His Holiness Pope John XXIII
"Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia"
From the Beginning of Our Priesthood
August 1, 1959
To the Venerable Brothers, Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, and to the other Ordinaries in peace and communion with the Apostolic See.
Venerable Brothers, greetings and apostolic benediction.
The very pure joys accompanying the beginning of Our priesthood are forever linked in Our memory with the deep emotion We experienced on January 8, 1905, in the Vatican basilica on the occasion of the beatification of that humble French priest, Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney. We, Who had also been raised to the priesthood only a few months earlier, were struck by the admirable priestly figure, proposed so gladly by Our predecessor Pius X, the former parish priest of Salzano, as a model for all the shepherds of souls.
And now, so many years later, We cannot recall the memory without thanking again Our Divine Savior, as though for an outstanding grace, for the spiritual impetus with which Our priestly life was impressed from the very beginning.
We still recall that on the day itself of the beatification, We learned of the episcopal elevation of Msgr. Giacomo Maria Radini-Tedeschi, the great bishop who, a few days later, was to call Us to his service, and who for Us was a very dear master and father. And it was in his company that, at the beginning of that same year of 1905, We went for the first time in pilgrimage to Ars, the humble village made famous by its holy Cur'e.
By a further decision of Providence, the same year when We received the fullness of the priesthood, Pope Pius XI of glorious memory, on May 31, 1925, proceeded with the solemn canonization of the "Poor Cur'e of Ars." In his homily, the Pontiff was pleased to describe the "meager bodily figure of Jean Marie Vianney, his head resplendent with a kind of white crown of long hair, the face lean and emaciated by fasting, to such an extent exhaling innocence and holiness of a humble and gentle soul that as soon as people laid eyes on him, the crowds were stirred to salutary thoughts."
Shortly after, the same Pontiff, during the year of his priestly jubilee, completed the gesture already performed by St. Pius X in respect of the French parish priests and extended to the whole world the heavenly patronage of St. Jean Marie Vianney "for the promotion of the spiritual welfare of parish priests throughout the world."
These acts of Our predecessors, linked with so many dear personal memories, We wish to recall, venerable brothers, in this centenary of the death of the Holy Cur'e of Ars.
In fact, on August 4, 1859, consumed by the toils of an exceptional pastoral ministry of more than 40 years and the object of unanimous veneration, he gave up his soul to God. And We bless Divine Providence which has already on two occasions cheered and enlightened the solemn hours of Our priestly life with the splendor of the holiness of the Cur'e of Ars, because it again offers Us, from the very outset of this Supreme Pontificate, the opportunity to celebrate the memory so glorious of the shepherd of souls.
On the other hand, you will be not be surprised if, in addressing this letter to you, Our mind and Our heart are turned more especially to the priests, Our beloved sons, to exhort them all insistently-particularly those performing a pastoral ministry-to meditate on the admirable example of one of their colleagues of the priesthood who became their heavenly patron.
The Teachings of This Centenary
There are certainly many pontifical documents already reminding priests of the demands of their status and guiding them in the exercise of their ministry. Only recalling the most important, We again recommend the Exhortation "Haerent animo" of St. Pius X, which stimulated the fervor of Our first years of priesthood; the masterly encyclical "Ad Catholici Sacerdoti fastigium" of Pius XI; and, among the many documents and allocutions on the priesthood by Our immediate predecessor, his exhortation "Menti Nostrae," as well as the admirable trilogy in honor of the priesthood suggested to him by the canonization of St. Pius X. These texts, venerable brothers, are known to you. But you will allow Us to recall here with emotion the last discourse which death prevented Pius XII from pronouncing, and which remains like the extreme and solemn appeal of that great Pontiff for priestly sanctity:
"The sacramental nature of the order," it says, "seals on behalf of God an eternal pact of His love, of predilection, demanding in exchange sanctification of the chosen human being....The cleric will be a chosen person among the people, he will be privileged with divine favor, a custodian of divine power, in one word, a later Christus....He does not belong to himself in the same way as he does not belong to relatives, friends, nor does he belong to a specific country-universal charity will be his life. His very thoughts, will and feelings are not his own but belong to Christ, his life."
St. Jean Marie Vianney urges us all toward these heights of priestly sanctity, and We are happy to invite the priest of today to these heights because-though We are aware of the difficulties they encounter in their personal life and in the burdens of the ministry, though the temptations and the fatigues of some are not unknown to Us-Our experience also tells Us of the courageous faithfulness of the great majority and the spiritual heights reached by the best. To the ones and to the others our Lord addressed, on the day of ordination, this sentence of tenderness: "Iam non dicam vos servos, sed amicos!" (No longer do I call you servants . . . but I have called you friends.) (Cf. John 15:15). May this encyclical letter of Ours help them all to persevere and glow in this divine friendship, which constitutes the joy and strength of every priestly life.
Objective of the Encyclical
It is not Our intention, venerable brothers, to deal here with all the aspects of contemporary priestly life. Indeed, following the example of St. Pius X, "We will not say things never heard by you or new to some, but simply things that all should remember." Outlining in fact the traits of the sanctity of the Cure of Ars, We will be led to stress some aspects of priestly life, at all times essential, but which acquire so much importance in these days that We consider it a duty of Our apostolic mandate to dwell on them in a special way on the occasion of this centenary.
