The Lord continues to send priests to serve in his Church. The latest figures from the Vatican Yearbook show a slight increase in 2009 over the 2008 figures worldwide for candidates to the priesthood, and the whole period from 2000 onwards is also one of stability, with a slight increase in numbers. Globally, also, the percentage of the world population who are Catholic continues to rise (it now stands at 17.4%). We can praise God for this, not because we are interested in numbers for their own sake, but because each number represents a person, precious to the Father. What, then, is a priest? The answer was given to us existentially by St Maximilian Kolbe. When this friar martyr of Auschwitz was asked why he wished to take the place of a Polish father and husband, Francis Gajowniczek, in the punishment bunkers where camp inmates were starved to death, Maximilian Kolbe gave only one reason: ‘I am a Catholic priest’. Pope Paul VI called this an ‘incomparable’ response. The response came, he said, ‘from a heart trained to give itself’. And is not a Catholic priest, Pope Paul asks, a ‘second Christ’, who is the redeeming Victim of mankind? ‘What a glory it is for us priests, and what a lesson…to find such a splendid exemplification of our consecration and of our mission!’ Maximilian Kolbe provides us with an outstanding manifestation of the very heart of Catholic priesthood.
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