LETTER OF HIS EMINENCE CARD. TARCISIO BERTONE
To all the Priests
From the Vatican, 10 November 2009
Dear Brothers in the Priesthood,
The Year of the Priesthood, a gift of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, which we are celebrating on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the “Dies Natalis” of John Mary Vianney, prompts me to address you, the priests of the Church in China, in a particular way.
1. An invitation to hope. In the Letter that the Holy Father addressed to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful in the People’s Republic of China on 27 May 2007, a number of guidelines are indicated for the future journey of the Church. Among those I wish to emphasise reconciliation within the Catholic community and a respectful and constructive dialogue with the Civil Authorities, without renouncing the principles of the Catholic faith. In this regard, despite the persisting difficulties, the information that has come from different parts of China points also to signs of hope.
To face the present ecclesial and socio-political situation in which you are living, and to make progress on the path of reconciliation and dialogue, it is urgent for each of you to draw light and strength from the sources of priestly spirituality, which are the love of God and the unconditional following of Christ.
At a distance of only two years since the publication of the Papal Letter, it does not seem that the time has come to make definitive evaluations. Using the words of the great missionary of China, Father Matteo Ricci, I believe we can say that it is still more a time of sowing than of reaping.
Perhaps some of you were surprised by the Letter of the Pope to the Church in China. I assure you that the Holy See is aware of the complex and difficult situation in which you find yourselves. When he opened the Year of the Priesthood the Holy Father invited all the priests of the world to “welcome the new springtime which the Spirit is now bringing about in the Church”. This is true also for you: the new challenges, which the Chinese people must face at the beginning of the Third Millennium, ask of you to open yourselves with confidence to the future and to continue trying to live the Christian faith integrally.
2. Proclaiming Christ. Dear Brother Priests, you are pastors of the People of God in a geographically and demographically vast country. As the little flock in the midst of a great multitude of persons, you live side by side with the followers of other religions and with persons who are indifferent or indeed hostile towards God and towards religion.
Do not think that you are alone in having to face such a problem. In fact, you share the same situation of many of your brothers in other parts of the world, who “even amid difficulties and incomprehension, remain faithful to their vocation as «friends of Christ», whom he has called by name, chosen and sent” (Letter for the Proclamation of the Year of the Priesthood). The observation of Pope Benedict XVI also holds for you: “There are also, sad to say, situations which can never be sufficiently deplored where the Church herself suffers as a consequence of infidelity on the part of some of her ministers. Then it is the world which finds grounds for scandal and rejection. What is most helpful to the Church in such cases is not only a frank and complete acknowledgment of the weaknesses of her ministers, but also a joyful and renewed realization of the greatness of God’s gift, embodied in the splendid example of generous pastors, religious afire with love for God and for souls, and insightful, patient spiritual guides” (Letter for the Proclamation of the Year of the Priesthood). And for you in China “How can I fail to recall, in this regard, as an encouragement for all, the shining examples of Bishops and priests who, in the difficult years of the recent past, have testified to an unfailing love for the Church, even by the gift of their own lives for her and for Christ?” (Letter to the Church in China, n. 13).
Often, when we look at the world around us, we are dismayed. How many people there are to feed! Where can we find the bread for all this people? How can I, with all my limitations, help Jesus in his mission? Once again the Holy Father, in commenting on the text of the Gospel of John (6:1-15) reminds us of the response of the Lord: “By taking in his ‘holy and venerable’ hands the little that they are, priests, we priests, become instruments of salvation for many, for everyone!” (Angelus, 26 July 2009). There are various practical ways in which you can make your valuable contribution: for example, by visiting Catholic and non-Catholic families frequently, as well as villages, showing your concern for people’s needs; by increasing efforts to prepare and train good catechists; by fostering greater use of charitable services directed especially to children and to sick and old people, in order to show the Church’s unselfish charity; by organising special gatherings where Catholics could invite their non-Catholic relatives and friends in order to become better acquainted with the Catholic Church and Christian faith; by distributing Catholic literature to non-Catholics.
3. The priestly virtues. In the school of Saint John Mary Vianney we must learn to identify ourselves with the ministry we have received. In Christ, this identification was total: “In Jesus, person and mission tend to coincide: all Christ’s saving activity was, and is, an expression of his ‘filial consciousness’ which from all eternity stands before the Father in an attitude of loving submission to his will” (Letter for the Proclamation of the Year of the Priesthood). It is from the identification with his own ministry that all the virtues necessary for every priest originate.
The saintly Curé of Ars knew how to dialogue with everyone, because he was a man of prayer: the art of dialogue, at whatever level, is learned in the dialogue with God, in continual and sincere prayer. He lived poverty with extreme rigour, because he held that everything he received was for his church, his poor, his most disadvantaged families. Also he saw his chastity as required of a priest for his ministry: it was the chastity appropriate for one who habitually had to touch the Eucharist. We also know how tormented he was from the thought of his own inadequacy for the parochial ministry and by the desire to escape: only obedience and the passion for souls succeeded in convincing him to remain at his post. The golden rule for an obedient life seemed to him to be this: “Do only what can be offered to the good Lord”.
