Spirituality Year for Priests
January 2, 2010: The Priesthood, a life of poverty in imitation of Christ
The priesthood, in imitation of Christ, is rooted in what are called the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In contrast to greed, gain, and possessions, the practice of these evangelical counsels removes the obstacles to being an alter Christus as the Priest dedicates his life out of love for God by showing love of neighbor above the things of the world.
When a Priest detaches himself from material possessions by living a simple life, he heeds the words of Our Lord “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt. 10:8). By undertaking the joys and hardships of the priesthood, he does not seek a reward in terms of money or possessions, but rather in the enrichment of the souls of those to whom he ministers. Presenting souls at the end of their lives to their Father in Heaven produces the fruit of years of priestly toil – the glory of God.
The Priesthood of Saint John Vianney exemplified this dedication. The selfless Cure was concerned only about the soul of each person he encountered, whether in the confessional or on the streets of Ars, regardless of their wealth or poverty. His Priesthood was but the continuation of his upbringing as a poor shepherd who did not hesitate to care for his sheep.
His love for a simple life was already appreciated at ordination. During his first pastoral assignment, he and his pastor would encourage each other by their ascetical practices. Although a diocesan priest, the Cure of Ars was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis and followed the footsteps of the holy Franciscan founder, as a model and epitome of priestly poverty.
The poverty of his Priesthood was founded upon his need for nothing but God, knowing that the Blessed Trinity would provide for all his needs according to providence. The money which came into his hands was viewed as belonging to Christ and His Church. As a result, the hands of the poor would not remain empty if he had but a farthing to bestow upon them.
Even at his death, owning nothing, he bequeathed his body to the ground from whence it came, and his soul to God Who created it. His own soul - whose salvation he treasured and cared for most – he understood as the possession of God.
The poverty of the Cure of Ars is explained by his own words: “Give everything away, hold nothing back” as he lived as a poor priest in a poor parish. Had he lived but a century later, the holy Cure would not be found in a luxury car, at fine restaurants, frequenting the golf course, or seeking a plethora of vacations. His rectory would be absent of shelves of the brandies of the world, televisions, and stereos. In fulfilling his duties, he would not consider honors, titles, the media, or the praise of his parishioners. To him, the answer was found by asking: “Would Christ have or seek such things?”
While leading others to God, there was no abuse of authority by St. John Vianney as a genuine love accompanied his pastoral work. His motivation was not self-centered, but entirely focused upon his flock. He did not speak of himself or feel threatened by human respect, but made Christ the center of all he did. Retirement from a life of prayer and priestly work, for the patron of parish Priests, would not be considered in his final years in life. Rather, he replaced his desire to do penance in a monastery during his final years with the relentless pastoral efforts until the body gave up the ghost.
Today, there can be the tendency to think that the Priest has given up so much – a wife, a family, a high-paying career – that he deserves to be compensated with the goods of the world, titles, or praise. But such things only usurp what duly belongs to Christ.
The priest, then, by his life of simplicity, draws people away from the world because his life does not revolve around the mundane. Rather, in the words of Our Lord: “I have meat to eat which you know not” (Jn. 4:32). That is, his own holiness and the leading souls to God is the sustenance of the priest. He lives – and would even die – for souls. Materialism is replaced by the salvation of souls, and poverty is embraced so that distractions are not wanting. The material poverty of St. John Vianney was replaced by the richness of countless souls whom he ministered to, whom he radiated an as example of Christ. For there was no greater possession or honor than the possession of God for all eternity.
Sitting in the cold confessional for hours, he was warmed by penitents returning to love of God. Taking but a little nourishment, he was fed by the King of Heaven; sleeping but little, he drove out fatigue by charity for souls. Indeed, he was a rich priest.
Fr Eric Flood