Priests: Union with
Their Bishops and Their
General Audience of Wednesday August 4, 1993
A priestís self-denial finds expression in what he does to preserve the communion existing between himself, the Bishop and his fellow priests.
1. In the previous catecheses we have reflected on the importance which the invitation to, or the evangelical counsels of virginity and poverty have in the priestís life and on how and to what extent they can be practiced in accordance with the spiritual tradition and Christian asceticism, and with the Churchís law. Today it is good to recall that Jesus did not hesitate to tell those who wanted to follow him as he carried out his messianic ministry that they had to "deny themselves and take up their cross"1 to be truly his disciples. This is a great maxim of perfection, valid for the Christian life as the definitive criterion for the heroic virtue of the saints. It applies especially to the priestly life, in which it takes more rigorous forms justified by the particular vocation and special charism of Christís ministers.
A primary aspect of this "self-denial" appears in the renunciations connected with the commitment to communion that priests are called to fulfill between them and their Bishop.2 The institution of the ministerial priesthood took place within the context of a priestly community and communion. Jesus assembled the first group, that of the Twelve, and called them to form a union in mutual love. He wanted to join coworkers to this first "priestly" community. By sending the 72 disciples on mission, as well as the 12 Apostles, he sent them out two by two,3 so that they could help each other in their life and work and develop a habit of common action in which no one would act alone, independently of the Church community and the community of the Apostles.
2. This fact is confirmed by reflecting on Christís call, which is the origin of each priestís life and ministry. All priesthood in the Church begins with a vocation. This is addressed to a particular person, but is tied to the calls given to others within the framework of one and the same plan for the evangelization and sanctification of the world. Like the apostles, bishops and priests too are called together, although in their various personal vocations, by him who wants to commit them fully to the mystery of redemption. This community of vocation doubtless implies an openness of one to the other and of each to all, so as to live and work in communion.
This does not occur without renouncing an ever real, recurring individualism, without achieving "self-denial"4 in the victory of charity over selfishness. The mind of the vocation community, expressed in communion, must nevertheless encourage each and everyone to work harmoniously, to acknowledge the grace given individually and collectively to the bishops and presbyters; a grace granted to each one, not due to personal merits or abilities, and not only for personal sanctification, but for "building up the Body."5
Priestly communion is deeply rooted in the sacrament of Orders, in which self-denial becomes an even closer spiritual sharing in the sacrifice of the cross. The sacrament of Orders implies each oneís free response to the call addressed to him personally. The response is likewise personal. However, in consecration, the sovereign action of Christ, at work in ordination through the Holy Spirit, creates as it were a new personality, transferring the mentality, conscience and interests of the one receiving the sacrament into the priestly community beyond the sphere of individual aims. It is a psychological fact based on acknowledging the ontological bond between each priest and every other. The priesthood conferred on each one should be exercised in the ontological, psychological and spiritual context of this community. Then there will truly be priestly communion: a gift of the Holy Spirit, but also the fruit of a generous response by the priest.
In particular, the grace of Orders creates a special bond between bishops and priests, because priestly ordination is received from the bishop, the priesthood is extended by him and he introduces the newly ordained into the priestly community, of which he himself is a member.
3. Priestly communion presupposes and implies that all, bishops and presbyters, are attached to the person of Christ. When Jesus wanted to share his messianic mission with the Twelve, the Gospel of Mark says that he called them and appointed them "as his companions."6 At the Last Supper he addressed them as those who had stood loyally by him in his trials,7 urged them to unity and asked the Father for this on their behalf. By remaining united in Christ they would all remain united among themselves.8
A vivid awareness of this unity and communion in Christ continued among the Apostles during the preaching that led them from Jerusalem to the various regions of the then known world under the compelling yet unifying action of the Spirit of Pentecost. This awareness appears in their Letters, the Gospels and the Acts.
Profound Communion with Other Priests
In calling new presbyters to the priesthood, Jesus Christ also asks them to offer their lives to his own person, thus intending to unite them to each other by a special relationship of communion with him. This is the true source of the profound harmony of mind and heart that unites presbyters and bishops in priestly communion.
This communion is fostered by collaborating in one and the same work: spiritually building the community of salvation. Certainly every priest has his own field of activity to which he can devote all his abilities and talents, but this field belongs to the broader work by which every local Church strives to develop the kingdom of Christ. This work is essentially communitarian, so that each one must act in cooperation with the other workers of the same kingdom.
We know how much the desire to work on the same task can support and spur the common effort of each one. It creates a feeling of solidarity and makes it possible to accept the sacrifices that cooperation requires, by respecting others and welcoming their differences. Henceforth it is important to note that this cooperation is structured around the relationship between the Bishop and his presbyters; the subordination of the latter to the former is essential for the life of the Christian community. Work for the kingdom of Christ can be carried out and developed only in accordance with the structure he established.
4. Now I would like to call attention to the role of the Eucharist in this communion. At the Last Supper Jesus wanted to found, in the most complete way, the unity of the apostolic group, to whom he first entrusted the priestly ministry. In answer to their dispute about the first place, he gave an example of humble service by washing their feet.9 This settled the conflicts caused by ambition and taught his first priests to seek the last place rather than the first.
During the same Supper Jesus gave his commandment of mutual love l0 and opened the source that would give the strength to observe it: alone the Apostles would not, in fact, have been able to love one another as the Master had loved them; but with Eucharistic communion they received the ability to live ecclesial communion and, in it, their specific priestly communion. By the sacrament Jesus offered them this superior capacity for love and could make a bold supplication to the Father that he accomplished in his disciples a unity like that existing between the Father and the Son.11
Finally, at the Last Supper Jesus invests the apostles jointly with their mission and with the power to celebrate the Eucharist in his memory, thus further deepening the bond uniting them. Communion in the power of celebrating the one Eucharist had to be the sign and source of unity for the apostlesóand for their successors and coworkers.
Reflecting the Communion of the Trinity
5. It is significant that in the priestly prayer at the Last Supper Jesus prayed not only for the consecration (of his Apostles) by means of truth,12 but also for their unity, a unity reflecting the very communion of the divine Persons.13 Although that prayer primarily concerned the Apostles whom Jesus wanted especially to gather around himself, it is extended also to bishops and presbyters, in addition to believers, of every age. Jesus asks that the priestly community be a reflection and participation in Trinitarian communion: what a sublime ideal!
Nevertheless, the circumstances in which Jesus offered his prayer show that sacrifices are required to achieve this ideal. Jesus asks for the unity of his Apostles and followers at the moment when he is offering his life to the Father. He established priestly communion in his Church at the price of his own sacrifice. Priests, therefore, cannot be surprised at the sacrifices that priestly communion requires of them. Taught by the word of Christ, they discover in these renunciations a concrete spiritual and ecclesial sharing in the divine Masterís redeeming sacrifice.
1. Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23
2. Cf. Lumen gentium, n. 28; Pastores dabo vobis, n. 74
3. Cf. Lk 10:1;Mk 6:7
4. Mt 16:24
5. Eph 4:12, 16
7. Cf. Lk 22:28
8. Cf. Jn 15:4-11
9. Cf. Jn 13:2-15
10. Cf. Jn 13:34 15:12
11. Jn 17:21-23
12. Cf. Jn 17:17
13. Cf. Jn 17:11