Pope Saint John Paul II Letter to Priests – 1988

A Priest Never Stands Alone

A few years ago I celebrated a funeral Mass for the member of a family, and in attendance was a mutual friend, Anne, whom I would consider to be a holy woman, and tremendously gifted by the Holy Spirit. After the committal, I was walking back to my car and Anne stopped me, practically with tears in her eyes, and said “Oh Father! When you were celebrating Mass…Father, it was so beautiful. Our Lady was there with Jesus.” She went on to tell me that during the consecration she saw both our Lord and our Lady standing beside me, one on each side. My immediate response was one of astonishment, and then unworthiness as I recalled that very moment of the Mass. I remembered how distracted and tempted I was at exactly the moment the Word was made flesh sacramentally. When I was relating this story to my spiritual director about a month later, I remember telling him it was no coincidence that I was being attacked given this extraordinary grace I was to receive of hearing how close our Lord and our Lady were at that moment. Then, with great wisdom, my spiritual director said: “That could be the case, but maybe they were there precisely because of what you were going through. They came to your aid!” It was a great lesson to me on how much Our Lady loves her priests and stands by us in our life and ministry.

“Behold your Mother” (Jn 19:27)

These words spoken by our Lord to the Beloved Disciple, as well as to every Christian born again of water and the Holy Spirit, invite us to contemplate and receive the gift our Lord gave us in His Blessed Mother. It was during the Marian Year of 1988, in the context of His annual Holy Thursday ‘Letter to Priests’ that our beloved Pope Saint John Paul II invited his brother priests to ponder anew the mystery of Our Lady in the life of her beloved sons, the priests of Jesus Christ. The profundity of Pope Saint John Paul II’s Marian spirituality is evident throughout the letter.

As a master teacher and beloved son, he appeals to the minds and hearts of his brother priests about the intrinsic link that exists between the priest of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Mother. Pope Saint John Paul draws from the Sacred Scriptures and the Church’s Tradition to communicate the indispensable role Our Lady plays in the life of the Church, especially in the life of the priest.

Priests are Bearers of the Mysteries of God

Through the words of institution and the power of the Holy Spirit the greatest miracle on earth takes place: the Word becomes Flesh in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. The eternal sacrifice of Calvary is made present in time and space, sacramentally. This great gift brings awe, wonder and trepidation, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). Pope Saint John Paul notes that we are in need of a “deep and unshakable faith” as we approach the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice (2). To whom else shall we turn than to the one whose “fiat” brought about the Incarnation? Like St. John the Beloved, we, as priest, are invited to receive Our Lady into our home and to “deepen [our] spiritual bond” with her. By welcoming Our Lady, we receive the “the God-bearer” herself, the one who is the “first witness to the mystery of the Incarnation” (3).

Our Lady is also a Mother of Sorrows, whose heart has been pierced with a sword (Luke 2:35). The Beloved Disciple opened his home to her and “made his own all that was within her on Golgotha: the fact that she ‘suffered grievously with her only-begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart in his sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this victim that she herself had brought forth’” (3). One could only speculate the profound effect Our Lady had on St. John as he mediated the mysteries of our Redemption.

The Marian Dimension of the Church

As we contemplate Our Lady’s role in the mystery of Redemption and in our lives as priests, it is important for us reflect on the meaning of the Marian Dimension of the Church, which does in fact precede the Petrine. As the Catechism teaches, quoting from Pope Saint John Paul’s Mulieris Dignitatem: “The Church’s structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members. And holiness is measured according to the ‘great mystery’ in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom” (773). Holiness is a response to the gift of the Bridegroom. Our Lady’s example of receptivity before the Lord beckons every Christian, indeed every priest, to open wide their hearts to the gift of the Bridegroom. At the Incarnation, Our Lady’s “fiat” allowed the Lord to “overshadow” her, and thus conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The great idiom, “you cannot give what you do not have,” finds a remedy in the example of Our Lady, for as we know from St. Augustine, Mary had already conceived the Lord in her heart by faith, prior to the Mystery of the Incarnation.   Holiness and an abundantly fruitful priestly ministry begins with heeding the Marian model of receptivity. As the priest continues to open his heart and pronounce his own “fiat” before the Lord, divine life is deepened and perfected within him, and the power of God is unleashed in and through him so that Christ may be conceived, exalted and glorified in the hearts of all humanity.

