.- In an audience this morning with bishops visiting from Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI advised them on how to respond to the lack of priests, emphasizing that the shortage cannot be solved by having lay people substitute for the clergy.
The Holy Father began his address to the Brazilian prelates by pointing out the difference between the identity of priests and the laity. While the lay faithful share in the "common priesthood," they are not ordained ministers of Christ and His Church. "Hence," the Pope cautioned, "it is important to avoid the secularization of clergy and the 'clericalization' of the laity."
Fulfilling the lay vocation, he explained, involves working to "give expression in real life - also through political commitment - to the Christian view of anthropology and the social doctrine of the Church."
On the other hand, "priests must distance themselves from politics in order to favor the unity and communion of all the faithful, thus becoming a point of reference for everyone," Benedict said.
When dioceses are faced with a lack of priests, the Pope emphasized that they should not resort to "a more active and abundant participation of the laity" since it could take away from their own calling.
"The truth is that the greater the faithful's awareness of their own responsibilities within the Church, the clearer becomes the specific identity and inimitable role of the priest as pastor of the entire community, witness to the authenticity of the faith, and dispenser of the mysteries of salvation in the name of Christ the Head," Benedict XVI stated.
"The function of the clergy is essential and irreplaceable in announcing the Word and celebrating the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist," he insisted, saying that for this reason it is "vital to ask the Lord to send workers for His harvest; and it is necessary that priests express joy in their faithfulness to their identity."
Looking to the future, the Pope made it clear that "the shortage of priests must not come to be considered as a normal or typical state of affairs."
He exhorted the bishops resolve the crisis by combining efforts to "encourage new priestly vocations and find the pastors your dioceses need, helping one another so that all of you have better-trained and more numerous priests to support the life of faith and the apostolic mission."
As the Church celebrates the Year for Priests and the 150th anniversary of the death of the "Cure of Ars," Pope Benedict pointed to the French priest as a model for priests, "especially in living a life of celibacy as a requirement for the total giving of self." This total gift of self is "expressed through that pastoral charity which Vatican Council II presents as the unifying center of a priest's being and actions," he reminded.
The Holy Father ended his address on a positive note, assuring the prelates that "many signs of hope" exist for the future of particular Churches. This future, he said is one that "God is preparing through the dedication and the faithfulness with which you exercise your episcopal ministry."