The teachings of St. Josemaría for priests, Annus Sacerdotalis (July 27, 2009)

The teachings of St. Josemaría for Priests

A response to the challenges of a secularized world

Making God present in all human activities is the great challenge for Christians in a secularized world. This was the goal that St. Josemaría set before thousands of people, both priests and laity, during his lifetime. In a few words his message can be summed up as “personal sanctity in the middle of the world.”

Christ will make himself present and active in the world—in families, factories, mass media, farms etc.—to the extent that He lives in the father and mother of the family, in the worker, in the journalist, in the farmer. That is, to the extent in which the worker, the journalist, the husband and wife are holy. As John Paul II stated, “there is a need for heralds of the Gospel who are experts of humanity, with deep knowledge of the heart of today’s man, who share in his joys and hopes, his anguish and sorrows, and who are at the same time contemplatives, deeply in love with God. There is therefore a need for new saints. The great evangelizers...have been the saints. We need to implore God that the spirit of sanctity may grow in the Church and that he may send us new saints to evangelize today’s world.”[1]

This is the “secret” in the face of indifference and forgetfulness about God: our world needs saints; any other “solution” would be insufficient. Today’s world, with its instability and profound changes, calls for the presence of holy and apostolic men and women in all secular activities: “A secret. An open secret: these world crises are crises of saints. God wants a handful of men ‘of his own’ in every human activity. And then... ‘Pax Christi in regno Christi —the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.”[2]

The absence of God in a secularized society results in a lack of peace, and consequently in the proliferation of divisions: among nations, in families, in the work place, in daily social life.... In order to imbue these facets of life with peace and joy “we must, each of us, be alter Christus, ipse Christus: another Christ, Christ himself. Only in this way can we set about this great undertaking, this immense, unending task of sanctifying all temporal structures from within, bringing to them the leaven of redemption.”[3] We are all called to take part in this marvelous task, with an optimistic vision of the world we live in.[4]

In this work of transforming the world we also perceive the importance of the priest’s role. Who is the priest in today’s society? How can he become the leaven of sanctity? To these questions one may well respond by considering some words of St. Josemaría that define the priest’s identity, even in a secularized world: “All priests are Christ. I lend my voice, my hands, my body and soul to our Lord: I give everything to him.”[5]

1. “All priests are Christ.” The Eucharist and identification with Christ.

It is certainly lay people who, in a capillary way, make Christ present on the crossroads of the world. At the same time, the life of Christ that begins at Baptism stands in need of the priestly ministry in order to develop. The greatness of the priest consists in the fact that he has been given the power to vivify, to “Christify.” The priest is “a direct and daily instrument of the saving grace Christ has won for us.” He brings Christ “to earth, to our soul and body, every day: Jesus comes to nourish us, to give us life.”[6]

As a shepherd of souls and steward of the mysteries of God (cf. 1 Cor 4:1), the priest, especially in a world indifferent to the faith, should encourage everyone to advance towards sanctity. He should do so without lowering, due to cowardice or lack of faith, the horizon of the divine command to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). The priest will guide others on the path to sanctity if he first acknowledges this imperative in his own life, and realizes that God has entrusted to him the means to attain it. The great challenge for the priest is to identify himself with Christ in the exercise of his priestly ministry so that many others may also be configured to Christ while carrying out their ordinary duties.

