Jubilee Year for Priests
by Thomas J McGovern
Earlier this year (16 March) Pope Benedict XVI announced a Jubilee Year for priests, beginning on 19 June, the 150th anniversary of the death of the Cure of Ars, and coinciding with the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. The purpose of this special year is ‘to make the role and the mission of the priest in the Church and in contemporary society better known’. In this article I propose to outline some of the key elements in the mission of the priest which I hope will help priests grow in their appreciation of their vocation in this jubilee year.
The documents of Vatican II developed and enriched the concept of priesthood articulated by Trent. This counter-Reformation council defines the essence of the priesthood of the New Testament as the power of consecrating and offering the body and blood of Christ, and the power of forgiving sins. In response to the Lutheran view that the priesthood consisted essentially in preaching, Trent insisted that it could not be reduced to this ministry alone. While the preaching and pastoral roles are implicit in the decrees of Trent, Vatican II made them explicit, thereby recovering for the Church a more scripturally grounded concept of priesthood.
The dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, expressed its vision of ministerial priesthood within the context of the mission of the whole People of God which is carried out through a sharing in the office and mission of Christ. The role of the priest has a triple dimension – a participation in the mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King. It is not a question of three different functions, but of different aspects of the one mission of Christ which are closely linked, and which clarify and condition one another. As a consequence of Baptism all the faithful share in the mission of Christ. However, some members of the People of God, firstly as baptized Christians, and subsequently as priests through the sacrament of Order, witness to Christ in a special way in the Church and before the world.
The discussion of priesthood in the Vatican II decree, Presbyterorum ordinis, is carried out in the light of the rich ecclesiology developed in Lumen gentium. The first chapter of the decree describes the meaning of priesthood in the mission of the Church, and the way the priest is most effectively present in the world in the ordinary lives of the faithful. The decree emphasizes the fact that the priest, as a consequence of sacramental ordination, is a consecrated person who shares in the ministerial priesthood of Christ. By his sacrificial death Christ consecrated both himself and those whom he commanded to renew his sacrifice: ‘For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth’ (Jn 17:19).
Vatican II texts emphasize that consecration is an essential element of priestly ordination: ‘they are consecrated priests of the New Testament’, Lumen gentium tells us. Presbyterorum ordinis develops this idea:
The consecration of the priest is accomplished by ‘God through the ministry of the bishop’. It is this consecration through the sacrament of Order which constitutes the candidate as a priest by bringing about an ontological participation of the man-priest in the priesthood of the God-man. As a consequence the priest is transformed into a persona sacra, a sacred person. But this is still not the essence of the priesthood. What constitutes a man a priest of Jesus Christ is that he becomes endowed with the sacra potestas, a sacred power. And the core of this unique endowment is the power to consecrate the Eucharist acting in persona Christi for the universal Church. As a consequence of his consecration he shares in the eternal mediation of the Man who was God.
The office of priesthood is transmitted by the bishop’s imposition of hands on the head of the ordinand, and by the consecratory prayer imploring the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and his gifts proper to the priestly ministry. In this way the priest is incorporated into the apostolic succession. The effects of the sacrament are well summarized by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Although incardinated in a particular diocese, the grace of ordination gives the priest a perspective on his mission which extends beyond the boundaries of a particular diocese or country.
Loving pastors of the flock
In Pastores dabo vobis, the theology of priesthood and priestly formation is presented from the outset within the scriptural profile of the good shepherd. John Paul II takes God’s promise made through the prophet Jeremiah – ‘I will give you shepherds after my own heart’ (Jer 3:15) – as the context in which to develop what is arguably the most comprehensive magisterial statement on priesthood and the priestly ministry. While the Pope uses several analogies to develop a theology of priesthood (e.g. the priest as servant and spouse, as icon of Christ, etc), without doubt the dominant image running through the whole of Pastores dabo vobis is the priest’s configuration to Christ as Head and Shepherd. This is the basic reference for the description of the nature and mission of the priest (Chapter II), and the background against which the theological foundations of the priest’s spiritual life are discussed (Chapter III). The significance of this analogy is underlined by the importance the concept of pastoral charity has for the whole document. John Paul II uses it not only as an essential element for the theological and ascetical definition of priesthood, but also as an interpretative key in relation to the on-going formation of priests.
