letter to clergy for the Year for Priests

VATICAN CITY, 18 JUN 2009 (VIS) – The Pope has sent a Letter to the priests of the world for the occasion of the Year for Priests, which has been called to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney.

Tomorrow, Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and day of prayer for the sanctification of the clergy, Benedict XVI will inaugurate this Jubilee Year for Priests during Vespers in the Vatican Basilica.

The Letter has been published in Italian, French, Spanish, English, German, Polish and Portuguese. The complete text of the English language version is given below:

Dear Brother Priests,

On the forthcoming Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Friday 19 June 2009 – a day traditionally devoted to prayer for the sanctification of the clergy – I have decided to inaugurate a “Year for Priests” in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the “dies natalis” of John Mary Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests worldwide. This Year, meant to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a more forceful and incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world, will conclude on the same Solemnity in 2010. “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”, the saintly Cure of Ars would often say. This touching expression makes us reflect, first of all, with heartfelt gratitude on the immense gift which priests represent, not only for the Church, but also for humanity itself. I think of all those priests who quietly present Christ’s words and actions each day to the faithful and to the whole world, striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts and their will, their sentiments and their style of life. How can I not pay tribute to their apostolic labours, their tireless and hidden service, their universal charity? And how can I not praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests who, even amid difficulties and incomprehension, remain faithful to their vocation as “friends of Christ”, whom He has called by name, chosen and sent?

I still treasure the memory of the first parish priest at whose side I exercised my ministry as a young priest: he left me an example of unreserved devotion to his pastoral duties, even to meeting death in the act of bringing viaticum to a gravely ill person. I also recall the countless confreres whom I have met and continue to meet, not least in my pastoral visits to different countries: men generously dedicated to the daily exercise of their priestly ministry. Yet the expression of St. John Mary also makes us think of Christ’s pierced Heart and the crown of thorns which surrounds it. I am also led to think, therefore, of the countless situations of suffering endured by many priests, either because they themselves share in the manifold human experience of pain or because they encounter misunderstanding from the very persons to whom they minister. How can we not also think of all those priests who are offended in their dignity, obstructed in their mission and persecuted, even at times to offering the supreme testimony of their own blood?

There are also, sad to say, situations which can never be sufficiently deplored where the Church herself suffers as a consequence of infidelity on the part of some of her ministers. Then it is the world which finds grounds for scandal and rejection. What is most helpful to the Church in such cases is not only a frank and complete acknowledgement of the weaknesses of her ministers, but also a joyful and renewed realisation of the greatness of God’s gift, embodied in the splendid example of generous pastors, religious afire with love for God and for souls, and insightful, patient spiritual guides. Here the teaching and example of St. John Mary Vianney can serve as a significant point of reference for us all. The Cure of Ars was quite humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: “A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy”. He spoke of the priesthood as if incapable of fathoming the grandeur of the gift and task entrusted to a human creature: “O, how great is the priest! … If he realised what he is, he would die. … God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host”. Explaining to his parishioners the importance of the Sacraments, he would say: “Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put Him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest. … After God, the priest is everything! … Only in heaven will he fully realise what he is”. These words, welling up from the priestly heart of the holy pastor, might sound excessive. Yet they reveal the high esteem in which he held the Sacrament of the Priesthood. He seemed overwhelmed by a boundless sense of responsibility: “Were we to fully realise what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love. … Without the priest, the passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption on earth. … What use would be a house filled with gold, were there no one to open its door? The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of His goods. … Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by worshipping the beasts there. … The priest is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you”.