Identification with Christ the Priest is founded on the gift of the sacrament of Orders and develops to the extent in which the priest entrusts all that is his into Christ’s hands. This comes about in a paradigmatic way during the celebration of the Eucharist. During Mass the priest lends his being to Christ in order to “put on Christ.” St. Josemaría expressed this truth with a particular force: “I arrive to the altar and the first thing that comes to my mind is: Josemaría, you are not Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer... you are Christ. It is he who says: this is my Body; this is my Blood; the one who consecrates. If not, I would not be capable of doing it. The renewal of the divine sacrifice of Calvary takes place in an unbloody manner. I am there present in persona Christi, acting on behalf of Christ.”[7]

This identification with our Lord is an essential trait of the priest’s spiritual life. As St. Gregory the Great writes, “Those of us who celebrate the mysteries of our Lord’s Passion must imitate what we perform. And then the host will take our place before God because we render ourselves hosts.”[8]

The entire priestly existence is aimed at lowering “the self” of the priest so that Christ may grow in him. Hiding oneself, without seeking the leading role so that only the salvific efficacy of Christ may shine forth. Disappearing, so that Christ may make himself present through the priest’s self-abnegation and humble exercise of his ministry. To hide and disappear[9] is a formula that St. Josemaría was very fond of. With it he invited priests in a particular way to prefer hidden and silent sacrifice[10] rather than spectacular and ostentatious manifestations.

Paradoxically, to counter the absence of God in a secularized world, St. Josemaría proposes to priests not more public activity, with its resulting resonance in the media, but rather to simply hide and disappear. In this way, with the lowering of the priest’s “I,” Christ’s presence will be propagated in the world, according to a divine logic that is shown to us in the celebration of the Eucharist.

“I feel that we priests are being asked to have the humility of learning not to be fashionable; of being, in fact, servants of the servants of God and making our own the cry of the Baptist: illum oportet crescere, me autem minui (Jn 3:30); ‘He must increase, I must decrease,’ so as to enable ordinary Christians, the laity, to make Christ present in all sectors of society... Anyone who thinks that Christ’s voice will not be heard in the world today unless the clergy are present and speak out on every issue, has not yet understood the dignity of the divine vocation of each and every member of the Christian faithful.”[11]

The priest’s existence consists in putting all that is his own at God’s disposal: lending his voice to our Lord, so that it is He who speaks; lending his hands to him so that it may be He who acts; lending his body and soul to him so that He may grow in the priest and, through the priest’s ministry, in all the Christian faithful. St. Josemaría speaks to priests about humility and abnegation as the best way to tackle the challenges of our world.

2. “I lend my voice to our Lord.” Familiarity with the Word and readiness to serve souls.

The Eucharist “links all the mysteries of Christianity. We celebrate, therefore, the most sacred and transcendent act which man, with the grace of God, can carry out in this life.”[12] The priest lends his voice to our Lord by pronouncing the words of the consecration, which permit the power of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit to work the miracle of transubstantiation. The efficacy of these words derives not from the priest but from God. The priest, by himself, would never be able to say efficaciously “this is my body,” “this is the chalice of my blood. The conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ could never take place by his own strength.

What takes place in an extraordinary way during the Eucharistic celebration, in the most sublime moment of the priest’s life, can be extended in an analogous way to all his life and ministry. The efficacy of the priest’s words in his preaching, in the celebration of the sacraments, in spiritual direction and in his relations with other people, originates from the same principle: lending his voice to our Lord.

a) Familiarity with the voice of God

Lending one’s voice to our Lord requires listening to and incorporating God’s voice into one’s life. In order to acquire such familiarity, St. Josemaría advised two means that cannot be overlooked: prayer life and study. The priest needs to dedicate time to study, to meditation on Sacred Scripture and to deepening his theological formation so that the voice of Christ, who speaks in his Church, may resonate faithfully.

“Preaching the word of God demands interior life: we ought to speak to the others about holy things, ex abundantia cordis, os loquitur (Mt 12, 34); for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. And together with interior life, study... doctrine that we incorporate into our life. Only in this way will we know how to give it to others in the most opportune way, adapting ourselves to their needs and circumstances with the gift of tongues.”[13]