The Church, which glorified this priest "admirable for his pastoral zeal and for his uninterrupted desire for prayer and penance," today, a century after his death, has the joy to offer him to priests of the whole world as the model of priestly aspiration, as the model of piety and above all of Eucharistic piety, and the model of pastoral zeal.
To speak of St. Jean Marie Vianney is to recall the figure of a priest who mortified himself extraordinarily, so that for the love of God and for the conversion of sinners he deprived himself of food and sleep, subjected himself to harsh discipline and, above all, practiced self-renunciation to a heroic degree.
Though it is true that it is not commonly demanded of the faithful to follow this exceptional road, Divine Providence has at least prescribed that there will never be wanting in the world shepherds of souls who, urged by the Holy Ghost, would not hesitate to follow in his footsteps, because such men perform miracles of conversion. To all, the admirable examples of renouncement of the Cur'e of Ars -"strict in regard to himself and gentle toward others"-eloquently and pressingly recall the primary place of priestly aspirations in the priestly life.
Evangelical Counsel and Priestly Sanctity
Our predecessor, Pius XII, desiring to clarify this doctrine to a greater extent and to dispel certain misunderstandings, wished to stress that it is false to affirm "that the clerical state-as such and because it is derived from divine law-by its nature or at least by virtue of a postulate of that same nature, requires that its members profess the evangelical counsels." And the Pope rightly concluded: "The clerics are therefore not bound by divine law to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience."
But it would be an enormous mistake to think that the Pope, so concerned with the sanctity of priests and the constant teaching of the Church could believe nevertheless that a secular priest might be called to a perfection less than that of a religious. The truth is indeed the opposite, because the performance of the priestly functions "calls for greater interior sanctity than demanded by the religious state itself" (Summa Theologica of St. Thomas). And if, for the achievement of this sanctity of life, the practice of the evangelical counsels is not imposed on a priest by virtue of his clerical state, it nevertheless presents itself to him in the same way as it presents itself to all the disciples of the Lord, as the regal way to Christian sanctification. Moreover, to Our great comfort, how many generous priests have today understood it and who, while remaining in the ranks of the secular clergy, ask pious associations approved by the Church to guide them and sustain them along the ways of perfection.
Convinced that "the greatness of the priesthood is in the imitation of Jesus Christ" (Pius XII, Discourse of April 16, 1953), priests will therefore be more than ever attentive to the calls of the Divine Master: "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24). It states that the Holy Cur'e of Ars "often meditated on these words of Our Lord, and endeavored to put them into practice." God gave him the grace to remain heroically faithful to these words and his example still guides us along the ways of priestly aspirations where he shone brilliantly by his poverty, his chastity and his obedience.
Example of Evangelic Poverty
First of all, behold the poverty of the humble Cur'e of Ars, the worthy imitator of St. Francis of Assisi, of whom he was a loyal disciple in the Third Order. Rich in regard to giving to others, he was poor in himself. He lived completely detached from the goods of this world and his truly free heart was generously receptive to all the material and spiritual miseries that sprung up around him. "My secret is quite simple," he would say. "It is to give everything and not keep anything."
His disinterestedness made him attentive to the poor, to the poor of his parish particularly, in whose regard he showed great delicacy, treating them "with true tenderness, with great consideration, one can say with respect." He advised people never to be wanting in consideration toward the poor, because this lack reflects on God; and when the poor knocked at his door, welcoming them with joy, he was happy to say to them, "I am poor like you, today I am one of you." At the end of his life, he liked to repeat: "I am very contented. I have nothing left, the good Lord can call me when He wishes."
Applications to Priests of Today
From this you can understand, venerable brothers, how much affection We put into exhorting Our dear sons of the Catholic priesthood to meditate on such an example of poverty and chastity. "Daily experience shows," wrote Pius XI, thinking precisely of the Holy Cur'e of Ars, "that the priests of humble life who, according to the evangelical doctrine, do not seek in any way their own interest, contribute admirable benefits to the Christian people."
And the same Pontiff, taking modern society into consideration, also addressed this grave warning to the priest: "While one sees men selling and negotiating everything for money, may they proceed disinterestedly through the attractions of vice and may they reject with saintliness the unworthy cupidity of gain, may they not seek pecuniary advantages but rather the benefit of souls, and may they desire and ask for the glory of God and not theirs."
The words must be carved in the heart of all priests. If there are some among them who lawfully possess personal means, may they not be attached to them. Rather they should remember the obligation prescribed by the Code of Canon Law regarding ecclesiastical property "to give the excess to the poor and to pious causes."
And may it please God that no one deserves the reproach made by the Holy Cur'e of Ars to his flock: "Many have money locked away, while so many poor die of hunger." But we know that today many priests live in effect under conditions of real poverty. The glorification of one of them, who lived voluntarily in great privation and who rejoiced at the thought of being the poorest in the parish will be for them a providential encouragement to deny themselves in the practice of an evangelical poverty. And if Our paternal solicitude can be of some comfort to them, may they know that We deeply rejoice at their unselfishness in the service of Christ and of the Church.
