ADDRESS OF JOHN PAUL II
Friday 23 November 2001
1. With great joy I welcome you, on the occasion of the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy. I cordially greet Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation, and I thank him for his kind words addressed to me in the name of all present. I greet the Cardinals, Bishops and the participants in your Plenary Assembly, which has focused on an important topic for the life of the Church: the Priest, Pastor and Guide of the Parish Community. Stressing the function of the priest in the parish community, one brings to the fore the centrality of Christ who should always be prominent in the mission of the Church.
Christ is present to his Church in the most sublime way in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. In the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, the Second Vatican Council teaches that the priest
acting in persona Christi celebrates the Sacrifice of the Mass and administers the Sacraments (cf. n. 10). As my venerable predecessor Paul VI so aptly observed in his Encyclical Letter Mysterium fidei, which followed the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7, Christ is also present through preaching and the guidance of the faithful, tasks to which the priest is personally called (cf. AAS 57  762).
For this reason, the Second Vatican Council recommends that "parish priests ensure that the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is the centre and culmination of the entire life of the Christian community" (Decr. Christus Dominus, n. 30). Without Eucharistic worship as its beating heart, the parish dries up. Here it is helpful to recall what I wrote in the Apostolic Letter Dies Domini: "Among the many activities of a parish, none is as vital or as community-forming as the Sunday celebration of the Lord's Day and his Eucharist" (n. 35). Nothing will ever be able to replace it. The Liturgy of the Word by itself, when it is really impossible to ensure the Sunday presence of a priest, is praiseworthy to keep the faith alive, but it must always keep the regular celebration of the Eucharist as the goal to be achieved.
Where a priest is lacking one must ask the Lord with faith and insistence, to raise up numerous and holy labourers for his harvest. In
Pastores dabo vobis I repeated that "today the prayerful expectation of new vocations should become an ever more continual and widespread habit within the entire Christian community and in every one of its parts" (n. 38). The splendour of the priestly identity, the integral exercise of the pastoral ministry united to the efforts of the whole community in prayer and personal penance, are the irreplaceable elements for an urgent pastoral activity to recruit vocations. It would be a fatal mistake to be resigned to present difficulties, and act as if we should prepare ourselves for a Church of tomorrow that some imagine as being almost without priests. In this way, the measures adopted to remedy the present scarcity, in spite of all good will, would be seriously harmful for the Ecclesial Community.
5. Also the function of guiding the community as shepherd, the proper function of the parish priest, stems from his unique relation to Christ the Head and Shepherd. It is a function having a sacramental character. It is not entrusted to the priest by the community, but, through the Bishop, it comes to him from the Lord. To reaffirm this clearly and exercise this function with humble authority is an indispensable service to truth and to ecclesial communion. The collaboration of others, who have not received this sacramental configuration to Christ, is hoped for and often necessary.
However, these cannot in any way substitute the task of the pastor proper to the parish priest. The extreme cases of shortage of priests, that advise a more intense and extended collaboration of the faithful not honoured with priestly ministry, in the pastoral care of a parish, do not constitute an exception to this essential criterion for the care of souls, as is indisputably established by canonical norm (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 517, 2). In this controversial sector, the interdicasterial Exhortation Ecclesiae de mysterio, that I approved in a specific way, is a sure guide to follow.
In fulfilling his duty as guide, which is his personal responsibility, the pastor will surely obtain help from the consultative bodies foreseen by canon law (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 536-537); but these must remain faithful to their reality as consultative bodies. Therefore it will be necessary to guard oneself from any form that tends de facto to weaken the leadership of the parish priest, because the very structure of the parish community would be distorted.
With these sentiments, while I assure you of my remembrance in prayer, I impart to each one a special Apostolic Blessing, which I gladly extend to all the priests of the world.