Presbyterorum Ordinis

Insights for a review of our life

The Primacy of God in the Life of the Priest

Piero Coda

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We are publishing extensive excerpts of a talk the author gave in October 2013 to the clergy of Naples. The prospects, outlined here in the light of the then recently released Encyclical "Lumen Fidei", found ample confirmation and further development in the subsequent Magisterium and gestures of Pope Francis. To put back the “primacy of God” at the centre of priestly life is without a doubt the cornerstone on which to build one’s life and the work in ministry. However it is also the essential requirement for the Church to be communion at its heart and fervour of brotherhood in the many wounds afflicting humanity.

Lumen Fidei - this remarkable encyclical written by four hands with Benedict XVI - was given to us on June 29th, 2013 by Pope Francis. It undoubtedly offers many valuable insights for meditation and a review of our life. Not only our spiritual journey, but also the ministry that we exercise in the Christian community can draw from it opportunities of conversion to the Lord and existential and pastoral renewal.
Lumen Fidei was designed and offered to us in the context of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, as a guide for in-depth analysis and verification of our personal and communitarian experience of faith.
In the encyclical, a decisive focus is proposed to us from which we should look at our life:
the primacy of God in Christ (cf. no. 6). Faith, therefore, is our root and focal point in God, in the God of Jesus, of our existence and of our ministry and therefore, as the source of community renewal and evangelization originated from the Council, and that Pope Francis proposes to us once more with a clear evangelical spirit and with unwavering tenacity.
Let us see, in some ways,
what the primacy of God in Jesus means in concrete terms for us.

The primacy of God

As the main theme or, rather, as a biblical icon, I choose the phrase from
1 John (4:16) which is the title to the first chapter of Lumen Fidei, "We have believed in love." This phrase stands out in its full meaning if we read it in context:

“In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. ... Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God. We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (
1 Jn 4: 9-10;15-16).

Considering this passage, we can identify three aspects of our life and of our specific vocation.

a) Faith is a personal relationship with God

Faith, first and foremost, is a
personal relationship (cf. no. 8). This fact without which one cannot speak, live, witness or preach the faith, seems obvious, at least for us. But it can never be taken for granted. Drawing attention to it invites us to a profound, sincere, serene and serious examination of conscience.
Where am I at, what is my experience of faith like? That is to say, in concrete terms, where is my
personal relationship with God ? Is it always a grateful and awed response to his personal love for me?
The personal quality of my faith is measured by the authenticity and quality of
my trust in God and of my following Jesus.
This is the litmus test of my life and of my Christian and priestly service. With God you cannot cheat, you cannot pretend. If my existence, is transparent with God, then everything acquires light and flavour. Otherwise, everything is dull and without real and lasting fruit.

b) He is the one who chose and called us

Faith is born from the response to a call from God. "You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide" (
Jn 15:16). This also puts an indelible mark on our lives and on our way of being a Christian and being a priest.
Are we always aware, amazed, grateful, and thankful, so as to recognize that all we are and do is from Him and through Him, that it is only to serve Him, and we do it for Him in our brothers and sisters?
Amazement, gratitude, recognition, indeed, cannot be generated from us spontaneously . They are not, in other words, purely subjective attitudes. They are
responsorial, objective acts that are born as an answer. They come from feeling, knowing and wanting to be looked at by the gaze of love of God for me. This intercepted, welcomed, preserved gaze, is the womb in which the priestly vocation is born, nurtured, grows and is strengthened. If this is not so, there is nothing. Because God is not there. God for and in us.
Of course, the acts stemming
ex opere operato by the Sacrament of Orders are effective, imagine that! But for us and for the transparent witness of Him, they do not bear fruit. They are sterile. They can even ward off or at least keep people away instead of introducing them to the gaze of God in Jesus.
This "encounter of gazes", which is everything in the life of the priest, is nourished by
prayer, the breath of our life, and from listening and entrusting ourselves to the Word, as Paul says to the presbyters of Ephesus: "I commend you to the Word" (Acts 20:32). Listening and living the Word, being lived by the Word: this is the way of the disciple, this is the porro unum of the priest. He is not called, in the first place, to busy himself, like Martha, with many tasks, but to sit, like Mary, at the Master's feet to listen, internalize, live his words (cf. Lk 10: 41-42). Like the mother of Jesus: "Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart" (Lk 2:19) - this is the principle and the soul of pastoral wisdom.
The opposite of faith, as an encounter and response to the gaze of God in Jesus, is
idolatry. Lumen Fidei mentions some relevant things about this: "Idols exist as a pretext for setting ourselves at the center of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires" (no. 13).
This page challenges us too. It invites us to frankly and decisively unmask the small or large idols, which are sometimes cloaked in seemingly plausible self-justifications and that risk to make us sell off our lives and our ministry.
Am I really open to God, without any reservations? Do I really have no other God besides Him? Am I de-centered towards him, in what I think, live, do, or do I end up, surreptitiously, putting myself at the center?