Certainly in advising this holy poverty, We do not wholly wish, venerable brothers, in any way to approve the misery to which the ministers of the Lord in some cases are reduced in the cities and in the country. Commenting on the exhortation of the Lord regarding the detachment from the goods of this world, Venerable Bede warns us precisely against any abusive interpretation: "One must not believe," he wrote, "that the saints are commanded not to keep money for themselves or for the poor; since one reads that the Lord Himself had money in order to establish His Church . . . but let no one serve God because of it, nor deny justice for fear of poverty."
Furthermore, the workers have the right to earnings and We, adopting as Our Own the concerns of Our predecessor, earnestly ask all faithful to respond with generosity to the appeal of the bishops, justly concerned with assuring suitable resources to their collaborators.
His Angelic Chastity
St. Jean Marie Vianney, poor of wealth, was equally mortified in the flesh. "There is only one way to give oneself to God in the exercise of renouncement and of sacrifice", he said.
"That is to say to give oneself completely." And throughout his life he practiced the virtue of chastity to a heroic degree.
His example in this respect seems particularly opportune, because unfortunately, in many regions priests are compelled to live, because of their office, in a world in which reigns an atmosphere of excessive liberty and sensuality. And for them the expression of St. Thomas is only too true: "It is all the more difficult to live well in the care of souls because of the outside dangers."
Furthermore, they are often morally alone, little understood, receiving little support from the faithful to whom they have dedicated themselves. To all, particularly to the most isolated and the most exposed, We here make a warm appeal that their whole life may be a clear testimony to that virtue called by St. Pius X "the distinguished ornament of our Order." And We recommend to you with eager insistence, venerable brothers, to assure for your priests, in the best way possible, conditions of life and of work that can sustain their generosity.
One must, therefore, combat at all cost the dangers of isolation, denounce imprudence, remove the temptations of sloth or the risks of exaggerated activity. Also remember in this respect the magnificent teachings of Our predecessor in the encyclical "Sacra Virginitas."
"Chastity shone in his eyes" it was said of the Cur'e of Ars. ln truth, whoever follows his teaching is struck not only by the heroism with which this priest reduced his body into servitude, but also by the degree of conviction with which he succeeded in dragging behind him the multitude of his penitents. Through a long practice in the confessional, he was aware of the sad ruins of the sins of the flesh: "Were there not a few pure souls to reward God," he would sigh, "you would see how we would be punished!" And speaking from experience, he would add a brotherly encouragement to his appeal: "Mortification has a balsam and taste which one cannot do without once one has known it.... In this life it is the first step that hurts!"
This necessary virtue of chastity, far from shutting the priest up in sterile selfishness, opens his heart more and makes him more understanding of the needs of his brothers: "When the heart is pure," the Cur'e of Ars would say optimistically, "it cannot but love, because it has found again the source of love which is God."
What advantage for society to have in its midst men who, free of temporal preoccupations, consecrate themselves completely to divine service and dedicate their own lives, their thoughts and their energies to their brothers. What grace for the Church are the faithful priests of this excellent virtue. Together with Pius XI We consider it the purest glory of the Catholic priesthood and "inasmuch as it concerns priestly souls, it seems to Us to respond in the most worthy and suitable way to the designs and wishes of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus." The Holy Cur'e of Ars was thinking of this design of divine love when he exclaimed: "The priesthood, behold the love of the Heart of Jesus."
The Spirit of Obedience
On the saint's spirit of obedience there are innumerable testimonials, so that one is truly able to affirm that for him the exact loyalty of the "promitto" at the time of ordination was the moment of a renunciation which lasted 40 years. For all of his life, in fact, he wanted the solitude of a holy retreat, and pastoral responsibilities were for him a very heavy burden, which he tried to be free of many times. But his complete obedience to his bishop was still more admirable, as We hear, venerable brothers, several anecdotes of his life.
"From the age of 15 years," one of these tells us, "this desire (for solitude) was in his heart to torment him and to take from him the joys which he would have been able to taste in his position." But "God did not allow him," says another anecdote, "to realize his desire." Divine Providence wished without doubt that, sacrificing choice to obedience, the pleasure of duty might again continue to win out in Vianney. "Vianney," concludes a third anecdote, "remained Cur'e of Ars with a blind obedience and he remained there until his death."
This total adhesion of the will to his superiors was, to put it precisely, entirely supernatural in its motive. It was an act of faith in the words of Christ which He spoke to His apostles: "Who hears you, hears Me" (Luke 10:16). And to remain faithful in this regard, he exercised habitual renunciation of his will, accepting the heavy ministry of the confessional and all the other daily tasks in which, collaborating with his co-workers, he carried out a most fruitful apostolate.
It pleases Us to take as an example for priests this rigid obedience, trusting that they will understand from it all its greatness and will acquire from it spiritual worth. And so that they might never doubt the importance of the capital virtue, so easily misunderstood today, may they know that against them are ranged the clear and decisive statements of Pius XII, who affirmed that "the sanctity of life of each one and the effectiveness of the apostolate are based on and rest upon the constant and faithful respect for the sacred hierarchy, as on a solid foundation."
The rest of you remember, venerable brothers, with what strength Our last predecessors have denounced the grave dangers of the spirit of independence in the heart of the clergy, both because of doctrinal teaching and because of the methods of the apostolate and ecclesiastical discipline.
