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Enthralled by Christ, Heralds of Hope: Priestly Identity and Mission in the Theology of Pope Benedict XVI | Chris Burgwald, S.T.D. | June 11, 2010 | Ignatius Insight

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As this Year for Priests draws to a close it seems appropriate to look again at the theology of the priesthood in the work of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict. In this essay I intend to examine what Pope Benedict has said and written about the identity and mission of the Catholic priest. My source material covers both papal documents and his personal, non-Magisterial remarks, as well as some of his personal theological work prior to his election as pope. In particular, I focus on his essays on the priesthood in the works Called to Communion (CC) and Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (PFF), as well as some relevant comments from the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth (JN). In terms of his official, pontifical remarks on the issue, I've naturally looked to the homilies, addresses and letters pertaining to this Year for Priests as well as his homilies from the Chrism Masses during his pontificate.

The title of this essay comes from the Holy Father's letter last June proclaiming this Year for Priests, as well as from his homily on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart which inaugurated this Year. He concluded the letter this way: "Dear priests, Christ is counting on you. In the footsteps of the Curé of Ars, let yourselves be enthralled by him. In this way you too will be, for the world in our time, heralds of hope, reconciliation and peace!" In this short passage, it seems to me that we find many of the central themes of Pope Benedict's theology of the priesthood, and it it to that theology that we will now turn.

The outline for this presentation is as follows: I'll begin with Benedict's analysis of the historical context: the post-conciliar crisis in the priesthood. Following that, we'll focus in on a central theme in his vision of priestly identity and mission: the Christological roots and foundation of both. I'll conclude by examining what Benedict calls the "spiritual applications" of these theological considerations.

Historical Context

Benedict was and is a man of the Council. He was a peritus at the Council for Cardinal Frings of Cologne, and he played an important role in the unfolding of the Council's work in general and in the development of several of the conciliar texts, particularly Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium.

But like so many others, Benedict was surprised at the events which unfolded both in the Church and in the world after the Council. Focusing in particular on the priesthood, decades later he spoke of the "profound crisis" which the Catholic priesthood entered after Vatican II. His analysis of the roots of this crisis is interesting both on its own account and also insofar as it points to his understanding of the way out of the crisis.

In short, Benedict argues that the basic framework for Vatican II's theology of the priesthood is essentially that of the Council of Trent. While the texts of Vatican II most certainly incorporated biblical motifs in a greater way than did Trent, Benedict nonetheless believes that the framework remained essentially Tridentine in nature.

One might fairly ask, "So what?" After all, the decrees of Trent on these lines are dogmatic, they belong to the deposit of faith. Benedict certainly agrees with this; he has never called the dogmatic points into question. Rather, his concern mirrors the reasons for which Pope John called the Council to begin with: to initiate a renewal within the Church which would enable her to respond more adequately to the problems and questions of the age. As with the Council in general, Benedict does not call the doctrines of the priesthood into question, but instead proposes that a new framework for those doctrines is required to more ably respond to the challenges raised with regard to our theology of the priesthood. Specifically, he argues that after the Council, Catholic theology was incapable of adequately responding to a combination of Reformation-era arguments together with findings of modern biblical exegesis. In Benedict's words, the conclusions of these challenges was as follows:

"It appeared indisputably clear that the teaching of Trent concerning the priesthood had been formulated on false assumptions and that even Vatican II had not yet found the courage to lead the exodus from this misguided history. On the other hand, the inner tendency of the Council seemingly required that we now finally do what it had not dared to do itself: to abandon the ancient conceptions of cult and priesthood and to seek a Church at once biblical and modern that would resolutely take up the challenge of the profane world and would be organized solely according to functional considerations" (CC, p. 109; emphasis mine).

"Functional" is a key term here: as Benedict sees it, these challenges to our theology of the priesthood hold that in the apostolic and post-apostolic era, ministerial offices had a purely functional character, concerned entirely with practical utility.

It seems to me that such a perspective remains both dominant and ubiquitous. I'm reminded of some of the comments made by Catholics faced with the prospect of having to go to another parish for liturgies: we can run the parish, we just need Father to come on Saturday night or Sunday morning to say Mass. Both the priesthood (the office) and the priest (the man) are reduced to what they can do, to the role, the function they play. In essence, both priesthood and priest are regarded as little more than vending machines, candy dispensers for the soul.