He arrived in Ars, a village of 230 souls, warned by his bishop beforehand that there he would find religious practice in a sorry state: “There is little love of God in that parish; you will be the one to put it there”. As a result, he was deeply aware that he needed to go there to embody Christ’s presence and to bear witness to His saving mercy: “[Lord,] grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer whatever you wish, for my entire life!”. With this prayer he entered upon his mission. The Cure devoted himself completely to his parish’s conversion, setting before all else the Christian education of the people in his care. Dear brother priests, let us ask the Lord Jesus for the grace to learn for ourselves something of the pastoral plan of St. John Mary Vianney! The first thing we need to learn is the complete identification of the man with his ministry. In Jesus, person and mission tend to coincide: all Christ’s saving activity was, and is, an expression of His “filial consciousness” which from all eternity stands before the Father in an attitude of loving submission to His will. In a humble yet genuine way, every priest must aim for a similar identification. Certainly this is not to forget that the efficacy of the ministry is independent of the holiness of the minister; but neither can we overlook the extraordinary fruitfulness of the encounter between the ministry’s objective holiness and the subjective holiness of the minister. The Cure of Ars immediately set about this patient and humble task of harmonising his life as a minister with the holiness of the ministry he had received, by deciding to “live”, physically, in his parish church: As his first biographer tells us: “Upon his arrival, he chose the church as his home. He entered the church before dawn and did not leave it until after the evening Angelus. There he was to be sought whenever needed”.

The pious excess of his devout biographer should not blind us to the fact that the Cure also knew how to “live” actively within the entire territory of his parish: he regularly visited the sick and families, organised popular missions and patronal feasts, collected and managed funds for his charitable and missionary works, embellished and furnished his parish church, cared for the orphans and teachers of the “Providence” (an institute he founded); provided for the education of children; founded confraternities and enlisted lay persons to work at his side.

His example naturally leads me to point out that there are sectors of co-operation which need to be opened ever more fully to the lay faithful. Priests and laity together make up the one priestly people and in virtue of their ministry priests live in the midst of the lay faithful, “that they may lead everyone to the unity of charity, ‘loving one another with mutual affection; and outdoing one another in sharing honour'”. Here we ought to recall the Vatican Council II’s hearty encouragement to priests “to be sincere in their appreciation and promotion of the dignity of the laity and of the special role they have to play in the Church’s mission. … They should be willing to listen to lay people, give brotherly consideration to their wishes, and acknowledge their experience and competence in the different fields of human activity. In this way they will be able together with them to discern the signs of the times”.

St. John Mary Vianney taught his parishioners primarily by the witness of his life. It was from his example that they learned to pray, halting frequently before the tabernacle for a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. “One need not say much to pray well” – the Cure explained to them – “We know that Jesus is there in the tabernacle: let us open our hearts to Him, let us rejoice in His sacred presence. That is the best prayer”. And he would urge them: “Come to communion, my brothers and sisters, come to Jesus. Come to live from Him in order to live with Him. … “Of course you are not worthy of him, but you need him!”. This way of educating the faithful to the Eucharistic presence and to communion proved most effective when they saw him celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Those present said that “it was not possible to find a finer example of worship. … He gazed upon the Host with immense love”. “All good works, taken together, do not equal the sacrifice of the Mass” – he would say – “since they are human works, while the Holy Mass is the work of God”. He was convinced that the fervour of a priest’s life depended entirely upon the Mass: “The reason why a priest is lax is that he does not pay attention to the Mass! My God, how we ought to pity a priest who celebrates as if he were engaged in something routine!”. He was accustomed, when celebrating, also to offer his own life in sacrifice: “What a good thing it is for a priest each morning to offer himself to God in sacrifice!”

This deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Cross led him – by a sole inward movement – from the altar to the confessional. Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this Sacrament. In France, at the time of the Cure of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion. Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence. He thus created a “virtuous” circle. By spending long hours in church before the tabernacle, he inspired the faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and offer forgiveness. Later, the growing numbers of penitents from all over France would keep him in the confessional for up to sixteen hours a day. It was said that Ars had become “a great hospital of souls”. His first biographer relates that “the grace he obtained [for the conversion of sinners] was so powerful that it would pursue them, not leaving them a moment of peace!”. The saintly Cure reflected something of the same idea when he said: “It is not the sinner who returns to God to beg his forgiveness, but God Himself who runs after the sinner and makes him return to Him”. “This good Saviour is so filled with love that He seeks us everywhere”.

