Seminarians of the world were given support and encouragement in a letter from Pope Benedict XVI earlier this week.
In his letter to seminarians marking the end of the Year for Priests the Pope recalled how in 1944 as a draftee in the German army he expressed his desire to become a Catholic priest to which an officer replied “Then you ought to look for something else. In the new Germany priests are no longer needed.” The Pope then added that “many people nowadays also think that the Catholic priesthood is not a “job” for the future, one that belongs more in the past.”
In his letter the Holy Father:
• Commends seminarians for responding to a call to priestly ministry despite such comments, adding “God is alive, and he needs people to serve him and bring him to others. He continues that it does make sense to become a priest because, “the world needs priests, pastors, today, tomorrow and always, until the end of time.”
• Describes the seminary as “a community journeying towards priestly ministry,” and he reminds the future priests that they were called first and foremost to become a “man of God.” (1 Tim 3:11) “God,” he notes, “is not some abstract hypothesis; he is not some stranger who left the scene after the ‘Big Bang’. God revealed himself in Jesus Christ.” Therefore the most important thing in a priestly life is a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
• Reminds the future priests that God is not simply Word but reveals himself in person in the physical realties of the sacraments of which the Eucharist must be the heart of our personal relationship with God and a priestly life. “Celebrating it devoutly, and thus encountering the Christ personally, should be the center of all our days.”
• Recalls that the sacrament of Penance “teaches me to see myself as God sees me, and it forces me to be honest with myself. It leads me to humility.” One must not become discouraged even when you continually struggle with the same failings. God forgives us ever anew, concluding that “Moreover, by letting myself be forgiven, I learn to forgive others. In recognizing my own weakness, I grow more tolerant and understanding of the failings of my neighbor.”
• Comments on the need for an appreciation of popular piety, not dismissing it because it is sometimes irrational and somewhat superficial. Through that piety, the Pope observed, “the faith has entered human hearts and become part of the common patrimony of sentiments and customs shaping the life and emotions of the community. Popular piety is thus one of the Church’s great treasures.”
Turning to the time in seminary as a time of study the Pope notes that “the Christian faith has an essentially rational and intellectual dimension.” Cautioning seminarians not to become discouraged because subjects they are studying might seem far removed from the Christian life and the pastoral ministry, he reminds them of the need for moving beyond the changing questions of the moment to be able to respond to the real questions that remain the same from generation to generation.
In particular seminarians should have a thorough knowledge of:
• Sacred Scripture in its unity as the Old and New Testaments and the shaping of the canon of sacred books;
• The Fathers and the Great Councils in which the Church appropriated, through faith-filled reflection, the essential elements of the Scripture.
• Dogmatic theology and the understanding of the ultimate contents of the faith;
• Essential issues of moral theology and Catholic social teaching;
• Ecumenical theology and knowledge of the different Christian communities and the great religions;
• Philosophy, understanding of the human process of questioning and searching to which faith seeks to respond;
• Canon Law, a society without law is a society without rights. Law is the condition of love.
Seminary years, the Holy Father observes, are also a time of growth towards human maturity. A priest called to journey with others from birth to the threshold of death must be humanly integrated with the right balance of heart and mind, reason and feeling, and body and soul.
Involved in this process is the integration of sexuality into the whole personality. When it is not integrated with the person it becomes banal and destructive as has been the case with some priests who disfigured their ministry by sexually abusing children and young people causing “great damage about which we feel profound shame and regret.”
Consequently many “might ask whether it is good to become a priest; whether the choice of celibacy makes any sense as a truly human way of life.” Yet we all know exemplary priests, men shaped by their faith, who bear witness that one can attain to an authentic, pure and mature humanity in this state and specifically in the life of celibacy.
Finally the Pope recognized that the origins of priestly vocations are changing, acknowledging that the call to ministry is often discerned later in life sometimes after one has entered a profession. Ecclesial communities are producing many vocations, he noted, from those who have experienced a communal encounter with Christ and His Church. Others find their call in response to the “nobility and wretchedness of human experience.”
The seminary is important because it teaches the common elements of the spiritual path and advances beyond the differences in spirituality. It is a time to learn with one another and from one another to serve in the same Lord in the same Church.
As your Bishop, I would add to the Holy Father’s profound message that the years of preparation lead to years of joyful service to Jesus Christ and the members of His Body the Church. There is no greater gift than oneself.