Now, I'm certainly not saying that Catholics have been reading Martin Luther and Karl Barth. But I do think that the theology which is the subject of Benedict's analysis here is "in the air", and given that the Christian roots of our culture are basically Protestant, it's not surprising that a function vision of Christian ministry has found its way into the minds even of Catholics.

What, then, does Benedict propose by way of a solution to this post-conciliar crisis in the priesthood? His answer to this question is the same as his answer to every other question which in some way pertains to the human heart: Jesus of Nazareth.

Christological Foundations

If we look at the pontificate of Benedict XVI from a superficial public-relations perspective, it's apparent that within the first year of his election, Benedict's public image was rehabilitated, to put it mildly. Gone were monikers like "Dr. No" and "der Panzerkardinal". Instead, we saw a man who -- despite his lack of "stage presence" -- saw more people attending his Wednesday audiences than did his predecessor, John Paul the Great! We saw a man who entitled his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (DCE) and who said that we must emphasize the "Yes!" of Christianity.

Now, as those who were familiar with his personal writings knew, this rehabilitation was largely in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. The themes of Benedict's pontificate are essentially in keeping with his previous personal theological work. What is surprising, at least to me, is the emphasis of that "Yes!" which he has been making. To put it another way: because of his office, we are now seeing the evangelical dimension of Benedict's work in a clearer way, even more then in his prior work. To borrow a title of one of Fr. Robert Barron's works, in Benedict's pontificate -- as in John Paul the Great's, albeit in his own way -- we are seeing "The Priority of Christ". Again, his work was always christocentric, but this dimension has been amplified since his election as pope. Consider, for instance, the conclusion to the Forward to volume one of Jesus of Nazareth: explaining why he began his study with Jesus' public ministry and not with the infancy narratives, he writes,

"In Part Two I hope also to be able to include the chapter on the infancy narratives, which I have postponed for now, because it struck me as the most urgent priority to present the figure and the message of Jesus in his public ministry, and so to help foster the growth of a living relationship with him" (JN, p. xxiv; emphasis mine). These are not the words of sawdust theology, dry and coarse! Rather, they reveal what is at the heart of Benedict and his work: Jesus Christ.

With this preface, we now look at the Christological foundations of Benedict's theology of the priesthood.

The Priesthood as Participation in the Mission of Christ

In Benedict's vision, the foundation of the ministerial office in the New Testament is this: apostleship as participation in the mission of Jesus Christ. As Benedict notes, both the novelty and the center of the New Testament is Jesus. He says, "what is new about [the New Testament] is not, strictly speaking, ideas -- the novelty is a person: God who becomes man and draws man to himself" (CTC, p. 111).

This is a point which Benedict has been making more repeatedly and more insistently in the last couple of decades. Consider these words from the first article of DCE: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." Or consider these words from his lectio divina with the seminarians of Rome last month: "It is not we who must produce the abundant fruit; Christianity is not moralism, it is not we who must do all that God expects of the world but we must first of all enter this ontological mystery: God gives himself." Even in the context of this Year for Priests, Benedict returns to this theme, which might rightly be considered the major key of his pontificate: we cannot reduce Christianity to ideas -- ideology -- or to moralism; while ideas (truths) and morality are certainly important to our faith, they are not the center, they are not the novum: that place is held by Christ alone. Remember, this is a theologian writing these things! We make our living by reducing our living, vibrant relationship with Jesus to cures for insomniacs! But not Benedict.

So even in the case of the priesthood, he tells us that the point of departure must lie in Christology, in our understanding of who Jesus is. In this context, Benedict's emphasis is on Jesus' mission, on the fact that He is sent by the Father, that He represents God's authority concretely in His person. Benedict hones in on following formula from John's Gospel, and on the interpretation of this formula given by Benedict's personal favorite theologian, St. Augustine: "My doctrine is not my own but his who sent me" (7:16). Benedict makes this point: Jesus both has and is nothing of his own aside from the Father... nothing. As Benedict sees it, in this Johannine formula Jesus "is saying that precisely what is most intimately his own -- his self -- is that which is altogether not his own. What is his is what is not his" (CTC, p. 113). And it is by this very expropriation of himself that Jesus is totally one with the Father.

