament of pardon without whispering at the bottom of one’s heart: Lord, I too am a sinner who needs to be pardoned. One cannot celebrate the Eucharist without letting oneself be overcome by the love of Jesus who has surrendered his life for the many. In the exercise of your ministry, let yourselves be seized by the power of the Spirit.

Does not the Bishop say to the new deacon when handing him the Book of the Gospels: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practise [sp] what you teach”? And to the priest: “Imitamini quod tractatis”. All your ministry must be situated in a climate of prayer and of sacrifice that unites you to Christ the Mediator and establishes you in his peace and his joy.

The quality of your mission depends also on the fraternity and unity which you priests will establish among yourselves, with respect for legitimate differences of sensibility and charism, but in the impassioned quest of the same proclamation of the Gospel, in faithfulness to the Church.

Remember the priests who, across the world today, risk their freedom and even their lives in order to be faithful to their priesthood and to continue to sustain the faith of their people.

I would have liked to address myself at greater length to the permanent deacons. Dear friends, I simply wish to repeat here that your ordained ministry is connected to that of the priests; it prepares for it and effectively prolongs it; or else it shares in it when it is a question of Baptism or of preaching. The Church counts on your actions, for, according to your own vocation, you play your part in accomplishing her mission.

I greet in a special way the seminarians present at this meeting. You have heard me speak of the beauty and the demands of the priestly ministry. This is what must keep you in the joy of being called by God to cooperate in this ministry, with the determination to prepare yourselves for it with all your strength: put prayer at the centre of your formation, study thoroughly all the doctrines of the Church on the scriptural, dogmatic and moral planes. From this moment on, live in pastoral availability to the faithful, and maintain fraternal ties with your fellow students and trust in your Bishop. The future of the Church in Quebec will depend on your fervour in following Christ.

Here, in this Oratory, where so many graces have been granted, we pray for the intercession of Saint Joseph. In the lives of Mary and Jesus he had a humble role to play, that of a servant, in intimate and continuous contact with the Son of God. Above all else, we are servants of the Son of God.

We pray too for the intercession of Mary, associated in an incomparable fashion with the work of her Son.

Be men of faith and hope! And I, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, I give you, with all my heart, my apostolic blessing.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
Conférence des évêques catholiques du Canada