The Christian people are thirsty for the voice of God and the priest cannot frustrate these holy desires. In today’s world, where confusion abounds, the ordained minister needs to be a faithful mouthpiece of the divine Word. By nurturing his spiritual life and doctrinal study he assures that his preaching is not an echo of voices other than Christ’s. Faithfulness to the Magisterium guarantees that Christ is listened to in the Church and in the world. St. Josemaría would also encourage priests to implore the Holy Spirit for light to know how to be his instruments in an exclusive way, so that it be the Paraclete who acts within the soul.[14] To lend one’s voice to our Lord also means that the priest doesn’t preach himself but Jesus Christ our Lord (cf. 2 Cor 4,5), echoing the Gospel. In this way his preaching will derive its efficacy from Christ himself:

“On the words of Jesus Christ well explained, clear, sweet and strong, full of light, might depend the solution to the spiritual problem of one of the souls listening to you, keen to learn and to make decisions. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12).”[15]

In a certain sense the priest should aspire to the same intimacy with the Word of God as that of our Lady. Pope Benedict XVI, referring to the Magnificat, “entirely woven from threads of Holy Scripture,” describes this familiarity of Mary in the following terms: “She speaks and thinks with the Word of God; the Word of God becomes her word, and her word issues from the Word of God. Here we see how her thoughts are attuned to the thoughts of God, how her will is one with the will of God.”[16]

The Holy Father goes on to point out that since Mary “is completely imbued with the Word of God, she is able to become the Mother of the Word Incarnate.”[17] Something analogous takes place in the priest. St. Josemaría, referring to the Eucharist, said that, in the same way that Mary brought Jesus into the world, so also do “priests bring him to earth, to our soul and body, every day.”[18]

Lending one’s voice to our Lord requires humility. It implies keeping personal opinions to oneself on questions of faith, morality and ecclesiastical discipline when they are discordant with what the Church teaches. It implies being capable of true detachment from personal ideas, always working in favor of union and with the desire to serve. The priest has to speak to men and women about Christ, communicating to them Christ’s doctrine, drawing on his own interior life and study, on his personal sanctity and a profound knowledge of the life of the people of his time.

b) Readiness to lend our voice to Christ

Lending one’s voice to our Lord requires complete availability. St. Josemaría never tired of asking priests to dedicate time to the sacrament of penance. For God’s merciful voice to reach souls through the sacrament of Reconciliation, there is a necessary condition, quite an obvious and fundamental one: to be available to receive those who draw near. It would be an error to think that in our world this would amount to a waste of time. It would be equivalent to shutting God’s mouth, who desires to forgive through his ministers. St. Josemaría, through experience, knew very well that when a priest dedicates time to this task, with constancy, day after day, being physically inside the confessional, this place of mercy ends up overflowing with penitents, even though in the beginning no one may turn up. He described the result of perseverance in this task to a group of diocesan priests in Portugal in 1972: “They won’t leave you breathing space, and you will be unable to pray in the confessional, because your anointed hands, like those of Christ—indistinguishable from his because you are Christ—will be saying: I absolve you. Love the confessional. Love it!”[19]

St. Josemaría had an exuberant faith in the truth that the priest is Christ when he pronounces the words: “I absolve you.” With great supernatural and common sense, he would give practical advice so that the dignity of this sacrament would not be tarnished, so that it would clearly transmit the voice of Jesus Christ. He so loved the confessional because he understood that making use of such a traditional instrument favors the adequate dispositions, in both the penitent and confessor, that facilitate sincerity and the supernatural tone proper to a sacred reality.

“The Lord our God knows my weaknesses, as well as yours, very well. We are all common men, but Jesus Christ has wished to transform us into a channel that enables the waters of his mercy and Love to reach many souls.”[20]

He liked to speak of the administration of the sacrament of Penance as a dominant passion of the priest’s. Without doubt the daily hours dedicated to confessions, “with charity, lots of charity, in order to listen, advise and forgive,”[21] are part of the hiding and disappearing that makes Christ present in so many people and in so many walks of life.