What does this have to do with the priesthood? This: Jesus prolongs His own mission, His own sending from the Father by the creation of the office of "those who have been sent": the office of the apostles. According to Benedict, "Jesus confers His power upon the apostles and thereby makes their office strictly parallel to his own mission" (ibid.). As Jesus tells the Twelve on numerous occasions, "he who receives you receives me" (Matthew 10:40). Or even more clearly: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 13:20).

Recalling that Jesus' entire being is mission and relationship, Benedict sees this statement of Jesus' as having enormous weight for the proper understanding of the priesthood of the New Covenant, particularly when we look to the following parallelism:

The Son can do nothing of himself (John 5:19, 30)
Without me you can do nothing (John 15:5)

Benedict argues that the power and the impotency (the potency and impotency) of the apostolic office -- and hence the priesthood in general -- derives precisely from this "nothing" that the disciples share with Jesus. It's worth quoting Benedict at length here:

"Nothing that makes up the activity of the apostles is the product of their own capabilities. But it is precisely in having 'nothing' to call their own that their communion with Jesus consists, since Jesus is also entirely from the Father, has being only through him and in him and would not exist at all if he were not a continual coming forth from and self-return to the Father. Having 'nothing' of their own draws the apostles into communion of mission with Christ." So somewhat counter-intuitively, what brings the apostles into union with Christ's mission, what makes their own mission the extension of his, is the nothingness of their own activity.

From this point, Benedict elaborates at length on the nature of the sacrament of ordination. It is because the apostle's (and by extension, the priest's) communion with Christ derives from having nothing of his own that ordination is not about the development of one's own abilities and talents. Jesus receives everything from the Father -- He has nothing which is His own -- and He brings salvation to the world. The priest receives everything from Jesus -- he has nothing which is his own -- and he brings salvation to the world. Just as self-expropriation, self-dispossession and selflessness were necessary for the High Priest to be one with the Father and to accomplish that for which He was sent, so too are these things necessary for those who act in his person.

In this we see the beginnings of a "Benedictine" response to a denuded, functional conception of ministerial office: the priesthood is not about developing one's personal powers and gifts, but rather it is about sharing our very nothingness with Christ, and in so doing being united with Him to the Father in the Spirit, and thereby bringing the life of the Father -- His grace -- to the Church and to the world.

An Ontological Union

A second aspect of the Christological foundations of Benedict's theology of the priesthood flows from the first: the priest's union with Christ is an ontological one.

This is by no means a new insight; the Church has always been very clear that the union which the sacrament of holy orders effects is ontological in nature; it is not a superficial union, but one which goes to the depths of human nature, to the depths of our being. Nor is this union unique to orders: it occurs for all of us in baptism, and is deepened in the other sacraments as well. We are joined to Christ, conformed to Him, and this is true as well of ordination.

At the same time, Benedict indicates that this truth -- an ontological union -- has been somewhat obscured in our time, to the detriment of a proper understanding -- and therefore a proper exercise -- of the New Testament priesthood.

Benedict addresses this topic in a number of places. I've already referred to his lectio divina with the Roman seminarians from earlier this year. In that lectio, Benedict is commenting on John 15:1-17. As you know, in this passage Jesus speaks of Himself as the true vine and of the twelve (and ultimately, all his disciples) as the branches of the vine. In his lectio, Benedict keys in on Jesus' imperative, "Abide in me," affirming that the idea of abiding in the Lord is fundamental as the first topic of this passage. In order to be laborers in the vineyard, in order to be priests of Christ's mystery, Benedict emphasizes that the union between Jesus and the priest is an ontological one, for it is only by being deeply rooted in Christ, it is only by being joined to Christ at the deepest level of his being that the priest is capable of exercising his ministry. As Jesus says in this passage, "as the branches cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me." For the priest -- as for every Christian -- this abiding in Jesus, this ontological intimacy is foundational and primary.

Read Part Two of "Enthralled by Christ, Heralds of Hope: Priestly Identity and Mission in the Theology of Pope Benedict XVI"


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