As of today I have been a priest for a month. The past month has flown by! It has been a month of many blessings as well as new things to get used to: a new parish, celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and having people call me “Father”. Providentially, I had the opportunity to hear a great talk today that got me reflecting on what it means to be a priest. Today many of the priests of the Archdiocese of Vancouver had the opportunity to hear Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa speak. Since 1980, Fr. Cantalamessa has been the Preacher to the Papal Household. In this role, he preaches to the Pope and other high-ranking officials each Friday during Lent and Advent. Two words struck me from Fr. Cantalamessa’s talk: love and gift. These words seem to be at the core of what it means to be a priest and minister to people today.
The starting point is God’s personal love for each one of us. Fr. Cantalamessa reminded us of Pope Benedict’s Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. In this, Pope Benedict emphasized that God’s love is both agape and eros. The latter is important to remember. God’s love is not some distant thing; He is drawn to us. Likewise, Fr. Cantalamessa explained that our love for God must be both agape and eros. We certainly must be willing to make sacrifices for God (agape), but at the same time we must be enchanted by Jesus and drawn to Him (eros). We are called to be friends of Jesus, not just His spokesmen. This was a great reminder for me one month into my priesthood. I need to remember that the primary thing for me is to love and follow after Jesus. Deepening my personal relationship with Jesus must be my primary concern.
Fr. Cantalamessa explained that there is a great difference between Christianity and other religions. He said that every other religion begins by telling its adherence what to do. “If you want to be saved, you must do this” and “if you wish to obtain enlightenment you must do that.” In other words, duties come first. In Christianity, on the other hand, duties – though important – come second. Christianity begins by telling us what God has done for us to save us. Christianity begins with gift rather than duty. In Christianity, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit – the very love of God – who allows us to do joyfully what is commanded. Fr. Cantalamessa quoted St. Augustine on this:
The law was given so grace we would seek. Grace was given that the law we might keep.
While listening to this, I was reminded of the fact that the priesthood is first and foremost an incredible gift! I have a tendency to get caught up with duties, the things that I must do in the day. At its core, however, I do believe that priesthood is the incredible gift of a unique way of following and relating to Jesus.
Preaching Love and Gift
Fr. Cantalamessa argued that in our preaching we need to imitate the example of St. Peter found in Acts 2:14ff. Our situation today is in many ways similar to the times of the apostles. Then, they were preaching to a pre-Christian world. Today we are preaching to a post-Christian world. If we follow their example, we can succeed in changing the world, just as they did. St. Peter, newly filled with the Holy Spirit, begins by telling people about love and gift and not about duties. He begins by telling the people the good things that God has worked for them through Jesus: Jesus Christ died for our sins. This is the kerygma, or “the cry”. Fr. Cantalamessa explained that this is what Pope Francis is doing. He is starting be telling people about the love and gifts that God has given us in Christ. This is the primary thing, duties and commandments come second. To be able to preach in this way, we must first accept, more and more, Jesus as our own Lord and Messiah. Saying that Jesus is Lord, is a decision. It is saying to Jesus, “I joyfully submit myself to you.” When we preach the kerygma, then, we are able to call others to make the decision to accept Jesus as their Lord.
Fr. Cantalamessa finished with a powerful image. He explained that the painting “The Scream”, by Edvard Munch, has become something of a symbol for our modern culture that is often atheistic and materialistic, looking at our current existence as the only reality. The scream in the painting expresses how we are often lost with nowhere to look. It expresses the anguish of heart that has lost a sense of deeper purpose and hope. In the face of this scream, we are called to proclaim the cry of the kerygma, the good news that speaks of hope, gift and love: God in His love for us has given us the gift of Jesus who has died for our sins. Fr. Cantalamessa explained that we must somehow make the cry of the kerygma the foundation of all our preaching – definitely a challenge for the future!
Finally, in this short month as a priest, I have tasted something of the truth with which Fr. Cantalamessa ended his talk: there is no greater way to spend your life than serving Jesus and having Him as your friend!