When a priest hears confessions, in his role as judge, teacher, doctor, father and shepherd, he experiences the need to give clear doctrine when faced with the difficulties in the lives of the penitents. Aware of this, St. Josemaría encouraged a strong desire among priests to conserve and improve their knowledge of the ecclesiastical sciences, “especially that needed to administer the sacrament of Penance.”[22] On one occasion he wrote to the priests of Opus Dei: “try to dedicate some time every day, even if only a few minutes, to the study of the ecclesiastical sciences.”[23] With this end in mind he encouraged priestly meetings, conferences, gatherings etc.

Reviving the practice of sacramental confession is one of the greatest challenges for the present day world, which needs to rediscover the sense of sin and experience the joy of God’s mercy. A priest, by making himself available for the sacrament of Reconciliation, and in such a way that—through prayer and study—his ideas are in harmony with the doctrine of the Church, is absolutely irreplaceable.

The lay faithful should also feel the responsibility of bringing their colleagues, friends and relatives to the priest so that they can “listen to God’s voice” and receive his forgiveness. The collaboration between the laity and the priests in this area is of utmost importance today.

St. Josemaría said that the priest, also in the task of spiritual direction, is an instrument for enabling God’s voice to reach souls. In this activity he must never make himself the model: “The model is Jesus Christ; the sculptor is the Holy Spirit through grace. The priest is an instrument and nothing more.”[24] Spiritual direction, another of the dominant passions of St. Josemaría, doesn’t consist in giving orders, but rather in opening up horizons, pointing out the obstacles and suggesting how to overcome them, and encouraging commitment to the apostolate. In summary, to accompany each person to discover the plan for sanctity that God has for him or her, and to respond generously to such a divine endeavor.

This is possible if the priest is himself convinced that to encourage the search for sanctity is to lead a person towards happiness. Such a conviction stems from the priest’s struggle for his own personal sanctity, and is fruit of his love for God’s will. Moreover, this conviction is vital in counteracting the secularism that tends to cancel out God from the horizon of human happiness.

3. “I lend my hands to our Lord.” Love for the liturgy and obedience to the Church.

During Holy Mass it is Christ who, through the priest, offers himself to the Father through the Holy Spirit. The priest’s hands, anointed during the ordination ceremony, have always been venerated by Christians, because they bring us Christ and dispense the treasures of our redemption.

St. Josemaría had a vivid awareness of the fact that the liturgy is a divine and sacred action and not a merely human action. If a de-Christianized world characterizes itself, to a great extent, by the absence of the sacred, the priest today faces the great challenge of doing his best to live attentively the liturgy, “lending to God his hands” and his entire being.

This means not seeking to be the centerpiece, and thus possibly obscuring the divine action. In the liturgy St. Josemaría’s formula is also very relevant: “to hide and disappear is what suits me best, so that only Jesus may shine forth.”[25] This principle flows from faith and supernatural vision. Only from the viewpoint of faith does one understand the profound supernatural efficacy that comes from “lending my hands to God,” and willingly accept the practical consequences it implies: fidelity to Catholic faith and doctrine, and a refined obedience to the liturgical norms.

“Always put a special effort into following the Magisterium of the Holy Church with docility, and, as a consequence, fulfill all the indications of the Holy See in matters of liturgy with a refined obedience, adapting yourself with generosity to the possible modifications, which will always be accidental, that the Roman Pontiff may introduce to the lex orandi.”[26]

The priest’s hands ought to be those of a person in love, of one who knows how to be very refined in all that refers to God and, in a special way, in all that relates to divine worship. Neglect of churches, altars and objects for worship inevitably transmits a certain sensation of absence of God or of indifference. To confront a materialistic world, attentive care for all that has to do with the sacramental presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is essential. A liturgical celebration imbued with adoration transmits a sober beauty that raises the spirit towards God and communicates the presence of the sacred. St. Josemaría always insisted on maximum care in the objects used for divine worship.

