Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

The meaning of priestly, episcopal ministry

November 22, 2009

In place of his regular column, Cardinal George has shared the text of his Presidential Address, delivered Nov. 16 to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the beginning of their fall general meeting in Baltimore.

My dear brother Bishops:

The Year for Priests proclaimed by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, aims to renew among ordained priests a sense of the sacred vocation that is theirs in the Church, drawing ever more confidently on the grace that was given them with the laying on of hands (1 Tim 4:14). It is also an opportunity for the whole Church to thank God for this grace, which is given to those called to Holy Orders for the sake of others’ salvation. It has already moved some of the faithful to thank their priests for their lives of self-sacrifice for Christ’s people. In this gratitude, we bishops, who shepherd our Churches with and through our priests, join wholeheartedly.

Pope Benedict XVI, in a recent homily, spoke about the Church’s “sacerdotal form,” explaining that the category of priesthood is an “interpretative key of the mystery of Christ and, in consequence, the Church … Jesus Christ’s priesthood is no longer primarily a ritual one but an existential one,” the pope preached; the ordained priesthood affects every dimension of the Church’s life. Ordained so that Christ’s headship of his Church might be visible and so that the baptized will know where they must gather if they want to be visibly one in Christ, priests are called to ever-greater depths of pastoral charity by the demands of their ministry. To appreciate the many dimensions of priestly ministry, it helps to consider what the Catholic Church would be without the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The priest teaches the people in Christ’s name and with his authority. Without ordained priests, the teaching ministry would fall primarily on professors, whose obligation is first to seek the truth in the framework of their own academic discipline and whose authority to teach derives from their professional expertise.

The priest governs the people in Christ’s name, exercising Christ’s authority in collaboration with the bishops. Without ordained priests, the only instance of real governance in any society would be that of civil and political leaders. Their authority comes from God through the people they have sworn to serve; but, in Catholicism, secular kingship confers no religious authority and a civil government has no right to deprive the Church of freedom to govern herself by her own laws and under her own leaders.

The priest counsels people to see the hand of God directing human affairs, using the discernment of spirits to govern souls and to free people from what oppresses them. Without ordained priests, counseling passes into the hands of therapists, dedicated to their clients and skilled in examining the dynamics of human personality, but without consideration of the influence of God’s grace.

The priest leads his people in worship, making possible the real presence of Christ, the head of his Church, under the sacramental forms of bread and wine.

Without ordained priests, the Church would be deprived of the Eucharist, and her worship would be centered only on the praise and thanksgiving, the petition and expiation open to all by reason of baptism. Without ordained priests who love and govern their people in the name of Christ and with his authority, the Church would not be connected to Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, as Christ himself wants us to be joined to him. Without ordained priests, the Church would be a spiritual association, a faith community, but not fully the Body of Christ.

During this Year for Priests, we bishops are called to reflect on our relationship to our priests, to help them grow in holiness, to deepen our fraternity with them, to unite them with us around Jesus Christ. We are called as well to examine the ministry that is properly ours by reason of the fullness of the priesthood given us at episcopal ordination. To us bishops, gathered into this conference established by the Holy See in order to strengthen our unity with the Holy Father and among ourselves, the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch speak across nineteen hundred years of the relationships that constitute our own participation in the sacrament of Holy Orders and in the governance of the Church. On his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius wrote to the Philadelphians: “For all who belong to God and Jesus Christ are with the bishop; all who repent and return to the unity of the Church will also belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ.” And again, in his letter to the Trallians: “Your submission to your bishop, who is in the place of Jesus Christ, shows me that you are not living as men usually do but in the manner of Jesus himself, who died for us that you might escape death by belief in his death. Thus one thing is necessary, … that you do nothing without your bishop…”

If such is not the universally accepted sense of Catholic communion, we bishops must look to ways to strengthen Church unity. Relations do not speak first of control but of love. If there is a loosening of relationship between ourselves and those whom Christ has given us to govern in love, it is for us to reach out and re-establish connections necessary for all to remain in communion. As you know, we have recently begun discussions on how we might strengthen our relationship to Catholic universities, to media claiming the right to be a voice in the Church, and to organizations that direct various works under Catholic auspices. Since everything and everyone in Catholic communion is truly inter-related, and the visible nexus of these relations is the bishop, an insistence on complete independence from the bishop renders a person or institution sectarian, less than fully Catholic. The purpose of our reflections, therefore, is to clarify questions of truth or faith and of accountability or community among all those who claim to be part of Catholic communion.

Our pastoral concern for ecclesial unity does not diminish our awareness of our own mistakes and sins. There are some who would like to trap the Church in historical events of ages long past and there are others who would keep the bishops permanently imprisoned in the clerical sexual abuse scandal of recent years. The proper response to a crisis of governance, however, is not no governance but effective governance. Loss of trust, we know, weakens relationships and will continue to affect our ministry, even though clerical ranks have been purged of priests and bishops known to have abused children and the entire Church has taken unprecedented means to protect children and to reach out to victims. In any case, the sinfulness of churchmen can not be allowed to discredit the truth of Catholic teaching or to destroy the relationships that create ecclesial communion.

Relations in the Church and among priests and people are mutual. The faithful need the bishops in order to be Catholic, and the bishops need the faithful in order to be Catholic pastors. Pastors are given authority by Christ to govern the Church not according to their own whims or desires but according to the will of Christ and to keep the faithful united around him. Every pastor has councils for this purpose: to listen to those to whom he has been sent to guide and govern. I believe I speak for all of us here when I say that the bishops look forward to the dialogues that will clarify and strengthen the conditions necessary for all of us to be Catholic.

The Church, as St. Paul reminds us, has the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5). If we are not of his mind, not of one mind, we cannot preach who Christ is to a divided world. The Second Vatican Council reminded the entire Church that we are to be a leaven for the world’s transformation. Catholic communion is to be the counterpart of human solidarity. Recently, we have tried to be such a leaven in the debate about health care. It is not for us to speak to particular means of delivering health care; it is our responsibility, however, to insist, as a moral voice concerned with human solidarity, that everyone should be cared for and that no one should be deliberately killed.

This voice and these concerns are not novel. My predecessor as Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Bernardin, speaking to the National Press Club in 1994, said that concern for health care “requires us to stand up for both the unserved and the unborn, to insist on the inclusion of real universal coverage and the exclusion of abortion coverage, to support efforts to restrain rising health costs, and to oppose the denial of needed care to the poor and vulnerable.” Participating in the same debate fifteen years later, we are grateful for those in either political party who share these common moral concerns and govern our country in accordance with them.

The challenge to governing effectively and pastorally as bishops and priests is to be public without being co-opted and to be who we are without being isolated. We approach every issue from the perspective of the natural moral law and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for issues that are moral questions before they become political remain moral questions when they become political. To limit our teaching or governing to what the state is not interested in would be to betray both the Constitution of our country and, much more importantly, the Lord himself.

Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole world, of our public lives as well as our private lives, of our business concerns and of our recreational outlets, of our families and of our institutions, of the living and of the dead. In his name and as bishops of his Church, we gather now to seek his will for his people, and with his authority we govern. May Christ bless and guide, with the power of his Spirit, our deliberations and this meeting of our conference. Thank you.


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