4. The Eucharist. In this Year of the Priesthood, I wish to remind you of the source where you can find the strength to be faithful to your important mission. And I wish to do so with the words of Pope Benedict XVI: in the Church “every great reform has in some way been linked to the rediscovery of belief in the Lord’s eucharistic presence among his people” (Letter to the Church in China, n. 5, note 20).
The celebration of the Paschal Mystery reveals the agape, that is, the love of God, that love that defeats evil and, therefore, changes evil to good, hatred to love. Through the sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist - the Holy Father has reminded us – that divine energy “comes to us corporally to continue his working in us and through us” (Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, n. 14). United to Christ in the Eucharist, we become agents of the true transformation of hearts (cf. Deus Caritas Est, nn. 13-14). As the saintly Curé of Ars said: “all the good works together are not equal to the Sacrifice of the Mass, because they are the works of men, while the Holy Mass is the work of God”.
The Eucharist, sacrament of communion, source and summit of ecclesial life and evangelisation, is at the centre of your journey of reconciliation. The Eucharist, even if celebrated in a particular community, is never the celebration of that community alone. A truly Eucharistic community cannot retreat into itself, as though it were self-sufficient, but it must stay in communion with every other catholic community. In fact, every celebration of the Eucharist presupposes the union not only with the local Bishop but also with the Pope, the order of Bishops, all the clergy and the entire People of God.
Saint Paul, writing to the Christians of Corinth, showed how their divisions, which were made manifest in the Eucharistic assemblies, were in contrast with what they were celebrating, the Supper of the Lord. Consequently, the Apostle invited them to reflect on the true reality of the Eucharist, in order to bring them back to the spirit of fraternal communion (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-34).
Pope John Paul II reminded us that the Eucharist creates communion and teaches communion. And Benedict XVI, echoing this teaching, has given some directives concerning the reception of the Sacraments in the present situation of the Church in China (cf. Letter to the Church in China, n. 10). These directives are rooted “in the promotion of communion” and in “charity, that is always above all”: they are also recalled in the “Compendium” of the same Papal letter which was published by the Holy See on 24 May 2009.
5. The Word of God. May I also remind you once again, dear Priests, of the words of the Holy Father Benedict XVI: “In today’s world, as in the troubled times of the Curé of Ars, the lives and activity of priests need to be distinguished by a determined witness to the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI rightly noted, ‘modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses’. Lest we experience existential emptiness and the effectiveness of our ministry be compromised, we need to ask ourselves ever anew: ‘Are we truly pervaded by the word of God? Is that word truly the nourishment we live by, even more than bread and the things of this world? Do we really know that word? Do we love it? Are we deeply engaged with this word to the point that it really leaves a mark on our lives and shapes our thinking?’. Just as Jesus called the Twelve to be with him (cf. Mk 3:14), and only later sent them forth to preach, so too in our days priests are called to assimilate that ‘new style of life’ which was inaugurated by the Lord Jesus and taken up by the Apostles” (Letter for the Proclamation of the Year of the Priesthood).
6. The task of Bishops. Dear Priests, at this point allow me to address a few words also to your Bishops, who have received the fullness of the priesthood. To you, dear Brothers in the Episcopate, I would like to recall that your priests’ journey towards holiness has been entrusted to your attentive pastoral care. If one thinks of the social and cultural conditions of today’s world, it is easy to understand how the danger of dispersion in a great number of different tasks weighs on priests.
Daily experience shows that the seeds of disintegration among people are deeply rooted in humanity as a result of sin, but the Church can offer in response the power of the Body of Christ to bring about unity. The Second Vatican Council has identified pastoral charity as the bond that gives unity to the life and activity of priests.
7. Pastoral activity in favour of priestly vocations. As the Holy Father reminded you, “during the last fifty years, the Church in China has never lacked an abundant flowering of vocations to the priesthood and to consecrated life. For this we must thank the Lord, because it is a sign of vitality and a reason for hope. […] this flowering is accompanied, today, by not a few difficulties. The need therefore emerges both for more careful vocational discernment on the part of Church leaders, and for more in-depth education and instruction of aspirants to the priesthood and religious life. Notwithstanding the precariousness of the means available, for the future of the Church in China it will be necessary to take steps to ensure, on the one hand, particular attention in the care of vocations and, on the other hand, a more solid formation with regard to the human, spiritual, philosophical-theological and pastoral aspects, to be carried out in seminaries and religious institutes” (Letter to the Church in China, n. 14).
May the celebration of the Year of the Priesthood be therefore an occasion to launch initiatives to support the life of your seminarians. Thereby, dear Bishops, you will be able to devote particular attention to their formation by visiting them in the seminaries and showing deep concern about the training that they receive there, both on a spiritual and academic level. Besides, your paternal solicitude will suggest to you, according to the possibilities and conditions of each diocese, suitable initiatives for promoting vocations to the priesthood, such as prayer days and meetings or the opening of places where priests and faithful, especially the young, can come to pray together under the guidance of expert and good priests acting as spiritual directors.
