The Year for Priests ended in the universal church last June, on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Christ’s love for his people is the origin of the ordained priesthood in the church. In our archdiocese, however, the priests themselves will end our participation in this year on Aug. 4, the feast of St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests.
On the feast of St. John Vianney each year, the college level seminary, St. Joseph’s, gives awards to a number of priests whom their peers and their bishop have judged exemplary in their life and their ministry. At Mundelein Seminary this Aug. 4, six archdiocesan priests will be honored with these awards. It is an occasion to turn a spotlight for a moment on priests who have labored often in obscurity, but whose fidelity to the Lord and his people represent their brother priests at their best. These are honors, from priests to priests, that bring credit to the entire presbyterate. It is always an occasion I look forward to participating in, a happy and joyful moment for priests and, with them, the people they serve.
Besides priests honoring priests, the pope also honors priests, sometimes with special medals, sometimes with titles that designate priests as chaplains to the Holy Father. The traditional title for priests so honored has been “Monsignor,” a title that carries with it some historical baggage but that also says: here is a priest who has ministered well and whom the church wishes to recognize.
In the past, making “Monsignors” tended sometimes to divide priests from priests, because priests were often “lone rangers,” in competition with one another. After the Second Vatican Council, priests are to understand themselves as part of a presbyterate. Priests do not minister alone but as part of a priestly fraternity. What one priest does affects all other priests, for good or ill. When one priest is honored, all are honored.
The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has recently named a number of archdiocesan priests as his chaplains. When I wrote to the pope to request these honors at the beginning of the Year for Priests, I explained that a few of our priests hold positions that traditionally are held by priests who have been honored by the pope but that there are also the vast majority of priests who minister faithfully and dedicate themselves constantly to the Lord and his people. I asked that a few of our priests be honored, most of them quite elderly, who would represent all their brothers. Some will not want to be honored because of their humility; but sometimes humility means accepting an honor that is not just for the individual but for everyone else as well. A few in the archdiocese might object to anyone receiving papal honors because they want to distance this local church from the Holy See. But alienation is not a virtue.
Pope Benedict XVI was once asked by a student why he became a priest. The pope said: “There was the Nazi regime. We were told very loudly that in the new Germany ‘there will not be any more priests, there will be no more consecrated life, we don’t need this anymore, find another profession.’ But actually hearing these loud voices, I understood that in confronting the brutality of this system, this inhuman face, that there is a need for priests, precisely as a contrast to this inhuman culture.” The pope still understands the priesthood as our faith understands it, as a sacramental participation in the mystery of Christ’s love for his church, a love that survives all regimes and purifies all cultures. The faithful priest is the instrument Christ uses to sanctify the baptized and help them to transform the world.
Pray for vocations to the ordained priesthood in the archdiocese, because a church without faith sufficient to encourage priestly vocations is a church in name only. Pray as well for the priests of the archdiocese, and rejoice with those who will be honored this month. They represent in their lives and ministry all their brothers, and they bring honor to all those who have come to know Christ through priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago