ZENIT: Who are the priests in this Catholic Church and what is their role?
Cardinal Piacenza: They are not social workers and even less are they functionaries of God! The identity crisis is especially acute in the more secularized contexts in which it seems that there is no space for God. But priests are what they have always been; they are always what Christ wanted them to be! The priestly identity is Christocentric and therefore Eucharistic. It is Christocentric because, as the Holy Father has recalled many times, in the ministerial priesthood "Christ draws us into himself," involving himself with us and involving us in his own existence. This "real" attraction happens sacramentally, and so in an objective and unsurpassable manner, in the Eucharist -- of which priests are ministers, that is servants and effective instruments.
ZENIT: But is the law of celibacy so absolute? Can it really not be changed?
Cardinal Piacenza: It is not a mere law! The law is the consequence of a much higher reality that is grasped only in a living relationship with Christ. Jesus says: "He who understands, must understand." Holy celibacy is never something to progress beyond, rather it is always new, in the sense that, even through it, the life of the priest is "renewed," because it is always given, in a fidelity that has its root in God and its fruition in the blossoming of human freedom.
The true problem is in the contemporary inability to make definitive choices, in the dramatic reduction of human freedom that has become so fragile as not to pursue the good, not even when it is recognized and intuited as a possibility for one's own existence. Celibacy is not the problem, nor can the infidelity and weakness of certain priests be the criterion of judgment. Statistics tell us that more than 40% of marriages fail. But 2% of priests fail in celibacy, so the solution would not be in making holy celibacy optional. Should we not instead stop interpreting freedom as the "absence of ties" and of definitiveness, and begin to discover that the true realization of human felicity consists precisely in the definitiveness of the gift to the other and to God?
ZENIT: What about vocations? Would they not increase if celibacy were abolished?
Cardinal Piacenza: No! The Christian confessions in which, because there is no ordained priesthood, there is no doctrine and discipline of celibacy, find themselves in a state of deep crisis regarding "vocations" to the leadership of the community. There is also a crisis in the sacrament of marriage as one and indissoluble.
The crisis from which, in reality, we are slowly emerging, is linked, fundamentally, to the crisis of faith in the West. It is in making faith grow that we must be engaged. This is the point. In the same spheres the sanctification of the feast is in crisis, confession is in crisis, marriage is in crisis, etc…
Secularization and the consequent loss of the sense of the sacred, of faith and its practice have brought about and continue to bring about a diminution in the number of candidates to the priesthood. Along with these distinctively theological and ecclesial causes, there are also some of a sociological character: first of all, the evident decline in births, with the consequent diminution in the number of young men and, thus, also of priestly vocations. This too is a factor that cannot be ignored. Everything is connected. Sometimes the premises are laid down and then one does not want to accept the consequences, but these are inevitable.
The first and undeniable remedy for the drop in vocations Jesus himself suggested: "Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send workers into the harvest" (Matthew 9:38). This is the realism of pastoral work in vocations. Prayer for vocations, an intense, universal, widespread network of prayer and Eucharistic adoration that envelops the whole world, is the only possible answer to the crisis of the acceptance of vocations. Wherever such a prayerful attitude has a stable existence, one sees that a real turnaround is occurring. It is fundamental to watch over the identity and specificity in ecclesial life of priests, religious (in the uniqueness of the foundational charisms of the order to which they belong) and faithful laity, so that each may truly, in freedom, understand and welcome the vocation that God has in mind for him. But everyone must be himself and must work every day more and more to become what he is.
ZENIT: Your Eminence, in this moment in history how would you sum things up?
Cardinal Piacenza: Our project must not be to stay afloat at all costs, to desire the applause of public opinion: We must only serve our neighbor, whoever he is, out of love and with the love of our God, remembering that only Jesus is the Savior. We must let him pass, speak, act through our poor persons and our daily work. We must not put ourselves forward but him. We must not be frightened in the face of situations, not even the worst. The Lord is also aboard the Barque of Peter even if he seems to be sleeping; he is here! We must act with energy, as if everything depended on us but with the peace of those who know that everything depends on the Lord. Therefore, we must remember that the name of love in time is "fidelity"!
The believer knows that He is the Way, the Truth, the Life and not just "a" way, "a" truth, "a" life. This is why the key to the mission in our society is in the courage of truth at the cost of insults and scorn; it is this courage that is one with love, with pastoral charity, which must be recovered and that makes the Christian vocation more attractive today than ever. I would like to cite the words in which the Council of the Evangelical Church summed up its program in Stuttgart in 1945: "To proclaim with more courage, to pray with more confidence, to believe with more joy, to love with more passion."
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]