c) Not the priesthood but God in the first place

This examination of conscience brings us to the heart of things. With the gift of faith, God comes to take the
first place in our lives as Christians and as priests. It’s not to exclude others, but to arrange them according to the order of truth and love.
Pope Francis, since he was elected, has never got tired of reprimanding with particular vehemence and irony the "careerism" which is widespread in the clerical class.
However, in focusing on the primacy of God, there is also something more spiritually subtle that should be considered: our choice, created and sustained by faith, is not that of the priesthood, but rather
the choice of God in the ministry. It seems trivial, but instead it is essential. Because it means that my treasure is not the priesthood, but God, and therefore, my heart is first and foremost and always there where my treasure is, that is in God! (cf. Mt 6:21)
The lack of clarity on this point is not only the hidden root of that very despised clericalism that renders anemic the experience of the Church as the People of God wished for by Vatican II; it also too often makes the Church unpleasant and seemingly archaic to modern society. This is because clericalism is the obvious symptom of that spiritual distortion for which, as priests, we risk not to journey swiftly and freely as true disciples and brothers among brothers, on the way of faith: aware that the priesthood is a call to a ministry in the Church, but that our vocation is
God - and nothing else.

Primacy of God in Jesus

But what does it mean, for us priests, that the primacy of God is manifested and unfolds in Jesus?
Lumen Fidei expresses the meaning in two decisive dimensions.
The first, maybe most obvious, is that “the history of Jesus is the complete manifestation of God’s reliability ... the locus of God’s definitive intervention, the supreme manifestation of his love for us” (no. 15): here is, precisely, the meaning of
1 Jn 4:16: “We have believed in the love of God in Jesus.” In this direction, the encyclical makes an important emphasis: it is at “the hour of Christ’s crucifixion as the culmination of the gaze of faith; in that hour the depth and breadth of God’s love shone forth.” (no. 16). Our eyes of faith are focused on and ravished by the Crucified's gaze. They are fixed there. From there the light and the sap of new life springs out.
But there is also a second direction in which the Pope invites us to look . Faith in God, through Jesus, is about “receiving a new being, as
God’s children,” it is about becoming “sons in the Son”, so that “‘Abba, Father’, so characteristic of Jesus’ own experience, now becomes the core of the Christian experience (cf. Rom 8:15)” (no. 19).
But what does it mean, for us, to make
this experience of Jesus our own, where the mystery and the gift of his divine identity and mission are concentrated?

a) To live in Jesus and of Jesus

First of all it means to live in Jesus and of Jesus, conforming with him (cf. Gal 2:20), learning not only - from him - his words and his actions, but
learning him. Antonio Rosmini calls this "moral inobjectivation in Jesus Christ", that is - he says -

“the shortest formula for Christian perfection, and from this comes the solemn expression:
in Christ. The Christian person must feel, think, do, suffer, have, and be all things in Christ. Here we come back to the precept of the apostle: Hoc sentite in vobis, quod et in Christo Jesu (Phil 2:5)” (Teosofia, no. 898; Opere, vol. 13, p. 209).

