Pope Benedict XVI: Year for Priests helped the Church to grow in gratitude for the gift of the priesthood • Comment: The past year has lifted the morale of the priesthood • In pictures: Archbishop Nichols solemnly closes the Year of Priests

Pope Benedict XVI has said the Year for Priests helped the Church to grow in gratitude for the gift of the priesthood despite the clerical abuse crisis.

During the three-day conference of clergy marking the end of the year in Rome, the Pope repeatedly called the priesthood a gift. Begging forgiveness from God for the “sins of priests”, an allusion to the crisis which has rocked the Church this year, Pope Benedict stressed the importance of the priesthood, saying that this was a “summons to purification”.

Over 15,000 clergy gathered in St Peter’s for the Mass on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the end of the Year for Priests, making it the largest gathering of clergy in history. Pope Benedict told them that the “enemy” – a euphemism for the Devil – would have found “this new radiance of the priesthood” displeasing and “would have rather preferred to see it disappear, so that God would ultimately be driven out of the world”.

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He said: “And so it happened that, in this very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light – particularly the abuse of the little ones, in which the priesthood, whose task is to manifest God’s concern for our good, turns into its very opposite.

“We too insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again; and that in admitting men to priestly ministry and in their formation we will do everything we can to weigh the authenticity of their vocation and make every effort to accompany priests along their journey, so that the Lord will protect them and watch over them in troubled situations and amid life’s dangers.”

If the Year for Priests had “been a glorification of our individual human performance, it would have been ruined by these events”, the Pope said.

Instead the opposite happened, he said. “We grew in gratitude for God’s gift, a gift concealed in ‘earthen vessels’ which ever anew, even amid human weakness, makes his love concretely present in this world.

“So let us look upon all that happened as a summons to purification, as a task which we bring to the future and which makes us acknowledge and love all the more the great gift we have received from God. In this way, his gift becomes a commitment to respond to God’s courage and humility by our own courage and our own humility.”

Pope Benedict spoke about God’s audacity in entrusting “himself to human beings”. Conscious of our weaknesses, God nonetheless considered men capable of acting and being present in his stead. This audacity of God, the Pope said, is the true grandeur concealed in the word “priesthood”.

“That God thinks that we are capable of this; that in this way he calls men to his service and thus from within binds himself to them: this is what we wanted to reflect upon and appreciate anew over the course of the past year. We wanted to reawaken our joy at how close God is to us, and our gratitude for the fact that he entrusts himself to our infirmities; that he guides and sustains us daily.”

Drawing on the notion of the priest acting as a shepherd whose staff can be used both as a rod and as a staff, he suggested that using the rod – being strict in some cases – could actually be “a service of love”.

Pope Benedict said: “Today we can see that it has nothing to do with love when conduct unworthy of the priestly life is tolerated. Nor does it have to do with love if heresy is allowed to spread and the faith twisted and chipped away, as if it were something that we ourselves had invented.”

On Monday, the Pope again assessed the Year for Priests, thanking God for “all the good things that have come to the universal Church this year”.

He said “no one could ever measure them but certainly they see them and still more they will see their fruits.

“So today I would like to give thanks to God for all the good things that have come to the universal Church this year. No one could ever measure them but certainly they see them and still more they will see their fruits.”

Echoing the Pope’s words during a closing Mass for the Year for Priests in Westminster Cathedral last Friday Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster spoke about the clerical abuse scandals which came to the fore during the Year for Priests, he said that it had been a tumultuous time for priests.

“Rarely has such public attention been given to our failings – we priests and bishops – particularly our failures to ensure the safety of children in our care in past years,” he said. “We acknowledge these failures, with realism, without exaggeration, and with recognition of the depth of damage done by, in Pope Benedict’s phrase, ‘the sin within the Church.’ We keep those who have suffered always in our thoughts and prayers.”

The bishops had called for Fridays in May to be dedicated to prayer of reparation and penance for the sin of clerical abuse of children and Archbishop Nichols thanked all those who had taken part in the prayers.

Simplicity, honesty and joy, he said, were the core values to which priests needed to return. “Among the lessons we learn from these months and from the years past which are casting their shadow is the importance of all of us, and especially us priests, living afresh our ‘core values’,” he said.

Later he thanked God for the gift of the priesthood and thanked the faithful present for their prayers and practical support while bearing the “burden of public criticism and not a little mockery”.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor celebrated the close of the Year for Priests at the seminary at Maynooth, near Dublin.

He said: “Some have spoken of this time as the ‘dark night’ of the Church in Ireland. Yet, painful though the dark night is, we know it is also a time of learning; a time of purifying and of trusting. In the dark night, all we have is our faith that God has not abandoned us.”

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