INTERNATIONAL REUNION OF PRIESTS
"THE NECESSITY OF CONTINUING FORMATION FOR THE PRIEST"
JOHN CARDINAL O'CONNOR
JUNE 18, 1996
You will perhaps agree that the term "continuing formation for priests" has come to mean largely, and quite legitimately, something akin to an academic program. All of us here are undoubtedly familiar with a number of such continuing formation programs in seminaries and university centers, in dioceses and religious congregations. Many focus on such ecclesiastical disciplines as theology and sacred scriptures, others on behavioral sciences, personal growth, pastoral practice, and related interests. With occasional exceptions, perhaps, they constitute a substantial gift to the priesthood and to the Church, and certainly merit support, encouragement and use.
Within this quasi-retreat context, however, without prejudice to the kinds of programs cited, I would like to address what I see as an even more important and "radical" approach to continuing priestly formation. I hope you will bear with me, particularly if you expected me to address continuing formation as commonly understood. I begin with a few verses from Psalm 139.
These verses from the psalm, it seems to me, go to the heart of all formation, initial and continuing. It is the Lord who forms us, reforms us, transforms us, each day of our lives. And I suggest that as we are formed in our humanity by the Lord in our mother's womb, so we are formed in our priestliness by the Lord in the Eucharist. If so, then the most radical continuing formation possible for us as priests is that in which we permit the Eucharistic Christ to form and reform and transform us in and through the Sacrifice of the Mass, each day of our lives. Indeed, as our Holy Father reminded us in his Holy Thursday Letter of 1980.
In Pastores Dabo Vobis, the same Pontiff says, "For priests, ministers of sacred things, are first and foremost ministers of the Mass. The role is utterly irreplaceable, because without the priest there can be no eucharistic offering." [n.48] Saint Jerome, as well, saw in the consecration of the Body of Christ the chief source of priestly dignity, and for Saint John Chrysostom, in the Sacrifice of the Mass the priest rises to the peak of his relations with God. And Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard describes almost lyrically in his Priests Among Men the effects of the Eucharistic Sacrifice on the priest:
It is remarkable, and a witness to our tradition, that some 1700 years before Cardinal Suhard, St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage and martyr for the faith was saying much the same thing.
It seems to me that the Second Vatican Council saw in this kind of intimacy between the priest and Christ in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the blueprint for radical and continuing formation of the priest. Reminding us that "every priest in his own way bears the person of Christ" and acts as the Good Shepherd, the Council observes that the pastoral charity of this role "flows especially from the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is therefore the center and root of the whole life of the priest, so that his priestly soul must study to apply to itself that which is enacted on the altar of sacrifice." (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 14)
The priestly soul must study to apply to itself that which is enacted on the altar of sacrifice. What more profound study could there be? What more formative power could be exercised upon the priest than the power of the crucified? If we are to believe von Balthasar's maxim (a paraphrase of Pope Leo the Great), "To become a Christian means to come to the Cross", then, surely, to be formed and reformed in His priesthood, the priest must submerge himself unreservedly in the crucified Christ re-presented in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Christ shapes and molds and re-forms the priest in the fire of the Eucharist.
To make it possible for the Eucharistic Christ to re-form us, it seems to me, however, we must first empty ourselves as Christ emptied Himself, taking upon ourselves the form of a servant, as did He. It was not by chance that our Lord washed the feet of His apostles, telling them to do likewise for one another, before He gave them His body to eat and His blood to drink. Indeed, when speaking of continuing formation for priests, our Holy Father asserts: "Priests are not there to serve themselves but the People of God". (Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 78)
It is not mere poetic fancy, then, to assert that in order to be formed in the Eucharistic Christ we must empty ourselves. Reminding us of our Lord's words in John [15:5], "Without Me you can do nothing", Cardinal Ratzinger tells us in his own treatment of the priesthood:
St. Norbert put it as boldly as it could be put, when ordained to the priesthood. "O Priest! You are not yourself because you are God. You are not of yourself because you are the servant and minister of Christ . . . You are not from yourself because you are nothing. What then are you? Nothing and everything. O Priest!" [In Saint of the Dav, Leonard Foley, OFM. (St. Anthony Messenger Press: Cincinnati) 1974. Page 131-132] It is, in other words, the Eucharistic Christ who must fill us, form us, shape us to Himself, but only after we have emptied ourselves of all else. "I live, now not I," says Saint Paul, "but Christ lives in me." But if we have emptied ourselves, Christ does not merely enter into us in His Eucharistic presence. Far more, He sweeps us up into Himself. He divinizes us. He does not merely form us; he transforms us.
Many years ago, as a schoolteacher, each year I would take a class of young men to visit a steel mill. There they would see huge mounds of scrap metal, dirty, twisted, broken, deformed, piled on the floor of the mill. In time, the enormous bucket of a giant crane would swoop down, gobble up a ton or more of the scrap and empty it into a white hot open hearth furnace. In almost no time at all the scrap metal would be melted, then poured from high above the floor into forms fashioned for the purpose. The sight of a liquid column of fiery, molten steel pouring down as a waterfall was indescribable. But what never failed to fascinate me was that one couldn't tell where the fire left off and the liquid steel began, the two seemed to be so fused into one.