Pope Saint John Paul helps his brothers to recall that the Church has already gone before us in taking Mary into the Church’s home, where she ponders the mystery of Our Lady and seeks to better understand her own mystery (4). In a particular way, he wants to draw his priests to contemplate the mystery of Our Lady’s divine maternity and virginity, which are a model for the Church: “the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion as exemplar of both virginity and motherhood” (Lumen Gentium, 63).   Pope Saint John Paul will demonstrate that pondering these mysteries has significant importance to the life and ministry of priests. 

Men Are Created For Fatherhood.

Celibacy is not a denial or negation of this reality, but rather a calling to a fatherhood according to the Spirit. We as priests are spiritual fathers, and by our preaching, sanctifying and governing, we offer a gift of our priestly lives so that a unique, unrepeatable soul may be born again, protected and reared according to the Spirit. Spiritual fatherhood is similar to motherhood on the human level, and the more we seek to live and develop this attribute, then “Mary, as a ‘figure’ of the Church, has a part to play in this experience…” (4). When St. Paul speaks of “the children with whom I am again in travail,” he uses an analogy that is common to motherhood to speak of his intense desires for his children to experience and live these supernatural realities. In the Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes that Christ “nourishes and cherishes” the Church as his own body (Eph 5:29). These words intimately link Christ’s “spousal solicitude” for his Bride with the “gift of Eucharistic Food,” and at the same time “the many maternal concerns associated with ‘nourishing and cherishing’ a child” (4). As we find ourselves under the maternal care of Our Lady, she will nurture in us a deeper love for spiritual fatherhood as well as the sentiments needed for greater spiritual fruitfulness.

Priestly celibacy involves a free choice to renounce marriage and family life in order to be readily available to serve God and neighbor (5). Although we have given up all things to follow Christ, we are never alone, for the Lord and His Mother are with us. As we welcome our Heavenly Mother into the “interior home of [our] priesthood” (6), we receive one who is a Virgin Mother, who loves [us] as a son, comforts [us] in our difficulties, teaches [us] by her example, and inspires [us] to be holy and blameless in His sight.

The Church, as Virgin Mother, seeks to imitate Mary by preserving “with virginal purity an integral faith, a firm hope and a sincere charity,” thus keeping “whole and pure the fidelity she has pledged to her Spouse” (LG 64). As an ordained member of the Church, called to participate in the saving mission of Christ, we must “guard [our] fidelity to this vocation,” for through it we share “in the intimate life of the Church.” (5). Given the many attacks against the priesthood, the Holy Father encourages us to place our consecration in the hands of Our Lady and to have “recourse to this Virgin Mother when we meet difficulties along our chosen path; ”Our Lady will “do everything in her power so that they [her priests] may not betray this holy friendship” (5 & 6).   

“Standing by the Cross of Jesus” (Jn 19:25)

Contemplating and studying this sacred scene, especially through the courses of the Theology of the Body Institute, I have come to a deeper knowledge and love for Our Lady and the gift of the priesthood. Our Lady stands at the foot of the cross as Mother of the Redeemer, “the Woman” whose offspring will crush the head of the ancient serpent, the “new Eve” who will cooperate in bringing forth a “new creation,” and as the foremost member of the Church, who is both Mother and Virgin. She stands by her beloved Son to receive this heavenly gift of divine love poured forth from the Cross. As she receives this gift, often portrayed by Our Lady holding a chalice to receive the blood and water that flows from His side, she offers Him a gift in return. This example of Holy Communion is a powerful invitation to all Christians, especially priests, to come to the Lord with a heart wide open to receive His divine love and to offer Him a gift of love in return. As priests of Jesus Christ, who stand in Persona Christi, who are called to teach, sanctify and govern, offering their lives for the good of the flock, Our Lady stands by us, praying, loving and receiving. Our great efforts, born of many sacrifices, are never squandered, for they are received into the Maternal Heart of Our Lady, and mediated to the World.

Let us heed the words of our beloved Holy Father of happy memory: “…each of us should allow Mary to dwell ‘within the home’ of our sacramental priesthood, as mother and mediatrix of that ‘great mystery’ which we all wish to serve with our lives” (4). We never stand alone!

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Rev. Matt Williams is the Pastor of St. Joseph and St. John Catholic Parishes in Quincy, Massachusetts. He was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ for the Archdiocese of Boston in May of 2003. Fr. Matt has been involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal for more than ten years. He is a founding member of Lift Ministries (www.Liftedhigher.com), a monthly intergenerational gathering where participants encounter the Lord through the Eucharist, His Word, Praise and Worship, and the gathered community. Fr. Matt has a great passion to preach the Gospel, especially to youth and young adults; helping them to relate the Gospel to their daily lives. Fr. Matt has attended and been chaplain for many courses and priest retreats with the Theology of the Body Institute.

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