Letter to Priests for the beginning of Lent
13 February 2013
Lent is a time of grace during which the Church invites all her children to prepare to better understand and receive the meaning and the fruits of the sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the mystery of His Passion, Death and Resurrection: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favour from the LORD” (Isa 61:1-2). The ‘time of grace’ is the time when God the Father, in His infinite mercy, bestows upon all people of good will, through the Holy Spirit, all the spiritual and material benefits that may help them to make progress in their journey towards Christian perfection, which makes us strive to become totally and completely like the Son: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:28-29). In order for this to be possible, He wants to dwell in our life, and even more so He wishes for us to be transfigured to the point that, we could say, those who see us can glimpse – in our thoughts and actions – the traits of Jesus: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God” (Gal 2:19-21).
The episode of the baptism in the Jordan River (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Jn 1:29-32), followed by the experience of forty days in the desert “to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1), invites us to think that in order to walk securely along the path to holiness and to gather the fruits of the treasures of graces bestowed by the Spirit we must conquer a receptiveness and a fertility that is not a given but, on the contrary, is constantly threatened by the wound of sin, and must be conquered day after day. The penitential commitment, therefore, does not, in and of itself, guarantee our salvation, but it is nevertheless an essential condition in order for it to be attained: “You have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness but profit us for salvation, through Christ our Lord” (Roman Missal, Common Preface IV). God Himself contributes, through the difficulties of human existence (which He intentionally did not want to spare His beloved Son), to the necessary purification of our mind, will and actions for our greater good: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit” (Jn 15:1).
For a minister of God, all of this must have a very special importance. Not because the priest is called to “set a good example” – “Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1Cor 9:26-27) – but for a much deeper theological and supernatural reason. In fact, the priest is called not only to administer the divine grace and to carry on Jesus’ mission, as we await His coming. Indeed, he is not just a clerk dealing in spiritual matters. As we gather from the aforementioned passage from the letter to the Galatians, he is called, in spite of his weaknesses, to relive in his being, flesh and blood, the very being of Christ, who becomes the sacrificial lamb, victim of love.
Some may think it is wrongly reductive to say that what characterizes the priest above all other things is the fact that he celebrates Holy Mass. That is surely not his sole activity but we can certainly say that it is the only one by means of which the mystery of the priest-alter Christus, who at once sacrifices and sacrifices himself, acquires meaning and is accomplished in the highest and most effective way. The power of the sacrament of Eucharist, in fact, transforms the Church in the image of its Groom, starting from those who are the primary figures and Mystery, sign and reality of that Groom. We can surely say that that is what makes a priest great. Not the extent of his culture, or his pastoral skills, or pious spirit, which are all necessary and require a preparation and care that makes no room for mediocrity. But nothing compares with his mysterious participation in Christ’s sacrifice. This participation is expressed not by the minister’s actions as much as by his being. Consequently, the celebration of Holy Mass by the priest cannot be regarded just as a practice of worship, thanksgiving, intercession, atonement, like any other moment of prayer or penitential practice. It is in every way the very life and reason for being of the Christian priesthood, the actual “breath” of those who, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, are indissolubly and eternally bound to Him who made Himself a gift of love with all of His strength: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (1Pet 2:21).
May this time of Lent be for all priests a time of penance and purification, of mercy given and received, but even more so a time in which you may rediscover, in the daily celebration of Holy Mass, the importance of your relationship with the Eucharist, and rediscover that relationship itself, because the Eucharist is the mysterious presence of the mystery of God who is Love, as a source of life for yourselves and your brethren. May Mary, who is a Eucharistic woman inasmuch as she is a perfect disciple of love that becomes sacrifice, help us all to understand the invaluable gift we have received and to live it, following her example and under her protection, with humbleness, intensity and fidelity.
Mauro Cardinal Piacenza