In an often personal letter to the world’s seminarians, Pope Benedict XVI said the recently surfaced scandals of priest sexual abuse “cannot discredit the priestly mission, which remains great and pure.”
His letter to men training for the priesthood was issued Oct. 18 to mark the close of the special “Year for Priests,” that ended in June.
The Pope compared the “difficult times” of today with the climate in the final months of Nazi regime in Germany when he was a young man. He recalled that when he was drafted for military service in December 1944, the commander asked him about his plans for the future.
“I answered that I wanted to become a Catholic priest,” the Pope said. “The lieutenant replied, ‘Then you ought to look for something else. In the new Germany priests are no longer needed.’”
The Pope said he knew then, just months before Hitler’s death and the Nazi surrender, that after “the enormous devastation which that madness had brought upon the country, priests would be needed more than ever.”
Today too, he said, men studying for the priesthood face skepticism that their ministry is no longer needed in a new age “marked by technical mastery of the world and globalization.”
For many, “the Catholic priesthood is not a 'job' for the future, but one that belongs more to the past,” he said.
But that is not true, Pope Benedict said. “You have done a good thing,” in entering seminary, he told the future priests.
“Because people will always have need of God … They will always need the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, the God who gathers us together in the universal Church in order to learn with him and through him life’s true meaning and in order to uphold and apply the standards of true humanity.”
The Pope’s letter included a detailed and often personal exhortation to seminarians on the role of the priesthood and the spiritual maturity that it requires.
The priest must first and foremost be a “man of God,” who is willing to grow in self-knowledge and “humility” through prayer, the Pope said. He encouraged the seminarians to cultivate an “inner closeness” with Jesus through the sacraments, especially the sacrament of Penance.
This sacrament is vitally important to the spiritual formation of priests, he said.
“It teaches me to see myself as God sees me, and it forces me to be honest with myself …” the Pope said. “Moreover, by letting myself be forgiven, I learn to forgive others. In recognizing my own weakness, I grow more tolerant and understanding of the failings of my neighbor.”
The Pope also urged seminarians to foster “the right balance of heart and mind, reason and feeling, body and soul, and to be humanly integrated.”
“This also involves the integration of sexuality into the whole personality,” he said. “Sexuality is a gift of the Creator yet it is also a task which relates to a person’s growth towards human maturity. When it is not integrated within the person, sexuality becomes banal and destructive.”
“Recently we have seen with great dismay that some priests disfigured their ministry by sexually abusing children and young people,” the Pope added. “Instead of guiding people to greater human maturity and setting them an example, their abusive behavior caused great damage for which we feel profound shame and regret.”
“Yet even the most reprehensible abuse cannot discredit the priestly mission,” Pope Benedict stressed, “which remains great and pure.”