TO THE PRIESTS OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BRISBANE
In this strange landscape of COVID-19 and on this feast of St John Vianney, patron of pastors, I think of you and of his words: “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus”. It is the love of the One with the pierced heart from which there flow streams of blood and water for the life of the world. John Vianney’s heart was certainly pierced in many ways, as is the heart of any priest, ours in a special way in this time of pandemic. But from the Curé’s heart there flowed those streams of life, as they do from ours.
His was an extraordinary story, the headlines of which are well known. He was born in 1786 on the eve of the French Revolution, and he lived through the time of spiritual devastation which followed the Revolution when the Church in France was reduced to almost nothing. He was a flower that bloomed in the desert against all the odds. Many years ago I visited Ars – more out of a sense of duty than enthusiasm. Yet when I got there and walked through his little house and knelt in the basilica where he lies buried, I found it all strangely moving, even haunting. It struck deep chords in me as John Vianney has done for so long in the heart of the Church. That is why a procession of Popes has pointed to him. He was declared Venerable by Pius IX, Blessed by Pius X, Saint by Pius XI; Pius XII, John XXIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI all wrote about him.
Yet in so many ways John Vianney can seem alien to us in Australia. He seems to come from another planet and to have little or nothing to say to us now. But, as a friend of mine said recently, “I like the alien: it speaks of what we repress.” That is true, I think; and it led me to ask: What might we find alien about John Vianney? Which is to ask, What is it that we repress or at least tend to forget about the priesthood? What are those things to which the Curé of Ars stands as enduring witness, even if we tend to forget them? I think of three.
The first is mediation. John Vianney had a profound sense of himself as a man called and set apart to represent God to human beings and human beings to God – never more so than at the altar and in the confessional. This presumes an intimate knowledge of both God and the human being, and these we see in him to an extraordinary degree. Talk of the priest as mediator can stir fear that the priest will be too separate, too “other” – especially perhaps in a place like Australia where one of the greatest strengths of the priesthood has been the closeness of priests to people. It can sound clericalist to speak of the priest as a mediating figure who is separate or other. But the otherness we see in John Vianney is a way of becoming unusually close to people; it is a way of intimacy. It is a way of living the strange intimacy of Christ himself, his closeness to the Church and the world.
The second point at which the Curé of Ars can seem alien is mercy. Here I mean not just the human comfort which pastors offer in so many difficult situations. I mean the overwhelming mercy of God. In John Vianney, this led to a horror of sin, which is why he often wept at the stories of sin he heard in the confessional; perhaps we have grown used to sin. One of the great prayers of Lent is that we never grow used to sin. To this we might also add that we may grow more and more in a sense of the power and beauty of God’s mercy. It was this sense that led John Vianney to spend hours a day in the confessional – as much as eighteen hours late in his life as thousands came to seek God’s mercy from him in the Sacrament. I ask therefore: do we need a deep renewal of the Sacrament of Reconciliation? This may be a time when we need a resurgence of the sense of the horror of sin and the glory of mercy, beginning with the priests. This has been a constant theme of Pope Francis, one of the ways in which the Spirit has spoken through the Successor of Peter.
At the third of the points, the Curé of Ars can seem most alien of all. It is mortification. Even the word sounds alien in a world which sees mortification of the flesh as a denial of the body, implying that the flesh is bad which is anathema for Christians who profess faith in the Incarnation and the resurrection of the body. John Vianney undertook throughout his life a very tough regime of bodily mortification, but not as a rejection of the flesh. In him, as in some of the early Church Fathers, asceticism was a way of affirming the truth and beauty of the flesh which are discovered only when the flesh is set in harmony with the spirit. In a world that tends to say that there is only the flesh, it is a counter-cultural way of saying that there is more than the flesh and that it is the spirit that gives life, even to the flesh. Mortification is also – as one spiritual writer has put it – a uniquely powerful way to unsettle the demons of softness, pessimism and lukewarm faith. It is a way of feeding faith, hope and love.
However strange these may seem, the three Ms – mediation, mercy and mortification – were what marked John Vianney as a man anointed by the Spirit of the Lord “to bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives and to the blind new sight”; and in some way they will mark all of us who have been anointed to share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
John Vianney lived in a human desert in which there were many false dawns. There were other revolutions after the Revolution, each with its own great promise and each unleashing only another tide of blood. Yet in that desert there was a wholly unexpected flourishing of grace. The supernatural, the grace, is love – the love which is the blazing core of all things. The love has a name and a face; and the name and the face are Jesus. It is he whom we see in the Curé, which is why he remains as fresh as tomorrow, however alien he may seem at first sight.
If the love is Jesus, then so too is the priesthood. As St Paul says: “There is only Christ; he is everything and he is in everything” (Colossians 3:11). I used to think that was a wild semitic exaggeration by the Apostle, but I no longer see it like that. What Paul says is true. There is only Jesus. The only priest is Jesus; the only priesthood is his. In the footsteps of St John Vianney, may he lead each of us more and more deeply into that mystery for the sake of his people.
Archbishop of Brisbane
4 August 2020