By John Norton
Just as the Year of St. Paul ends this June, the Church will start marking another special year, announced in mid-March by Pope Benedict XVI -- a "Priestly Year."
The goal, he told participants in a plenary meeting of the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy, is to promote priests' progress "toward spiritual perfection, upon which, above all, the efficacy of their ministry depends."
The relevance of the question is no small one, and not least in the United States alone. If you glance across at Page 3, you'll see a couple of related items:
First, Vatican statistics show that the pool of priests in the United States has flat-lined (even while average age of clerics, and the number of Catholics to whom they minister, continues to rise).
Second, the story about the Diocese of Cleveland cutting 52 parishes underscores the dramatic priest shortage in many parts of the country. Over the past four decades, Cleveland has lost 55 percent of its priests.
Third, the Church in the United States is still suffering the effects of the clerical sex abuse scandal, not least financially -- more than $2 billion in the past five years alone. As highlighted by the news brief about the Pittsburgh bishop's pleas for forgiveness and healing, there are many Catholics who find the practice of their faith difficult because of feelings of being wronged by Church leaders.
So the pope's call for priestly renewal couldn't be timed better. Some details: The "Priestly Year" will officially start June 19 (which happens to be the solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and a day dedicated to priestly sanctification). The year's theme is: "Faithfulness of Christ, faithfulness of the priest."
The pope will launch the year with a vespers service, accompanied by a relic of St. John Marie Vianney, the 19th-century French Curé d'Ars, whom the pope plans to name "patron of the world's priests." The year will end with an international gathering of priests in St. Peter's Square.
Among other initiatives during the year, the Vatican plans to publish a "Directory for Confessors and Spiritual Directors" and a compendium of Pope Benedict's writings on "essential themes" in the priestly life and mission today.
He gave a clue to what he sees as the "essential themes" in his talk to the clergy congregation. There are four "indispensible" dimensions to priestly ministry, he said: ecclesial (because the priest must be aware he is carrying Another, not himself, to the world), communional (because it promotes -- primarily invisible -- unity), and hierarchical and doctrinal, which he said highlights "the importance of ecclesiastical discipline (the word is linked to 'disciple')."
I'm waiting for your input at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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