St. John of the Cross mystically penetrates the deepest and most engaging secret of this identification with Jesus:

“When the union of love occurs, that it may be truly said the Beloved lives in the loving soul, and the loving soul in the Beloved. … One gives himself up to the other as his possession, and each resigns, abandons, and exchanges himself for the other, and both become but one in the transformation wrought by love.”
(Spiritual Canticle, Stanza XII:7).

In these words, there is the program of our whole life!

b) To see with the eyes of Jesus

Concretely this means that for us “Faith does not merely
gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes: it is a participation in his way of seeing” (no. 18). Faith,
“far from divorcing us from reality … enables us to grasp reality’s deepest meaning and to see how much God loves this world and is constantly guiding it towards himself. This leads us, as Christians, to live our lives in this world with ever greater commitment and intensity.” (

“Our life in Christ, his way of knowing the Father and living
in toto in the relationship with Him, opens up a new space for human experience and we can get into it” (ibid.). The priest, first and ever more deeply, is the one who is called to enter, reside, and travel in this new space, acting as a safe guide (here is where the art of pastoral ministry is summed up) in entering, residing, and travelling in this space for his own people.
In his interview with Father Antonio Spadaro published in "La Civiltà Cattolica", Pope Francis offers some precise indications on the topic: we need "to perceive the things of God from his point of view," and therefore "do the little daily things with a big heart open to God and to others" and "being able to appreciate the small things within large horizons, those of the Kingdom of God" (p. 453), this is why we must cultivate the "wisdom of discernment" (p. 454), being open to the inner, transforming action of the Spirit that places us in the "mind of Christ" (
cf. 1 Cor 2:16) today, here, for me, for us.
This is a demanding, rigorous, and crucifying exercise but it is evangelical, liberating, a harbinger of encounter, communion, newness, and joy.

* * *

The second part of our journey will be shorter, though the issues are far-reaching.
We are dealing with the
ecclesial form of faith (no. 22) and, therefore, also its social and "political" shape and impact, in the original meaning of the term referring to the pólis, the city of human beings.
Here, too, I choose a biblical icon, the lapidary statement of Paul: "we are parts of one another" (
Rom 12:5). The "we are" of which Paul speaks is an ontological gift in which we are constituted by faith: grafting us into Christ, making us the visible and tangible sign of his presence in the world in relation to others - this is the original sense of the Pauline lemma sóma Christoû - for that very reason it makes us "parts of one another." That is not a minor thing, but it is the decisive event of salvation!

The ecclesial form of faith

Let us start from the ecclesial dimension. We can either take it for granted or as a theologically acquired given. Yet existentially, in practice, in our lives and in our ministry, what can we say about the
ecclesial form of faith, without which, verbatim, we cannot speak truly of faith in Christ?
Lumen Fidei says: “Just as Christ gathers to himself all those who believe and makes them his body, so the Christian comes to see himself as a member of this body, in an essential relationship with all other believers” (no. 22). Faith celebrated in baptism and the Eucharist, makes us one in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal 3:28). In faith, the believer experiences and confesses, in the grace of Christ, "that the core of all being, the inmost secret of all reality, is the divine communion", the Most Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, of whose inexhaustible life and amazing love we have become sharers in Christ Jesus (cf. no. 45). This results in a "new logic" (cf. no. 20; no. 27). "It is a relational way of viewing the world, which then becomes a form of shared knowledge, vision through the eyes of another and a shared vision of all that exists" (no. 27).
This describes what the Christian community must become, or, rather, what it
can become, by grace. This is not something optional: it is the substance of faith, testimony, and evangelization. At least in two senses.

