VATICAN CITY – As part of the closing events for the Year for Priests, the Legionaries of Christ hosted top Vatican officials for a conference on the priest as the “image of the Good Shepherd.”
The event June 8 came as the Legionaries themselves were struggling with revelations that their founder, the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, had fathered children and sexually abused seminarians, the focus of a major Vatican investigation.
While the Vatican has made it clear that Father Maciel’s “most grave and objectively immoral conduct” calls for “a path of profound revision” in the order, Vatican officials have had no reservations about supporting the Legionaries’ academic and spiritual initiatives.
The conference on the priest as Good Shepherd was scheduled before the most recent disclosures about Father Maciel. In opening remarks, Father Gabriel Gonzalez, director of a Legionaries’ spiritual institute for priests in Rome, made a vague reference to the scandal and the wider sex abuse crisis in the church when he said it was paradoxical and perhaps providential that “we have seen the figure of the priest wounded in a particular way in the year dedicated to him.”
“In these circumstances, reflection on the mystery of the priesthood becomes more necessary than ever,” he said. He added that even “the most negative aspects of the humanity” of individual priests take nothing from the greatness and beauty of the priesthood.
Father Pedro Barrajon, the rector of the Legionaries’ Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University in Rome, said the Year for Priests has been a difficult but significant one for Legionaries because of the “discoveries of the past.”
“For us it’s a reminder to return to what we ought to be, as priests or seminarians,” Father Barrajon said.
“This is an encouragement. On one hand, it says the priest is full of weaknesses, and the church and other people suffer from that, for which we are truly sorry. But at the same time, we cannot abandon a vocation that’s been received. So we have a commitment to go forward on a path of priestly holiness,” he said.
Addressing about 300 priest and seminarian participants, most of them from the Legionaries’ university, Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera said holiness is a requirement of every priest.
“Our vocation demands that we be saints, and we cannot be content with anything else. If the priest is not a saint, everything crumbles to the ground,” he said. Evangelization depends on priestly holiness, and holiness depends on how closely the priest is configured to Christ, he said.
Cardinal Canizares, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, said “vigorous prayer” – personal and liturgical – was key to the priest’s ministry. He said he was convinced that if every priest said Mass and prayed a half-hour privately each day, then “the church would live a new spring.”
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said in a talk that the church’s first pastoral challenges today come from inside the church and “our own priestly being.” Priests need to understand first of all that in ministry they are servants, not managers or functionaries, he said.
The cultural challenges to priestly ministry are many and varied, Archbishop Fisichella said. He said priests need profound formation today to deal with an “epochal change” in the fundamental notions that have shaped human civilization for thousands of years, including the concepts of nature, man, rights, justice, truth, beauty and even God.
He said priests above all need to be able to communicate effectively with contemporary culture, and that requires an ongoing attention to the cultural trends that help determine modern beliefs and lifestyles.