We priests should feel that the following words, which he put on the lips of Christ, are meant for each of us personally: “I will charge my ministers to proclaim to sinners that I am ever ready to welcome them, that my mercy is infinite”. From St. John Mary Vianney we can learn to put our unfailing trust in the Sacrament of Penance, to set it once more at the centre of our pastoral concerns, and to take up the “dialogue of salvation” which it entails. The Cure of Ars dealt with different penitents in different ways. Those who came to his confessional drawn by a deep and humble longing for God’s forgiveness found in him the encouragement to plunge into the “flood of divine mercy” which sweeps everything away by its vehemence. If someone was troubled by the thought of his own frailty and inconstancy, and fearful of sinning again, the Cure would unveil the mystery of God’s love in these beautiful and touching words: “The good Lord knows everything. Even before you confess, He already knows that you will sin again, yet He still forgives you. How great is the love of our God: He even forces Himself to forget the future, so that He can grant us His forgiveness!”. But to those who made a lukewarm and rather indifferent confession of sin, he clearly demonstrated by his own tears of pain how “abominable” this attitude was: “I weep because you don’t weep”, he would say. “If only the Lord were not so good! But He is so good! One would have to be a brute to treat so good a Father this way!”. He awakened repentance in the hearts of the lukewarm by forcing them to see God’s own pain at their sins reflected in the face of the priest who was their confessor. To those who, on the other hand, came to him already desirous of and suited to a deeper spiritual life, he flung open the abyss of God’s love, explaining the untold beauty of living in union with Him and dwelling in His presence: “Everything in God’s sight, everything with God, everything to please God. … How beautiful it is!”. And he taught them to pray: “My God, grant me the grace to love You as much as I possibly can”.

In his time the Cure of Ars was able to transform the hearts and the lives of so many people because he enabled them to experience the Lord’s merciful love. Our own time urgently needs a similar proclamation and witness to the truth of Love. Thanks to the Word and the Sacraments of Jesus, John Mary Vianney built up his flock, although he often trembled from a conviction of his personal inadequacy, and desired more than once to withdraw from the responsibilities of the parish ministry out of a sense of his unworthiness. Nonetheless, with exemplary obedience he never abandoned his post, consumed as he was by apostolic zeal for the salvation of souls. He sought to remain completely faithful to his own vocation and mission through the practice of an austere asceticism: “The great misfortune for us parish priests – he lamented – is that our souls grow tepid”; meaning by this that a pastor can grow dangerously inured to the state of sin or of indifference in which so many of his flock are living. He himself kept a tight rein on his body, with vigils and fasts, lest it rebel against his priestly soul. Nor did he avoid self-mortification for the good of the souls in his care and as a help to expiating the many sins he heard in confession. To a priestly confrere he explained: “I will tell you my recipe: I give sinners a small penance and the rest I do in their place”. Aside from the actual penances which the Cure of Ars practised, the core of his teaching remains valid for each of us: souls have been won at the price of Jesus’ own blood, and a priest cannot devote himself to their salvation if he refuses to share personally in the “precious cost” of redemption.

In today’s world, as in the troubled times of the Cure of Ars, the lives and activity of priests need to be distinguished by a forceful witness to the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI rightly noted, “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses”. Lest we experience existential emptiness and the effectiveness of our ministry be compromised, we need to ask ourselves ever anew: “Are we truly pervaded by the Word of God? Is that Word truly the nourishment we live by, even more than bread and the things of this world? Do we really know that Word? Do we love it? Are we deeply engaged with this Word to the point that it really leaves a mark on our lives and shapes our thinking?”. Just as Jesus called the Twelve to be with Him, and only later sent them forth to preach, so too in our days priests are called to assimilate that “new style of life” which was inaugurated by the Lord Jesus and taken up by the Apostles.

