“Lord, I Love You”: The Vocation of the Ecclesiastical Man - St. Bernard's

“Lord, I Love You”: The Vocation of the Ecclesiastical Man

Jan 31, 2023

Fr. Aaron Kelly, Ph.L.

As the page turned from 2022 to 2023, the Church mourned the loss of two men who devoted their entire lives to the service. Confronted with the reality of the Gospel and what it means for the world and for them personally, they gave themselves entirely to the service of the Gospel. Beyond any office they held, what was primary for His Eminence George Cardinal Pell and Pope Benedict XVI was their love for God and the Church, and the deep faith and hope that accompanied that love. I think it can be said that these two men were truly “ecclesiastical men” and modeled the vocation of the ecclesiastical man, which is primarily a vocation to love.

A few years ago, when I read Henri DeLubac’s The Splendor of the Church, I was particularly struck by the seventh chapter entitled “Ecclesia Mater.” In this chapter, DeLubac explains the ecclesiastical man, the son of the Church, the title every baptized person should strive after. He writes:

[The ecclesiastical man] will not find it enough to be loyal and obedient, to perform exactly everything demanded by his profession of the Catholic faith. Such a man will have fallen in love with the beauty of the House of God; the Church will have stolen his heart. She is his spiritual native country, his “mother and his brethren,” and nothing that concerns her will leave him indifferent or detached; he will root himself in her soil, form himself in her likeness, and make himself one with her experience. He will feel himself rich with her wealth; he will be aware that through her and her alone he participates in the unshakeableness of God. It will be from her that he learns how to live and die. Far from passing judgment on her, he will allow her to judge him, and he will agree gladly to all the sacrifices demanded by her unity.[1]

The ecclesiastical man is not satisfied with obedience alone but is primarily a lover. DeLubac goes on to explain that the ecclesiastical man loves the Church in her entirety: he loves her for her past and where she has come from, but he also loves her in her present and future because he recognizes that Christ, her head, is always present to his Church. As a lover, the ecclesiastical man is also a man of hope, who with the entire community of believers “waits for the return of him whom he loves, and he does not lose sight of the fact that everything should, in the last analysis, be judged with reference to that end” (DeLubac, 256).

In this sense, both Cardinal Pell and Pope Benedict were ecclesiastical men who loved the Church in her entirety, both good and bad, out of love for Christ, her head. They also never lost sight of the fact that at the end of their lives they would have to stand before the Lord and offer an account of their life.

I had the opportunity to attend the funeral Mass of Cardinal Pell at St. Peter’s Basilica on Saturday, January 14, 2023. During the funeral Mass, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Dean of the College of Cardinals, acknowledged that it was Cardinal Pell’s faith that permitted him to endure the 400+ days he spent in prison, a period of which was in solitary confinement. Pell’s faith and confidence in God sustained him during those days, as indicated by his prison journals, now published in three volumes. In the midst of darkness, the light of faith and hope in the power of Christ prevailed. I was struck by Cardinal Pell’s reflection from Easter Sunday 2019. He writes:

The Resurrection is the culmination of the ultimate struggle between good and evil, between the Light and the powers of darkness. . . The tomb was empty, and the tomb is empty. It is because Jesus is truly risen that “the sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the might” in the words of the Exultet. . . . I was not able to prepare the Easter candle outside the cathedral affirming that all time, all ages, all glory and power belong to the (risen) Christ. . . But I knew that everywhere around Melbourne, throughout Australia, and indeed every country in the world, Christians were gathering to offer sacrifice to the Paschal Victim, life’s own Champion, who had been slain, but now once again lives to reign. Christus vincit. Christus regnat. Christus imperat.[2]

This faith in the power of Christ’s resurrection and confidence in the justice of God sustained Cardinal Pell during his darkest days. This is the sign of an ecclesiastical man. At the funeral, Cardinal Re remarked: "[Cardinal Pell was a] man of God and man of the Church characterized by a deep faith and great steadfastness of doctrine, which he always defended without hesitation and with courage, concerned only with being faithful to Christ.”

After the death of Pope Benedict XVI, much was written about his life and ministry. Often these writings focused on Joseph Ratzinger, the theologian, and his vast written corpus, as well as his role both during and after the Second Vatican Council; or they would emphasize his resignation from the Petrine office in 2013. However, the most moving tributes to Pope Benedict were from those that knew him best and emphasized his love for the Church, but most importantly his love for God, which animated all that he wrote, said, and did. One could spend volumes analyzing the work and contribution of Ratzinger, however, they can be summarized in the word “love.” Pope Benedict XVI points this out for us when he chose to begin his pontificate with the encyclical, Deus caritas est. Benedict XVI, the lover, writes:

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny…. We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.[3]

This relationship was the center of Benedict’s life. Animated by this love for Christ and his Church, Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign from the Petrine office and devote himself to a life of prayer for the Church and the world. Pope Francis, in the first Wednesday audience following the death of Pope Benedict, said of him: “His acute and gentle thought was not self-referential, but ecclesial, because he always wanted to accompany us in the encounter with Jesus. Jesus, Crucified and Risen, the Living One and the Lord, was the destination to which Pope Benedict led us, taking us by the hand.” In the end, the only thing that mattered for Pope Benedict was a relationship with Christ. Of all that he ever wrote and said, Pope Benedict’s final utterance on earth reveals it all: “Lord, I love you.” This is the mark of an ecclesiastical man.

No matter our state in life, each of us is called to be an ecclesiastical man or woman, each of us is called to be a lover. The examples of George Cardinal Pell and Pope Benedict XVI show us the importance of a life lived in love. May each of us, by God’s grace, live in such a way that in our final moments the only words that will come to our lips are: “Lord, I love you.”


[1] Henri De Lubac, The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 241-2.

[2] George Pell, Prison Journal, Vol. 1 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020), 143-5.

[3] Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, n. 1.

Fr. Aaron Kelly is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, NY. Fr. Aaron is currently pursuing a licentiate in Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University. In 2021, Fr. Aaron completed his baccalaureate in theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 2018, he earned his first licentiate in philosophy from The Catholic University of America. In his free time, Deacon Aaron enjoys reading, traveling with friends, and playing the organ.