By Msgr. Owen F. Campion
Here goes. I am being very frank. When it was announced, I did not know exactly what focus this year would have, nor precisely what would be its purpose. On top of it all, some of the suggestions for how to observe the year, such as sending a warm and fuzzy greeting card to the pastor, or making a point to stop after Mass to compliment a homily, were so silly and artificial that I thought, ''If this is the Year of the Priest, well, it might not help priests or Catholics in the pew.''
I completely changed my mind after reading Pope Benedict XVI's homily at Evening Prayer in Rome on June 19 inaugurating the Year of the Priest. I am glad that I changed my mind.
(This homily, a superb reflection on priesthood, and on the meaning of priesthood personally in the life of each priest individually, is available online at www.Vatican.va).
The Year of the Priest can be very useful, enriching the Church, inspiring priests and catechizing Catholics in general.
This would be a good thing. If we need anything in the contemporary Church in this society today, it is our need, as priests and as Catholics, for a deeper and clearer understanding about the priesthood precisely in the context of personal salvation and ecclesiology's place in salvation.
Note these points, salvation and ecclesiology. They intimately involve the priesthood.
If anything in the religious sense plagues us these days, it is that our culture's view of religion in general has so much felt the impact of the Me Generation. After all is said and done, despite untold numbers of occasions to show us otherwise, we humans at this time in history, and in Western society, feel that we pretty well have things under control and, moreover, that each of us individually has things under control.
The decline of institutional religion, a phenomenon that already has virtually ended organized church life in Western Europe and threatens to do the same, maybe sooner than we would like, in the United States, directly follows this smugness about individual ability and potential.
Along the way, sin, or distancing from God, has gone out the window. The final judge of right and wrong is subjective. If almighty I choose to do this or that, and especially if I see no harm in it for me, then it is fine.
The entire notion of being created in God's image and likeness, and of an unsettling consequence if any person acts contrary to the image of God, is not only abandoned but assumed to be wrong, even pathological.
In a way, this highly personalized approach to religion may be the good news after assessing the state of religion in our culture.
If the Western European experience teaches us anything, it is that this very subjective expression of religion survives for a generation or two, but eventually it becomes irrelevant, and agnosticism is the next step, to be followed by atheism.
A recent series of polls in this country focused on the number of Catholics who do not practice their religion. Their disinterest springs from many factors, but many lose enthusiasm for religion as they picture a deity removed from human concerns or outright vengeful amid rules and regulations too demanding to meet.
Pope Benedict preached his homily on the Year of the Priest on the Vigil of the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For the past several generations, this historic and once treasured devotion has been on the wane, probably as part of the overall dilution of traditional religion among Catholics.
This devotion historically was a wondrous gift to believers provided in those brilliant days of the Counter-Reformation in France, when so many magnificent insights into the reality of God and salvation and such extraordinary examples of Christian witness, even to the point of martyrdom, were unfolding, was a mainstay of Catholic piety for centuries.
The Church was regrouping, but not in the institutional sense. People were discovering anew the power of God in their own lives and, precisely, in the Church that Christ gave for the salvation of the world.
The papal homily placed devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus precisely in its proper context: it tells us of the love of Christ, the Son of God, for all.
Proceeding to the Year of the Priest, the pope put priesthood at the very center of this divine love. Indeed, Pope Benedict said, priesthood can be nowhere else. It is a gift from God, given in divine love.
For his first biblical reference, the Holy Father quoted Hosea 11:1, ''When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called my son.'' This use of Israel as a collective term for all believers is a powerful assurance to us.
The message is strong and direct. God, the author of life, the Creator, the judge of good and of evil, loves us. He loves me! God is compassionate. He never forsakes us. He never withdraws from us the invitation to eternal life.
It was this perfect, creating, life-giving and eternal love -- that is, God -- who, in the second person of the Holy Trinity, joined himself to human nature in the person of the Lord Jesus.
The message ultimately and essentially is of the relevance of God and the immanence of God.
The Incarnation itself is God's gift, given in divine love, with all the immanence and relevance this mystery conveys.
The Church is God's gift, given in divine love, again with immanence and relevance a critical part of the reality so that, enable by the Apostolic tradition of the Church, all people everywhere may know God as Jesus revealed God, and not simply be left to personal musings about God.
The priesthood, exercised in the Church and for the Church, is supremely productive in making God's love for each person genuinely immanent and relevant.
Now, so far I have celebrated the gift of divine love and its immanence and relevance as given in the Incarnation, the Church and the priesthood.