It was complete commitment to this “new style of life” which marked the priestly ministry of the Cure of Ars. Pope John XXIII, in his Encyclical Letter “Sacerdotii nostri primordia”, published in 1959 on the first centenary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney, presented his asceticism with special reference to the “three evangelical counsels” which the Pope considered necessary also for priests: “even though priests are not bound to embrace these evangelical counsels by virtue of the clerical state, these counsels nonetheless offer them, as they do all the faithful, the surest road to the desired goal of Christian perfection”. The Cure of Ars lived the “evangelical counsels” in a way suited to his priestly state. His poverty was not the poverty of a religious or a monk, but that proper to a priest: while managing much money (since well-to-do pilgrims naturally took an interest in his charitable works), he realised that everything had been donated to his church, his poor, his orphans, the girls of his “Providence”, his families of modest means. Consequently, he “was rich in giving to others and very poor for himself”. As he would explain: “My secret is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back”. When he lacked money, he would say amiably to the poor who knocked at his door: “Today I’m poor just like you, I’m one of you”. At the end of his life, he could say with absolute tranquillity: “I no longer have anything. The good Lord can call me whenever he wants!”. His chastity, too, was that demanded of a priest for his ministry. It could be said that it was a chastity suited to one who must daily touch the Eucharist, who contemplates it blissfully and with that same bliss offers it to his flock. It was said of him that “he radiated chastity”; the faithful would see this when he turned and gazed at the tabernacle with loving eyes”. Finally, Saint John Mary Vianney’s obedience found full embodiment in his conscientious fidelity to the daily demands of his ministry. We know how he was tormented by the thought of his inadequacy for parish ministry and by a desire to flee “in order to bewail his poor life, in solitude”. Only obedience and a thirst for souls convinced him to remain at his post. As he explained to himself and his flock: “There are no two good ways of serving God. There is only one: serve him as he desires to be served”. He considered this the golden rule for a life of obedience: “Do only what can be offered to the good Lord”.

In this context of a spirituality nourished by the practice of the evangelical counsels, I would like to invite all priests, during this Year dedicated to them, to welcome the new springtime which the Spirit is now bringing about in the Church, not least through the ecclesial movements and the new communities. “In his gifts the Spirit is multifaceted. … He breathes where He wills. He does so unexpectedly, in unexpected places, and in ways previously unheard of, … but he also shows us that He works with a view to the one body and in the unity of the one body”. In this regard, the statement of the Decree “Presbyterorum Ordinis” continues to be timely: “While testing the spirits to discover if they be of God, priests must discover with faith, recognise with joy and foster diligently the many and varied charismatic gifts of the laity, whether these be of a humble or more exalted kind”. These gifts, which awaken in many people the desire for a deeper spiritual life, can benefit not only the lay faithful but the clergy as well. The communion between ordained and charismatic ministries can provide “a helpful impulse to a renewed commitment by the Church in proclaiming and bearing witness to the Gospel of hope and charity in every corner of the world”. I would also like to add, echoing the Apostolic Exhortation “Pastores Dabo Vobis” of Pope John Paul II, that the ordained ministry has a radical “communitarian form” and can be exercised only in the communion of priests with their bishop. This communion between priests and their bishop, grounded in the Sacrament of Holy Orders and made manifest in Eucharistic concelebration, needs to be translated into various concrete expressions of an effective and affective priestly fraternity. Only thus will priests be able to live fully the gift of celibacy and build thriving Christian communities in which the miracles which accompanied the first preaching of the Gospel can be repeated.

The Pauline Year now coming to its close invites us also to look to the Apostle of the Gentiles, who represents a splendid example of a priest entirely devoted to his ministry. “The love of Christ urges us on” – he wrote – “because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died”. And he adds: “He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for Him Who died and was raised for them”. Could a finer programme be proposed to any priest resolved to advance along the path of Christian perfection?

Dear brother priests, the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney (1859) follows upon the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Lourdes (1858). In 1959 Blessed Pope John XXIII noted that “shortly before the Cure of Ars completed his long and admirable life, the Immaculate Virgin appeared in another part of France to an innocent and humble girl, and entrusted to her a message of prayer and penance which continues, even a century later, to yield immense spiritual fruits. The life of this holy priest whose centenary we are commemorating in a real way anticipated the great supernatural truths taught to the seer of Massabielle. He was greatly devoted to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin; in 1836 he had dedicated his parish church to Our Lady Conceived without Sin and he greeted the dogmatic definition of this truth in 1854 with deep faith and great joy”. The Cure would always remind his faithful that “after giving us all he could, Jesus Christ wishes in addition to bequeath us His most precious possession, His Blessed Mother”.

