Pope John Paul II on Priests and the Liturgy
On May 21, 1998 Pope John Paul II met with bishops from Michigan and Ohio during their "ad limina" visits to the Holy See. In the course of his address the Holy Father spoke of the important role of bishops and priests in the Church's liturgical life.
If bishops and priests are to be truly effective witnesses to Christ and teachers of the faith, they have to be men of prayer like Christ himself. Only by turning frequently and trustingly to God and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit can a priest fulfill his mission. Priests, and seminarians preparing for the priesthood, need to interiorize the fact that there is "an intimate bond between the priest's spiritual life and the exercise of his ministry" (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 24). Every priest is called to develop a great personal familiarity with the word of God, so that he may enter ever more completely into the Master's thought and strengthen his attachment to the Lord, his priestly model and guide (cf. General Audience, June 2, 1993, No. 4). A committed prayer-life brings the gift of wisdom, with which "the Spirit leads the priest to evaluate all things in the light of the Gospel, helping him to read in his own experience and the experience of the Church the mysterious and loving plan of the Father" (Letter to Priests 1998, No. 5).
At a time when many demands are made on the priest's time and energies, it is important to emphasize that one of his first duties is to pray on behalf of the people entrusted to him. This is his privilege and his responsibility, for he has been ordained to represent his people before the Lord and to intercede on their behalf before the throne of grace (cf. General Audience, June 2, 1993, No. 5). In this regard, I would emphasize again the importance in priestly life of faithfully praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the public prayer of the Church, every day. While the faithful are invited to participate in this prayer, following Christ's recommendation to pray at all times without losing heart (cf. Luke 18:1), priests have received a special commission to celebrate the Divine Office, in which Christ himself prays with us and for us (cf. Letter to Priests 1984, No. 5). Indeed prayer for the needs of the Church and the individual faithful is so important that serious thought should be given to reorganizing priestly and parish life to ensure that priests have time to devote to this essential task, individually and in common. Liturgical and personal prayer, not the tasks of management, must define the rhythms of a priest's life, even in the busiest of parishes.
The celebration of the Eucharist is the most important moment of the priest's day, the center of his life. Offering the sacrifice of the Mass, in which the unique sacrifice of Christ is made present and applied until he comes again, the priest ensures that the work of redemption continues to be carried out (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 13). From this unique sacrifice, the priest's entire ministry draws its strength (cf. ibid., 2) and the people of God receive the grace to live truly Christian lives in the family and in society. It is important for bishops and priests not to lose sight of the intrinsic value of the Eucharist, a value which is independent of the circumstances surrounding its celebration. For this reason, priests should be encouraged to celebrate Mass every day, even in the absence of a congregation, since it is an act of Christ and the Church (cf. ibid., 13; Code of Canon Law, c. 904).
In order that the Eucharist may fully produce its grace in the life of your communities, specific attention also needs to be given to promoting the sacrament of Penance. Priests are the special witnesses and ministers of God's mercy. At no other time can they be as close to the faithful as when they lead them to the crucified and forgiving Christ in this uniquely personal encounter (cf. Redemptor Hominis, 20). To be the minister of the sacrament of reconciliation is a special privilege for a priest who, acting in the person of Christ, is permitted to enter into the drama of another Christian life in a singular way. Priests should always be available to hear the confessions of the faithful, and to do so in a way that allows the penitent's particular situation to unfold and be reflected upon in the light of the Gospel.
This fundamental task of the pastoral ministry, directed to intensifying the union of each individual with the Father of mercies, is a vital dimension of the church's mission. It should be the subject of study and reflection in priests' gatherings and in courses of continuing formation. To cut oneself off from the sacrament of Penance is to cut oneself off from an irreplaceable form of encounter with Christ. So, priests themselves should receive this sacrament regularly and in a spirit of genuine faith and devotion. In this way, the priest's own constant conversion to the Lord is strengthened, and the faithful see more clearly that reconciliation with God and the Church is necessary for authentic Christian living (cf. Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, 53).