We do not wish to insist, however, on this point, but We prefer to exhort Our priest-sons to develop within themselves the filial sense of belonging to the Church, our Mother. Of the Cur'e of Ars it was said that he only lived in the Church and for the Church, like a bundle of straw placed on a burning brazier. Priests of Jesus Christ, we are immersed in the brazier vivified by the Holy Ghost by fire. We have received everything from the Church. Let us act in her name and by virtue of the powers she has conferred on us. Let us serve her within the bonds of unity and in a way in which she wishes to be served.
PRAYER AND VENERATION OF THE EUCHARIST
A man of penance, St. Jean Marie Vianney had also understood that "the priest must first of all be a man of prayer." Everyone knows of the long nights of adoration he spent before the Most Holy Sacrament as a young curate of a village which at that time was not very Christian. The tabernacle of his church soon became the fireside of his personal life and of his apostolate, to such an extent that the best description of the parish of Ars during the saint's life is (to be found) in the words of Pius XII on the Christian parish: "The center is the church, and in the church the tabernacle with the confessional along side, where the dead souls regain life and the sick souls regain health."
To the priests of this century, easily sensitive to the efficacy of action and also easily tempted by a dangerous actism (exaggerating the importance of activities), how salutary is this example of assiduous prayer in a life entirely consecrated to the need of souls. What prevents us priests from being saints, he said, is the lack of mental reflection. One does not withdraw within oneself. One does not know what one is doing. We need reflection, we need prayer, we need union with God. According to the testimony of his contemporaries, he remained in a state of constant prayer from which neither the harassing burden of confessions nor the other pastoral duties distracted him. He preserved a constant union with God in the midst of his excessively active life.
Let us listen to him further. He is inexhaustible when he speaks of the joys and of the benefits of prayer. "Man is a poor human who must ask everything of God." "We can convert so many souls with our prayers." And he repeated: "Prayer, behold the happiness of man on earth." He greatly enjoyed this happiness, while his sight illuminated by faith contemplated the divine mysteries and when, through the adoration of the Word Incarnate, he raised his simple and pure soul to the Most Holy Trinity, the supreme object of his love. And the pilgrims who crowded the Church of Ars understood that the humble priest manifested to them something of the secret of his interior life with the frequent exclamation, dear to him, "To be loved by God, to be united with God, to live in the presence of God, to live for God. Oh! What a beautiful life and what a beautiful death!"
Priest First of All a Man of God
We would like, venerable brothers, that all the priests of your dioceses would permit themselves to be convinced, by the testimony of the Holy Cur'e of Ars, of the need to be men of prayer and of the possibility of being such, whatever the burden may be-often extreme-of the demands of their ministry. But one must have a living faith, like the faith animating Jean Marie Vianney, and which made him perform miracles. "What faith!" exclaimed one of his colleagues. "One could enrich a whole diocese with it."
This faithfulness to prayer is in fact for the priest a duty of personal piety, of which the wisdom of the Church has defined precisely several important points, like the daily mental oration, the visit to the Most Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary and the examination of one's conscience. And it is also a strict obligation contracted with the Church when it is a question of the daily recitation of the Divine Office. Probably because they have neglected some of these regulations some members of the clergy have found themselves the victims of an outward instability, of interior impoverishment, and exposed one day without defense to the temptations of life. On the contrary, working ceaselessly for the good of souls, Jean Marie Vianney did not neglect his own. He sanctified himself so as to be able to sanctify others.
Together with St. Pius X "We consider it certain that if the priest is to hold worthily the height of his rank and office, he must be particularly dedicated to the practice of prayer....The priest must obey the commandment of Christ more intensely than others. One must always pray; a precept so much recommended by St. Paul-insist on prayer, watchfully and giving thanks-pray without interruption."
And in concluding this point, We Ourselves gladly repeat the password given to priests by Our immediate predecessor, Pius XII, from the very beginning of his pontificate: "Pray, pray always more and more with greater insistence."
The prayer of the Cur'e of Ars, who it could be said, spent the last 30 years of his life in church, where he was detained by his innumerable penitents, was above all a eucharistic prayer. His devotion to Our Lord, present in the Most Blessed Sacrament on the altar, was truly extraordinary.
"He is there," he used to say, "He Who loves us so much. Why should we not love Him?" And he certainly loved Him and felt himself drawn irresistibly toward the tabernacle. "To pray well, there is no need to talk a lot," he explained to his parishioners. "One knows that the good Lord is there in the holy tabernacle. One opens one's heart to Him, one rejoices in His presence. This is the best prayer."
On every occasion he inculcated in his faithful the respect and love of the divine eucharistic presence, inviting them to approach the Communion table frequently, and he himself gave the example of this profound piety. "To be convinced of this," a witness recounted, "it was sufficient to see him celebrate the Holy Mass and genuflect when he passed before the tabernacle."
The Eucharist in the Priest's Life
"The admirable example of the Holy Cur'e of Ars has still today its complete value," Pius XII said. In the life of a priest nothing could replace the silent and prolonged prayer before the altar. The adoration of Jesus, our God, thanksgiving, reparation for our sins and for those of men, the prayer for so many intentions entrusted to him, combine to raise the priest to a greater love for the Divine Master, to Whom he has promised faithfulness and for men who depend on his priestly ministry. With the practice of this enlightened and fervent worship of the Eucharist, the spiritual life of the priest increases and there are prepared the missionary energies of the most valuable apostles.
