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"It Is All About Being With Christ"

FREISING, Germany, SEPT. 15, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is a Vatican translation of the address Benedict XVI prepared, but did not deliver -- as he preferred to give a spontaneous reflection -- to the priests and deacons whom he met with this morning in the cathedral of Freising.

* * *

Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and the Priesthood!
Dear Permanent Deacons!

This is my last meeting before taking leave of my beloved Bavaria, and I am pleased that it is taking place with you, the priests and permanent deacons, the living and chosen stones of the Church. I express my fraternal greetings to Cardinal Friedrich Wetter and my heartfelt gratitude for his warm words interpreting the sentiments of all present.

When I look around this magnificent cathedral of Freising, so many memories come back to me of the years when my journey to the priesthood and the exercise of my ministry were linked to this place. And when I think of the generations of believers who, from the time of the first missionaries, have given to this country its distinctively Christian character and transmitted to us the treasure of the faith, a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving rises up to God from my heart.

Throughout its history, the "Lord of the harvest" has never allowed this land to be deprived of laborers, those ministers of the word and the altar through whom he wished to guide and nourish our ancestors along the paths of time toward their heavenly homeland. Today, dear brothers, it is our turn to carry out this work, and I am pleased to be with you as the Bishop of Rome, affectionately urging you not to grow weary, but to pursue with confidence the ministry entrusted to you.

We have just listened to the biblical reading taken from the ninth chapter of Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 9:35-38). Here we can see expressed an inner attitude of Jesus that is very important for us. This attitude actually marks his entire public life. It is expressed in an agricultural image.

With the eyes of his heart, Jesus sees in the people gathered around him the "harvest" of God the Father, ready for reaping. And the harvest is abundant: "the harvest is plentiful," he says (v. 37; cf. Luke 10:2). In the Gospel according to John, we find the same image in the fourth chapter, where, after his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus says to his disciples: "Lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest" (v. 35).

Christ sees the world as "God's field" (cf. Matthew 13:38-43), in which a rich harvest is growing and there is need of reapers. Something similar is to be found also in Mark's Gospel (4:26-29). The fundamental approach of Jesus emerging from these different sayings is one of optimism, based on confidence in the power of the Father, the "Lord of the harvest" (Matthew 9:38).

Jesus' confidence becomes for us a source of hope, since he is capable of looking beyond the veil of appearances to the mysterious yet irresistible workings of the Father. The seed of the Word of God always bears fruit. And so the harvest of God is growing, even when to merely human eyes, this does not seem to be the case.

A priest's life and the real nature of his vocation and ministry are contained in the worldview revealed to us by Jesus. This same worldview moved the Lord to go from village to village, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the good news of the Kingdom and healing the sick (cf. Matthew 9:35). Like the sower of the parable, he sowed the seed with apparently reckless generosity, and part of it has fallen on the road, on rocky soil, or among thorns (cf. Matthew 13:3-8).

Underlying this generosity is a confidence in the power of the Father to change rocky or thorny ground into fertile soil. Each priest must let himself be filled with the same confidence in the power of grace, since he himself was a piece of ground needing to be cleared by the divine sower so that the seed could take root and ripen into a mature and fully-grown response, the response of "Here I am" which we made at our ordination and renew each day in communion with Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist.

By his progressive assimilation to the sentiments of the Teacher, the priest will come to share in his confident approach. By entering more and more deeply into Jesus' own way of seeing things, he learns to see all around him as the "harvest of God," ready to be gathered into the granaries of heaven (cf. Matthew 13:30). Grace will be active through him and consequently he will help to elicit sincere and generous responses to God's call.

Nevertheless, we must always keep in mind the words of our biblical text: It is the "Lord of the harvest" who "sends" laborers into his harvest. Jesus did not give his disciples the task of calling other volunteers or organizing promotional campaigns aimed at gathering new members; he told them to "pray" to God. What does this mean? Should our vocational work limit itself to prayer? Obviously not.

"Pray to the Lord of the harvest" means something more profound: Only by remaining in intimate communion with the Lord of the harvest, by living immersed as it were in his "heart" full of love and compassion for humanity, can we bring other laborers to share in the work of the Kingdom of God. Ours is not a mind-set of numbers and efficiency, but one of gratuity and self-giving. It is that of the grain of wheat which bears fruit precisely when it falls to the ground and dies.

The laborers in God's harvest are those who follow in the footsteps of Christ. This requires self-detachment and being fully "attuned" to his will. This task is not easy, for it goes against a "force of gravity" deep within us, leading us to become self-centered. We can only overcome this force if we undertake an Easter journey of death and resurrection.

