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The Priest and the Ministry of the Word

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Since the life of a priest is to be modeled on the life of his Master. Even as Christ went about preaching and teaching the word of God, so the primary duty of a priest after the offering of Mass and the administration of the sacraments is to proclaim God's revelation to a world that needs nothing more than to hear the message of salvation.

The term primary duty may seem too strong. The Latin expression in teaching this as I did to priests is, premarioum monum, the fundamental responsibility of priests, assuming that he offers the Holy Sacrifice, is to proclaim God's revelation. That's the terminology used by the Second Vatican Council in its decree on ministry and life of priests.

Let me quote the passage. In fact it opens the whole decree. "Since nobody can be saved who has not first believed it is the first duty of priests as the coworkers of bishops to preach the word of God to all men."

My purpose then in this conference is to do two things but treat them more or less together. To spell out in some detail the Church’s teaching on the duty of priests to proclaim the message of salvation and then as we go along to identify what responsibility this places on priests if they are to live up to the Church's, which means Christ's, high expectations. I never feel I need to apologize, for this may sound like an apology, for quoting or commenting on the documents of the Second Vatican Council. All I know, how well I know, is that many people have scarcely read them. And even when perhaps when they first came out they may have been read, by now there has been such a degree of second and third rank commentators that many people are quite thoroughly confused as to what the Church really taught.


The Church’s Teaching on The Duty of Priests to Proclaim The Message of Salvation.

In any case as we address ourselves to the subject of priests as proclaimer's of God's word, let's first read by quoting at some length how this duty spelled out by the late ecumenical council. Priests owe it to everybody to share with them the truth of the Gospel in which they rejoice in the Lord. Therefore whether by having their conversation heard among the Gentiles they lead people to glorify God or by openly preaching proclaim the mystery of Christ to unbelievers or teach the Christian message or explain the Church’s doctrine or endeavor to treat a contemporary problem in the light of Christ, "In every case their role is not to teach their own wisdom but the word of God and issue an urgent invitation to all men to conversion to holiness." Out of this document I would like to select certain passages that are especially even embarrassingly significant. First, priests are said to owe it to everybody to share with them the truth of the Gospel in which they rejoice in the Lord.

Sometimes as I myself reread the councilor statements I say to myself now what does that mean? Or does it really mean what it seems to say? What is the Church telling her some four-hundred thousand priests in the Catholic Church? First of all, there is no option when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel – It is no luxury - It is an obligation. They owe it to everybody. If priests owe it, others have the right, we have a right, a God-given right to hear God's word proclaimed to us by our priests. They are further told they are to share with everybody. Now that's a large statement. Everybody? Everybody. It means therefore that the Gospel is to be shared with all who are under my immediate care. But not only is a priest never off duty, or as I have told so many of them, a priest never retires. I can't say I do this because I read it in the documents. All I know is that with all my migrations I try, because I am so conscious of my sworn duty, I try to tell everybody who is willing to listen and even some that are not about the Faith that if they don't have it, they should. And if they have it, they can always live it better. It means, therefore, whatever weakness a priest may have, it should never be human respect.

One of my own great teachers was a Father Edwin Healy who taught me moral theology. He himself came from a very wealthy family of multi-millionaires. Among the many things he taught us was to make sure that we would never hold back or qualify the hard sayings of the Gospel. For example he says if you’re preaching in a wealthy parish, and it happens to be in the Gospel or you take the occasion to make it the topic to preach on the difficulty of the rich to save their souls, tell them, he said, like it is. They may never call you back, no matter that they have heard the word of God.

Then a most curious verb, priests are to share with everybody. Now you don't share except what you yourself already have. Evidently a priest himself already possesses a large storehouse of God's wisdom. And if a priest is never off duty so a priest should never stop learning and acquiring. Because we are here speaking of the ocean of divine wisdom, priests are told to share the truth which means they know the truth and know the difference between the truth and the untruth. Too often I'm afraid when we talk about discernment of spirits, we conger up correctly, but inadequately, discerning between the spirit of good and the spirit of evil. No question about it, we, and priests especially, are to make that discernment. But even more fundamental than discerning the difference between the spirit of good and the spirit of evil is between the spirit of truth and the spirit that is the father of lies. By now given the times in which we are living, we hear too much about the devil, and not always by people who believe in him. Oh, he is real all right, but the one thing we should know about the devil is that he is a deceiver. And a priest better know when somebody is trying to deceive him.

