April 20, 2017
My dear brother priests,
At the heart of the paschal mysteries we celebrate during Holy Week is the gift of the priesthood. By God’s grace, we have received this great gift. Pope St. John Paul II once said that “Every vocation, every path to which Christ calls us, ultimately leads to fulfillment and happiness, because it leads to God, to sharing in God’s own life.” If this is true of every vocation, how much more of the vocation to the priesthood!
No one can live without happiness. And, there is no happiness without God. Imperfect as we are, we teach others the grammar of perfection so that they find God in their lives and thus find happiness. In so doing, we ourselves discover a joy deep within our souls. When Jesus stepped out of the waters of the Jordan, drenched with the Holy Spirit, the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). Made one with Christ in our priesthood, we are taken up into the Father’s joy in his Beloved Son.
The Second Vatican Council reawakened us to the reality of the Church as mystery. The Council Fathers spoke of the Church not as a hierarchical institution or an assembly of those who hold the same beliefs. No! They drew deeply on the teaching of St. Paul and taught that the Church is a
communio. The Church exists to lead humanity to communion with God. It is within this mystery of the Church as
communio, as a sharing in the very life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that not only is the identity of every baptized person revealed but also the specific identity of the priest. As ministers of the Church, we live in the midst of divine mysteries, struggling to remain in awe of the sacred.
There is one priesthood: Christ's. And there is one mission: the salvation of the world. But, in the one priesthood of Christ, all the members of the People of God share in different ways so that the Church can accomplish her mission of bringing all humanity to union with God. Please allow me to share a few thoughts about our special vocation in bringing others into a sharing in the very life of God himself. In so doing, I wish to offer you my gratitude and some encouragement for your generous and essential ministry as priests.
As priests, we are always members of the Church. We can no more be separated from our people than Christ the Head can be separated from His Body, the Church. I know you work hard to be one with your people. Meetings, planning, catechesis all take time and you gladly give your time to call forth the gifts of the baptized for the good of all. Your dedication to ministry is invaluable.
However, even more than our ministry, the very witness of our lives keeps us one with our people. As priests, we strive to be present to our people. Our ready and constant availability makes others feel their oneness with us. And, this in turn fosters the unity of the Church herself.
As priests, we do not measure our service by a clock. We are not employees. We are apostles, sent as Christ was by the Father. I am lifted up when I see you as true apostles, not fleeing pastoral responsibilities for time away, but embracing and living the Great Commission. Like the candles at our altars, we must allow ourselves to be consumed to give light to others. Priesthood and sacrifice are one.
Hebrews reminds us that we are “taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5:1). We are anointed by the Holy Spirit, set apart, that is, consecrated for God’s work. As Jesus says at the Last Supper, “You have not chosen me, no, I have chosen you” (Jn 15:16). In the entire Synoptic tradition, there is not a single instance of any individual successfully volunteering to be Jesus’ disciple (cf. Lk 9:57-62). Even John confirms this fact (cf. Jn 1:35-51). Our vocation is a gift. It is not something we claim for ourselves. And what a gift!
As God refused to conceal his plans from Abraham his friend (cf. Gen 18:17) and did “nothing without revealing his secrets to his servants the prophets” (Am 3:7), so too does Jesus open his heart to us. In our continued study of theology, in our spiritual reading, in our homily preparation and most especially in our prayer, Jesus says to us, “To you is granted the secret of the kingdom of God” (Mk 4:11). For the hours you spend allowing the Lord to flood your minds with his thoughts, thank you!
At the Last Supper, Jesus prayed in his high priestly prayer that we be united with each other in love. Our unity weighed heavily upon him as he went to the Cross.He still intercedes for us “that [we priests] may all be one” (Jn 17: 21). He wants our unity to be as close and as real as his oneness with the Father.
Unity for any presbyterate can never be just an ideal. It must be a reality that answers Jesus’ prayer. Our unity takes flesh each time we come together in diocesan celebrations, in the Mass of Chrism, at a priest’s funeral, at ordinations, at priesthood anniversaries. For the fraternal encouragement that comes from your presence at such events, many thanks. I especially appreciate the presence of all of you who join with me in our monthly
Cenaculum Christi. That all may be one!
In calling us to priesthood, Jesus calls us to an adventure of intimacy. This intimacy, made real in our devout and daily celebration of the Eucharist, is sustained by our celibacy. We are made of clay. Yet, in our hands of flesh, we offer God himself. Despite the daily struggles each of us faces in living celibacy, we should never underestimate this gift. “Christ himself, the eternal priest, lived his mission even to the sacrifice of the Cross in the state of virginity. This constitutes the sure point of reference for understanding the meaning of the tradition of the Latin Church…Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ's own way of life. This choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning; it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives his life for his Bride” (
Sacramentum Caritatis, 24).
At a time when celibacy is often disparaged, I thank you for your commitment. Your celibate life enriches the Church. As the gentle St. Pope John XXIII once said, “It deeply hurts us that ... anyone can dream that the Church will deliberately or even suitably renounce what from time immemorial has been, and still remains, one of the purest and noblest glories of her priesthood. The law of ecclesiastical celibacy and the efforts necessary to preserve it always recall to mind the struggles of heroic times when the Church of Christ had to fight for and succeeded in obtaining her threefold glory, always an emblem of victory, that is, the Church of Christ, free, chaste, and catholic” (Pope John XXIII to Roman Synod, January 26, 1960).
My dear brother, our priesthood sustains the Church as
communio. In every Eucharistic celebration, the Church is made present in the unity of believers who form the one Body of Christ (cf.
Lumen Gentium, 3). No priest. No Eucharist. No Church. Thank you for accepting God’s call. Thanks to all of you who have left family and country to serve God’s people on these shores. Jesus does not call us servants. He calls us friends (cf Jn 15:14). Thanks for being such trusted, loyal friends of the Lord himself.
Invoking God’s blessing on each of you, I am
Devotedly yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Arthur J. Serratelli, S.T.D., S.S.L., D.D.
Bishop of Paterson