Priesthood Sunday this year is on Sept. 24, and as we celebrate it, we give thanks to our priests for the ministry which they carry out among us in the Diocese of Palm Beach. We are blessed with a wonderful presbyterate in our Diocese, and we know the tremendous difference which our priests make in our lives. They are the living presence of Christ for us in so many ways. Our priests are all individuals with different talents, abilities and personal styles which the Lord uses to speak to us, who are all just as different as created by Him. Likewise, as all of us, our priests have their limitations, but they remind us that it is the love and mercy of God upon which we depend. He gives us unique blessings in each of them.
There are many challenges and difficulties which priests face today. They include fewer numbers of priests to assist them in the ministry, increased pastoral responsibilities and a cultural shift in which preaching the Gospel is contrary to political and societal expectations. However, our priests choose to bear these difficulties out of love for the Lord in union with His ministry and in service to God’s people. We realize how necessary our priests are in the life of the Church and that they simply cannot be replaced. We can never sufficiently thank them for their ministry.
The priest has many responsibilities and pastoral occupations, but primary to all of them is the celebration of the Eucharist. In fact, the priest is precisely ordained to celebrate the Eucharist for all of us. The Eucharist is the reason for the existence of the Church, and from the Eucharist and to the Eucharist all of the sacraments flow. All that the priest does in his pastoral ministry points to this reality. While we all participate in the Eucharist according to our roles within the Church, it is the priest who presides at it and is the one who acts in the person of Christ, bringing about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as our food for life.
St. John Vianney, the famous Curé d'Ars, was a model of priestly life as he served tirelessly in the ministry and bringing a great deal of joy to others through it. St. Pope John XXIII gave us a wonderful encyclical on St. John Vianney on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the saint’s death. In this encyclical, he emphasized that the celebration of the Eucharist for St. John Vianney was indeed the center and heart of his priesthood. The pope expounded, “But we, too, hope to say something worthwhile in this matter by showing the principal reason why the holy Curé d'Ars, who, as befits a hero, was most careful in fulfilling his priestly duties, really deserves to be proposed to those who have the care of souls as a model of outstanding virtue and to be honored by them as a heavenly patron. If it is obviously true that a priest receives his priesthood so as to serve at the altar and then he enters upon his office by offering the Eucharistic sacrifice, then it is equally true that for as long as he lives as God’s minister, the Eucharistic sacrifice will be the source and origin of the holiness that he attains and of the apostolic activity to which he devotes himself. All of these things came to pass in the fullest possible way in the case of St. John Vianney.”
It is commonly thought that St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscans, was a priest. In fact, he was a deacon but chose not to be ordained a priest because he felt he was not called to be one. St. Francis had the highest regard for priests and the special role that they had in the Church, especially in regard to their celebration of the Eucharist. St. Francis had tremendous devotion to the Holy Eucharist and revered the hands of the priest because they touched it. St. Francis was known to have said, “If I saw an angel and a priest, I would bend my knee first to the priest and then to the angel.” This reflected the high regard that St. Francis had, not for a particular priest, but for the office which he held which enabled him to act in the person of Christ, especially in celebrating the Eucharist.
During the month of August, Pope Francis sent a letter to all of the priests of Rome since he is the Bishop of Rome. He expressed to his priests, “Our priestly ministry is not measured by pastoral successes (the Lord Himself had fewer and fewer of these as time went by!). At the heart of our life is not even the frenzy of activity, but remaining in the Lord to bear fruit (cf. Jn 15). He is our refreshment” (cf. Mt 11:28-29). Pope Francis certainly echoed the sentiment of St. Pope John XXIII in emphasizing that the mission of the priest is to be in union with the Lord in service to His people and that this comes about most effectively through the celebration of the Eucharist.
On the occasion of Priesthood Sunday this year, we give thanks to our priests for all that our priests do in so many different ways. We especially give thanks to them for giving their lives to the Church in order that we might have the very presence of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist. In a world today which questions so much in regard to identity, the identity of the priest stands as secure as it did at the Last Supper when the Lord instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist. Times may be as challenging today as they were then, but it is through our priests that we come into contact with the person of Christ. We are deeply grateful for our priests and pray for God’s continued blessings upon them as well as for an increase for vocations.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
September 22, 2023