8. Ongoing formation. The Holy Father Benedict XVI realises that “in China too, as in the rest of the Church, the need for an adequate ongoing formation of the clergy is emerging. Hence the invitation, addressed to you Bishops as leaders of ecclesial communities, to think especially of the young clergy who are increasingly subject to new pastoral challenges, linked to the demands of the task of evangelizing a society as complex as present-day Chinese society. Pope John Paul II reminded us of this: ongoing formation of priests «is an intrinsic requirement of the gift and sacramental ministry received; and it proves necessary in every age. It is particularly urgent today, not only because of rapid changes in the social and cultural conditions of individuals and peoples among whom priestly ministry is exercised, but also because of that ‘new evangelization’ which constitutes the essential and pressing task of the Church at the end of the second millennium»” (Letter to the Church in China, n. 13).
Every Bishop, in communion with his brother Bishops of neighbouring dioceses, should concern himself with organising and personally following serious programmes of ongoing formation. Particular attention should be paid to young priests, who frequently have to work alone soon after ordination. They often feel isolated, with heavy responsibilities. Bishops should attend not only to their ongoing formation but also should ensure that they are welcomed and helped by the older clergy. Moreover, it would also be useful if Bishops and priests could find frequent occasions for personal contacts among themselves, and increase both official and informal meetings in order to plan diocesan activities together, share their experience and help one another in solving personal and pastoral difficulties.
9. Eucharistic worship. The saintly Curé of Ars teaches us that the worship given to the Eucharist outside of Mass is of inestimable value in the life of every priest. This worship is closely joined to the celebration of the Eucharist. It is your task as Pastors to encourage Eucharistic worship, either by personal testimony or by organising a weekly hour of adoration, processions, etc, on both the diocesan and parish levels. In this way, the faithful could gather around the Eucharist and experience ecclesial communion.
To this proposal I would like to remind you of what Pope John Paul II left us almost by way of a testament: “It is pleasant to spend time with him, to lie close to his breast like the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn 13:25) and to feel the infinite love present in his heart. If in our time Christians must be distinguished above all by the «art of prayer», how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? How often, dear brothers and sisters, have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation and support!” (Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 25).
10. The spiritual reconciliation of hearts. What can you do in the face of the enduring divisions and miseries also present within the Catholic community? If we are united in the Eucharistic Christ, all of the miseries of the world echo in our hearts to implore the mercy of God. In the same way, we raise up a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for all the beautiful things of creation, for the good works of men and for the countless gifts of grace which the Lord pours out on humanity: the heart opens wide to a greater love, which takes on the breadth of that of Christ who died and rose from the dead.
We should not forget that even “from the start the community of the disciples has known not only the joy of the Holy Spirit, the grace of truth and love, but also trials that are constituted above all by disagreements about the truths of faith, with the consequent wounds to communion. Just as the fellowship of love has existed since the outset and will continue to the end (cf. 1 Jn 1:1ff.), so also, from the start, division unfortunately arose. We should not be surprised that it still exists today” (Letter to the Church in China, n. 6).
In the first letter to the Corinthians, regarding the divisions existing in his communities, Saint Paul wrote: “For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognised.” (1 Cor 11:19). Everything forms part of God’s plan, so that all may serve his omnipotence, which is wisdom and infinite love. At this time may no one hesitate to seek reconciliation with concrete gestures, to extend the hand to the brother who “has something against you” (cf. Matt 5:23-24). In order to obtain it, there is an urgent need to pay attention also to the human formation of all the faithful, priests and sisters included, because the lack of human maturity, self-control and inner harmony is the most frequent source of misunderstandings, lack of cooperation and conflicts within Catholic communities.
11. The agencies of communion. In the perspective of the “ecclesiology of communion”, the central and fundamental thought of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, it seems opportune to draw your attention to what canonical legislation provides for the fostering of the pastoral task of Bishops and the growth of the diocesan community: “Every diocesan Bishop is invited to make use of indispensable instruments of communion and cooperation within the diocesan Catholic community: the diocesan curia, the presbyteral council, the college of consultors, the diocesan pastoral council and the diocesan finance council. These agencies express communion, they favour the sharing of common responsibilities and are of great assistance to the Pastors, who can thus avail themselves of the fraternal cooperation of priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful” (Letter to the Church in China, n. 10).
When the entire diocesan curia cannot be set up due to the shortage of priests, Bishops should at least start to diversify the roles by gradually appointing a vicar general, chancellor, procurator, etc, in order to have someone at hand for consultation and cooperation in making juridical and pastoral decisions.
I wish to conclude my letter by expressing and entrusting to the Most Blessed Virgin the wish that your priestly life may be guided more and more by those ideals of the total giving of oneself to Christ and to the Church which inspired the thought and action of the saintly Curé of Ars.
United with you in prayer and in the hope that your pastoral work will bear a rich harvest, I remain,