“Handle the liturgical objects with great care. It is a manifestation of faith, of piety and of that blessed poverty of ours to reserve the best we possess for worship. The reason why we are obliged to care for the objects used for worship with a most exquisite refinement is that sancta sancte tractanda! They are God’s jewelry. The sacred chalices and the holy cloths and all the other items pertaining to the Passion of the Lord, due to their relation to the Body and Blood of the Lord, ought to be venerated with the same reverence as his Body and his blood (St. Jerome, Epist. 114, 2).”[27]

4. “I lend my body and soul to our Lord: I give him everything.” Priests through and through.

After having considered how the priest lends his voice and hands to our Lord, we arrive, as if by a crescendo of identification with Christ, to an all-encompassing formulation of priestly identity: “I lend my body and soul to our Lord: I give him everything.” This formula, in reference to the Eucharistic celebration where the priest acts in persona Christi capitis, can be extended analogously to the priest’s entire life in his deepest aspiration: to be, always and in everything, ipse Christus, Christ himself.

St. Josemaría described with a particular force this total self-giving proper to the priesthood. Referring to a group of newly ordained priests, he said that “they receive the sacrament of Holy Orders to become nothing other than priest-priests, priests through and through.”[28]

At the same time, the collaboration between priests and lay people, each according to one’s proper mission, is clearly indispensable. As St. Josemaría wrote, “today this apostolic collaboration is of utmost importance, vital and urgent.”[29] This is because, on the one hand, priests as such don’t have access to most of the professional and social settings, and on the other, for lay people to be truly “other Christs,” they need sacramental life, and thus access to the priestly ministry. Without interior life, a lay person, rather than Christianizing the world, would end up becoming worldlier. An intense supernatural life is needed in order to influence in a Christian way the sectors of life where God’s imprint seems to have disappeared.

“In their apostolate the laity have an absolute need for priests when they reach what I often call the sacramental wall. The priests as well, especially in the midst of religious indifference (which doesn’t necessarily refer to brutal attacks on religion) need the laity for the apostolate.”[30]

This collaboration is efficacious to the extent in which the nature of each person’s vocation is respected. Lay people have “to be Christ” in the hustle and bustle of the work-a-day world, in the ordinary circumstances of life, in their dealings with so many other persons with whom they share projects and aspirations. At the same time, the priest ought to always be a priest, striving to sustain and encourage the desire for sanctity among the Christian faithful through a total self-giving to his ministry. It would be difficult to have lay persons persevere in the commitment to seek sanctity in ordinary life without priests “entirely dedicated to their service, habitually forgetting their own selves in order to occupy themselves exclusively with souls.”[31]

St. Josemaría frequently said that he had only one “stewing pot” for everyone: the search for sanctity in one’s ordinary day-to-day occupations. From this one “pot” all can draw the necessary nutrition: the father and mother of the family, the engineer, lawyer, doctor, worker, and also the priest. The latter exercises his irreplaceable role by helping the faithful to be holy. He ought to serve everyone because he is a priest for the others and, due to this mission received from God, has a special obligation to seek his own sanctity. “Many great things depend on the priest: we bring God, we carry God, we give God.”[32]

Thus the founder of Opus Dei insisted on the need to be priests through and through. This is a consequence of imbuing one’s entire life with what the ordained minister does at Holy Mass: lending one’s body and soul to our Lord; giving him everything. This also implies that the priesthood is neither a profession nor a task that partially occupies the day along with other occupations. For St. Josemaría there is no aspect of a priest’s personal existence that is not priestly. Even in situations that are apparently of little importance, or in secular concerns, the priest is always a priest, chosen from among men and appointed to act on their behalf (cf. Heb 5:1).

A natural consequence of “lending one’s body to our Lord” is the gift of priestly celibacy. In the midst of a world that easily tends to trivialize the dignity of the body, the total donation of one’s body to our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic celebration takes on a special significance. Christ’s celibacy illuminates with all its force and splendor the celibacy of the priest. In his years of earthly existence and in the life of his Church, Christ shows the extraordinary degree of paternity and maternity, and of charity without limits, that can be attained through this gift.

