Perhaps no other encyclical in the history of the Church has received so much ridicule and caused such controversy as Humanae Vitae. Even today, 50 years later, it still evokes heated discussions and debates, often from people (including some priests) who have never read the document. Yet when encouraged to read the encyclical, one quickly learns of its profound teaching and defense of God’s divine plan for human sexuality, marriage, family and life. The Church, in this encyclical, is preaching Good News and is pro-love and pro-life.
Pope Paul VI begins by highlighting an understanding of God as Love, and how this love overflows into new love and new life. The human persons God creates have an immutable dignity – being made in the image and likeness of a loving God – and have an immortal destiny. The beauty of Catholic Church teaching on human sexuality is based on the dignity of the human person. The gift of life is a most precious gift – to be cherished and respected – which enables us to anticipate and strive for eternal life, where there will be an everlasting enjoyment made possible by union with our loving Father.
God has bestowed upon spouses an “extremely important mission of transmitting human life” – the wondrous gift of being co-creators with Him in the creation of new persons. Having and raising children is an act of immense generosity and immeasurable responsibility; it enables human persons to participate in an act of inestimable value, assisting God in bringing a new immortal soul into existence.
To assist us in appreciating the magnanimity of God, Pope Paul VI emphasizes the importance of priests in their role as pastors of souls regarding the spiritual guidance of spouses. The priest is the first in the line of defense against the false language, philosophies and doctrines confusing spouses about their understanding of conjugal love, which is self-giving, self-donating love. He says to priests,
… speak with full confidence, beloved sons, convinced that while the Holy Spirit of God is present to the magisterium proclaiming sound doctrine, He also illumines from within the hearts of the faithful and invites their assent. Teach married couples the necessary way of prayer and prepare them to approach more often with great faith the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance. Let them never lose heart because of their weakness. — Humanae Vitae, ¶29
What powerful words of encouragement from our soon-to-be saint! Yet I have sadly encountered far too many times the lack of zeal – for many reasons – of my brothers in preaching the full spectrum of Catholic teaching regarding marriage and human life.
If I were to receive five dollars every time I heard, “I never hear any homilies in my church about contraception, abortion, co-habitation, fornication or homosexuality,” or, “This is first time I heard a priest talk about these issues” or, “It seems our pastor is afraid to address any issues affecting Life and Family,” I would be a multi-millionaire.
In commemoration of Humanae Vitae’s 50th anniversary, I would like to highlight the priest as one who teaches, governs and sanctifies. He is irreplaceable in the defense of spouses and family life – in building a Culture of Life.
Who is the Priest?
In the most profound way possible, the priestly ordination of a man creates a new man, one who, if genuinely living his vocation, can proclaim with St. Paul: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20). He is ordained to continue the Savior’s work of redemption until the end of time. He is transformed not because of what he can do, but because of what he has become – a priest of Jesus Christ. He is specially chosen, called to proclaim the Gospel of salvation and lead the faithful to their final destiny – Heaven and the Beatific Vision.
The bishop during the priestly ordination rite in his homily speaks about the nature of the priesthood and how the work of Christ the teacher, priest and shepherd continues through the ministerial priesthood. He also stresses to those to be ordained that they are to model their lives upon the Good Shepherd who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28)
My son, you are now to be advanced to the order of the presbyterate. You must apply your energies to the duty of preaching in the name of Christ, the Chief Teacher. Share with all mankind the word of God you have received in joy. Meditate on the law of God, believe what you read, teach what you believe, and put into practice what you teach. Let the doctrine you teach be true nourishment for the people of God. Let the example of your life attract the followers of the Christ, so that by word and action you may build up the house which is God’s Church. In the same way you must carry out your mission of sanctifying in the power of Christ. — Rites of the Catholic Church, Volume 2
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Holy Orders as: The sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time. (CCC, ¶1536) The priest receives unique powers at ordination to preside at Mass, confer the Sacraments, absolve sinners, anoint the sick, proclaim and explain the Gospel and give blessings. His whole pastoral ministry and leadership of building up a local community of faith is ultimately to reconcile a sinful people with their God. Through the grace and authority entrusted to him through Holy Orders, he is not only to teach the truths of revelation but inspire his hearers and fellow believers to follow what he teaches, as he believes and lives. In collaboration with his bishop, he is to be the primary former and sustainer of a Christian community.
To Whom Else Can One Go?
A cultural war is in progress, and the Christian community has not been immune to the process of social and moral deterioration. Many are confused about the meaning of life, its fundamental choices and purpose. They question what the world is, where it comes from, where we are heading and no longer know from what and for what we have been made.