To the Most Holy Virgin I entrust this Year for Priests. I ask her to awaken in the heart of every priest a generous and renewed commitment to the ideal of complete self-oblation to Christ and the Church which inspired the thoughts and actions of the saintly Cure of Ars. It was his fervent prayer life and his impassioned love of Christ Crucified that enabled John Mary Vianney to grow daily in his total self-oblation to God and the Church. May his example lead all priests to offer that witness of unity with their bishop, with one another and with the lay faithful, which today, as ever, is so necessary. Despite all the evil present in our world, the words which Christ spoke to His Apostles in the Upper Room continue to inspire us: “In the world you have tribulation; but take courage, I have overcome the world”. Our faith in the Divine Master gives us the strength to look to the future with confidence. Dear priests, Christ is counting on you. In the footsteps of the Cure 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!

entering the grace of the Year for Priests

On April 25th of this year, Cardinal James Francis Stafford, the recently-retired head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, released a decree announcing that there will be special indulgences available to both priests and the rest of the faithful during the Year for Priests (which begins tomorrow).

Since there are certain indulgences attached to tomorrow’s celebrations, I’m dedicating a blog post to the topic today, in the hope that at least some of you will be able to take advantage of this special opportunity.

Here’s the introduction to the decree, which provides some context:

During the Year for Priests established by the Holy Father on the occasion of the anniversary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney, the gift of special indulgences is granted.

Shortly the day will come on which will be commemorated the 150th anniversary of the pious departure to Heaven of St John Mary Vianney, the Curé d’Ars. This Saint was a wonderful model here on earth of a true Pastor at the service of Christ’s flock.

Since his example is used to encourage the faithful, and especially priests, to imitate his virtues, the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI has established that for this occasion a special Year for Priests will be celebrated, from 19 June 2009 to 19 June 2010, in which all priests may be increasingly strengthened in fidelity to Christ with devout meditation, spiritual exercises and other appropriate actions.

This holy period will begin with the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a day of priestly sanctification on which the Supreme Pontiff will celebrate Vespers in the presence of the holy relics of St John Mary Vianney, brought to Rome by the Bishop of Belley-Ars, France.

The Most Holy Father will likewise preside at the conclusion of the Year for Priests in St Peter’s Square, in the presence of priests from across the world who will renew their fidelity to Christ and the bond of brotherhood.

May priests commit themselves, with prayer and good works, to obtaining from Christ the Eternal High Priest, the grace to shine with Faith, Hope, Charity and the other virtues, and show by their way of life, but also with their external conduct, that they are dedicated without reserve to the spiritual good of the people, something that the Church has always had at heart.

The gift of Sacred Indulgences which the Apostolic Penitentiary, with this Decree issued in conformity with the wishes of the August Pontiff, graciously grants during the Year for Priests will be of great help in achieving the desired purpose in the best possible way.

Before describing the particular requirements for the indulgences, I should acknowledge that there are many people who either are not familiar with the Church’s teaching on indulgences, think the Church has abandoned the practice of granting them, or have objections to what they think the Church teaches about them. To all such people, I recommend the following two articles: Indulgences: the treasures of the Catholic Church and Myths about Indulgences. I also cover the topic briefly at the beginning of an RCIA Hollywood podcast on a Catholic vision of the moral life.

The decree continues by spelling out the particulars, which I’ll summarize here:

  • For priests:

A plenary indulgence is available on any day of this Year for Priests.

The conditions are:

  • praying Morning or Evening Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament (either exposed or reposed);
  • offering themselves with ready and generous hearts to celebrating the sacraments, especially Confession; and
  • observing the normal conditions for an indulgence: being truly repentant for sin; going to confession, participating in the Eucharist, and praying for the Pope’s intentions.

A partial indulgence is available to priests “every time that they devoutly recite the prayers duly approved so as to lead a holy life and to carry out in a holy manner the offices entrusted to them.”

  • For all of the faithful:A plenary indulgence is available:
    • on the days which open and close the Year for Priests;
    • on the 150th anniversary of the death of St John Vianney (August 4);
    • on the first Thursday of each month; and
    • on any other days established by the local bishop.

    The conditions are:

    • attending Mass;
    • offering prayers and good works to Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest, on behalf of the Church’s priests; and
    • observing the other normal conditions for an indulgence: being truly repentant for sin; going to confession and praying for the Pope’s intentions.

    On the same days, the elderly, sick, and homebound can obtain the indulgence by:

    • reciting prayers for the sanctification of priests;
    • offering their sufferings to God through Mary, Queen of Apostles; and
    • fulfilling the conditions prescribed for all of the faithful as soon as they are able.

    A partial indulgence is available to all the faithful whenever they devoutly recite five Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glorias (or another expressly approved prayer) in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with the intention that priests be preserved in purity and holiness.


