Many today (August 4th) will celebrate St John Vianney, the “Curé d’Ars” and patron saint of Parish Priests whose heavenly nativity occurred on this date in 1859, although his feast is traditionally kept on August 9th. Below is a letter I wrote in 2010 on the 150th anniversary of the Curé’s birthday and which I proffer again to my brethren in the Oratory of St John Vianney as we begin to prepare to celebrate our spiritual father’s feast next Sunday.
Addressed to the Brethren of the Oratory
The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, 19/vi/09
Annus Sacerdotalis 2009-2010
From the Provost General, The Oratory of St John Vianney
My dear brother Oratorians
I write to you today on this great Feast of Our Lord’s Divine Charity for mankind and at the start of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s “Annus Sacerdotalis” or “Year of the Priest” celebrating the 150th anniversary of the death of our holy patron St John Vianney, to share with you some thoughts about our vocation as both Priests and as Brothers to Priests.
Those of you who have shared in my learning as Postulants for Ordination, will remember my instruction that the first duty of every Christian and therefore Priest, is to pray. The second is to offer the holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments of the Church for God’s people. The first rule therefore aims at our interior life, our personal spirituality; the second at the nature of our vocation and its expression both as instruments of religion and as ministers of salvation.
The Holy Father in his own letter to brother Priests around the world, reminds us too of the importance of the interior life, it is how our own spirituality is developed; if we are not men of prayer ourselves, if we do not have that interior relationship and dialogue with God, how are we to bring others to pray? His Holiness reminds us that, like our holy Father St John Vianney, we must be exemplars of Christian discipleship to those we minister to and to the whole world – we must be seen to be Priests, men of prayer, for by our witness will others be drawn to receive our ministry.
Offering the holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments of the Church is how the Lord desires us and His people to be nourished and sustained; indeed, the Mass is the only direct and tangible way that we commune with the Divine, it is no coincidence that the Lord instructed us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” [Mtt 6:11] and when He said “…My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink…” [Jn 6:55] when He tells us that He gives us a “heavenly manna” better than that which was given to our forefathers in the desert [Jn 6:47-51]. It is how we receive eternal life [Jn 6:40-55].
As Priests we are “instruments of religion” because we are “set apart”, as “alter Christus” another Christ, we stand at the Altar of Sacrifice, not in the stead of Him but He through us continues to offer that same propiatory sacrifice of His death on the Cross, that atonement for the sins of the world for all time; for we do not say “This is His body” but “This is My Body”. For this reason St Paul, that holy Apostle whose memory and teaching we have reflected on this past year, says “…when you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim His death until He comes again…” [I Cor 11:26] the mystery of the Mass is that we witness that same Crucifixion, that same Sacrifice of the Divine to the Divine in atonement for our sins. For this reason we are truly Priests in the same way the sons of Levi were in the Temple [Lev16:1-34; Heb 7:11-23], we are Sacred Ministers for we celebrate and offer sacrifice to the Divine, but as Christ was the “fulfillment of the Law” [Mtt 5: 17-18; Lk 24:44] of the old religion, we are able too to sanctify, to make holy, for He through us [Heb 7:16], by the power of the Holy Spirit given to the Apostles [Acts 2:4] and to us in their succession, He operates through us to His people; it is He through us who sanctifies, quickens and blesses for He is that “…great High Priest who has passed into the heavens…” [Heb 4:14] but who promised “I will be with you always, even to the end of the world…” [Mtt 28:20]
The power of the Holy Spirit given to the Apostles, which we receive in Ordinaton as Priests to share in the ministry both sacramental and evangelical of the Bishop, makes us “ministers of salvation” because Our Lord wills the life of grace for His people to be effected through us. Which is to say that His Divine Will is effected by His gift of the Holy Spirit, that His promises and graces are made available to His people – through the Sacraments Our Lord remains with His Church, the Head is connected to the Body, the life blood, the waters of eternal life, flow from Him through and to us. Thus when we celebrate the Sacraments it is He through us who imparts His grace to His people; in Baptism it is He who exorcises and receives, in Confirmation it is He who imparts and seals, in Marriage it is He who binds and blesses, in Ordination it is He who sets apart and commissions, in Holy Unction it is He who comforts and heals, in Confession it is He who forgives and absolves; all these things He does through us as living icons, windows through which the Lord is able to touch His people. So it is then that we are “ministers of salvation” because all that is necessary for salvation is made tangible by Him through us, the Sacraments are the means by which the promise of salvation is made continually present and effectual to God’s people, it is how they are touched by their God, how He comforts and consoles, how He nourishes and sustains, how He assures them of His presence in their lives.