On this journey Christ has not only gone before us, but he accompanies us, indeed he comes toward us, as once he went toward Simon Peter as Peter began to sink while attempting to walk to Jesus on the waters (cf. Matthew 14:28-31). As long as Peter returned Jesus' gaze, he was able to walk on the troubled waters of the Sea of Galilee, remaining so to speak within the gravitational field of his grace. Yet once he turned his eyes away from him, he became conscious of the violence of the wind, he took fright and began to sink.

Jesus then made him sense the power of his saving hand, as if anticipating what was to be the final and definitive "saving" of the apostle: his "resurrection" after the "sinking" of the denial. Through this Easter journey, the disciple becomes a true witness of the Lord.

And what is the task of a witness? In what does his service consist? St. Augustine tried to explain the essence of the ordained minister's task by means of two definitions which have become classic. He described the minister above all as "servus Christi" (cf. Sermo Guelf. 9:4; Ep. 130; Ep. 228:2, etc.).

Now, the term "servant" implies a concept of relation: To be a servant is to be in relation to a master. To describe the priest as "servus Christi" is to emphasize that his life has an essential "relational connotation": With every fiber of his being he is in relation to Christ. This takes nothing away from his relation to the community, indeed it provides the foundation for it: Precisely as "Christ's servant" he is "in his name, servant of his servants" (title of Ep. 217 to Vitale; cf. also De pecc. mer. et rem. III; Ep. 130; Sermo Guelf. 32:3, etc.).

By virtue of the sacramental character received at ordination, he belongs to Christ and shares his unreserved dedication to the "body" of the Church. This ontological aspect of the priestly ministry, which reaches to the very being of the individual concerned, creates in him the presuppositions of a radical form of service unimaginable in the secular sphere.

The other definition of the ordained minister to which Augustine frequently returns is "vox Christi." He develops his reflection on this topic by meditating on the figure of John the Baptist (cf. Serm. 288; 293:3; Serm. Dolbeau 3, etc.). The Precursor of Jesus defines himself as a simple "voice" sent to proclaim Christ who is the "Word"; likewise the minister, according to Augustine, has the task of being "vox Verbi" (cf. Serm. 46:30-32), "praedicator Verbi" (cf. Serm. 71:13/22), "Verbi prolator" (cf. En. in Ps. 134:1; Serm 23:1, etc.).

It is an idea that recurs frequently in Augustine; it brings out once more the "relational connotation" of the minister: As the "voice" he stands in relation to the "Word" who is Christ. The greatness and the humility of the ordained ministry are here revealed. Like St. John the Baptist, the priest and the deacon are merely the precursors, the servants of the Word. It is not they who are at the center, but Christ, whose "voice" they must be with their whole existence.

It is from this reflection that the answer emerges to a question that no responsible pastor of souls can fail to ask himself, especially in the current situation of an increasing shortage of priests: how to preserve interior unity amid the often frenetic activity of ministry?

The way toward a solution to this problem lies in intimate communion with Christ, whose food was to do the will of the Father (cf. John 4:34). It is important that the ontological relationship with Christ, given at ordination, should come to life in his consciousness and consequently in his actions: All the things I do, I do in communion with him. It is in doing them that I am united with him.

However diverse and even, seen from outside, mutually opposed my activities may be, they are unified at the level of underlying motivation: It is all about being with Christ, acting as an instrument in communion with him. From this emerges a new vision of priestly asceticism. This is not to be placed alongside pastoral activity as an extra burden, another task which further weighs down upon my day.

In the action itself I learn self-mastery, I learn to give my life with serenity; in disappointment and in failure I learn renunciation, I learn to accept sorrow, I learn detachment from myself. In the joy of success I learn gratitude. In administering the sacraments I receive them interiorly myself.... This asceticism of service, service itself as the true asceticism of my life, is undoubtedly a most important motive that nevertheless requires a constant interior reinterpretation of action based upon being.

Even if the priest seeks to live out his service as asceticism and his sacramental activity as personal encounter with Christ, he will still need moments to catch his breath, so that this inner directedness can become real and effective. Jesus himself, when his disciples returned from their first missionary journey, said to them: "Come away, to a lonely place, and rest awhile" (Mark 6:31).

Generous self-giving for others is impossible without discipline and constant recovery of true faith-filled interiority. The effectiveness of pastoral action depends, ultimately, upon prayer; otherwise, service becomes empty activism.

Therefore the time spent in direct encounter with God in prayer can rightly be described as the pastoral priority par excellence: It is the soul's breath, without which the priest necessarily remains "breathless," deprived of the "oxygen" of optimism and joy, which he needs if he is to allow himself to be sent, day by day, as a worker into the Lord's harvest. Amen!

[Translation of German original issued by the Holy See; adapted]

© Copyright 2006 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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