a) Parts of one another, in the presbytery

The first is what affects us, in fact constitutes us as
unum presbyterium, in Christ, around the Bishop (cf. PO 8). Here is - you will tell me - the usual sermon on priestly communion. No! Meditating on Lumen Fidei, the conversion and renewal to which it calls us , refer to something profound and radical.
It is a matter of looking at Christ and seeing how, in Him, through our ordination and the ministerial task entrusted to us, we are, "parts of one another." It is not a matter of establishing civil relationships inspired by human courtesy or mutual acceptance, but to learn - and it costs us if and when we do it -
how to exercise our vision to be the other's vision (as the Pope says). It is also to develop together that difficult and mostly novel art of communitarian discernment where ultimately the ones who express themselves are the voice of Christ with the breath of the Spirit, He who is the only Master, while we are all brothers and sisters (cf. Mt 23:8).
In short, it means acquiring a truly ecclesial
forma mentis et cordis, not in an abstract or idealistic manner, but in the here and now of this Church, of our Church: first spiritually and then, consequently, also in our ministry and pastoral work. There really is a lot to do!
Yves Congar already said: what is absolutely needed today, after Vatican II, is the transition
from a spirituality of obedience aimed at a hierarchogical ecclesiology, to a Trinitarian spirituality of communion (which, naturally, integrates and transfigures obedience), expression of the ecclesiology of the People of God.
To do this we need to "waste time," we need to create spaces and activate the creativity of love. In short, communion and priestly community must become in practice what they
already are by gift and vocation.

b) Belonging to a journeying People

Secondly, the ecclesial form of faith is expressed and, I would say, has its own verification and testing ground in our
pastoral style, namely in the way in which we serve the community we are sent to with authority and love, in order to edify it in Christ, leaven and salt in the society in which we live.
Here we are also "parts of one another", with that specific and irreplaceable ministry that is entrusted to us at the service of the building up of the Christian community and its mission among people. How many wise suggestions - born and matured in the heart of a pastor trained in direct contact with his people – does Pope Francis offer us in this regard! From these we could draw out a small but invaluable guide for our pastoral ministry.
First, in concrete actions and the pastoral style he enhances the biblical and theological category of the
People of God, which is certainly central to the ecclesiology of Vatican II (cf. LG 12). In the interview with "La Civiltà Cattolica", he said: "The People of God constitutes a subject. The Church is the People of God journeying through history, with joys and sorrows. Sentire cum Ecclesia (thinking with the Church), then, for me, is my way to be part of this People" (p. 459). Speaking to the clergy, consecrated people and members of pastoral councils of the diocese of Assisi, he said in a heartfelt fashion:

“I think this is truly the most wonderful experience we can have: to belong to a people walking, journeying through history together with their Lord who walks among us! We are not alone, we do not walk alone. We are part of the one flock of Christ that walks together. …
I repeat it often: walking with our people, sometimes in front, sometimes behind and sometimes in the middle, and sometimes behind: in front in order to guide the community, in the middle to encourage and support; and at the back in order to keep it united and so that no one lags too, too far behind, to keep them united. There is another reason too: because the people have a “nose”! The people scent out, discover, new ways to walk, it has the
“sensus fidei,” as theologians call it. What could be more beautiful than this?” (no. 2).

Obviously, to grow and mature in this pastoral style is not expected. It requires becoming experts in the art of
generating spiritually (this is the ministry of the Word and Sacraments) and generating pastorally (this is the ministry of guiding and accompanying) the Christian community as the Body of Christ and living Temple of the Spirit. Our authority (which comes from the apostolic mandate) must be sustained by our authoritativeness (which derives from our existential conforming to Christ as guide and pastor). It must be used as a service and is called to combine with wisdom, prudence, and patience, the ability to keep the rudder of the community, steadily upright, pointed in the right direction, along with the ability to listen and understand what the Spirit is telling us today through the voice of others, of all. Others sometimes see better and further than we do!

