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 CNS Story:

PRIESTS-OPEN Jun-19-2009 (790 words) With photos. xxxi

Pope opens Year for Priests, says they must witness God's compassion

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Formally opening the Year for Priests, Pope Benedict urged all priests to strive for holiness and said the ordained ministry was indispensable for the church and the world.

"The church needs priests who are holy, ministers who help the faithful experience the merciful love of the Lord and who are convinced witnesses of that love," the pope said at a prayer service in St. Peter's Basilica June 19.

At the same time, in an apparent reference to cases of priestly sex abuse, he warned of the "terrible risk of damaging those we are obliged to save."

"Nothing makes the church and the body of Christ suffer so much as the sins of its pastors, especially those who transform themselves into 'robbers of sheep,' either because they lead them astray with their private doctrines, or because they bind them in the snares of sin and death," he said.

Thousands of priests packed the basilica for the evening prayer service, which was preceded by a procession of the relic of the heart of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. The pope proclaimed the yearlong focus on priestly ministry to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the saint's death.

Pope Benedict stopped to pray before the saint's heart, exposed in a glass and gold reliquary. In his homily, he said the French curate's heart was "burning with divine love," a love that priests today need to imitate if they are to be effective pastors.

The liturgy was celebrated on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a day of prayer for the sanctification of priests.

In his homily, the pope said the "essential nucleus of Christianity" is found in the heart of Jesus: the saving love of God that "invites us to step outside of ourselves" and "make ourselves a gift of love without reserve."

"God's heart throbs with compassion," he said.

He said priests should never forget that that are consecrated to "serve, humbly and with authority, the common priesthood of the faithful."

"Ours is an indispensable mission for the church and for the world, which demands full fidelity to Christ and unceasing union with him. It demands, therefore, that we tend constantly to sanctity, as St. John Vianney did," he said.

The pope said pastoral formation of priests was certainly important for modern priests. But even more necessary, he said, was the "'science of love' that one learns only in a 'heart-to-heart' encounter with Christ."

The liturgy closed with adoration of the Eucharist, underlining the central place of the Eucharist in the life of priests. In his final blessing, the pope lifted a monstrance holding the Blessed Sacrament and used it to make the sign of the cross over the assembly.

The day before the opening liturgy, the pope issued a six-page letter thanking God for the gifts the majority of priests have given to the church and the world, even while acknowledging that some priests have done great harm.

He said he hoped priests would use the year and its special events to deepen their commitment to their own renewal "for the sake of a more forceful and incisive witness to the Gospel in today's world."

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict has given special attention to priests and their ministry, holding frequent and lengthy off-the-cuff discussion sessions with clergy of Rome and other parts of Italy.

He has forcefully condemned the scandal of priestly sexual abuse, most notably during his visit to the United States in 2008. More recently, Irish bishops said the pope was visibly upset listening to their report on decades of abuse suffered by thousands of Irish children in the care of religious congregations.

The pope has many times noted the burdens carried by priests in the modern age, including their increasing workload and their responsibility to preach and witness to Gospel values in a world that often seems indifferent to them.

The pope has also insisted on improved selection and formation of priests, so that they can live up to the promises made in their vocation -- in particular priestly celibacy.

In recent weeks, the Vatican signaled a tougher line on the celibacy issue when a Central African Republic archbishop resigned following an investigation into priests of his diocese who lived more or less openly with women and the children they have fathered.

According to Vatican statistics, there were 408,024 priests at the end of 2007. The total number of priests has been increasing slightly in recent years, but has not kept pace with the increase in the number of Catholics. The number of Catholics per priest was 1,830 in 1977, and had jumped to 2,810 in 2007.


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