God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. (1 Jn 5:11)

Through the Birth of Jesus Who is God the Son conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, God the Father has indeed given us a share in His own divine life; He has chosen us as His beloved sons and daughters, without boundary, even as He manifested His unconditional love of all men through His manifestation to the Three Kings.

During the Year for Priests, our thoughts turn, in a special way, to the significance of the Nativity and Epiphany of the Lord for those called to be configured to Christ, “head of His Body, Shepherd of His flock, High Priest of the Redemptive Sacrifice, Teacher of Truth.”{{1}} [[1]]Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1548.[[1]] By the grace given in priestly ordination, the priest truly acts “in the person of Christ the Head” (in persona Christi Capitis). Contemplating the image of the Infant Saviour and of His manifestation to the Three Kings, we come to understand what it means to be a priest. The priest, like the Infant Jesus, God the Son made man, is called to empty himself totally for the sake of saving all souls, without limit and without cease. Contemplating the mystery of the Redemptive Incarnation, we come to understand that, if the priest is to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice for the salvation of the world, if he is to forgive man’s sins in the Sacrament of Penance; if, in short, he is to act in the person of Christ, then he must first be made “another Christ”. His whole being must be marked by God with the indelible character of Christ the High Priest, so that he may belong totally to Christ in the exercise of the Shepherd’s love of all men, in the exercise of pastoral charity.

Saint Jean Marie Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, the 150th anniversary of whose death we are celebrating by observing the Year for Priests, declared that we will only understand well the priest in Heaven and that, if we understood him on earth we would die, not of fright, but of love (“Le prêtre ne se comprendra bien que dans le ciel. Si on le comprenait sur la terre, on mourrait non de frayeur mais d’amour.”{{2}} [[2]]A. Monnin, Esprit du Curé d’Ars, Saint J.-B.-M. Vianney dans ses Catéchismes, ses Homélies et sa Conversation: Librairie Pierre Téqui, Paris, 2007, p. 97.[[2]] He taught about the priesthood with these words:

All of the other benefits of God would be of no good to us at all without the priest. Of what good would be a house full of gold, if you would have no one who could open the door for you? The priest holds the key of the heavenly treasures; it is he who opens the door. He is the steward of the Good God, the dispenser of His goods.

(Les autres bienfaits de Dieu ne nous serviraient de rien sans le prêtre. À quoi servirait une maison remplie d’or, si vous n’aviez personne pour vous ourvir la porte? Le prêtre a la clef des trésors célestes: c’est lui qui ouvre la porte; il est l’économe du Bon Dieu, l’administrateur de ses biens.){{3}}[[3]]Ibid., p. 88[[3]]

One only understands the ordained priesthood in the light of the total humility of the Infant Jesus, God the Son giving Himself totally to the salvific will of the Father. To the degree that the seminarian empties himself of himself in response to the call of Christ, he is disposed to receive the grace of priestly ordination. To the degree that the priest continues to empty himself of himself, as the humble steward of divine graces, he fulfills faithfully and generously the call of Christ. The Year for Priests is a time of grace for the whole Church. For priests, it is a particular time to recognise anew the tremendous grace of ordination, the great gift of a life given completely to Christ the High Priest for the shepherding of the flock.

Celebrating Mass at the Basilica of Saint Peter, at the altar of the Chair of Saint Peter, we are deeply conscious of the unbroken line of apostolic succession by which the grace of priesthood is conferred by Christ Himself through the hands of a successor of the Apostles. In a particular way, we reflect upon the grace of proclaiming the truth of faith – taught, safeguarded and sustained by the Chair of Peter – which is given to the Bishops, in communion with the Roman Pontiff, and the priests, their coworkers. Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, in his address at the General Audience following the inauguration of the Year for Priests on the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, reflected upon the priesthood in the light of the mystery of the Incarnation, which we celebrate with greatest joy in these days. Regarding the priest’s proclamation of the Word of God, he declared:

As an alter Christus, the priest is profoundly united to the Word of the Father who, in becoming incarnate took the form of a servant, he became a servant (Phil 2:5-11). The priest is a servant of Christ, in the sense that his existence, configured to Christ ontologically, acquires an essentially relational character: he is in Christ, for Christ and with Christ, at the service of humankind.

Because he belongs to Christ, the priest is radically at the service of all people: he is the minister of their salvation, their happiness and their authentic liberation, developing, in this gradual assumption of Christ’s will, in prayer, in “being heart to heart” with him. Therefore this is the indispensable condition for every proclamation, which entails participation in the sacramental offering of the Eucharist and docile obedience to the Church.{{4}}[[4]]Benedict XVI, L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 1 July 2009, p. 11.[[4]]

As we contemplate the mystery of the Birth of our Lord and of His Epiphany, may we come to a deeper knowledge and love of the irreplaceable ministry of the ordained priest in our lives. May we come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the essential priestly ministry of proclaiming the truth.

May our celebration of Christmas and Epiphany inspire us to be renewed in our daily prayer for priests, so that they may be of one heart with the Heart of Jesus, the Most Sacred Heart which he received under the Immaculate Heart of Mary and which was pierced by the Roman soldier’s spear after His death on the Cross, the glorious pierced Heart of Jesus from which the bounty of God’s love for us in the Church flows immeasurably and unceasingly. May we pray especially for priests in our time, that they may preach and teach from the Heart of Jesus, with deepest respect for the truth and with courage in the face of misunderstanding and rejection.

Celebrating, dear brothers, our priestly vocation and mission during these days of Christmas and the Epiphany, you are witnesses, in a pre-eminent way, to the truth that God has indeed fulfilled the promise which he made to our ancestors in the faith, the promise of eternal salvation through the outpouring of His life for us and for all men.

May the offering of the Holy Mass, today, fill you with new enthusiasm and new energy in responding to your vocation and mission in Christ Head and Shepherd of the flock in every time and place. May it strengthen you, in a special way, for your mission of proclaiming the truth of the Gospel with wisdom and courage. We contemplate the mystery of Redemptive Incarnation in the Birth and Epiphany of the Lord in time. We contemplate the mystery in our Lord’s abiding presence with us in the Sacrament of His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. May the celebration of the mystery of the Birth and Epiphany of the Lord fill us today and always with deepest trust in God’s promise of salvation. May it fill us now and always with joy and peace in the company of Christ Who dwells with us in the Church, Who gives Himself to us through the ministry of His priests.

Heart of Jesus, formed by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, have mercy on us.

Holy Mother of God, pray for us.

Saint Joseph, Foster-father of the Son of God, pray for us.

Saint Jean Marie Vianney, pray for us.

His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke is Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. He delivered this homily at a conference Mass in the Ordinary Form at the Altar of the Chair in St Peter’s Basilica on Friday 8 January 2010.