“In persona Christi”
So it is then that our personal holiness, our personal sanctity is vitally important to the success of the proclamation of the Gospel; we being set apart must bear witness not just by words but by actions, by the ordinary living of our daily lives we must extol all that is necessary for salvation – submitting ourselves to the Will of God, offering ourselves to Him to be used as instruments of His will. If we, who are educated, trained in holy things, bound to pray the “Prayer of the Church”, commissioned and empowered to effect and demonstrate the promises of Christ through us for His people, if we are ourselves not holy, then we endanger not just our own salvation but that of all those souls committed to our care and many others who by virtue of our office, see us as representatives of the whole body of the Church. This too the Holy Father touches upon in his letter, we perhaps more than most, are like unto “…ambassadors for Christ…” [II Cor 5:20] for we are seen publicly to represent His Church. For this then we have His yoke upon our shoulders, we embody His wounds – the scourges and insults, the mocking and scorn – we share in His burden. Just as all Christians in bearing His name must expect insult and injury – how much more then must we who are identifiable and set apart publicly and purposefully? It is for this reason that our brotherhood exists, it is for this very reason that the Oratory exists…
“The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus. When you see the priest, think of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” St. John Vianney
The Oratory of St John Vianney was originally called the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in the earliest days of it’s conception. We adopted and changed our title to express the charism of the Curé D’Ars because of his saintly teaching regarding the “heart of Jesus” and the Priest. Our holy Father the Curé means by his words that the love of Christ is made manifest in the Priesthood because of all that Our Lord does through His Priests – the Sacraments that give salvific life to His Church, to His people. Recognising this, our saintly patron remembers too the limitations of our human condition, an understanding he had of himself as well as others. The Oratory is a brotherhood for Priests where we can encourage and console one another by sharing the great burden and joy which we share in our Office and in our condition. Fraternal charity – itself an expression of the Divine Charity – that Our Lord wills His people live-in together, is that which binds the brotherhood together. We are a brotherhood because by our common vocation and heritage we are like the sons of Levi, a tribe set apart within the people of God for the people of God; like that ancient title of the Patriarch of the West, “servum servorum Dei” we are the servants of the servants of God.
We also too, being uniquely bound to His most Sacred Heart by virtue of our Office must also too share in His pain as well as His love; for His Body which may be seen as one yet suffers fractures and we must share in His prayer “ut unum sint” (“…that they may be one…” [Jn 17:6-19]). For this reason then our brotherhood is an Oratory – for we share in the first duty of our Priesthood together, to pray, and we share in that prayer of Our Lord for His Church, for that unity which yet evades us. For this reason our fraternity has always been about prayer and the pursuit for unity, by virtue of the love of Christ manifest in our vocation and as an expression of that closeness we have to that Divine Heart by virtue of our Ordination. So too His people must be our concern also, for we are Ordained for Him to love them and thus what hurts Him so hurts us, and what hurts them too, must hurt us; for His love and concern are always for them, and so it should be for us. In this way our fraternity seeks to emulate the examples of our holy patrons, St John Vianney who so loved His people that he worked tirelessly day and night for their salvation and St Phillip Neri whose heart, so touched one Pentecost, could do no other than love His brothers and love His people; His brothers, His people. For so we Sacred Ministers are Our Lord’s brothers, united to Him as we are for Him to touch His people.
So then my brothers, how can we serve one another and serve His people? Firstly by encouraging each other in the sanctification and pursuit of salvation for our own souls in our own lives, by praying for each other, by supporting each other and seeking out our brother Priests everywhere seeking to offer them the same service, one for another. Then by serving His people by offering His Sacraments and most particularly the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – the “source and summit” of the life of His Body the Church, the means by which He is seen to save and we are able to commune with Him, the whole Godhead, the whole of His Body – the communion of Saints. I urge you brothers to offer the Holy Sacrifice as often as you can, to make available to His people the Sacrament of His Love, to offer their pleas and petitions through Him to Our Father, to make available to them His daily bread, to assure them of His abiding presence in their midst. In these two ways, prayer and offering the Holy Sacrifice – we make our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving by the subjugation of our lives to His Will. Whether alone or with company, whether in consecrated building or with the best you are able to muster, however humble, offer the Holy Sacrifice both for your own soul and all souls. Commune with the Divine daily if at all possible, for it is at the Altar that we all, the whole Priesthood, the whole brotherhood, the whole Oratory comes together through the ages, across the continents in service of each other, His people and Him. Make time, make sacrifice to offer The Sacrifice, give yourselves completely to His service that you may be used as an instrument of His salvation for His people, that you may be consoled by the knowledge of your own unworthiness by the presence of Himself in your company at the Altar. See Him before you as you are before Him, touch Him and He touches you and heals, forgives, makes whole both you, broken vessel that you are and His people. Take His yoke upon you that He may share in your burden as much as you share in His. Realise your Priesthood for yourself as well as others. Follow the example of our holy Fathers, the Curé and St Phillip and you too will receive all that they did that you too may receive that eternal reward which all seek; you too can be made worthy, with a “humble and contrite heart” [Ps 51:17].
Be assured my brother Oratorians of my prayers for you all most especially for this year of grace afforded us by the suggestion of the Holy Father to reflect and consolidate our vocations.
Most fraternally in Christ