By Marie Pitt-Payne
"The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus." So said St. John Vianney, the beloved Curè of Ars, in his "Catechism on the Priesthood." The saint, whose own heart was so filled with the love of Christ that it remains miraculously incorrupt 150 years after his death, will be declared Patron of all the Priests of the World by Pope Benedict XVI during a special Year of the Priest to be celebrated by the universal Church beginning June 19 -- the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The year's launch date provides some clues to what Pope Benedict hopes to achieve. The Sacred Heart liturgy emphasizes Jesus' total self-gift -- an outpouring of blood and water -- and his role as the inexhaustible source of the springs of salvation. Renewing -- and celebrating -- the priesthood with that in mind would benefit the entire Church, and its growth in the fundamental virtues of faith, hope and charity.
In his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio ("On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason"), Pope John Paul II said: "In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. ... Knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: In the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them" (No. 32). This sort of witness is most radically fulfilled by the martyrs.
But the faithful priest, united to the Heart of Christ, declares the truth by who he is -- a sign of contradiction. His self-offering points to God's love in a world of sin. The authenticity of a holy priest who knows his identity is rooted in his conformity to the Heart of Christ confirms the faith of countless people entrusted to him.
A priest united to the Heart of Christ lifts our minds and hearts beyond this present world. Pope Benedict spoke of the truly radical symbol of the Sacred Heart in his book "Behold the Pierced One": "The task of the heart is self-preservation, holding together what is its own. The pierced Heart of Jesus has also truly 'overturned' this definition. This Heart is not concerned with self-preservation but with self-surrender. It saves the world by opening itself."
Self-preservation is normal for those whose minds are taken up with the cares of this life. Only a supernatural hope of things to come frees us from our futile attempts at self-preservation, as seen in the lives of the martyrs. The very person of a priest conformed to the Heart of Christ inspires us to hope, because we see in his life of self-surrender the overturning of worldly self-preservation, inspired by his goal of eternal happiness in heaven.
In an age when the word "love" is so commonly misapplied, priesthood lived as "the love of the Heart of Jesus" brings all of us back to reality. During the Offertory at Mass, we are invited: "Lift up your hearts!" In lifting our hearts up to the Lord, offering ourselves to God as full and active participants in the Eucharistic sacrifice, we declare a readiness to imitate the Heart of Christ, so full of love that he was lifted on the cross for our sake.
Growth in charity means learning to give. Love means rejecting daily opportunities for mindless entertainment and fantasy so we perform our duties well. Love means rejecting levels of commitment to extracurricular activities that lead to a disruption in our family life or interfere with our opportunities to worship God. Love means sacrificing possessions because we have chosen to spend money on Catholic education or tithing to the Church. Love means acknowledging our tendencies to selfishness when determining family size. Love means choosing to be chaste in a world that tells us to indulge our lust.
Fortunately, in all the sacrifices that leave us feeling emptied, we have the love of the Heart of Jesus there for us, present in his sacraments to lift us up. This is possible because a priest accepted his invitation to be emptied in a total self-gift to his bride, the Church.
As St. John Vianney said, "When you see a priest, you should say, 'There is he who made me a child of God, and opened heaven to me by holy Baptism; he who purified me after I had sinned; who gives nourishment to my soul.'"
Marie Pitt-Payne writes from Illinois.