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By Most Rev. Joseph Strickland, The Wanderer, October 5, 2020
(Republished with permission of Mr. Joe Matt, The Wanderer)
In its teaching on the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1536).
And, as a bishop, citing Lumen Gentium n. 21, the Catechism further explains that the Second Vatican Council “teaches…that the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders is conferred by episcopal consecration, that fullness namely which, both in the liturgical tradition of the Church and the language of the Fathers of the Church, is called the high priesthood, the acme (summa) of the sacred ministry” (CCC, n. 1557).
As I live out my vocation, I increasingly realize both how unworthy I am — and how serious the task entrusted to me truly is. I am a successor of the apostles. The mere thought draws me to my knees. But it also challenges me to discharge my duties, which is only possible by grace, with all the energy and excellence I can offer to the Lord.
The faithful belong to Jesus Christ. He is the Good Shepherd. He is the High Priest. I am but a servant. As the years pass I am increasingly mindful of the sobering words of Jesus found in the Gospel of St. Luke after He taught the disciples about the faithful and unfaithful servant, “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).
With the reception of each degree of Holy Orders I was called to teach and to preach the Gospel, the Good News — in its fullness, without compromise. As a newly ordained deacon, I knelt before the bishop. He placed the Book of the Gospels in my hands saying, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
One of the Promises of the Elect I made when I was ordained to the Holy Priesthood was my firm response to the ordaining bishop when he asked me, “Do you resolve to exercise the ministry of the word worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith?” I said, “I do.”
One of the Promises of the Elect I made when I was ordained a bishop was a firm response to this question, posed by my ordaining cardinal: “Do you resolve to preach the Gospel of Christ with constancy and fidelity?” I responded, “I do.”
I regularly examine myself to see whether I am fulfilling this duty. Before He ascended to the Father, Jesus Christ, who is Himself the Good News, charged His disciples with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
This charge from Jesus is called the Great Commission. But, it is too often a great omission. Sadly, if we asked the faithful how many homilies they have heard which proclaimed and explained the Gospel, we might be surprised. Yet, that is the task of every cleric — to preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to recover the truth that the Church is missionary by nature.
On the third of December in the Catholic liturgical calendar, we remember the great evangelizing disciple of Jesus Christ and follower of St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier. His missionary voyages to Japan and to India continue to bear extraordinary fruit centuries later as we witness the courageous witness of the Christians of our day in both lands.
What this age needs, more than anything else, is genuine, life-changing conversion to Jesus Christ. That is, to enter the kind of intimate personal communion with the Risen Lord Jesus which motivated St. Francis Xavier to preach the Gospel without compromise. It was a fire which burned within him. So, it should be the fire which burns within every member of the clergy. In a letter St. Francis Xavier wrote to St. Ignatius Loyola, we read of his passion for evangelizing the whole world:
“Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: There is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: ‘What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of Heaven and falling into Hell, thanks to you!’”
I wonder, even among some of my fellow bishops, whether the salvation of souls is still our top priority? Sadly, there even seems to be a question in some clergy circles as to whether Hell actually exists. So, what are we preaching and teaching? Is it really the Gospel which we pledged to preach at our Ordination?
On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1975, Pope St. Paul VI issued an apostolic exhortation entitled Evangelization in the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi). In one of the often-quoted passages of this great letter we read these crucial words: “There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.
“The history of the Church, from the discourse of Peter on the morning of Pentecost onward, has been intermingled and identified with the history of this proclamation. At every new phase of human history, the Church, constantly gripped by the desire to evangelize, has but one preoccupation: Whom to send to proclaim the mystery of Jesus?
“In what way is this mystery to be proclaimed? How can one ensure that it will resound and reach all those who should hear it? This proclamation — kerygma, preaching, or catechesis — occupies such an important place in evangelization that it has often become synonymous with it; and yet it is only one aspect of evangelization.
“In fact, the proclamation only reaches full development when it is listened to, accepted, and assimilated, and when it arouses a genuine adherence in the one who has thus received it. An adherence to the truths which the Lord in His mercy has revealed; still more, an adherence to a program of life — a life henceforth transformed — which He proposes. In a word, adherence to the kingdom, that is to say, to the ‘new world,’ to the new state of things, to the new manner of being, of living, of living in community, which the Gospel inaugurates.
