Sunday, October 3, 2010

Reviving Our Faith in Priests: Letter of the Minister General and Definitory for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

Dear Brothers,
May the Lord give you peace!

As part of a tradition, we write to you on this occasion to greet and wish you a Happy Feast Day of our Father St. Francis. May this be an opportunity to re-invigorate our Charism to follow Christ according to the way of life handed down to us by St. Francis!

Reflecting on the Year for Priests, recently celebrated by the Church, and on the requests made by some of the brothers, this year we wish to share with you some thoughts on the ministerial priesthood in light of the Writings of St. Francis. This should lead us to a reflection on the identity of the Friars Minor called to priesthood – as requested by the General Chapter of 2009 in mandate 2. Afterwards, we will have the occasion to reflect on the identity of the lay brothers.

Indeed, with the Poor Man of Assisi and in harmony with the Church, we want to deepen our faith in the ministerial priesthood “which is not merely an ‘office’ but a “sacrament” (Benedict XVI, Homily, June 11, 2010). For this reason, we are dealing with a beautiful and great reality entrusted to men chosen to be “among and for the people” (Heb 5:1); it is also shows the boldness of God who entrusts himself to human beings and who, though aware of our weaknesses, considers them able to act and be present in his stead. This boldness of God is truly great when one considers that God hides in the word “Priest” (Benedict XVI l.c.).

“The Lord gave me such a great faith in priests” (Test 6)

Eight centuries ago, in his Testament, Francis confessed explicitly his convinced-faith in priests, even in “poor priests”; it is a faith we are called to live out today by rediscovering the meaning of the priestly ministry for both our life and mission. For Francis, priesthood is looked at, above all, in relation to “the body and blood of Christ…” and to “the holy words…of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom clerics pronounce, proclaim, and administer” (IILF 33-34). In other words, it is truly through the apostolic ministry – which priests participate in – that we receive the message of the Gospel and the sacraments of salvation, such as baptism, the Eucharist, forgiveness of sins, all which serve to make us true children of God and members of the Body of
Christ. In light of this, we understand better why Francis wanted to turn to priests…and not consider sin in them because in them, [he] discerned the Son of God and [therefore] they are my lords (Test 6-9).

During the current situation of the Church, it is absolutely important to go to the root of this reality Francis is talking about. He enlightens us to know how, as believers, we are to behave in our lives toward priests and, if we are priests, in our ministries. "Understanding the greatness and beauty of the priestly ministry” (Benedict XVI l.c.) means to accept at the same time with realism and humility that this greatness and beauty are deposited in earthen vessels (2Cor 4:7). We are to do this without being scandalized or, worse still, separated from the Church who, through the ministry of priests, allows us to have direct access to Jesus and his salvation.

“Look at your dignity, brother Priests” (LOrd 23)

On different occasions, Francis expressed what he thought about priests and how we were to behave in their presence. The fraternity that was gradually forming around him included both clerics and the laity. This is evident from his writings where he states, my blessed Friars whether they are clerics or lay should confess their sins to the priests of our religion (ER 20, 1; cf. LR 7, 2). Toward the end of his life, when the Friars priests had become numerous, he dedicated for them “who are, will be, or desire to be priests of the Most High” (Lord 14), a good part of his Letter to the Order. He addressed them as “Ministers, Custodes, and Priests of this same fraternity”, calling them, “humbles ones of Christ” (LOrd 3). This seems to be all in one breath a remembrance, a desire, and an admonition.

The central part of his message addressed to priests refers to the celebration of the Eucharist. He reminded them that they must draw close to this sacrament purely, with reverence, with a holy and clean intention, not for any earthly thing or fear or for the love of any man, as it were pleasing men. But let every will, in so far as the grace of the Almighty helps, be directed to Him, desiring thence to please the High Lord Himself alone (LOrd 14-15). These repetitive accumulations of dos and don’ts reveal a certain restlessness on the part of Francis because of the possibility that things can go wrong. It seems, moreover, that such concerns are not just a thing of the past. The strong admonishings and warnings that ensue – drawn from the Letter to the Hebrews – show the seriousness with which Francis approached the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Word of God.

The whole of the letter serves to underscore the incomparable greatness of the dignity of priesthood. With a paradoxical realism, Francis speaks of the Friar priest as one who touches with his hands, who receives with his heart and his mouth, and proffers to be received by others Him [the Lord in the Eucharist] who is now no more to die but to triumph in a glorified eternity: on whom the angels desire to look (LOrd 22). He even goes so far as to compare the priest with Mary who bore Christ in her womb; to John the Baptist who trembled at the mere touch of Jesus’ head; and to the tomb that held his sacred body (LOrd 21).