Throughout his vast pastoral experience, St. Josemaría continually felt the need for a strong priestly identity. It is not true that Christians want to see in the priest a man among others. What the Christian people wants of the priest is that he truly be a priest. In present-day society where not a few try to obscure God, Christians need to be able to perceive the presence of Christ in the priest. They need and hope “to recognize clearly the priestly character: they expect the priest to pray, not to refuse to administer the sacraments; they expect him to be open to everyone and not set himself up to take charge of people or become an aggressive leader of human factions, of whatever shade. They expect him to bring love and devotion to the celebration of the Holy Mass, to sit in the confessional, to console the sick and the troubled; to teach sound doctrine to children and adults, to preach the Word of God and not mere human science which—no matter how well he may know it—is not the knowledge that saves and brings eternal life; they expect him to give counsel and be charitable to those in need. In short, the priest is asked to learn not to be an obstacle to the presence of Christ within him.”[33]

This last phrase might serve to sum up the challenges that the world of today poses to sacred ministers. The priest has to render God present among the men and women of all times, and thus must learn how to lend everything he has, his voice, his hands, his body and soul to Christ. This principally takes place when he administers the sacraments or preaches, though not only in these moments. The dynamics proper to the sacrament of Orders, whose center and summit is the Eucharist, leads to a total self-giving throughout the day, in body and soul, to Christ.

The earthly life of Holy Mary, Mother of Christ the Eternal Priest and Mother of all priests, was a fiat “lived sincerely, unstintingly, fulfilling its every consequence, but never amid fanfare; rather in the hidden and silent sacrifice of each day.”[34] In the life of our Lady the effectiveness of this way of acting is evident. Mary continues making God present in today’s world. The Mother of God brings about frequent new conversions and discoveries of the joy of Christian life in the middle of the world.

[1] John Paul II, Speech to the Symposium of European Bishops, 11 October 1985

[2] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, The Way, no. 301

[3] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Christ Is Passing By, no. 183

[4] Cf. Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Furrow, no. 428

[5] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Notes taken during a family gathering, 10 May 1974, cited in J. Echevarría, Por Cristo, con Él y en Él, Ed. Palabra, Madrid 2007, p. 167

[6] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Homily A Priest Forever, 13 April 1973

[7] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Notes taken during a family gathering, 10 May 1974

[8] Saint Gregory the Great, Lib. Dialogorum, 4, 59, cited in Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Letter 8 August 1956, no. 17

[9] Cf. Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, The Way, historical-critical edition prepared by P. Rodríguez, 3rd edition, Rialp, Madrid 2004, p. 945

[10] Cf. Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, The Way, no. 185

[11] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Conversations with Monsignor Escrivá, no. 59

[12] Ibid., no. 113

[13] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Letter 8 August 1956, no. 25

[14] Cf. Saint Thomas, S. Th. II-II, q. 177, a. 1 c.

[15] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Letter 8 August 1956, no. 26

[16] Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, no. 41

[17] Ibid.

[18] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Homily A Priest Forever, 13 April 1973

[19] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Notes taken during a meeting with diocesan priests at Enxomil (Porto), 10 May 1974.

[20] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Letter 8 August 1956, no. 1

[21] Ibid., no. 30

[22] Ibid., no. 15

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., no. 37

[25] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Letter on the occasion of the golden jubilee of his priesthood, 28 January 1975

[26] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Letter 8 August 1956, no. 22

[27] Ibid., no. 23

[28] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Homily A Priest Forever, 13 April 1973

[29] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Letter 8 August 1956, no. 3

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., no. 17

[33] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Homily A Priest Forever, 13 April 1973

[34] Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Christ Is Passing By, no. 172

Romana, n. 49, July-December 2009, p. 279-288.

Send to friend