“Such an adherence, which cannot remain abstract and un-incarnated, reveals itself concretely by a visible entry into a community of believers. Thus, those whose life has been transformed enter a community which is itself a sign of transformation, a sign of newness of life: it is the Church, the visible sacrament of salvation.
“Our entry into the ecclesial community will in its turn be expressed through many other signs which prolong and unfold the sign of the Church. In the dynamism of evangelization, a person who accepts the Church as the Word which saves [n. 54] normally translates it into the following sacramental acts: adherence to the Church, and acceptance of the sacraments, which manifest and support this adherence through the grace which they confer.
“Finally, the person who has been evangelized goes on to evangelize others. Here lies the test of truth, the touchstone of evangelization: It is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn” (nn. 22-24).
The Savior Of The World
The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus Christ is the Savior sent to us by God the Father to rescue the whole human race from sin and its consequences. The mission of the Church is to proclaim and spread this truth to the ends of the Earth through missionary activity. And, to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ, as His Mystical Body, until He returns. Regrettably, in our day, the unchangeable truth revealed by Jesus Christ is now being challenged by some errant theologians who perpetrate confusion and sow doubt in the hearts of many faithful, including some bishops, priests, and deacons.
In response to these errant theologians and the growing dangers of the creeping relativism and syncretism they spread, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prior to his pontificate as Pope Benedict XVI, issued a declaration on August 6, 2000 entitled “Dominus Iesus — Jesus is Lord — On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.”
Yet, the dark specter of errant teaching about Jesus Christ — and the nature of Salvation in Him and Him alone — is again rearing its ugly head. Dominus Iesus explains:
“The Church’s constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also de iure (or in principle).
“As a consequence, it is held that certain truths have been superseded; for example, the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, the nature of Christian faith as compared with that of belief in other religions, the inspired nature of the books of Sacred Scripture, the personal unity between the Eternal Word and Jesus of Nazareth, the unity of the economy of the Incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit, the unicity and salvific universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ, the universal salvific mediation of the Church, the inseparability — while recognizing the distinction — of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ, and the Church, and the subsistence of the one Church of Christ in the Catholic Church” (Dominus Iesus, n. 4).
There can be absolutely no question — Jesus Christ is the Savior and the Lord of all — and the Savior and Lord given for all. When the first Pope, St. Peter, and the beloved disciple John were dragged before a hostile council for preaching this Gospel, Peter did not compromise, soft sell, or water down the message (see Acts, chapter 4). Peter courageously proclaimed who Jesus was, and still is “the stone, which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11, 12).
Dominus Iesus is the unchangeable teaching of the Catholic Church. The clarity of this powerful document, along with the clarity of the entire Papal Magisterium of Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, needs to be constantly, clearly, and continually kept before us by Pope Francis as he leads the Church as the Successor of Peter. Jesus Christ is the Savior of the World. This is the very heart and core of the Gospel we are to preach and teach.
The Call Of The Clergy
The primary mission of the clergy of the Catholic Church is to save souls. We are to bring all the men and women of this world to Jesus Christ, and through the waters of Baptism, to incorporate them into the Church, which is His Mystical Body. There in the heart of the Church, they will be able to grow into His image and likeness. There, they will progress along the path to holiness by growing in Christian maturity, studying the Word of God and the teaching of the Church, and cooperating with the grace mediated through the sacraments.
Yet, this foundational truth of the Catholic faith, that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole world who was sent by the Father to save all men and women from sin and death, and that the Church is called to tell the whole world this Gospel Message, is rarely spoken of these days. Even in some Church documents, other issues seem to have replaced the priority of proclaiming this core message.
We cannot presume any longer that people, even those in the pews of our parish churches, have had an encounter with the Risen Lord which has awakened the grace of their Baptism and Confirmation — and made their Catholic Christian faith the primary influence in the entirety of their life.
Perhaps we could say, using popular terms, they may know about Jesus, but a question can be legitimately asked, do they know Jesus? Have they truly encountered Him and invited Him to be their Savior and Lord? Is He the center of their life? Have they heard and been taught the fullness of the Gospel? If not, as bishops, priests, and deacons, we are not fulfilling our Ordination promises. Clergy are called to evangelize and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.