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The Mission and Vocation of the Priest According to St. Vincent de Paul

The Ministerial Priesthood according to St. Vincent

 The word which St. Vincent uses to define the priest is “instrument”: “God has sent out priests as he sent his son for the salvation of souls.”[1]  “We are used for this like instruments through which the Son of God continues throughout all time to do from heaven what he has done during his life on earth.”[2]

This “instrument” of Jesus Christ is by no means inert, interchangeable, irresponsible.  It is an instrument chosen by the Lord and intended by him to be intelligent, free, responsible.  And Vincent was to stress that “priests are irreplaceable in their role with the souls to whom God has given them.”[3]

He becomes more explicit: “We have been chosen by God as instrument of his boundless charity which to establish it in hearts and with it to dilate souls… Our vocation therefore is to enflame the hearts of men, to do what the Son of God has done, he who came to cast fire on the earth….  It is true then that I have been sent not only to love God but to procure that he be loved.  It is not enough that I love God if my neighbour does not also love him”.[4]

The condition required for being an instrument of Jesus Christ?  To put oneself, like Christ, into the hand of God, to be intimately united with him in the course of pastoral action.  This docility in order to remain constant needs to be kept disciplined relentlessly and daily at Mass.  Through the celebration of the Eucharist and communion we are located at the heart of the Covenant with the Lord who was obedient unto death through love of us and for our salvation.

Without this docility, without this obedience, the priest fails in his mission which is to “make” the Eucharistic Body of Christ by the consecration, and the Mystical Body by animation.

Priestly spirituality and sanctification result from these two inseparable aspects.  So much so that according to St. Vincent the way to priestly sanctity, and the example they must follow, is not so much Christ Evangeliser of the Poor but Christ the Priest.  Priests must be conformed to him, imitating his religious attitude towards his Father and his charity towards people.[5]  Here can be seen the influence of Bérulle who links adoration and mission; but also and especially St. Vincent’s meditation on the Mass.  At the very beginning of the eucharistic prayer the priest invites the faithful to be united in their prayers as they offer the sacrifice of the whole Church.  The response of the faithful is: “For the glory of God and the salvation of the world.”

Mission and charity are at the heart of the prayer and the life of priests as they are at the heart of the sacrifice of the Unique High Priest, Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd.

Conclusion

It is with Baptism as its basis that St. Vincent founds the mission.  Brothers, priests, Daughters of Charity, laity in the confraternities and others are through baptism rooted in the life of God and are called to follow Jesus Christ.

It is from Christ the High Priest for the “making,” by the consecration of his eucharistic body and the up-building of his mystical body that St. Vincent sees the fulfilment of the ordained priest’s baptismal vocation.  The way in which the priest must put on Jesus Christ is to conform his life to that of Christ who is totally given over to God, and totally given over to people.  St. Vincent stressed the redemptive aspect of the incarnation and hence the presbyteral priesthood.

Priests are therefore, in the midst of the baptised “the instruments through whom the Son of God continues to carry out from heaven throughout every century what he himself has done on earth during his life.”[6]  In that capacity they unite mission and charity.  It is a matter of extending the kingdom of Christ, of broadening it, of thinking out and living out the Gospel on a worldwide scale.[7]

I now have a better understanding why the Christian Confession of Faith (our Creed) moves from the incarnation of Jesus to his redemptive sacrifice.  I also understand Peter who finds the mystery of the cross a stumbling block.  The Church — a mother who teaches joy and hope to the world — has given us an identity sign for both the mystery of God’s “inventive” love and of our vocation and mission: the Sign of the Cross.

The Sign of the Cross: which is a gesture and a prayer.

 – A gesture: I trace over myself the Sign of the Cross from the forehead to the breast, from one shoulder to the other. I associate my body with an action which is an affirmation and at the same time a message.  An affirmation of what I am and a message which signifies this.  I affirm publicly, because physically, that I am a Christian.  My body, my life, “me” understood in all their dimensions.

