June 19, 2009 is the beginning of the extraordinary celebration proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI as: â€œThe year of the Priest!â€ The yearlong observation recalls the life and the ministry of the St. John Vianney as well as the 150th anniversary of his birth. The commemoration of Catholic priests is a significant and critical event in the life of the 21st century global Catholic Church. Without the service of current priests and the nurturing of future priests the sacrament of Holy Eucharist would no longer be possible. The Sacrament of Holy Orders is often maligned by individuals within and outside the institutional Catholic Church. However, it needs to be said that in the lives of most Catholic believers, their lives have been greatly affected by the life and examples of â€œlived faithâ€ these men have exhibited.
The most significant aspect of the year that celebrates the Catholic priesthood is the fact that it is intertwined with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist as well, and de facto any study of the priesthood must include the sacramental responsibilities of all Catholic priest and bishops (the main priest in each diocese.) Remarkably in the 40 plus years since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council after a tumultuous exodus of priest from active ministry, the statistics seem to have leveled off. Vocations in the Catholic Church are increasing throughout the world, and the ministry of priesthood is again at the center of the theological and prayerful focus of the Churchâ€™s hierarchy. Benedict XVI reportedly wants the 2009-2010 observations of priestly life and ministry to provide an inclusive consideration of all aspects of Catholic priesthood. At the same time, the Holy Father wants the celebrations to mark a period of spiritual and sacramental renewal for both priests and the faithful in their appreciation of the Sacred Eucharist.
Seemingly, the priest we all know in a local parish environment is indeed an endangered species. The median age of the average Catholic priest in the United States is a high one, and the mortality rate per year far exceeds the number of men ordained by each diocese. With this in mind, Catholic need to ponder the complexity of the Sacrament of Holy Orders as not just a vocational profession for men, but also as the life source for the future of the Church. When studying sacramental theology many years ago, the Sacrament of Baptism was considered the, fons , the source of the Catholic faith. Indeed this is 100 percent correct. In todayâ€™s increasingly secularized society we need to appreciate the Holy Eucharist for the true nourishment of the Body of Christ as it theologically represents our Catholic identity.
When we consider the role of the priest, one needs to always and everywhere remember that the priest brings Jesus Christ to the world through the Eucharistic sacrifice. First and foremost the priest is an alter Christus, (in place of Christ) during the sacramental celebration. When society as a whole unfortunately makes a reference to priestsâ€¦they usually do not include the immense theological depths of the ontological nature of this lifestyle and sacrament. Very often priests are not always appreciated for their immense contributions to the spirituality and liturgical life of the Catholic Church. In some cases they are because of their declining numbers seen as not â€œrelevantâ€ to the modern Church, antiquated and often socially out of touch. Quite a few of their responsibilities it seems have been delegated or usurped on a parochial level by legions of laity, volunteers and well meaning but often theologically deficient faithful with a penchant for the implementation of American democracy as the focus of Catholic life and ministry. Far too often, the life of a Catholic priest is rationalized or misconstrued by what a priest is not, more than what precisely a priest is in the Church. Often, human shortcomings of individuals are highlighted as glaring examples of the need for revolutionary modification of the lifestyle of Holy Orders and people forget the intensely critical role of the Priest as another Christ in our Church.
Perhaps this year of commemoration and celebration of the Priest is exactly the stimulus package needed by the faithful and the clergy alike. Benedict XVI might just be borrowing a play from the incumbent Obamaâ€™s political maneuvers in order to rejuvenate and restore the essential appreciation of importance to the priest in our modern Church. With decreased ranks, the priest shortage is indeed more acutely felt in more places than ever before. However, this is a great time to restore, and reappreciate priestly service for more than just itâ€™s superficial and external appearances. The celebration of priesthood is about the Holy Eucharist, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ and the continuation of His Church in accomplishing the mandates given to the Apostles.
With this in mind, it is really about time that all Catholics begin to contemplate the role of our Catholic priests as essential to the temporal and spiritual successâ€™ of our universal Catholic Church. If indeed Catholics are called to, â€œTake this all of you and eatâ€¦Take this all of you and drinkâ€¦â€ they need to deeply appreciate and understand the essential purposes of the Catholic priest as our spiritual intermediary to the Eternal Father.
Finally, at the beginning of the universal Churchâ€™s observation of the year of the priest, we need to continuously and prayerfully ponder the Eucharistic mystery that feeds and sustains all of us on a daily basis. Without priests, we would not have Eucharist and without Eucharist our lives would be void of the living Bread that came down from heaven. Our temporal and eternal existence centers on the active role a priest represents in our Catholic Church, letâ€™s start recognizing such a theologically rich role and responsibility.