During this Year for Priests, may the first sign of our solidarity with the Church — and with priests, in particular — be our prayers and offerings to God, along with the witness of a holy life.

what parishes and clergy can do for returning troops

In honor of the Memorial Day weekend, American Public Media released a broadcast in its Speaking of Faith series called The Soul of War. In the show, the host interviews Chaplain Major John Morris about his work as a military chaplain. Chaplain Morris has started a program in cooperation with the National Guard in Minnesota called Beyond The Yellow Ribbon, which is designed to help soldiers re-integrate into their families and communities after returning from combat. There’s a bill before Congress to roll out this first-of-a-kind program nationally.

The whole broadcast is available here on the Speaking of Faith website, along with a transcript, audio slideshow and other resources. There is also a helpful essay by Chaplain Morris with his recommendations for church communitites and pastors.

It’s worth listening to the whole broadcast, but here are a few sections that I found particularly interesting:

Maj. Morris: In your congregation are men and women whose sons and daughters, or grandmas and grandpas, or fathers and mothers are off risking their lives. How do you tend to them? And how do you help that soldier come home? Big, big pastoral challenge.


Maj. Morris: In Medieval days, in some parts of Europe, [the soliders] were stopped before they entered the village… Stripped off their clothes that they had fought in, bathed, heard confession again, celebrated the Eucharist, and then allowed back in the village. Now, what were they saying there? ‘You know, there needs to be some business done with God and with the community prior to allowing you to rejoin us. We need to leave the old out here.’


Maj. Morris: One of the things that I see as a challenge here is how does the community accept its moral obligation to reintegrate veterans and their families? … I am begging for the community, let’s talk quickly, because there’s no end in sight to veterans returning, and how we help them reconnect sets us up for a successful, healthy future or for lingering problems and wounds from this war.

an interview with Bishop Samuel Aquila

A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles for a newspaper called The Catholic Servant. Based in Minneapolis, this publication is printed monthly and focuses on topics related to catechesis and evangelization. The publisher, John Sondag, was kind enough to give me permission to reprint one of these articles on my blog. It’s about Bishop Aquila, a native of California who is now serving in the prairies of Fargo, North Dakota. (NOTE: In May of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named Aquila as archbishop of Denver, Colorado.

I was especially interested in his involvement in establishing the new seminary in Denver. It sounds like a great program of priestly formation. Maybe one day Pope Benedict XVI will ask him to return to his native land to serve as a bishop in the Los Angeles area. The harvest is ready, but the laborers are few.

* * *

Bishop Samuel Joseph Aquila, a native of Burbank, California, was ordained coadjutor bishop of Fargo, North Dakota, on August 24, 2001, and became the ordinary in March of 2002. Previously, he had served the Archdiocese of Denver as pastor, director of the Office of Liturgy, director of Continuing Education for Priests, secretary of Catholic education, and, most recently, rector of the new Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary. The Catholic Servant interviewed him about his vocation and ministry.

Describe your discernment of a priestly vocation.

Although I had considered a vocation to priesthood as early as the eighth grade, I felt drawn to a career in medicine during my teenage years. After I had done some work in hospitals during my senior year of high school, I decided I wanted to study pre-med. Skiing was also a priority, so I chose the University of Colorado at Boulder.

During my college years, I stopped practicing my faith for a while. I studied other religions – some Hinduism and Buddhism – and also a number of Christian denominations. Then I began to reflect on my faith more profoundly through my involvement with the student center on campus; one day, while attending a communion service with Methodists, I asked them what they believed about the Eucharist. They spoke of it as a meal and as fellowship, but what was missing was an understanding of the Real Presence. That is what really brought me back into the Church. A deep love for the Catholic faith had really always been present, at least in seminal form, from my upbringing and Catholic education.

I always had a strong desire to serve people. I felt torn between two choices: the priesthood and a career in medicine. I spent my summers during college working in hospital emergency rooms. I enjoyed it tremendously, but also recognized that in emergency rooms, the tendency was simply to treat symptoms and move on to the next patient. There was no real spiritual guidance, particularly for people experiencing death within their families. The more I reflected and prayed, the more I believed I needed to spend at least six months in the seminary to discern a vocation. By the end of that time, I had a very strong conviction that priesthood was God’s call for me.