Missionary, social, and political dimensions

We have reached the last point that I wish to mention: to develop the theme of "the ecclesial form of faith" in its
essentially missionary aspect and in its social and "political" relevance.

Lumen Fidei says: “In presenting the story of the patriarchs and the righteous men and women of the Old Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews highlights an essential aspect of their faith. That faith is not only presented as a journey, but also as a process of building, the preparing of a place in which human beings can dwell together with one another. ... Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope” (nos. 50-51).

What does it mean, therefore, for the style of our pastoral ministry to be invested and shaped by the "light of faith" together with the whole People of God, in the service of building up civil society?

a) Building open, hospitable, friendly communities

The first and fundamental thing - Pope Francis does not get tired of repeating it - is
going out from being closed in ourselves and in our communities, de-centering ourselves, overcoming our self-referencing, in order to walk on the roads of the world and journey along those who seek, suffer, or are in any way marginalized. That is where Jesus would be, and hence it is our place and the place of the Christian community. Our style and our pastoral concerns must avoid the (explicit or hidden) temptation of committing our strength to build a community that is a fortress, fenced in, a ghetto, in order to instead build an open, hospitable, and friendly community, a tent-community, like the community of Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, ready to welcome the unknown visitors.
In this perspective, the pressing invitation of the Bishop of Rome is to undertake
the way of a culture of encounter, proximity, and solidarity stands out in all its richness. The beating heart of this culture is – according to Pope Francis - dialogue, understood in the anthropologically rich and theologically rigorous meaning that Paul VI outlined with vivid accents in the extraordinary pages of Ecclesiam suam: "The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make" (no. 67).

b) Transforming conflicts into a step towards unity

Just a quick look at the social significance of this attitude.
Lumen Fidei stresses that:

"Faith illumines life and society. If it possesses
a creative light for each new moment of history, it is because it sets every event in relationship to the origin and destiny of all things in the Father .... As an experience of the mercy of God the Father, it sets us on the path of brotherhood. Modernity sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure. We need to return to the true basis of brotherhood. ... Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God’s face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters" (nos. 54, 55).

The encyclical also states that, “rather than avoiding conflict, we need to confront it in an effort to resolve and move beyond it, to make it a link in a chain, as part of a progress towards unity” (
Pope Francis has frequently intervened with his words and his actions to give substance, in the form of stimulus and encouragement, to these ideas. I limit myself to just one quote, again, from the interview published in "La Civiltà Cattolica":

“God manifests himself in a historical revelation, in time. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is found in time, in the processes in progress. We must not focus on the spaces where power is exercised compared to the rather long-run processes. … This
gives priority to actions that give birth to new dynamics. And this requires patience, waiting” (pp. 467-468).

Although a bit of
prophecy does not hurt in this regard, (coming from the Lord, of course, not only from our feelings!), as Pope Francis notes in the same interview: “Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say ‘chaos.’ But in reality, its charism is to be like leaven: prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel” (p. 465).

Generate and Accompany

In the prayer with which he ends the
Lumen Fidei, the Pope turns to Mary. It is not something formal. We can sense, in fact, who Mary is for him, as a Christian, a priest, a bishop, the Pope. He says to her: “Teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus, that He may be light for our path” (no. 60).

Welcoming Mary into our home, among our most intimate and dearest things (cf.
Jn 19: 26-27), tells us that the gift of our common journey of grace and faith asks us all not so much and not only to handle what we are and what we live and do, but to gestate it together: that is to give birth, to look after and accompany, in mutuality of purpose and action, step by step, meeting after meeting, project after project, the growth of each and every one – without any exception - towards the mature and perfect stature of the New Man, the One Man, as we are already in Christ Jesus (cf. Eph 4:13).

This is
the style of Mary, the Queen of the Apostles, who gave her flesh and her life to the seed of a new humanity.