This sign is also the recalling of the cross of Jesus.  It is the first sign which was traced on me as I entered the Church at my baptism.  I mark myself thus because I have been marked.  The Cross is the sign par excellence of the redemptive Incarnation.

This Sign of the Cross is inscribed onto time and space.  It comes down from the Christians of the early Church.  It has been transmitted to me.  Today it is actualised in the space where I live. It has a spatial symbolism.  I trace on myself the sign of the Cross, on me who am situated in the world of today.  It indicates the North, the South, the East and the West.  It reminds me of the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of my being.  It takes hold of my person, my individual existence with persons and the existences of all my fellow men in a “cosmic” totality.  I belong, as is indicated by the four cardinal points, to the universe, to creation; I affirm myself along with all the other brothers as an actor in their creation for its integral development right to its ultimate destiny.  Without a word being spoken I am already proclaiming the universality of  salvation which is acquired in Jesus Christ.

A word: I make the Sign of the Cross while pronouncing these words: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”  Thus I inscribe on myself the sign of Christ with a trinitarian formula which leads me into the very mystery of God.  I am held into this mystery of God as I affirm his Unity of Nature and Trinity of Persons.  I proclaim that I belong to the one God in three persons.  Christian Faith is trinitarian.  My vocation is therefore divine.  I am inserted into the divine milieu.  This profession of faith indicates both that I am created in the image and likeness of God but also thanks to Jesus Christ, eternal Son of God, my human condition, marked by death, takes on a God-like condition.  I become, says Paul, son in the Son.  I am with Christ in Christ, through the Christ who is the bearer of this mystery of God among my brothers.

– A gestured prayer:  The Sign of the Cross is a prayer of body and spirit.  I associate my body in my profession of faith.  I believe with all my being.  I affirm physically my adherence to the mystery of God.  Paul stated it very well in his letter to the Christians of Ephesus:  “Kneeling before the Father… in the abundance of his glory may he through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner self, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith and then planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; so that knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.”[8]  Might I make bold to say that Paul is expressing a trinitarian theology (the mystery of the love of God) with a spacial geometry?  St. Vincent says to the sisters “they are gathered in the name of the Most Holy Trinity to honour Our Lord and serve him in the person of the poor.  For Our Lord is the perfect expression of the love relationship which God is.  To the missionaries, brothers and priests, he said:

“We have been chosen by God as instruments of his boundless charity, to establish it in hearts, and with it to dilate souls… Our vocation therefore is to go…. through the entire earth… to inflame the hearts of men, to do what the Son of God has done….”[9]  To the priests he recalls: “There is nothing greater than a priest, to whom he has given full power over both his individual and mystical Body, the power of forgiving sins.”

The Spirit of the Father and of the Son consecrates us to adoration and to mission for the glory of God and the salvation of the world, most of all the poor.  Great is this mystery of Faith!

Abstract published in Vincentiana 2000-03-03

by Raymond Facelina C.M

(STANISLAUS BRINDLEY, C.M., translator)

Complete Article

[1] SV VIII, 33; Letter 2910, CCD 8, 41.

[2]  SV XII, 80.

[3]  SV XI, 134.

[4] Cf SV XII, 262; Conference 207 Charity (30 May 1659),  Burns, Oates, Washbourne, 160-1.

[5] Cf. Abelly, III, VIII, 72

[6] Cf. SV XII, 80.

[7] Frederick Ozanam in the 19th century yearned to see the world embraced in a network of charity.

[8] Cf  Eph 3:14-19.

[9] Cf SV XII, 262; Conference 207 Charity (30 May 1659); Burns, Oates, Washbourne, 160-161. Cf. Jacques Delarue, L’ideal missionnaire du prêtre, d’après Saint Vincent de Paul, Paris 1946;  Cf. Jean Piérre Renouard, Prier 15 jours avec Saint Vincent de Paul, Paris, Nouvelle Cité.

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