It is here, at this critical junction, where the priest, the one called to build and sustain the people of God, proclaims like St. Peter, Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6:28) With so many contrasting philosophies, it is the priest, entrusted with the Good News, the Master sends in His name to the nations: Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. (Mark 16:15)
The Word of God and its teaching is entrusted to him and serves as the anchor for his ministry. He is reminded by the bishop of what was said to him on the day of his diaconal ordination when the Book of Gospels was placed in his hands, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
The priest is never to forget that he is entrusted with the Gospel of Christ. He is not the Master but the steward. He does not teach his own ideas or a philosophy that he has invented or prefers; he does not speak of himself or for himself, to gain popularity, fortune or fame. He does not say his own thing. Being configured to Christ, he teaches in the name of Christ. He proposes the truth that is Christ himself, His word and His way of living who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. (John 14:6)
The priest’s life is to be completely identified with Christ the Head and High Priest and, in this manner, the Word that is not his own becomes a profoundly personal word. He accepts and seeks to live, as his own, all that the Lord Jesus taught and that the Church has passed on and incorporated into his own priestly ministry. The people of God want, need and have a right to hear from their priest the genuine Word of God and ecclesial doctrine through which they can renew their encounter with Christ who says, Follow Me.
In Persona Christi…
Saint John Vianney, the patron saint of priests, understood the irreplaceable role of the priest and who he is:
O how great is the priest! If he realized what he is he would die… God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from Heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host. Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in the tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for the journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest—always the priest. And if the soul should happen to die (as a result of sin) who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest. After God, the priest is everything. Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.
Rightfully, we look to our priests in their irreplaceable role in the service of Life and Family for assurance, moral guidance and leadership. It is no secret that priests too suffer in the struggle to live authentic discipleship. They, like the people they serve, are assaulted by a secular and violent culture determined to silence their influence and voice, especially in the West and de-Christianized countries.
I recall the words of a priest I recently met during an HLI conference, “Father, you would not believe the amount of hate mail and verbal abuse I receive when I preach Church teaching on Life and Family, particularly on contraception, fornication and homosexuality.” His experience is not uncommon and causes many priests [bishops] to shy away from addressing these issues. However difficult it may be, the priest is never excused of his role and duty to preach Christ and be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient. (2 Timothy 4:2) In the person of Christ, the priest makes present, in the confusion and bewilderment of our times, the light of God’s Word, the light that is Christ who said, I am with you always, until the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20) It does, however, help us better understand the challenges our shepherds face in the current global climate and pray far more earnestly for them.
Behold the Lamb of God
At the end of his encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI calls upon priests to fulfill their duty as pastors of souls by assisting married couples through authentic ecclesial doctrine:
And now, beloved sons, you who are priests, you who in virtue of your sacred office act as counselors and spiritual leaders both of individual men and women and of families—We turn to you filled with great confidence. For it is your principal duty—We are speaking especially to you who teach moral theology—to spell out clearly and completely the Church’s teaching on marriage. In the performance of your ministry you must be the first to give an example of that sincere obedience, inward as well as outward, which is due to the magisterium of the Church. — ¶28
Pope Paul VI reminds priests in every age that, through their ordination, they have received the charism of teaching and preaching. They should not be afraid to proclaim the truth of God’s plan for human love with firm but gentle clarity. In obedience to Truth and its proclamation, the priest helps liberate his flock (couples) from the false doctrines and philosophies that confuse them. Pastoral charity does not mean being silent in face of sin or error. The priest must be courageous in unmasking the language of our day, which disguises immorality, calling evil good and good evil. Christ never flinched from re-orienting souls toward truth and obedience to the Father’s will. As ministers in His name, a priest motivated by love should have the same fervor and zeal. Jesus exposed the lies, helping souls to see with clarity Truth and the demands of living the Christian life – in persona Christi, the priest does the same.
Pope Paul VI also reminds priests of their attitude and posture toward married couples, “Husbands and wives, therefore, when deeply distressed by reason of the difficulties of their life, must find stamped in the heart and voice of their priest the likeness of the voice and the love of our Redeemer.” — HV, ¶29
The priest, living his vocation and fulfilling the promise to practice what he preaches, approaches these difficult subjects and the wounded lives of his people with humility and meekness – recognizing in humility his own woundedness and daily need of the Lord’s grace, healing and mercy. From this vantage point, he patiently offers insight and understanding appropriate to the situation(s) and person(s). Perhaps the most important point he must get across is that the Church has an eminently positive approach to human love, sexuality and marriage.
Many within the Church have become disillusioned with the world and the situation of the Church, especially within de-Christianized environments. They feel there is no way to recapture the ground lost, so they compromise and tolerate evil. This is not our response. Like Jesus, we (priests) are to re-orient people toward Truth. The priest, a man configured to Christ, is the fulcrum being used to enliven the souls of the faithful and to enkindle hope and courage in the face of their struggles and know that grace abounds. The answer is not to turn away from Christ, but to turn toward Him – the Lamb of God.