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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"Our Priests, Our Heroes"

"Theologian Comments on Compilation of Vocation Stories"

By Karna Swanson

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 3, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Times are tough, and more than ever people need real heroes to inspire them, says theologian Christine Anne Mugridge

Mugridge is the co-author/editor with Jerry Usher of "Called by Name: The Inspiring Stories of 12 Men Who Became Catholic Priests," published by Ascension Press.

In this interview with ZENIT, Mugridge discusses the "heroic" aspect of the priesthood, and what led her to edit a compilation of vocation stories.

Q: As a woman theologian, what led you to edit a book of priestly vocation stories?

Mugridge: As a theologian in the Church, I realize that the public at large doesn't often hear a woman share about the topic of the priesthood as a "gift": that is that Christ gives himself to all humanity as a gift through his priesthood. Each man in saying yes to the priestly call is saying yes first to Christ personally -- this response is heroic.

But let us look beyond this human element and see the priesthood in terms of Christ who then gifts himself in his eucharistic presence. I take this gift of Christ personally. The Eucharist is a powerful witness of Divine Love in the world, not a fable, not wishful thinking. The greatest gift of love is the gift of our living God -- present in holy Communion. As a Catholic laywoman, I am keenly aware of this reality and praise God for it.

These are challenging times for everyone: Both inside and outside the Church. In working on this book, I likewise wanted to defend the priesthood today from a largely negative and false perspective that has been portrayed through the media in general.

People need heroes. We need heroes to lift up our hopes and inspire us to live life with a sense of meaning and virtue even as we are challenged to the depths of our faith. The priesthood is a great gift won by the price of Christ's blood, given for the world. This vocation certainly represents a heroic form of life. The personal witness of the men in sharing their individual vocational calling is important in that while it shows us heroic virtue in action it also humanizes our understanding of the priesthood and assists the Church in expressing the Gospel message. Heroes do not have to be perfect to inspire us.

While growing up my family was very blessed to be close to our parish priests. These men were personal friends. The balance of family life and friendships with priests was always there as a part of my foundational education in the faith. I wanted to share something of this same relational experience with others.

Q: The book features a cardinal, an archbishop, a founder of an order and various other priests who have contributed to the Church in many ways. How did you choose which 12 priests you would ask for their vocation story?

Mugridge: Choosing only 12 men was very difficult, of course. In fact, we had so many good choices the book could have been three times the present volume. Readers are asking for a second edition and we certainly could fulfill that request!

I wanted to bring a global experience of the gift of the priesthood itself into one book, telling of the universal nature of the Church and the vocational calling from different cultural backgrounds. Many Catholics may never have the opportunity to meet so many varied people from different places in the world or even from another diocese. The criteria for the individual participation in writing a chapter was a high standard of holiness and openness to God's will in living out their priestly vocation today. I think the book succeeds in presenting these goals.

Q: Is there one aspect or story that stands out to you?

Mugridge: One aspect certainly struck me as we edited the testimonials. Very clearly what emerges from these stories is that the call to the priesthood is unmistakably a special call from God himself to unite with Christ's self-giving and to participate in this self-donation and thanksgiving that is the Eucharistic Celebration.

As I wrote in the introduction [I kept in mind that] there is only one priesthood and this is the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. John Paul II highlights this point as he wrote in his Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2005: "Christ's self-giving, which has its origin in the Trinitarian life of the God who is Love, reaches its culmination in the sacrifice of the Cross, sacramentally anticipated in the Last Supper. It is impossible -- for the priest -- to repeat the words of consecration without feeling caught up in this spiritual movement [...]

"The priest must learn to apply these words also to himself, and to speak them with truth and generosity. If he is able to offer himself as a gift, placing himself at the disposal of the community and at the service of anyone in need, his life takes on its true meaning. This is exactly what Jesus expected of his apostles. [...] It is also what the people of God expect of a priest."

Q: What are the main elements that seem to underline every vocation story?

Mugridge: The priestly call is a personal call from God to each individual man. This is not a question of a "career choice" nor a simple job to try out for a period of time on one's "faith journey."

As each man says yes to God in his priestly ordination, his identity -- his whole being -- then is eternally linked to the salvific identity of Christ himself. So deeply is this call felt, that the man who hears it cannot "avoid" it if you will -- no matter how many years or distractions he experiences!

It is amazing to read in each of the stories of the growing awareness of this reality. Each man would come face to face with God and give an answer to this Call. Likewise, it is profound to read of the corresponding grace and sacrifice that is required for each man to follow Christ.

Originally, we wanted to title the book "In Persona Christi" precisely because we could read that as each one surrendered to the call and went on to priestly ordination, the Person of Christ and his mission of salvation for the world would emerge more brilliant.

This level of appreciation for the vocation has been marred in recent years. We the editors and publisher of the book wanted to allow the beauty and mystery of the vocation to be seen anew.

Q: In the midst of so much bad news in the Church these days, this book shows us that God is still present and active in the midst of it all. What did you learn in editing this book about how God is continually working in the lives of individuals, even in the midst of challenging circumstances?

Mugridge: There is no doubt that God is continuing to work in all our lives even in the midst of challenging news. We have had our share of bad news recently -- but Christ is with us in the midst of this suffering. The Good News with a capital g is written in, with and through the Incarnate Word himself. This being said, there are many good priests whose lives inspire renewed faith.

In producing this book, we wanted to afford the reader the opportunity to read such stories; testimonies that are not necessarily being shared on a larger public scale. History unfolds both difficult and noble periods of Christian life. The mystery of salvation history we know, is that God is continually working through fallen humanity. It is not that God only tolerates mankind, it is that God in his wisdom, knowing human strengths and weakness, chooses to become one of us and wishes to share a living communion with us. We are his instruments of grace.

Each of us as baptized Christians is called to be a witness to Christ and his Church. However, it is especially in the person of the priest that Jesus Christ unites himself to the human family and in a unique manner to the People of God -- for only through the sacrifice of the mass is the Covenant Communion -- the salvific love of the Triune God -- made manifest on earth in a manner most excellent in the Real Presence.

There is no scandal in the Church now, no matter how bitter, that was not committed against the person of Christ himself first by his own followers. We must not forget the fundamental reality that at the cross, there was only one disciple standing.

Our hope therefore is not in frail humanity -- our hope is in the living presence of the person of Christ himself whose promise to remain with us until his glorious return is an unbreakable promise. It is the truth. The Bridegroom will not betray his own Bride -- his Body.

Q: Who should read this book, and why?

Mugridge: I would like to encourage everyone to read this book -- men and women, young and old. The personal witness of faith and the encouragement to pursue the call of Christ in one's life is strengthened through reading these stories. The temptation now is to see the priesthood as a type of job, focusing on the imperfections of the person and not in the mystery of the Triune God. This book identifies the presence of God in the life of these men. They share with the reader their interior dialogue with the Lord regarding being called by name. My belief in Christ and sense of optimism regarding the Church was strengthened through reading these personal stories. We encourage people discerning their own vocation to read it as well as those who want deeper insight into the Catholic Church and the vocation of the priesthood in the Roman Rite.

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