And one must add the advantages derived for the faithful there from, the witnesses of this piety of their priests, attracted by their example: "If you want the faithful to pray willingly and piously," said Pius XII to the Roman clergy, "precede them in church with your example, praying for them. A priest kneeling before the tabernacle in a dignified attitude, in profound contemplation, is a model of edification for the people, an admonishment and an invitation of emulation in prayer." This was the supreme apostolic weapon of the young Cur'e of Ars. Let us not doubt its worth on every occasion.
The Priest and the Mass
But we cannot forget that the eucharistic prayer in the full sense of the word is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. One must insist, venerable brothers, particularly on this point, since it touches one of the most essential aspects of the priestly life.
Here We do not certainly intend to repeat the statement of the traditional doctrine of the Church regarding the priest and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Our predecessors of happy memory, Pius XI and Pius XII, have recalled this teaching in masterly documents with so much clarity that all that remains for Us to do is to exhort you to make it known widely to priests and faithful entrusted to you. Thus will be dispelled the uncertainties and the temerities of thought shown here and there in this respect.
But it is well to point out in this encyclical the profound way in which the Cur'e of Ars, heroically faithful to the duties of his ministry, truly deserved to be proposed as an example for shepherds of souls and proclaimed as their heavenly patron. If it is in fact true that the priest received the character of an Order for the service at the altar and began the practice of his priesthood with the eucharistic sacrifice, for the rest of his life, this will not cease to be at the basis of his apostolic activity and of his personal sanctification. And this was precisely the case of St. Jean Marie Vianney.
What is in fact the apostolic work of the priest, considered in its essential action, if not to gather around the altar, wherever the Church lives, people united in faith, regenerated and purified? Precisely then the priest, by virtue of the powers he alone has received, offers the Divine Sacrifice in which Jesus Himself repeats the one and only immolation performed on Calvary for the redemption of the world and for the glorification of His Father. It is then through the priest that Christians gathered together offer to the Heavenly Father the Divine Victim and learn how to immolate themselves as a "sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God" (Romans 12:1).
It is there that the people of God, enlightened by the preaching of the Faith, nourished with the body of Christ, find their life, their growth and, if it is necessary, strengthen their unity. In one word, it is there that, from generation to generation, and everywhere in the world, there is built in charity the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church.
In this respect, since the holy Cur'e of Ars from day to day was ever more exclusively occupied with the teaching of Faith and with the purification of consciences, while all the acts of his ministry converged on the altar, such a life must justly be called eminently priestly and pastoral. It is true that at Ars sinners flocked spontaneously to the Church, attracted by the sanctity of the pastor, whereas so many other priests have to make prolonged and laborious efforts to gather their flock together. It is also true that others have a more missionary task and still are at the first announcement of the news of the Savior, yet these apostolic duties, so necessary and sometime so difficult, cannot make the apostles forget the end they must seek, and which was reached by the Cur'e of Ars when, in his humble country church, he devoted himself to the essential duties of pastoral activity.
Mass Primary Source of Priest's Personal Sanctification
There is still more. The whole personal sanctification of the priest must be modeled on the Sacrifice he celebrates, in conformity with the invitation of the Roman Pontifical: "Know what you do. Imitate that which you handle." But here let Us leave the words to Our immediate predecessor, who wrote in his exhortation "Menti Nostrae": "As the whole life of the Savior was ordained to the sacrifice of Himself, so the life of the priest which should reproduce in itself the image of Christ, ought also to be with Him and through Him and in Him, a pleasing sacrifice....Consequently he will not merely celebrate Holy Mass, but will live it out intimately in his daily life. In no other way can he obtain that supernatural vigor which will transform him and make him a sharer in the life of sacrifice of the Redeemer."
And the same Pontiff concluded: "The priest should, therefore, study to reproduce in his own soul the things that are effected upon the altar. As Jesus Christ immolates Himself, so His minister should be immolated with Him. As Jesus expiates the sins of men, so he, by following the hard road of Christian asceticism, should labor at the purification of himself and of others."
The Church has this lofty doctrine in mind when she invites her ministers to a life of asceticism and recommends them to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice with profound piety. Is it not perhaps because they did not fully understand the close link, and almost reciprocity, uniting the daily gift of oneself with the offering of the Mass, that certain priests little by little lost the "prima caritas" of their ordination? This was the experience of the Cur'e of Ars: "The cause," he said, "of the slackness of the priest is that he does not pay attention to the Mass." And the saint who precisely followed the heroic custom of offering himself in sacrifice for sinners, shed abundant tears thinking of the misfortune of priests who do not correspond to the sanctity of their vocations.
With paternal affection, We ask Our beloved priests to examine themselves periodically on the manner in which they celebrate the holy mysteries and their spiritual state of mind when they go up to the altar and the fruits they strive to derive from it. The centenary of this admirable priest who derived from the comfort and fortune of celebrating the Holy Mass the courage of his own sacrifice invites them to it. We are firmly confident that his intercession will obtain for them abundant graces of light and of strength.