One of your responsibilities in the Archdiocese of Denver was to prepare the liturgies for World Youth Day in 1993. What was that like?

I discovered that Denver had been chosen to host World Youth Day shortly after I was named director of the Office of Liturgy. Planning and coordinating all of the liturgies for the Holy Father was an unforgettable experience. Working so closely with the Pope for those four days was very powerful, particularly seeing the rapport he had with young people. He helped them to know the truth of the Gospel and constantly called them into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

You also helped to establish a new diocesan seminary in Denver.

Yes. In the fall of 1994, the Vincentian Fathers notified Archbishop Stafford that they were closing Saint Thomas Seminary. He asked me to begin investigating the possibility of opening a new seminary. The archbishop wanted the seminary to be modeled after the seminary in Paris that Cardinal Lustiger opened in the 1980’s. Lustiger instituted a preliminary spirituality year, designed to help men in their vocational discernment. During this year, the men would read the whole of Sacred Scripture prayerfully, using the lectio divina method. When I went to Paris to visit, many of the men said that prayerful reading of Scripture had led them to a much deeper sense of the person of Jesus Christ and a deeper sense of their vocation. Seeing the enthusiasm of these young men and the depth of their faith, I recognized the validity of the experience. We implemented a similar program in 1998 in Denver. In the fall of 1999, Archbishop Chaput – who had arrived in Denver in 1997 – made the decision to open the Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary, and he named me rector.

What was your reaction when you discovered that the Church was calling you to serve as a bishop?

On May 31, 2001, Archbishop Chaput called me from Las Vegas. He was there for the ordination of Bishop Joseph Pepe. “I need to talk with you,” he said. When we later sat down together, we began by talking about the seminary. When we finished, he looked at me and said, “Now for the real reason I called you over here. The Holy Father has called you to become the coadjutor bishop of Fargo, North Dakota.” I am not usually at a loss for words, but my response was one of total silence. He looked at me and said, “You’re not responding.” And I said, “No.” He said, “I’m serious; I’m not joking.” And I said, “I realize that. That’s why I’m not responding.” The first thing that ran through my mind was that my life has changed forever. The reality of giving my life totally to the Church became even more real. I was going to be taken somewhere I really didn’t know. I sensed a strong call to obedience in a way that I never experienced it before. After prayer, I could see the providence of God in it. In the fall of 2000, I had been the speaker for the clergy days up in Fargo. So at least I had visited North Dakota once prior to being assigned there as bishop! This was God’s way of preparing the way for me.

How would you describe your goals in North Dakota?

My primary goal is getting to know the people of the diocese I am called to serve. I am very impressed with the depth of their faith and their commitment to the dignity of human life and the family. One can sense in them a great love for the Church.

My priorities include evangelization and encouraging participation in the sacraments – especially the Eucharist and Penance. These two sacraments instill within us a deep sense, that no matter what vocation we are living, each of us is called to holiness and to bring the presence of Christ into the world.

Reprinted with permission of The Catholic Servant

appreciating God’s mercy in the sacrament of Penance

John Paul II forgives Mehmet Ali Agca

John Paul II forgives his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca

Have you ever showed up at a parish for confession, during the regularly scheduled time, and found that no priest was available in the confessional? It’s happened to me three times – at two different parishes – in the eight months I have lived in the archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Of course, there is no way for me to know for certain the reasons for the priest’s absence. It could be that the priest was called away due to an emergency. In other cases, maybe no one showed up at the scheduled time, but does that mean the priest should simply leave before the end of the scheduled time for confessions?

Regardless of the reasons for the vacant confessional, I will say that the impression it left with this aspiring penitent was that the celebration of the sacrament was not considered to be very important to the priests (and parishioners) at these parishes. When a parish has only two scheduled opportunities for confession each week, and then no one shows up at these times, perhaps we are witnessing a case of mutual “de-evangelization,” in which the indifference of parishioners leads to indifference of priests, and vice versa.

