In these teaching editorials on evangelization, the authors will present information, inspiration and witness about areas of Church ministry that provide opportunities and challenges to our mission to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. This editorial reflects on the priesthood and evangelization.
Through ordination, a priest is permanently configured to Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the Church. Through many years of seminary, he is “formed” in the image and likeness of Christ to whom he will be configured in ordination. This process does not “hide” who he truly is, but sets him free to be who God has created him to be in service to the Church.
Before ordination, I once told Archbishop (Thomas C.) Kelly that I didn’t know if I “fit the mold” of priesthood. His response, witty and brief, was, “Well, I don’t ordain robots.” Archbishop Kurtz recently told our seminarians something similar. At our end-of-the-summer retreat, he encouraged them to engage seminary as who they truly are. God has called them, not some false image or projection of who they think they should be.
Priests serve the Church as who they are: with their gifts and talents, weaknesses and limitations, personalities, hopes, fears, strengths and faith. It is through them, with all that they are, that God works to lead his people into deeper communion with the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit. A priest’s role in the new evangelization is to facilitate and encourage the encounter with Jesus Christ and the journey of deeper communion with the Trinity. Priests do this in many ways, but they always do it as themselves. While they must be themselves, their model is Jesus Christ, to whom they are configured.
The working document for the Synod on the New Evangelization in 2012 stated: “The way Jesus treated people is to be considered an essential element of Jesus’ method of evangelizing. He was able to welcome everyone, without distinction, and never exclude anyone: first, the poor, then the rich like Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea; outsiders like the centurion and the Syro-Phoenician woman; the righteous, like Nathanael; and prostitutes and public sinners with whom he also sat at table. Jesus knew how to plumb the depths of a person and elicit faith in the God who first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10,19), whose love always precedes us and is not dependent on our own merits, because he is love itself: ‘God is love’(1 Jn 4:8,16)” (Instrumentum Laboris, 23).
Using the model of Jesus’ own method of evangelizing, I would suggest that the priest evangelizes like Jesus, the Good Shepherd. In his love for God’s flock, a priest must be authentic, relevant, enjoyable and accepting.
Real: As stated above, we must be authentically who we are, but more than that, we also must be grounded in what is most real: namely, God and his truth, beauty, goodness and love. The universe begins and ends in love. That’s what’s real.
Real Life: In evangelization and service, we must be relevant to people’s concerns. Into darkness, fear, despair, poverty, rejection, betrayal, abuse, addiction, illness or death, we speak a word, the Word, of hope and love. With Christ, we wade right into real life.
Real Fun: Somewhat famously, Pope Francis warned us against having “the face of a pickled pepper.” Instead, we share the joy of being pilgrims, knowing God’s love in our lives and the hope to which He has called us. This is fun.
Real People: As seen in the quote from the Synod above, a hallmark of Jesus’ own evangelization was his acceptance of all types of people. We cannot make others fit our mold. We, like Jesus, must love real people.
Like Jesus Christ, the Head and Shepherd, priests must be good shepherds, going out. Speaking to bishops, priests, seminarians and religious men and women at World Youth Day, Pope Francis encouraged us, “We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel! It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people! Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning on the outskirts, with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church. They are the VIPs invited to the table of the Lord … go and look for them in the nooks and crannies of the streets.”
Rev. Jeffrey P. Shooner,
Vicar for Priests
Director, Vocation Office Archdiocese of Louisville