The next step, and a mightily high step in this culture, is to convince people of this day and time that they need God's love.
In moments of crisis, people often come to realize their own mortality and their own limitations.
They can see the same fact under less pressing conditions. It is for priests, of course, to call them to sense both their needs and the ultimate inadequacy of material things in reaching true fulfillment and, in the midst of those needs and the void in their lives, to recognize the need for God and the love by which He lavishly satisfies human needs.
So, the Year of the Priest, initiated by the Holy Father in the context of God's love, calls us priests to ponder deeply both redemption and our vocation to continue the Redeemer's mission, and to always reflect upon and kneel humbly and unworthily before the august fact that, in Providence, God's love has called us individually to be its instrument.
In early July, Pope Benedict XVI issued his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Because of production requirements, The Priest will not be able to publish an analysis of this papal document until October, but we will offer readers of the October edition a full reflection on the encyclical.
In the meantime, the encyclical has appeared, and so have come reactions. The reactions are interesting.
To begin, the encyclical is lengthy, containing thousands of words. Sadly, but a fact, many people, including many Catholics, simply did not take the time to read it.
Their acquaintance with this document in some instances was the result of reading the Catholic press, watching Catholic television, listening to Catholic radio, hearing an occasional homily or participating in a discussion here and there.
Those Catholics who heard about Caritas in Veritate from one of these sources were lucky. They were more likely to receive a good, thorough and resourced report about the Pope's letter to the world on these important issues.
Most Catholics, however, heard about the encyclical from the commercial news media or from uninformed casual conversation. These Catholics do themselves, the Church's teaching and Pope Benedict a disservice in relying solely upon the commercial media or casual hearsay.
I make two comments about the commercial media and its reporting of religious news in general and of Catholic news in particular.
Always, the reporting Catholic news in the commercial media has left at least something to be desired. At one time, some daily newspapers engaged reporters for the religion beat who actually knew something about religion, religious denominations and theology.
However, even then, commercial press editors never regarded religious news as actually big news, unless it was the death of a pope or scandals involving clergy. As a result, to get into print, stories by even the most competent religious newswriters had to fight with articles about the success or failure of the local baseball team or the wreck on the interstate highway.
Still, that was the glory day for religious news and the commercial news media. As the plight of newspapers has grown more troubling, daily newspaper after daily newspaper has let its religious news reporters go, along with food and theatre critics, book reviewers and columnists.
So, today, the reporting of religious news is less likely to be the product of someone whose position is dedicated to religion reporting and who knows the territory.
Commercial television and radio are as bad if not worse. Look back to July and the coverage given to the pope's encyclical by the major television news networks. At the very best, it got a minute or two, somehow squeezed between the exhaustive coverage given Michael Jackson's death and the less exhaustive coverage given President Obama's negotiations with the Russians on nuclear arms.
Another factor must be considered in looking at the encyclical. Papal encyclicals in general have faced criticism from ''experts'' in the United States, but without exception the ''social encyclicals'' have encountered strong, indeed even harsh, criticism.
It is not a hand-me-down from the old days of more overt anti-Catholicism, although anti-Catholicism may be a factor in some instances.
Rather, let us face the facts. These encyclicals, including Caritas in Veritate, promote values that simply run against the American grain. Driving American economics is the profit motive, and the fewer restraints on pursuing the profit motive the better.
Over 30 years ago, for example, Pope Paul VI published his brilliant encyclical, Populorum Progressio, coinciding with the arrival upon the world stage of so many newly independent nations that had been colonies of the major European powers. In particular among the American press, The Wall Street Journal blasted the Pope. The ''experts'' rebutted the encyclical, insisting that if unfettered capitalism were left alone, all would be well.
Instead, as history has unfolded, virtually all has been tragic as so very many of these nations have tumbled into abysmal poverty, tyranny and despair.
Pope Paul VI may be looking down from heaven, saying, ''I told you so.''
This new encyclical has many profound points, and in the process it calls the world to reevaluate economic theory and practice with priority given not profit but human dignity and charity.
This rubs against the grain of American economic presumption. Many Catholics will hear criticisms of the encyclicals, or deduce for themselves, that the papal teaching indeed calls into question the way our American business enterprise works and thinks.
It will be uncomfortable. For all these generations, we Catholic Americans have so yearned just to fit in, to be accepted.
It is a situation that priests can address, before they even begin to explain the particulars of the encyclical. TP
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