Maybe offering the sacrament more frequently would lead some parishioners to think: “hmm… maybe this sacrament is not just for wanton murderers.” In the Pope’s 2002 letter On Certain Aspects of the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, he writes:

All priests with faculties to administer the Sacrament of Penance are always to show themselves wholeheartedly disposed to administer it whenever the faithful make a reasonable request. An unwillingness to welcome the wounded sheep, and even to go out to them in order to bring them back to the fold, would be a sad sign of a lack of pastoral sensibility in those who, by priestly Ordination, must reflect the image of the Good Shepherd….

It is particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the advertised times, that these times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that confessions be especially available before Masses, and even during Mass if there are other priests available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful.

The practice of making confessions available before or during Mass is also mentioned in the recent instruction on the Eucharist (Redemptionis Sacramentum, paragraph 76).

Last Friday, the Pope addressed the bishops of California, Nevada, and Hawaii and exhorted them to a renewal of the sacrament of Penance. Among other things, he noted that:

  • we are all called to a profound conversion of heart and mind
  • the credibility of the Church’s proclamation is closely tied to the holiness of her members
  • the loss of the sense of sin urgently needs to be addressed
  • recognizing oneself as a sinner is the “first and essential step in returning to the healing love of God”
  • the priest is to express the mercy of God – rather than “a mere sense of favor” – toward sinners
  • there is a need for priests to give more emphasis to the beauty and power of the sacrament of Penance

Here are some of my favorite passages from last Friday’s address:

The courage to face the crisis of the loss of the sense of sin, to which I alerted the whole Church early in my Pontificate (cf. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 18), must be addressed today with particular urgency. While the effects of sin abound – greed, dishonesty and corruption, broken relationships and exploitation of persons, pornography and violence – the recognition of individual sinfulness has waned. In its place a disturbing culture of blame and litigiousness has arisen which speaks more of revenge than justice and fails to acknowledge that in every man and woman there is a wound which, in the light of faith, we call original sin (cf. ibid., 2).

Saint John tells us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 Jn 1:8). Sin is an integral part of the truth about the human person. To recognize oneself as a sinner is the first and essential step in returning to the healing love of God. Given this reality, the Bishop’s duty to indicate the sad and destructive presence of sin, both in individuals and in communities, is in fact a service of hope. Far from being something negative, it strengthens believers to abandon evil and embrace the perfection of love and the fullness of Christian life. Let us boldly announce that indeed we are not the sum total of our weaknesses and failures! We are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and capable of becoming the image of his Son!….

We all can be lured by the temptation to separate ourselves from the Father and thus suffer loss of dignity, humiliation and shame, but equally so we all can have the courage to turn back to the Father who embraces us with a love which, transcending even justice, manifests itself as mercy….

Christ, who reveals the abounding mercy of God, demands the same of us, even when confronted with grievous sin. Indeed mercy “constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission” (ibid., 6) and thus can never be set aside in the name of pragmatism. It is precisely the father’s fidelity to the merciful love proper to him as a father that sees him restore the filial relationship of his son who “was lost and is found” (Lk 15:32). As pastors of your flock it is with this merciful love – never a mere sense of favor – that you too must “reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin” (Dives in Misericordia, 6). In this way you will draw good from evil, restore life from death, revealing anew the authentic face of the Father’s mercy so necessary in our times.

Dear Brothers, I particularly wish to encourage you in your promotion of the Sacrament of Penance. As a divinely instituted means by which the Church offers the pastoral activity of reconciliation, it is “the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1484). Though it cannot be denied that the profound power of this Sacrament is often considered today with indifference it is also the case that young people in particular readily give testimony to the graces and transforming benefits it bestows. Strengthened by this encouraging message I again appeal directly to you and to your priests: arm yourselves with more confidence, creativity and perseverance in presenting it and leading people to appreciate it (cf. Novo Millennio Ineunte, 37). Time spent in the confessional is time spent in service of the spiritual patrimony of the Church and the salvation of souls (cf. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 29)

As Bishops, it is of special importance for you to have frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in order to obtain the gift of that mercy of which you yourselves have been made ministers (cf. Pastores Gregis, 13 ). Since you are called to show forth the face of the Good Shepherd, and therefore to have the heart of Christ himself, you more than others must make your own the Psalmist’s ardent cry: “A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps 51:12). Sanctified by the graces received in your regular reception of the sacrament, I am confident that you will encourage your brother priests and indeed all the faithful to discover anew the full beauty of this sacrament.