This is what it seems to me the Eucharistic Christ does to and for us, His priests. He so "melts" us into Himself, that it is difficult to discern where He "leaves off" and we begin. This is not too far removed, it seems to me, from our Holy Father's insistence that the purpose of spiritual formation, of its very nature, is to serve as "the core which unifies and gives life to his ~ a priest and his acting as a priest." (Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 45) Continuing formation, says the Holy Father, "has as its aim that the priest become a believer and ever more of one: that he grow in understanding of who he truly is, seeing things with the eyes of Christ." (Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 73)
Above all, formation, the Pontiff tells us, must be rooted in "awareness of the specific ontological bond which unites the priesthood to Christ the High Priest and Good Shepherd". [n. 11] In my judgment, this concept of the ontological nature of the priesthood, is critical. We don't just put on vestments; we don't just receive an assignment. Neither makes us priests. We become priests at ordination. There is an "ontological change" in our spiritual nature. Such is a profound mystery. Is it too bold an analogy to compare the change to Christ the Son of God's retaining His Divinity while becoming a man? Or to observe that after bread becomes the Sacred Body of Christ, it still tastes like bread and feels like bread, but is now the Body of Christ? There has been an ontological change. A cup of wine still smells like wine and tastes like it, but it is now the Blood of Christ. At ordination an ontological change takes place.
"In this bond between the Lord Jesus and the priest" says the Pope, "an ontological and psychological bond, a sacramental and moral bond, is the foundation and likewise the power for the 'life according to the spirit' and that 'radicalism of the Gospel' to which every priest is called today ...." [n. 72] But how can such a bond, yielding life in the spirit, be more intimate than in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which, as with the molten steel and fire, it is difficult to know where Christ "leaves off" and the priest begins, or vice versa.
I know that I am saying nothing that any one of you here could not say better than I on the basis of your own Eucharistic experience, but I could not content myself with using this opportunity to address only academic forms of continuing formation. Important as they are, I dare to call them secondary in comparison with continuing Eucharistic formation, only because, in my judgment, if we as priests are not rooted in, living, and being formed, reformed and transformed by the Eucharist on a continuing basis, all else is in danger of becoming "sounding brass and tinkling cymbals". God's People cry out for bread; we must not dare give them stones.
Not for a moment, of course, am I pleading a case for anti-intellectualism. On the contrary, I cheer mightily the words of Saint Jerome:
To preach, to teach, to serve God's People as they deserve, in today's world, without continued study, reading, listening, discussing, whether in formal continuing formation programs of an authentic nature, or by way of one's own reading and study, borders on the impossible. When can we say we have learned enough? I know that for myself simply to preach each Sunday, I personally must spend hours on the scriptures of the day and on scriptural commentaries, on research, on reading everything pertinent I can get my hands on, from science to fiction to the New York Times Review of Books. Yet we must never forget the words of Blaise Pascal, one of the most brilliant scientists who ever lived: "The heart has its reasons that reason never knows." If such be true of the human heart, what of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. What mysteries does his heart reveal to those who enter into the furnace of its love through the Eucharist.
"Imitate what you handle," the scripture tells us. And we do handle the Eucharist, most of us, every day of our lives. We can imitate with sincerity, however, only if we consciously open ourselves to being formed by the Eucharist on a continuing basis. Many of us are engaged with deep commitment to the works of the Social Gospel. We do, indeed, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, minister to those with AIDS, all crucial and laudable works, indeed, but works whose efficacy is increased immensely when fired with Eucharistic love. For the Eucharistic Sacrifice not only feeds congregations spiritually. It reaches out into the universe to feed and clothe and house and comfort the multitudes, bathing them in the love of the Crucified and Risen Christ, that love for which they are starved.
The Pope tells us in Redemptor Hominis:
But if the multitudes desperately need love, does not the priest? Where does the priest find love incarnate, however, so intimately as in the Eucharist?
We priests, indeed, for the salvation of souls, for the good of God's People, have the duty to roam the world, if need be, in search of the very best continuing formation available. How sad, it would be, however, and how we would impoverish God's People, if we ignored, were indifferent to or careless toward the Christ at hand in the Eucharist, the Word of God made flesh and dwelling among us. How effective in the long run would even the most extensive formation be, if in its pursuit the priest loses sight of or fails to give priority to that which alone forms him as a priest? Did not much of the "identity crisis" for priests begin in a cooling of ardor for the Eucharist, a dissatisfaction with what some saw as being merely a "functionary", that is, one who celebrates Mass and the Sacraments? Did not many priests come to feel a lack of status or prestige, and turn almost exclusively to various social and behavioral sciences, useful in themselves for priestly ministry, but hardly substitutes for the priesthood. All continuing formation, after all, must begin with what we believe a priest is. How do we define a priest? What is he supposed to be? What do we expect continuing formation to help him be? I suggest, therefore, that however advanced or sophisticated or necessary may be continuing formation programs which are primarily academic in nature, they can even contribute to, rather than help resolve the "crisis of priestly identity" which has marked our age, if they become substitutes for the radical continuing formation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice which is the very life of the priest, and without which his very priesthood withers and dies.
The words of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux to Pope Eugenius IV, while reminding him of the need for meditation, seem equally applicable to the priest's need for the Eucharist.
I can hardly conclude a reflection on continuing Eucharistic formation without at least the briefest of references to the bond between Mary and Jesus, which the Council tells us, is "intimate and indissoluble." Mary remains with Christ in some mysterious way in the Eucharist and is, after him, the "chief offerer" of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Her intervention brought about the changing of water into wine at Cana -- the wine served at the last which was richer than that served at the beginning. May she intervene in our priestly lives in similar fashion, so that continually formed and re-formed each day by the Eucharistic Christ, our priesthood will be even richer at the end than at the beginning. Let this be our prayer for one another.