Dear Brother Priest,
Holy Thursday has always been regarded as the feast of the Priesthood. This fact has been highlighted in the last thirty years. From the very first year of his Pontificate, Pope John Paul II always wrote a letter to priests for this day.
I find myself quoting Pope John Paul II more and more and reflecting on his words. I acknowledge the debt we owe to him especially for the great love and respect he had for the priesthood and for priests. I also express deep gratitude to all of you for the way in which you exercise your ministry. We live in challenging times. The image of the priesthood is not high in some quarters because of a great deal of adverse publicity; in our ministry we have to cope with realities that were unknown in the Pastoral Theology Manuals most of us knew. There are fewer personnel in ordained ministry and we are asked to continually adapt to new situations in the largely secular society of contemporary New Zealand.
In a paradoxical way, this situation could be a time of grace for all of us. To exercise ministry today may be a real cross. To be a priest after the mind and heart of Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, we are called to be more like Jesus who endured the Cross for the salvation of the world. In cheerfully exercising the burdens of ministry, we are invited to be an image of Christ our brother, in whose priesthood we participate.
What does it mean to be a priest in New Zealand in the twenty-first century? The Council of Trent in 1563 spelt out the role of the priest in celebrating the Sacred Eucharist and forgiving sins. This largely determined the self-image of the priest and the Catholic view of priesthood until comparatively recent times. The Second Vatican Council did not supplant this image of Trent but added to it and expanded it.
Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ, cites both Lumen Gentium, (The Constitution on the Church) and Presbyerorum Ordinis (Decree on the Ministry and life of Priests) of Vatican II in stating that these documents do not break sharply with the older tradition. He added that there are significant changes. The Council declares that the three functions of teaching, sanctifying and ruling are conferred by the rite of ordination itself, and in addition to these, preaching and pastoral care can be seen as priestly actions.
In his earlier writings, Cardinal Dulles wrote of five models of Church—as institution, communion, sacrament, herald and servant. He later added the sixth model of disciple. Remember those words of Isaiah we reflect on in this Holy Week, “The Lord has given me a disciple’s tongue, so that I may know how to reply to the wearied. Each morning he wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple.” (Isaiah 50: 4.) Please remember how necessary it is to listen each day, how necessary that is for our prayer and our preaching. It scarcely needs to be said that the principal ministries of the Church will be differently conceived according to one’s personal model of church. In interpreting the teaching of Vatican II on the priesthood, theologians have stressed different aspects of ministry.
Pope John Paul II, in Dominicae Cenae seems to espouse the idea that sacramental ministry is primary when he wrote, “the priest fulfils his principal mission and is manifested in all his fullness when he celebrates the Eucharist”.
Cardinal Walter Kaspar, commenting on the documents of Vatican II says that he sees the ministerial priesthood primarily as charism of community leadership, safeguarding the unity of the church. An article in the New Dictionary of Theology seems to hold the same view when it is stated of priests, “their task is primarily pastoral. They are to exercise a ministry of leadership within the community”.
The priest has value in the eyes of God not in what he does but in who he is. I cannot highlight this enough. It is not in what we do, but in who we are for people and the way we relate to them—this is what people will remember and appreciate. Ordained priesthood is exercised in a variety of functions—the principal ministries among these being word, worship and pastoral care. Clearly these functions often overlap, for the priesthood, permanently bestowed by ordination itself, penetrates the whole life of the priest. Whatever we do we try to do in the spirit of Jesus ‘who resolutely took the road to Jerusalem’. There are new challenges as we minister in a changing society.
I am grateful for the wonderful way you are responding to the call to work closely with lay pastoral leaders. I am sure that pastoral area teams will bring new life and energy to our parishes and pastoral areas as we work together. I thank you for your patience and generosity and I want you to know that I value who you are and thank you for being men of prayer and selfless giving in ministry. As we commemorate that incredible event in the Upper Room, which gives us all our mandate and our identity, I pray that we will all be grateful for the inexplicable choice of Christ to participate in his priesthood in this way.
May this Holy Thursday and the great events we celebrate bring us new life and energy, rekindle our enthusiasm and our awareness of the incredible privilege which is ours. I thank you for all that you are and for all that you do for the People of God and for each other. Please remember too that just as you pray for me in the Eucharistic Prayer every day, I also pray for you every day.
With deep thanks and with every blessing.
%uF058 John A Dew
Archbishop of Wellington