This life of aspiration and of prayer, the fervor of which, venerable brothers, We have just told you about, reveals also the secret of the pastoral zeal of St. Jean Marie Vianney and the astonishing supernatural efficacy of his ministry: "Let the priest recall," wrote Our predecessor of happy memory, Pius XII, "that his ministry, so important, will be all the more fruitful as he is himself more directly united to Christ, and let him be guided in his actions by the spirit of Christ." The life of the Cur'e of Ars verifies again that grand law of every apostolate, founded on the very words of Jesus: "Without Me, you can do nothing" (John 25:15).
Undoubtedly, there is no question here of remembering the admirable history of that humble country curate, whose confessional was besieged for 30 years by crowds so numerous that certain freethinkers dared reproach him with "troubling the 19th century," without taking the opportunity of treating of his apostolic methods, which are not always immediately applicable to the contemporary apostolate.
It suffices for Us to recall on this point that the holy Cur'e was in his time a model of pastoral zeal in that village in France where faith and morals still felt the convulsions of the revolution. "There is not much love of God in that parish; you will put it there," it was said to him when he was sent. Indefatigable apostle, full of initiative to win youth and sanctify homes, attentive to the human cares of his sheep, near to their life, spending himself without personal concern for the establishment of Christian schools and in favor of parochial missions, he was in truth for his little flock the good shepherd, who knows his sheep, guards them from danger and leads them with authority and wisdom. Did he not unwittingly praise himself by this apostrophe from one of his sermons: "A good shepherd, a shepherd according to the heart of God: there is the greatest treasure that the good God can give to a parish."
The example of the Cur'e of Ars truly keeps a permanent and universal value on three essential points which it pleases Us, venerable Brothers, to propose here for your attention.
Conscious of Responsibilities
What is immediately striking is the sharp sense he had of his pastoral responsibilities. His humility and the supernatural knowledge he had of the price of souls made him carry with fear his charge as curate. "My friend," he confided to a confrere, "you do not know what it is to pass as a curate before the tribunal of God." And we know well the desire, which long tormented him, to flee to some place of retreat to "bewail his poor life," and how obedience and zeal for souls led him back each time to his post.
But if at certain hours he was so overburdened by a charge that had become exceptionally crushing, it is precisely because he had a heroic conception of his responsibilities as a pastor. During the first years, he prayed: "My God, give me the conversion of my parish; I agree to suffer whatever You want throughout my life." He obtained from heaven that conversion. But he avowed later: "When I came to Ars, if I had seen the sufferings that awaited me there I would have died from fear on the spot."
According to the example of apostles of every age, he saw in the Cross the great supernatural means of cooperating for the salvation of the souls that were confided to him. For them he uncomplainingly suffered calumnies, misunderstandings, contradictions; for them he accepted the veritable physical and moral martyrdom of an almost uninterrupted presence in the confessional every day for 30 years; for them he fought as an athlete of the Lord against the infernal powers; for them he mortified his body. And we know his reply to a confrere who complained of the slight efficacy of his ministry: "You have prayed, you have wept, you have groaned, you have sighed. But have you fasted, have you watched, have you slept on the hard floor, have you given yourself the discipline? So long as you have not arrived there, do not believe you have done everything."
We turn toward all priests who have charge of souls and We beg them to hear these vehement words. May every one, according to the supernatural prudence that must always regulate our actions, appreciate his proper conduct will regard to the people confided to his pastoral solicitude. Without ever doubting the divine mercy which comes to the aid of our weakness, let him consider his own responsibility in the light of the examples of St. Jean Marie Vianney.
"What is a great unhappiness for us other curates," the saint deplored, "is that the soul grows hardened." And he meant by that a dangerous accustoming of the pastor to the state of sin in which so many of his sheep live. Or again, in order better to put themselves in the school of the Cur'e of Ars, who "was convinced that in order to do good to souls it was necessary to love them," let all examine themselves on the charity that animates them with regard to those whom they are charged before God, and for whom Christ died.
Of course, the liberty of men or certain independent events of their will can sometimes oppose themselves to the efforts of the greatest of saints. The priest does not for that have less duty to remember that, according to the unfathomable designs of divine Providence, the fate of many souls is tied to his pastoral zeal and the example of his life. Is not this thought of a nature to provoke among the lukewarm salutary inquietude and to stimulate the most fervent?
Tireless Preacher and Catechist
"Always ready to respond to the needs of souls," St. Jean Marie Vianney excelled as a true pastor in procuring in abundance the primordial food of religious truth. He was a preacher and catechist his whole life.
We know the ceaseless and persevering work that he imposed on himself to fulfill well the duty of his charge, "primum et maximum officium," according to the Council of Trent. His studies, done late, were laborious, and his sermons cost him many a midnight watch at the beginning. But what an example for the ministers of the Word of God. Some have taken the slenderness of his learning as authority to excuse their lack of zeal in studies. It would be better to imitate his courage in rendering himself worthy of so great a ministry, according to the measure of the gifts that were accorded him; moreover these were not so modest as it sometimes pleases people to say, for "there was in his intelligence a good deal of distinction and clarity."
In any case, each priest has the duty of acquiring and keeping up general knowledge and theological culture proportionate to his aptitudes and functions. And may it please God that the pastors of souls forever do as the Cur'e of Ars did to develop the capacities of his intelligence and of his memory, and to draw above all from the lights of the most learned book that one can read, the Cross of Christ. His bishop said of him to certain of his detractors: "I do not know whether he is instructed, but he is enlightened."
