VATICAN CITY (VIS) - Today, Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Holy Father presided at a Eucharistic concelebration in St. Peter's Square to mark the close of the Year for Priests which was called to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney, the holy "Cure of Ars".
The Eucharist was concelebrated by cardinals and bishops of the Roman Curia, as well as by more than fifteen thousand priests from all over the world. The Holy Father consecrated the wine in the same chalice as that used by St. John Mary Vianney, which is conserved in Ars.
In his homily the Pope noted how the Year for Priests was celebrated to ensure "a renewed appreciation of the grandeur and beauty of the priestly ministry. The priest is not a mere office-holder. ... Rather, he does something which no human being can do of his own power: in Christ's name he speaks the words which absolve us of our sins and in this way he changes, starting with God, our entire life. Over the offerings of bread and wine he speaks Christ's words of thanksgiving, ... which open the world to God and unite it to Him. The priesthood, then, is not simply 'office' but Sacrament".
"This audacity of God Who entrusts Himself to human beings (Who, conscious of our weaknesses, nonetheless considers men capable of acting and being present in His stead) this audacity of God is the true grandeur concealed in the word 'priesthood'. ...This is what we wanted to reflect upon and appreciate anew over the course of the past year. We wanted to reawaken our joy at how close God is to us, ... we also wanted to demonstrate once again to young people that this vocation, this fellowship of service for God and with God, does exist".
"It was to be expected that this new radiance of the priesthood would not be pleasing to the 'enemy'; he would have rather preferred to see it disappear, so that God would ultimately be driven out of the world. And so it happened that, in this very year of joy for the Sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light - particularly the abuse of the little ones. ... We too insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again; and that in admitting men to priestly ministry and in their formation we will do everything we can to weigh the authenticity of their vocation and make every effort to accompany priests along their journey".
"Had the Year for Priests been a glorification of our individual human performance, it would have been ruined by these events. But for us what happened was precisely the opposite: we grew in gratitude for God's gift, a gift concealed in 'earthen vessels' which ever anew, even amid human weakness, makes His love concretely present in this world. So let us look upon all that happened as a summons to purification, as a task which we bring to the future and which makes us acknowledge and love all the more the great gift we have received from God. In this way, His gift becomes a commitment to respond to God's courage and humility by our own courage and our own humility".
The Pope continued his homily by commenting on Psalm 23 - "The Lord is my shepherd" - which forms part of today's liturgy. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want", said Benedict XVI. "God personally looks after me, after us, after all mankind. I am not abandoned, adrift in the universe and in a society which leaves me ever more lost and bewildered. ... The world's religions, as far as we can see, have always known that in the end there is only one God. But this God was distant. ... There was still a recognition that the world presupposes a Creator. Yet this God, after making the world, had evidently withdrawn from it. The world itself had a certain set of laws by which it ran, and God did not, could not, intervene in them". However, "wherever God's loving concern is perceived as getting in the way, human beings go awry. ... God wants us, as priests, in one tiny moment of history, to share His concern about people. As priests, we want to be persons who share His concern for men and women, who take care of them and provide them with a concrete experience of God's concern".
"We should strive to 'know' men and women as God does and for God's sake; we should strive to walk with them along the path of friendship with God. ... The shepherd points out the right path to those entrusted to him. He goes before them and leads them. Let us put it differently: the Lord shows us the right way to be human. He teaches us the art of being a person. What must I do in order not to fall, not to squander my life in meaninglessness? This is precisely the question which every man and woman must ask, and one which remains valid at every moment of one's life. How much darkness surrounds this question in our own day! We are constantly reminded of the words of Jesus, Who felt compassion for the crowds because they were like a flock without a shepherd".
"The people of Israel continue to be grateful to God because in the Commandments He pointed out the way of life. ... God has shown us the way and how to walk aright. The message of the Commandments was synthesised in the life of Jesus and became a living model. Thus we understand that these rules from God are not chains, but the way which He is pointing out to us. ... By walking with Christ, we experience the joy of Revelation, and as priests we need to communicate to others our own joy at the fact that we have been shown the right way".
Explaining the Psalm's reference to the "darkest valley", Benedict XVI pointed out that this can refer to death where, however, the Lord will not abandon us. Yet, "when speaking of the darkest valley, we can also think of the dark valleys of temptation, discouragement and trial through which everyone has to pass. Even in these dark valleys of life He is there. ... Help us priests, so that we can remain beside the persons entrusted to us in these dark nights. So that we can show them your own light", he said.
"'Your rod and your staff - they comfort me': the shepherd needs the rod as protection against savage beasts ready to pounce on the flock; against robbers looking for prey. Along with the rod there is the staff which gives support and helps to make difficult crossings. ... The Church too must use the shepherd's rod, the rod with which she protects the faith against those who falsify it, against currents which lead the flock astray. The use of the rod can actually be a service of love. Today we can see that it has nothing to do with love when conduct unworthy of the priestly life is tolerated. Nor is it love if heresy is allowed to spread and the faith twisted and chipped away, as if it were something that we ourselves had invented. As if it were no longer God's gift, the precious pearl which we cannot let be taken from us. Even so, the rod must always become once again the shepherd's staff - a staff which helps men and women to tread difficult paths and to follow the Lord".
The Psalm closes with a reference to the "table set", to "dwelling in the house of the Lord". In these words, said the Holy Father, "we see a kind of prophetic foreshadowing of the mystery of the Eucharist, in which God Himself makes us His guests and offers Himself to us as food - as that bread and fine wine which alone can definitively sate man's hunger and thirst. How can we not rejoice that one day we will be guests at the very table of God? ... How can we not rejoice that He has enabled us to set God's table for men and women, to give them His Body and His Blood, to offer them the precious gift of His very presence".
Finally, the Pope commented on the two communion antiphons which recount the lance thrust in Jesus' side which caused blood and water to come out. This, the Pope explained, recalls "the two fundamental Sacraments by which the Church lives: Baptism and the Eucharist. From the Lord's pierced side, from His open heart, there springs the living fountain which continues to well up over the centuries and which makes the Church. The open heart is the source of a new stream of life".
"Every Christian and every priest should become, starting from Christ, a wellspring which gives life to others. We ought to be offering life-giving water to a parched and thirsty world. Lord", the Holy Father concluded, "we thank you because for our sake you opened your heart; because in your death and in your resurrection you became the source of life. Give us life, make us live from you as our source, and grant that we too may be sources, wellsprings capable of bestowing the water of life in our time. We thank you for the grace of the priestly ministry. Lord bless us, and bless all those who in our time are thirsty and continue to seek".