Today, during a Mass with seminarians at the cathedral of Santa María la Real de La Almudena in Madrid, Pope Benedict announced that he will soon declare St. John of Avila a Doctor of the Church. The Holy Father said:
In making this announcement here, I would hope that the word and the example of this outstanding pastor will enlighten all priests and those who look forward to the day of their priestly ordination.
I invite everyone to look to Saint John of Avila and I commend to his intercession the Bishops of Spain and those of the whole world, as well as all priests and seminarians. As they persevere in the same faith which he taught, may they model their hearts on that of Jesus Christ the good shepherd, to whom be glory and honor for ever.
As Rocco Palmo points out, John of Avila will be the first saint to receive the title “Doctor of the Church” since Pope John Paul II bestowed it upon St. Therese of Lisieux in 1997. The formal announcement from Pope Benedict will mean that two of the last four Doctors – that is, John and Teresa of Avila, who received the title in 1970 – will have been Spanish saints.
But who exactly is this newest Doctor of the Church? And is there a reason the Pope is focusing the faithful’s attention on this saint right now?
The Catholic Encyclopedia has an overview of his life, written before his canonization in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
A more in-depth look at the saint’s life and work – and some hints as to why the Holy Father may be directing our attention toward him at this point in time – can be found in this article by Sr. Joan Gormley, originally published in 2004 in Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
Among other things, Gormley points out that John of Avila pushed vigorously for ecclesiastical and priestly reforms, starting with the screening process for candidates to the priesthood and including the quality of education given to those candidates. He also was an influential figure at the Council of Trent, and one of the architects of the seminary system for the formation and education of priests.
Gormley offers some details about St. John’s program for reform, as well as the saint’s vision for a stronger ecclesiastical and priestly culture, at a time when it had fallen into corruption and widespread disgrace:
For John of Avila, renewal of the priesthood demanded that the reality of the mystery of the priest’s conformity to Christ as the Good Shepherd and the High Priest had to be acknowledged and acted upon in the choice and formation of men for such an exalted office. The Pope and the Bishops responsible for choosing and preparing men for the priesthood had to make certain that they ordained only men worthy of handling the Eucharistic Body of the Lord and his Mystical Body, the Church. The holiness of the Church depended on the holiness of priests and without the latter the renewal of the Church could not be accomplished, even if here and there, saints would rise up.
[John] insisted that holiness of life is inherently necessary for the holy state of the priesthood and that anyone who does not possess the spiritual and intellectual capacity for this exalted state should be excluded from entering. He insisted that, before ordination, candidates undergo a rigorous program of spiritual and intellectual formation in accord with the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, and that they continue to grow in these areas after ordination. Any review of the formation and education of priests today can only profit from being so strongly reminded of the nature of the priesthood and the indispensable role of the priest in the sanctification and salvation of the members of the Church.
For more on John of Avila’s life and work, check out the full article here.
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