Celebrating Our Priests
As I suspect is the case with most bishops newly appointed to head a diocese, my first question upon arriving in Maine five years ago was, what are my priests like?
Priests are a bishop's primary collaborators in the work of the Church. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, priests are "co-workers of the episcopal order for the proper fulfillment of the apostolic mission that had been entrusted to it by Christ" (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, 2.2). Priests are bound together with each other, and with their bishop, in a unique sacramental brotherhood as one priestly body, or college, called technically the presbyterium, or presbyterate. If you have witnessed a priestly ordination, you have seen the ritual expression of priestly unity in the custom of all priests present imposing hands on the newly ordained priest. This same deep unity is manifested so beautifully in the annual Chrism Mass.
The priesthood is a constitutive and essential element of the Church as Jesus Christ founded it. The Eucharist, as Vatican II declared, is the source and summit of the Church's life. The Eucharist "makes" the Church. Without Eucharist, there is no Church. Without priesthood, there is no Eucharist.
It is our priests, in our parishes, schools, hospitals, prisons and other settings, who are consecrated to preach the Gospel and teach the Catholic faith, shepherd the faithful, and celebrate the liturgy by which God is given glory and the people are sanctified.
You can understand why, then, in my first months in Maine, one of my highest priorities was to travel the state and meet one-on-one with our priests… active and retired. (As many of you are gratefully aware, many of our retired priests remain very active in ministry. Thank God for them!)
Like all human beings, priests come in many varieties. Some of us are shy, some gregarious; some serious, some comical; some engaging preachers, others sensitive listeners; some by nature optimistic, others cautious. We are tall and short, thin and not so thin, old and young. We are athletes and bookworms, fishermen and musicians, hunters and artists….
Above all, though, we are priests, ordained to serve God and to serve you, God's people. We are consecrated to stand in your midst in the person of Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church. The history of the Church here in Maine is rich in its examples of priests, both religious and diocesan, serving faithfully, selflessly and, at times, courageously over 400 years of dramatically changing circumstances.
At this time in our diocese, our priests have had to imagine, learn and live our ministry in new ways unanticipated when the majority of us were in seminary. Most of us are responsible for several communities now rather than a single church. We share leadership responsibility with deacons and lay ecclesial ministers without backing off from our own divinely ordained duty to govern our communities. We are always stretching, often weary, sometimes anxious as we lead the Church into uncharted waters…as John Paul II said, "into the deep."
But we are here. With you. For you. And the Holy Spirit who dwells in our midst leads us forward. It is all about our common call to grow in holiness and live the mission given us in baptism: to proclaim the Gospel of Christ by word and the witness of our lives. As my ordination invitation back in 1972 put it, "Today I am given to you by God that I might serve you, and that together we might serve Him."
During this Year for Priests, please pray for your priests and your bishop. Pray that we will grow daily in the holiness and zeal exemplified by St. John Vianney, patron of priests. Thank your priests for their service to you. Step up and participate actively in your parish's life and ministries. Be an evangelizer, leading others to (and back to) Christ and his Church. Pray for vocations, and for the eight fine young men now studying for the priesthood. And to my brother priests, you who are, says the Church, a bishop's brothers, sons and friends, a heartfelt Thank You! You are a source of strength and inspiration to me as together we lead our people in the New Evangelization, telling anew the story of Jesus.
Mary, Queen of the clergy, pray for us! St. John Vianney, pray for us!
Yours sincerely in Christ,
Most Rev. Richard J. Malone
11th Bishop of Portland