Letter to seminarians for Lent
13 February 2013
Lent, which are about to celebrate, is an important time of the year that gives us an opportunity to prepare ourselves to better gather the fruits of the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Such fruits can be summed up by the virtues that shine forth in the at once extreme, tremendous and sublime act of the gift of the Son of God, humbled and beaten, on the cross. Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (…) For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23-24). These words challenge every baptized person who intends to live with authenticity the call to be Christian, that is a call to holiness. But in an entirely unique way, they exhort all those who are called by God to carry on the mission of Christ the teacher, Chief and Shepherd, to live them in fullness: “He summoned those whom he wanted (…) that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mk 3:13-15). Therefore, every man who enters the Seminary as a baptised person, and all the more so as one who is called, must meditate upon these words and make them his own.
“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (1Pet 2:21). “To follow in the footsteps” of Christ literally means to walk with Him, where He walks, as He walks. It is therefore a commitment that, from the outset, must factor in sacrifice, because a gift of love without reservations, as is the Son of God’s love for us, necessarily comes up against difficulties, incomprehension, mockery, persecution. That is why, if we truly wish to be disciples, we must accept to carry the cross every day, opposing anything that, inside and outside of us, clashes against the law of the Spirit: “I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want” (Gal 5:16-17).
The penitential practices therefore provide a very precious opportunity for us to test our capacity for self-giving and to “train” ourselves to do so without reservations. Lent is just one such opportunity, but it is nonetheless a very special time: contemplating the suffering Servant, especially through the pious practice of the Way of the Cross, teaches us not only to accept but even to love sacrifice, if it is practiced for the love of Christ and of our brethren – following the example of Simon of Cyrene (Mt 27:32; Mk 15:21; Lk 23:26) and of what is confirmed by the centuries-old wisdom of the saints – as a way to partake of and sustain his suffering and his plan of salvation.
In fact, that is the very core of the priest’s identity, which is about being-for-the-brethren and, at the same time, being-for-God. Those who prepare for the sacred ministry must bear all this firmly in mind. Any exaggeration of, deviation from, inconsistency with the essence of the sacred ministry is always the inevitable consequence of straying – with one’s mind and heart, spirit and actions – from this sacrosanct truth.
The means by which this ultimate gift of self is achieved and nourished, following the example of Christ and with the strength that comes from Him, is no doubt the sacrament of the Eucharist. It represents the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11), but even more so that of the priestly life. Indeed, the priest is not only him who “produces” the Eucharist, as it were, but especially him who identifies with it and becomes a mysterious presence of it through his life. We could almost say that the priest himself is called to be the Eucharist, a gift of love to the Father for the world’s salvation. That is why in the Conciliar decree Optatam Totius we read, with regard to the formation of candidates to the sacred ministry (n. 8), “They should so live His paschal mystery themselves that they can initiate into it the flock committed to them.” This ‘paschal mystery’ is celebrated and edified in the Holy Mass and lived out in everyday life: in the relationship with our companions, obedience to our superiors, commitment to our studies and community, prayer life, and in our family, parish, and the various contexts of day-to-day life. More in general, in the meekness with which we let ourselves be guided by Christ, keeping our eyes set on Him (Heb 12:2).
Lent is therefore a time of penance and prayer, as well as a time to internalize deeply the relationship between the Eucharist and vocation and to live the daily offering of Holy Mass as an offer of self, valuing the present moment in view of future eternity.
May Mary, the Eucharistic woman par excellence, sweetest Mother of her Son’s most loved disciples, accompany you all and, by her example and through her intercession, help you to understand the ineffable beauty of the heights you are called to!
Mauro Cardinal Piacenza