The call to the priesthood is “the desire to serve others in the things that come from God,” Pope Francis told 50,000 gathered in a rainy St. Peter’s Square for his General Audience on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. A priestly vocation is “the wish to spend your whole life in service to catechize, baptize, forgive, celebrate the Eucharist, take care of the sick, and spend your whole life in this way,” said Francis.
Expounding about Holy Orders, which consist of the three ranks of episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate, Francis picked up a thread begun in his weekly audiences earlier in the year, on the Sacraments of the Church.
In his description of the call to Holy Orders, the Holy Father emphasized the role of love. This is owing to the fact that the priestly ministry must be guided by the Spirit and carried out “according to the heart of Jesus, which is a heart of love,” said Francis.
In fact, said the Pontiff, Holy Orders and matrimony are “two great ways through which a Christian can make of his life a gift of love.” Indeed, the Bishop and the priest should love the Church the way that Christ loves the Church, said the Pontiff, which St. Paul tells us is the same as how a husband loves his wife.
A related consideration was identified by St. John Chrysostom in his great treatise De sacerdotio, “On The Priesthood,” recognized as the most important ancient discussion of the Christian ministry.
The influential Early Church Father writes that a priest accomplishes greater good by nurturing souls than even one who feeds the poor and helps the oppressed. This is because “the body is inferior to the soul”—a remarkable observation from one who had been a hermit, and preached eloquently on the need to care for the poor. Yet, love of Jesus must be extended to his flock: “Rightly therefore did the Lord say that zeal for the flock was a token of love for Himself.” (De sac. 2, 4.)
This was the message of Pope Francis, too. “The priest, the Bishop, the deacon must feed the Lord’s flock with love,” said the Pontiff. “If he does not do it with love, it is useless.”
The Pope looked around the crowd. “Perhaps there are some young men here who have felt this call in their heart, the wish to become a priest,” he wondered. “If one of you has felt this thing in his heart it is Jesus who has put it there.”
St. John Chrysostom wrote his great treatise on the priesthood, in part, as an apology for having resisted the call, initially. It is cast as a dialogue between Chrysostom and his friend Basil, after Chrysostom beguiled Basil into accepting an episcopal position while Chrysostom himself declined it, arguing that he was not worthy. It should be an encouragement that even great saints get butterflies.
But if you are interested, “what must one do to become a priest? Where is access to the priesthood sold?,” asked Pope Francis. “No. It is not sold. This is an initiative that the Lord takes. The Lord calls.” And anyone who hears Jesus knocking should answer the door, said the Pontiff.
Previously: On Fatherhood