It is with great reason that Our predecessor of happy memory, Pius XII, did not fear to give as a model to the preachers of the Eternal City the humble country priest: "The holy Cur'e of Ars surely had not the natural genius of a Segneri or of a Bossuet; but the live, clear and profound conviction with which he was animated, vibrated in his words, glittered in his eyes, suggested to his imagination and to his sensibility ideas, images, comparisons neat, appropriate and pleasing that would have delighted a St. Francis de Sales.
"Such preachers truly conquer their audience. Whoever is filled with Christ finds no difficulty winning others to Christ."
These words admirably describe the Cur'e of Ars, catechist and preacher. And when at the end of his life his voice weakened and could no longer be heard by the whole audience, it was still by his intensity, by his tears, by his cries of the love of God, or his expression of sadness at the mere thought of sin, that he converted the faithful gathered at the foot of his pulpit. How, in fact, can one not be seized by the testimony of a life so totally given over to the love of Christ?
Until his death, St. Jean Marie Vianney was as faithful in instructing his people and the pilgrims who filled his church, in denouncing "opportune, importune" (2 Timothy 4:2) evil under all its forms, in raising, above all, souls toward God, for "he preferred to show virtue's attractive side rather than the ugliness of vice." This humble priest had in fact understood to a rare degree the dignity and the grandeur of the ministry of the Word of God. "Our Lord, Who is Truth itself," he said, "placed no less importance on His Word than on His Body."
One can, therefore, understand the joy of Our predecessors in offering this shepherd of souls as a model of priests, because it is of supreme importance that the clergy everywhere and in every age be faithful to their duty to teach. "It is right," said St. Pius X in this respect, "to lay stress on this essential point-that is to say, that there is no more important duty for a priest, neither is he obligated by any other closer bond." This resounding appeal, constantly repeated by Our predecessors and echoed in canon law, We in Our turn address to you, venerable brothers, in this centennial year of the saintly catechist and preacher of Ars.
We encourage the attempts made prudently and under your control, and which take account of the different forms of education and of various environments, to improve the conditions of religious education for young people and adults. But however useful this work may be, God recalls in this centenary of the Cur'e of Ars the irresistible apostolic power of the priest, who, both in his own life and in his words, renders testimony to the crucified Christ "not in the persuasive words of wisdom but in the demonstration of the Spirit and power" (Corinthians 2:4.).
Apostle of the Confessional
There at last remains for Us to recall in the life of St. Jean Marie Vianney that form of pastoral ministry that for him was like a long martyrdom and which in its development gave special splendor to the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, producing abundant and salutary fruits. He spent an average of 15 hours a day in the confessional. This daily work started at one or two in the morning and did not end until nightfall. And when he collapsed of exhaustion, five days before his death, the last penitents gathered around the bed of the dying priest. It is estimated that toward the end of his life the yearly number of pilgrims to Ars had reached the figure of 80,000.
It is difficult to imagine the physical discomfort, inconveniences and sufferings of these endless sessions in the confessional for a man already exhausted by fasts, privations, infirmity, and lack of rest and of sleep. But he was above all oppressed by moral pain. Listen to this lament of his: "One offends the dear God so much that one might be tempted to invoke the end of the world....One must come to Ars to know what sin is...One does not know what to do. All one can do is to cry and pray." The saint forgot to say that he also took upon himself a part of the expiation: "As for me," he confided to a person who came to him for advice, "I assign a small penance to them and the rest I do myself for them."
And truly the Cur'e of Ars lived only for his "poor sinners," as he called them, in the hope of seeing them converted and repentant. Their conversion was the objective on which converged all his hopes and the work on which he spent all his time and all his efforts. And this because he knew from his experience of the confessional all the harm of sin and the frightful ruin wrought by it in the world of souls. He spoke of it in frightening terms: "If we had faith and could see a soul in the state of mortal sin, we would die of fright."
But the bitterness of his sorrow and the vehemence of his words were due less to the fear of the eternal sorrows that threaten hardened sinners than to the emotion he felt at the thought of divine love ignored and offended. In the face of the sinner's obstinacy and his ungratefulness toward such a kind God, the tears would flow from his eyes. "Oh, my friend," he would say, "I cry precisely because you do not cry." But, on the other hand, with how much delicacy and how much fervor did he bring back the rebirth of hope in penitent hearts. That is why he made himself the untiring minister of divine mercy, which is, he said, powerful, "like the swirling torrent that carries away the hearts in its passage," and more tender than the solicitude of a mother because God is "more ready to forgive than would be a mother to retrieve one of her children from the fire."
Therefore, the pastors of souls, following the example of the Cur'e of Ars, will be careful to consecrate themselves, competently and with dedication, to this so very important ministry, because it is after all there that the mercy of God triumphs over the malice of men and that the sinner is reconciled with his God. One should also remember that Our predecessor, Pius XII, condemned as "Gravissimis verbis" the mistaken opinion that states there is no great value in the frequent confession of venial sins: "For an ever greater progress on the road of virtue, We earnestly recommend the pious custom of frequent confession, introduced by the Church not without the inspiration of the Holy Ghost."