One final observation; from the short, less than a sentence statement, which we quoted. Priests are to share with everybody the truth of the Gospel in which they rejoice in the Lord.

Now what does that mean? Well it must mean what it says. There is such a thing as enjoying the truth. In fact if a priest himself does not enjoy what he believes the odds are that he won't bother sharing it.

It means therefore to both have the truth and to live it. This is one of my definitions of joy, living the truth. There is no joy in living a lie.


Second Injunction: Priests are to Share the Gospel with Believers and Unbelievers.

Priests are to share the Gospel not only with believers but with unbelievers too. How that needs to be emphasized and every time I look at the latest world statistics they bother me more. The world's population is growing, as we know geometrically. It is now close to four billion. Four thousand million and the chasm separating the numbers of Christians in any shape or form, from those who are not Christian, the difference is becoming greater by many millions every year. Dear Lord I pray. Who is at fault? I believe You became man and died for the human race, when less than half the world population has heard Your name.

Now I know enough theology. I can make all the careful distinctions. I know it's possible, who doubts it, for the good Buddhists or the pious Shinto to be saved? I know that. But is that why Christ came into the world and died not to have known that the Son of God is in our midst in human flesh? Not to believe in the Real Presence, not to know that God so loved the world as John tells us that He sent His only begotten Son to become one of us? Not to be really clear and lucid to really know the purpose of life. And we don't have to go to Japan or India to find the most atrocious confusion in otherwise learned minds on the purpose of life. I don't know why, only God knows. But I do dare say that a good half of America does not really know why it exists.

Who is at fault ? All of us. Because Christ, having done His work, He left not only the preservation of the Faith but it's propagation to all of us. According to our respective states of life. But among the responsible persons are especially priests.

When I sometimes reread the letters of St. Francis Xavier from India that he wrote back to Europe, they almost seem like the letters of a mad man overcome by the teeming millions all around him hungry for the word of God and there is no one to tell them. So much so that as he wrote more than once to Ignatius that his hands actually dropped dead, that he sometimes had to have them supported to baptize the people who want to become Christians once I tell them how much God loves them. That He died on the Cross and shed His Blood for them. That kind of a God they want to believe in.

No wonder he wore himself out. He lived a very short life, died exhausted preaching the Gospel.


Third Injunction: Priests are to Teach the Word of God.

Priests are to teach not their own wisdom but the word of God. This means that they meditate on the word of God daily. In St. Dominic's prayers which he made the model for his Order, appropriately the Order of Preachers, do you know why they came into existence? Ultimately because God wanted them to come into existence but proximately because the clergy of Dominic's day were just not preaching the word of God. So the motto I pass on to you (contemplata palies traterae) means to pass on to others what I have first contemplated. Ah! But I must have first done the contemplation. A priest must through his daily meditation - in a word –through contemplating the truth become so enamored of that truth, so imbued with its depth, so on fire with zeal to share it that he can't wait until he gets out and shares it with as many who are willing and even those who are unwilling to listen.

Daily meditation is absolutely essential for a priest.


Fourth Injunction: Priests are to Teach by Way of an Invitation to Conversion and Holiness.

Priests are to teach in such a way that they invite people to conversion and to holiness. Note these are the two goals of priestly zeal. First to conversion, this means that the first object of their preaching and teaching the Gospel should be to bring sinners back to the God from whom they are estranged. And it's not only the ignorant or the unlettered but often it's the very lettered, the too learned and educated.

I am afraid that many wealthy people, who perhaps have become so immersed in the things of this world that in the process they have lost contact with God. I don't know how many. I am practically quoting Christ in saying this. It seems not a few will be lost and if they are, I partly blame priests who have not often had the courage to insist with those on whose generosity they may depend. That's what makes it hard.

