The priest lives for the altar

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“All good works put together do not equal the value of the Mass.”

Newsroom (August 3, 2021 10:40, Gaudium Press) “The Church has need of holy priests,” Benedict XVI once said in a homily. For the ordained ministry, indispensable for the Church and the world, requires full fidelity to Christ and unceasing union with Him.

The priest must constantly tend toward holiness, as St. John Mary Vianney did. The interior renewal of a priest implies a more vigorous and incisive evangelical witness, and on his impulse toward spiritual perfection will depend, primarily, the effectiveness of his ministry.

Now, the core of priestly ministry,” St. John XXIII fittingly reminded us, “develops around the Eucharistic Celebration. “What, then, is the apostolate of the priest, considered in its essential action, if not to gather, wherever the Church lives, around the altar the people?” the Pope of the Council asked himself (Encyclical Sacerdotii nostri primordia, n. 34).

Indeed, it is at the altar that “the priest, by the powers that he alone has received, offers the Divine Sacrifice. It is also there “that the people of God, enlightened by the preaching of the faith and nourished with the Body of Christ, finds its life, its growth […]. It is there, in a word, that, from generation to generation, everywhere, the mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, grows spiritually” (Idem).

This centrality of the Holy Sacrifice in the life of parishes and communities led the famous Dominican theologian Br. Antonio Royo Marin to proclaim that celebrating the Holy Sacrifice “is the priestly function par excellence, the first and most sublime of all, the most essential and indispensable for the whole Church, and at the same time the purest source and spring of her own priestly holiness. One is a priest, first and foremost, to glorify God through the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” (Theology of Christian Perfection. 11. ed. Madrid: BAC, 2006, p. 848).

The priest lives, then, for the altar. It is there that he offers the Holy Sacrifice, it is around it that he gathers and blesses his people, and it is there that he sanctifies his own soul.

For, as Blessed John XXIII reminds us, “the personal sanctification of the priest must be modeled on the Sacrifice he celebrates, according to the incitement of the Roman Pontifical: ‘Be conscious of what you do, imitate what you do'” (Sacerdotii nostri primordia, n. 36).

That is why St. John Mary Vianney was convinced that all the fervor of a priest’s life depended on the Mass: “[…] it is to be regretted if a priest celebrates [the Mass] as if he were doing something ordinary! [… All the good works put together do not equal the value of the Sacrifice of the Mass, because they are the work of men, while the Holy Mass is the work of God.

But it is also at the altar that the priest draws the necessary strength for spiritual combat. Through the Sacrament of the Eucharist, he is united with Christ and strengthens his interior life with grace. It serves as spiritual nourishment and medicine, for the minister himself and for the people entrusted to him.

Strengthening the faithful with Bread come down from Heaven is the greatest benefit that a shepherd can provide for his flock. The first sin was committed by the abuse of one food, and eternal salvation comes to us through another.

The Eucharist is presented as God’s answer to original sin, giving the children of Adam infinitely more than they had lost. When our first parents ate the forbidden fruit, sin was introduced into the world.

But the divine response gave men infinitely more than they had lost: He gave them God Himself as food!

The above considerations, taken from the teachings of the Pope Emeritus, show well why the priestly ministry transcends the mere spiritual benefit of all priests and reaches a pastoral dimension that encompasses the entire Church.

Text extracted, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 92, August 2009.

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