Lastly, We wish to trust that the ministers of the Lord will themselves be the first, according to the precepts of canon law, to practice regularly and fervently the Sacrament of Penance, so necessary for their sanctification, and that they will give the greatest importance to the pressing insistence that Pius XII on several occasions and "dolenti animo" addressed to them in this respect.
At the end of this letter, venerable brothers, We wish to tell you of Our entire sweet hope that, with the grace of God, this centenary of the death of the holy Cur'e of Ars may reawaken in every priest the desire to perform his ministry more generously and, above all, his "first duty as a priest, this is to say the duty to achieve one's own sanctification."
When from the heights of this supreme pontificate, where Providence has placed Us, We consider the immense expanse of souls, the serious problems of evangelization in so many countries and the religious needs of the Christian peoples always and everywhere, there is present in Our sight the figure of the priest. Without him, without his daily work, what would become of the undertakings, even those most suited for the present hour? It is precisely because of these beloved priests on whom rest so many hopes for the progress of the Church, that We venture to request, in the name of Jesus Christ, complete faithfulness to the spiritual demands of their priestly vocation.
May these words, full of wisdom, of St. Pius X give weight to Our appeal: "So as to make Jesus Christ reign in the world there is nothing as necessary as the sanctity of the clergy, because with example, with the word and with the knowledge they guide the faithful." St. Jean Marie Vianney said almost the same thing to his bishop: "If you wish to convert your diocese you must make all your parish priests saints."
To you, venerable brothers, who bear the responsibility of the sanctification of your priests, We recommend that you help them in the difficulties, sometimes very serious of their personal life and of their ministry. What can a bishop not do who loves his priests, if he has won their confidence, if he knows them, follows them closely and guides them with a firm and always paternal authority? As pastors of the whole diocese, be pastors above all in a particular manner for those who collaborate so closely with you and to whom you are bound by such sacred bonds.
Laity Must Help
We also ask all the faithful in this centennial year to pray for their priests and to contribute, insofar as they can, to their sanctification. Today, fervent Christians expect a great deal of the priest. They wish to see in him-in a world where the power of money, the seduction of the senses and the prestige of technical knowledge triumphs-a proof of the invisible God, a man of faith, forgetful of himself and full of charity. May these Christians know that they can have a great influence on the faithfulness of their priests to this idea, by means of religious respect for their priestly character, by a more accurate understanding of their pastoral duties and their difficulties, and by a more active collaboration in their apostolate.
Lastly, We turn Our eyes, full of affection and of hope, toward the Christian youth. "The harvest indeed is great, but the laborers are few" (Matthew 9:37). In many regions the apostles, exhausted by fatigue, await with fervent expectation those who will replace them. There are whole nations suffering spiritual hunger, still far more serious than material hunger. Who will carry to them the heavenly good of truth and of life? We are firmly confident that the youth of our century will be no less generous in answering the call of the Master than the youth of times past. There is no doubt that the conditions of a priest are often difficult. There is no reason to be surprised that he is the first exposed to the persecutions of the enemies of the Church, because, according to the Cur'e of Ars, when one wishes to destroy religion one begins by attacking the priest.
But, despite these very serious difficulties, no one doubts the very fortunate fact that it is the heritage of the fervent priest called by the Savior Jesus to collaborate in the most holy of undertakings, the redemption of souls and the growth of the Mystical Body. Christian families should, therefore, weigh their responsibilities well and give their sons with joy and with gratitude for the service of the Church. We do not intend to dwell here on this appeal which is also yours, venerable brothers. But We are certain that you will understand and share the anxiety of Our heart and all the power of conviction We want Our words to carry. To St. Jean Marie Vianney We entrust this so very grave cause on which depends the future of so many thousands of souls.
And now We wish to turn Our gaze to the Virgin Immaculate. Shortly before the Cur'e of Ars completed his long and meritorious career, our Lady had appeared in another region of France to a humble and pure girl to give her the message of prayer and penance from which there has arisen in 100 years an immense spiritual echo. In reality the life of the holy priest whose memory We are honoring was an early living example of the great supernatural truth given to the chosen one at Massabielle. He himself had for the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin the most warm devotion, he who in 1836 had consecrated his parish to Mary conceived without sin. And he must have welcomed with great faith and joy the dogmatic definition in 1854.
And even we are pleased to unite in Our thought and gratitude to God these two centenaries of Lourdes and of Ars, which have occurred providentially and which have so greatly honored the nation dear to Our heart, the nation which holds these most holy places. In memory of so many benefits received and in the hope of receiving new favors, We make Our Marian invocation, which was familiar to the Holy Cur'e of Ars: "Blessed be the Most Holy and Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God! May all nations glorify, may all the earth invoke and bless your Immaculate Heart."
With lively hope that this centenary of the death of St. Jean Marie Vianney may inspire throughout the entire world a renewal of fervor among priests and among the youth called to the priesthood, and that it may also recall the more ardent and fruitful attention of all the faithful to the problems in the life and ministry of priests, We impart to all, and first of all to you, venerable brothers, as a token of heavenly grace and a pledge of Our benevolence, the Apostolic Benediction.
Given at Rome at St. Peter's, August 1, 1959, the first year of Our Pontificate.
IOANNES PP. XXIII.