The parish priest who has grown in paschal wisdom will naturally demonstrate pastoral charity in his actions and in his person. The experience of this deep and abiding love for the Church and the Lord’s people is the consummation and satisfaction of the priest’s call to holiness through service. Pastoral charity is the hallmark of the priesthood.
The vocational premise here is that the individual man as a person is called not to his own ministry, but that of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. There is one High Priest in Jesus Christ and all who are called to serve as ordained priests share in that one priesthood. Thus, the priest will prosper in pastoral charity in proportion to his configuring to the Lord Jesus. The more he becomes like Christ, the more effective and satisfying his ministry becomes. The individual Christian who approaches the sacraments can find the same welcoming love of the Sacred Heart in the parish priest’s serving as the Lord’s minister.
The parish priest’s personal growth in holiness directs the movement of his heart to pastoral charity. In other words, the more the priest personally grows in paschal wisdom, the more deeply and sincerely he will love the Church and its members. Only if the priest knows an authentic and personal experience of being loved can he find the capacity to love pastorally. He lives in response to the love of God.
One could say that through personal conversion, the priest loses his “self” for an identity linked to the mission of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Here the minister is not a lone soldier facing life’s battles and victories without any comrades. Just as a healthy married couple must grow in an ever-deeper understanding of themselves as a communion of two, the parish priest enjoys an ever-expanding experience of love for the Lord’s Church and people.
Pope John Paul II offered a beautiful reflection on this view of pastoral charity in Pastores Dabo Vobis. The Pope explained that priestly ministry is distinguished by pastoral charity as an amoris officium, an office of love. His service to the Church and souls becomes the first interest of the priest and grounds his spirituality as a deep love for the universal Church and those souls entrusted to his care, like that of a husband for his wife.
The wonderful experience of love that we are considering will only flourish if the individual priest’s love for God, the Church and its members has become greater than all other distractions. The priest’s heart must remain as free as possible from the entanglements of a secular push to have a successful “professional” career or prove oneself as relevant in today’s world by recognized accomplishments. It is not what car he drives or which community he serves in or where he was raised and educated that matters. In pastoral charity, the priest flourishes as he grows in relationship to God and his people through service.
God is not an abstraction to the parish priest. The priest serves because he knows and experiences God through the pastoral work given to him. Today the demands on the parish priest can be great, with more and more responsibilities, programs, meetings and assignments but fewer resources. Thus, pastoral charity must have an ecclesial dimension in order for it to be authentically Catholic. The priest is among his brother priests as he serves the Church.
In every way, the parish priest’s life and ministry are enriched by his abiding experience of being loved by God and those he serves and by his deepening love for them in return. The priest’s heart grows all the more thankful for being called to be a priest.
Father Hinkley has adapted this article from a talk he gave to a group of priests on their annual retreat.