LONDON (UK Catholic Herald) - Pope Benedict XVI called for a young generation of priests who embrace a "correct" interpretation of the Second Vatican Council as he announced a "year for priests" on Monday.
Continuing the work of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in consolidating the work of the Council, the Pope explicitly supported Vatican II's reforms but insisted that they should not be exaggerated or understood as a complete rupture with the past. He also said that lay structures could not replace the ministry of the priesthood.
His comments coincided with the announcement of a year for priests beginning on June 19 and marking the 150th anniversary of St John Vianney, patron saint of the clergy. He told the Congregation for the Clergy that an indispensable struggle for moral perfection must dwell in every priestly heart. The Pope warned Church leaders against creating lay structures as solutions to a vocations crisis.
He said: "The centrality of Christ leads to a correct valuation of priestly ministry, without which there would be no Eucharist, no mission, not even the Church.
"It is necessary, then, to ensure that 'new structures' or pastoral organisations are not planned for a time in which it will be possible to 'do without' ordained ministry, on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the promotion of the laity, because this would lay the foundations for a further dilution in priestly ministry, and any supposed 'solutions' would, in fact, dramatically coincide with the real causes of the problems currently affecting the ministry."
Pope Benedict stressed the sacramental nature of the ordained priesthood. "The missionary dimension of the priest arises from his sacramental configuration to Christ the head", he said, which requires "total adherence to what ecclesial tradition has identified as apostolica vivendi forma, which consists in participation... in that 'new way of life' which was inaugurated by the Lord Jesus and which the Apostles made their own."
Benedict XVI also underlined the importance of priestly formation and called for a younger generation of priests to be encouraged towards a "correct reading of the texts of the Vatican Council, interpreted in the light of all the Church's doctrinal inheritance".
He urged priests to be "present, identifiable and recognisable for their judgment of faith, personal virtues and attire - in the fields of culture and of charity which have always been at the heart of the Church's mission".
The Pope added that the priesthood is indispensable to the Church. Explaining the different dimensions essential to the mission of the priesthood, he named the ecclesial, communial, hierarchical and doctrinal aspects.
St John Vianney's relics will be brought to St Peter's Basilica by the Bishop Guy Bagnard of Belley-Ars to inaugurate the celebrations and the Pope will close the year by presiding over a "world meeting of priests" in St Peter's Square.
To mark the year for priests, which has "Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests" as its theme, the Congregation for Clergy will promote spiritual and pastoral exercises to highlight the role of the clergy in the modern world. Pope Benedict will also publish a collection of texts which deal with the aspects of the life and mission of priests in the modern world.
This year's Annuario Pontificio indicated a gradual increase in the number of vocations to the priesthood, although the number of vocations has been on a steady decline.
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