It's when you have to bite the hand that feeds you. Or on another level, a priest should never apologize to anyone for his own lack of learning. If he is not as learned as he thinks he should be then let him learn more. So he can cope with the educated world.

He gets an assignment, say to a university parish. He better measure up to the academic level that as far within him lies of the people in whose favor he is to preach the Gospel. So they will listen and not turn him off, so he can use the saqupadielian words they use. In telling them in their own jargon, they are sinners. And in plan old Anglo-Saxon they are going to hell unless they repent. I know a lot of learned people and they are not all holy. I also know they expect priests to talk this way. And they are scandalized when a priest plays up to them or caters to them or may God forgive him, if he is afraid of them.

Moreover it is not only to convert sinners, it is, as the Church tells her priests, to invite people to holiness. Never, I believe, have the people’s desire for things of the spirit been greater than today. The editors of Double Day tell me that in their more than seventy-five years of publishing existence, they have never had so many people buying so many books, often the great classics people may have thought were outmoded. John of the Cross I am told is selling well. They just made a brand new, sparkling new edition of de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence because of the clamor for this kind of reading. People want it. And the more demonic the forces outside in the world become, the people will tell themselves and tell the God in whom they believe, “Lord who else but You can save us?” It was in this phenomenal context of our strange world, the Second Vatican Council has explained in the clearest terms how God is calling all His faithful to holiness. Yes all of this is true but it can be pathetically true. Unless these people find among their priests those who are willing to talk to them about the things of God and give them counsel and direction. Teach them and train them in the things of the Spirit. It is especially priests with themselves being holy are to teach holiness to others and holiness can be taught always, of course, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

On both levels of this teaching, conversion and on leading people to holiness, a priest will only be as effective as he is first of all knowledgeable. So we ask where does he get this knowledge? Holiness by itself is not quite enough, he must know. He gets this knowledge from study but it must be sound authentic orthodox doctrine that he learns. As only a person knows whose profession has immersed him in the contemporary theology. I should call it the contemporary jungle of theology. I can say it is not easy for a priest to always to distinguish between the sound and the spurious in the books and the journals he reads, the lectures he hears, or even the guidelines he sometimes receives from those in his diocese or community who are to direct his preaching and teaching ministry.

Yet distinguish he must - a priest learns - he must read, he must listen. But either he reads and hears the truth or the faithful will not receive the truth from him.

I finished this fall by all odds, the most atrocious traveling schedule of my thirty years in the priesthood. Twice on the West Coast, then northern Canada, then south to Texas from East to West mainly speaking to and with the laity. How my heart went out to them, and I share with you, the single deepest lesson I learned. The laity need priests who teach them God's truth and nothing but the truth. Sadly they are not always getting that truth. The miracle I think that it's a miracle of grace that our laity have by and large remained so faithful to the Church. In spite of the sometimes atrocious nonsense they are being taught in religious education programs in lectures, in the sermons, in the conferences they hear. In the columns in diocesan papers they read, behind all of which stands this anguishing need which can be met in the Church only by the priests. They must know the truth. Otherwise in God's Church who else will know it?

We might ask is there some single and simple formula for the priest to identify what is Catholic Truth and what though perhaps though very learned is either untrue or dubiously true or only someone's fervid speculation. Yes, the acid test more than ever today is whether what is written or said conforms to or is in contradiction to the teaching of the Vicar of Christ. Those who agree with him are teaching the truth and they should be listened to. Everyone else, I repeat everyone else is to be ignored

In the years to come the Faith which Christ came into the world to give the world will remain intact, and the Church He founded will be strong, where and to the extent that priests have been aware of their responsibility as spokesmen for Christ in the modern world. All other elements of the Church, and there are many, are useful or even necessary. But in the last analysis, or from another viewpoint, in the first instance the Church stands or falls in any place or among any people on one condition that the truth of Christ's revelation is being proclaimed. And the first divinely appointed proclaimer's of this truth are priests.

The Church's future is in their hands or better is on their lips. And with Saint Paul, they should say “Woe to us if we do not proclaim the Gospel, the Full Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Copyright © 2003, Inter Mirifica






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