Behold then the deeper meaning of the ministry with which God has entrusted priests. Toward them love, reverence, and honor is to be shown. What follows then in this text leads us deeper into the revelation of the humility of God in the Eucharist. There, Francis makes a realistic description of the Sacrament, using words such as flesh and blood, hands that touch and distribute, and mouth that eats. This is afterwards followed by a last and stupendous mystery, namely, that God should humble himself in the Eucharist as he did in the incarnation when he relinquished the glorious bosom of the Father in order to assume the frailty of human condition (cf. 1Adm 17-18; IILF 4). By becoming flesh, moreover, God manifested his self-abasement and kenosis. In the Eucharist, however, this reality goes even beyond, for there he doesn’t assume a human body, but makes himself present under the accidents of bread, a basic essential of daily life. Because of this, Francis exclaims, Consider, brothers, the humility of God and “pour out your hearts before Him, and be ye humbled that ye may be exalted by Him. Do not therefore keep back anything for yourselves that He may receive you entirely who gives Himself up entirely to you. (LOrd 28-29). Hence, the humility of God manifested in the Eucharist is for Francis at the base of our evangelical vocation.

Our Faith in Priests in Daily Life

The vision which Francis had of the priestly ministry may seem theoretic and idealistic. Instead, it is inspiring and it shows us how we must carry ourselves today. We are very well aware that priests today are not held in high regard. Some situations show that to be the case, such as the dwindling number of vocations to the priesthood in many countries; the lack of overall faith in both the world and the Church; accusations over the abuse of minors committed by some priests; and the current way of life that often leads the priest to live “separated” from the lay faithful. All these examples contribute further to the lack of esteem for priests coupled with a lack of faith in both them and their ministry.

Nonetheless, we are invited to renew our faith on that which the priestly ministry is founded on, reaffirming its necessity for the Church – though aware that priests like the Church are never perfect beings. To revive such a faith, there is nothing better than to meditate on this very personal text by Francis where he states, among other things, that The Lord gave me, and gives me, so much faith in priests who live according to the form of the holy Roman Church, on account of their order, that if they should persecute me, I would have recourse to them. And if I had as much wisdom as Solomon had, and if I should find poor priests of this world, I would not preach against their will in the parishes in which they live. And I desire to fear, love, and honor them and all others as my masters; and I do not wish to consider sin in them, for in them I see the Son of God and they are my masters. And I do (his because in this world, I see nothing corporally of the most high Son of God Himself except His most holy Body and Blood, which they receive and they alone administer to others (Test 6-10).

The Order of Friars Minor is made up of both clerical and lay brothers” (GGCC 3, 1). Our Franciscan vocation is, therefore, not necessarily tied to the priesthood, so that what St. Paul the Apostle said in this matter is true, “So, brethren, in whatever [vocation] each one is called, there let him remain with God” (1Cor 7,20); and even more importantly is what Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15,16). Furthermore, priestly vocation as well as lay is not our choice, but a specific call from the Lord. All we have to do is respond with generosity. We recognize in each vocation the gift of the Lord to both the Church and humanity. It is the same with regards to religious profession (cf. GGCC 3, 1). We are all called to live as brothers and according to the demands of our common vocation and mission. Indeed, in the diversity of ministries, all Christians are called to respond to the word of the Lord who sends them to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom (BGG 25).

He who has been called, therefore, to exercise the priestly ministry must remember always that such a ministry cannot be assumed as a human promotion or a personal dignity placed in our fraternities as something to be above our lay brothers or the lay faithful. On the contrary, we must be in deep communion with all, especially the least ones, and open to a shared mission in the spirit of ecclesial conversion (cf. BGG 25). In this way, priesthood for us will be lived out according to the demands of our identity as Friars Minor – as indicated by both our General Constitutions and Priorities. Also, the gift of priesthood in the Order will be a great wealth in
order to build the Kingdom among us.

Dear brothers, here you have it: some pointers to encourage us to reflect much on the identity of the Friars called to priestly ministry. We invite you, therefore, to continue such a reflection in your fraternities, Provinces, and Custodies. We invite you, to reflect especially on the point of departure, i.e., the humility of God by St. Francis or on the boldness of God by Benedict XVI. There is no better way to conclude this letter than by quoting the words of St. Francis himself who said, And let us hold all clerics and religious as our masters in those things which regard the salvation of souls, if they do not deviate from our religion, and let us reverence their office and order and administration in the Lord (ER 19, 3-4).

May the blessing of the Lord descend upon you, beloved brothers, both clerics and lay!

Your brothers of the Definitory:
Br. José Rodríguez Carballo ofm (Min. gen.)
Br. Michael Anthony Perry, ofm (Vic. gen.)
Br. Vincenzo Brocanelli, ofm (Def. gen.)
Br. Vicente-Emilio Felipe Tapia, ofm (Def. gen.)
Br. Nestor Inácio Schwerz, ofm (Def. gen.)
Br. Francis William Walter, ofm (Def. gen.)
Br. Roger Marchal, ofm (Def. gen.)
Br. Ernest Karol Siekierka, ofm (Def. gen.)
Br. Paskalis Bruno Syukur, ofm (Def. gen.)
Br. Julio César Bunader, ofm (Def. gen.)
Br. Vincent Mduduzi Zungu, ofm (Def. gen.)
Br. Aidan McGrath, ofm (Seg. gen.)

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