Vatican City (AsiaNews) – At least 17,000 priests joined Benedict XVI to last night for a prayer vigil in Saint Peter’s Square to mark the end of the Year for Priests. It was a vigil in which the figure of the priest was praised with passionate testimonials from priests working in parishes, among the poor, drug addicts, in mission to the world. The Pope spoke with some of them, describing priestly celibacy as a “scandal” in today’s world, but also the basis on which marriage and “our culture” are based.
After a year of revelations (and manipulations) about paedophile priests, everyone at last night’s vigil bore witness to how precious vocations are for those who live united with Christ. Those present noted the inconsequential nature of “arrogant” theologies that are not based on faith as well as the poverty of a clerical existence that is outside the world, or a priestly life experienced as a 9 to 5 job. By contrast, they stressed the need to help young people see their calling and for priests to take some time out. Indeed, the great silence that fell upon the square during the Eucharistic adoration was the highlight of the vigil as the Pope and 17,000 priests knelt before the shining ostensorium for what seemed an eternity. The Pope’s prayer for the Year for Priests followed.
The vigil began at around 8 pm with a series of songs and testimonials like that of Mgr William Shomali, patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem, who spoke about the value of celibacy from the Cenacle, the place where the Eucharist and the priesthood were instituted. A testimonial about the Curé d’Ars was read, followed by others: a seminarian on the eve of his ordination, a 50-year-old parish priest in Saint Mark (Venice), a parish priest from Hollywood and another from suburban Buenos Aires. Also noteworthy were the story of an American couple with six children, including two sons who are in a seminary and one daughter who is a consecrated lay sister, as well as the greetings of a sister of perpetual adoration, who prays for priests.
As the Holy Father arrived in his popemobile at 9.45 pm, he was welcomed by a cheering crowd, with people shouting his name (Be-ne-dict, Be-ne-dict!) as if it were a World Youth Day.
After the greetings by Card Cláudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, five priests representing five continents, put some questions to the Pope.
Without checking his notes, Benedict XVI answered them with clear-sightedness and accuracy, his eyes on the priest who asked the question.
To a Brazilian priest, who has to serve more than one parish in “a society that is no longer entirely Christian”, Benedict XVI said that the “pillars on which one’s commitment can be based without the anxiety of trying to do everything [. . .] are the Eucharist celebrated on Sundays at least, the announcement of the word of God and the homily, as well as charity for the poor, for children and for those who suffer.”
“People,” the Pope said, “do not want to see a priest that does ‘his job and then lives by himself’.” What they want is “a man all fired up and full of love for the Lord and his people”.
At the same, the Pontiff suggested that priests also ought to “take it easy and rest” and not imagine that they can or have to do everything.
A priest from the Ivory Coast raised the issue of theologies that do not have Christ at its centre but instead undo the “Catholic truth” with “opinions”. There are theologies of “arrogance”, according to Benedict XVI, which do “not nurture faith but overshadows God’s presence in the world” as well as becloud the “theology that is stirred by love for the beloved, that seeks to better know that beloved”.
The Pope criticised those theologies that claim positivist rationality as the only true reason, calling on priests to use a “broader reason” to avoid ensnarement by what is fashionable.
“Many theologies that appeared to be scientific in the 1960s, now appear passé, even ridiculous,” he said, adding that everyone ought to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and be united with the Pope and the bishops.
A priest from Slovakia, who is a missionary in Russia, asked him for the sense of ecclesiastic celibacy, which is something so much out of step with today’s world.
Giving one’s whole life to Christ is at the core of celibacy, the Pope said forcefully. In the Eucharistic celebration (“This is my body . . .”), Christ allows us to use his ‘self’, draws us and unites us to Him. Thus, our ‘self’ joins his and realises the permanence of his unique priesthood. Drawing us to him, he is present in the world through us.”
In a world “where God has no place,” he added, “celibacy is a great scandal”. In a world that criticises celibacy, people lack the courage to get married because they are incapable of making decisive commitments because they want to remain independent, free from any ties. The choice of celibacy, i.e. “giving one’s life to Christ” is a final commitment “that confirms the final ‘I do’ of marriage”. Without celibacy, and thus marriage, “all of our culture disappears”.
In answering this question, the Pope indirectly addressed the issue of paedophile priests. In his view, “secondary scandals” blot out the image of Christ, because, for him, the real scandal is the commitment to celibacy, which overshadows the “secondary scandals”.
A Japanese priest asked him how to avoid the temptation of clericalism, of estrangement from the world. In responding, Benedict XVI said that the Eucharistic celebration is the place where we can learn to be open to others since it is here that God, through his humility, sets aside his glory to die on the cross and thus give himself to the world.
“Truly living the Eucharist,” he said, “is the best defence against clerical temptations.” He cited the example of Mother Teresa, who started her work among the poor and the downtrodden by building tabernacles for the adoration of the Eucharist.
A priest from Oceania spoke about empty seminaries and the need to encourage new vocations to the priesthood. In his answer, Benedict XVI warned that the crisis of vocations cannot be solved by treating the priesthood as a profession or a job. Instead, we must do is “knock on God’s door and ask him to send us the vocations we need.”
Finally, the Pope called on priests to live their vocation convincingly for “None of us would have become a priest, if we had not met another priest who was all fired up by the love of Christ.”
Priests, he said, also must be close to the young, help them understand the value of God’s calling, give them a chance to experience situations in which they can understand and appreciate the priestly life as a “model” for our society.