The image of the Good Shepherd recalls a favorite theme of the Old Testament prophetic literature: the chosen people are the flock, and Yahweh is their Shepherd (cf. Ps 23). Ezeckiel reproaches pastors for their misdeeds and sloth, their greed and neglect of responsibility – Yahweh will take the flock away from them and he himself will look after the sheep. Indeed, a unique shepherd will appear, descended from David, who will graze them and protect them (cf. Ezek 34). Jesus presents himself as this shepherd who looks after his sheep, seeks out the strays, cures the crippled and carries the weak on his shoulders (cf. Mt 18:12-14; Lk 15:4-7), thereby fulfilling the ancient prophecies. Pastores dabo vobis elaborates as follows:
The good shepherd is the image of pastoral care proposed by St Peter in his First Letter (cf. 1 Pet 5:1-4), as well as by St Paul in his advice to the presbyters of the church of Ephesus (cf. Acts 20:28-29).
This same biblical image, with a strong christological emphasis, is used in Lumen gentium to describe the dignity and duties of priests:
Because the priest is mediator of the mercy of God (according to the Curé of Ars, the priesthood is ‘the love of the heart of Jesus’), he will endeavor, as Christ did, to get to know his flock individually and treat them with care and compassion. At the core of his leadership role is his responsibility to lead the flock to rich pastures, that is, to provide them with the spiritual nourishment and moral guidance which will enable them mature to the fullness of their baptismal vocation. In addition he has to protect them from the wolves of false doctrine and bad example. This he will do by alerting them to the negative influences which can undermine personal and family life. Because they know that he is not a hireling but one who feels personal responsibility for their spiritual well-being, they will listen to his voice and follow his advice because they recognize that he has only their good at heart (cf. Jn 10:11-13). John Paul II reaffirms these ideas:
Priest and laity
Lumen gentium tells us that ‘by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will’. But as John Paul II clarified, ‘all the members of the Church are sharers in this secular dimension but in different ways’. Because lay people are called by vocation to sanctify themselves in the world and impregnate all temporal realities with the values of the Gospel,
Thus when lay people order temporal realities to the glory of God they are, at the same time, building up the Church. As the laity fulfill their principal task in the Church when they work in the world, directing temporal affairs according to God’s plan, in an inverse way the secular priest builds up the world precisely through the exercise of his sacred ministry. This is his authentically secular presence in society.
While it is true that priests by ordination are set apart (cf. Heb 5:1), this is not to separate them from people but so that they be completely consecrated to the task for which God chooses them. At the same time, the diocesan priest has to live in the world, in the midst of ordinary life. For this is the environment he has to purify and to sanctify – removing the stain of sin from people’s lives is a substantial part of his ministry. In doing this he is simply following the example of the Master who, after working as a carpenter in Nazareth, travelled the cities and towns of Palestine to preach the Gospel, living in the real world. At the last Supper Christ prayed for his disciples who were ‘in the world … They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world … As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world’ (Jn 17:11, 16, 18).
Nevertheless, it is inevitable that the priest will always be, to some extent, a sign of contradiction as Christ was. He is a living witness to ‘another world’ which sin causes man to want to forget about. For those who would build a paradise on this earth, the presence of the priest is an uncomfortable reminder that man was made for something greater than the ephemeral pleasures of this world. He is often an embarrassment to those who no longer live by Christian moral values. This is because, following the example of Christ, he dares preach about ‘poverty of spirit’ (cf. Mt 5:3) in a world drugged by an aggressive materialism, and about ‘purity of heart’ (cf. Mt 5:8) in a culture where sexual permissiveness is accepted as the norm. A priest who is faithful to his responsibilities to preach Christ cannot expect to be popular at the present time. Because he is an instrument of redemption he has to challenge people with the full truth about their lives. This calls for courage, as well as being prepared for some negative reaction. In his instruction to his first priests Christ forewarned us about this: ‘If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you’ (Jn 15:18-19).
John Paul II
In his very first address after his election, Pope John Paul II said that one of the principal objectives of his papacy would be to put the doctrine of Vatican II into effect in the Church. During his twenty-six year pontificate he was indefatigable in doing just that, in his writings and pastoral initiatives, and in his journeys to all parts of the world. Yet it is hardly an exaggeration to say that, of all the areas of Church life he had to deal with, the spiritual well-being of priests was a preferential and continuous concern. His documents and addresses on this topic are too numerous to mention. Whether in Maynooth or Manila, Philadelphia or Fulda, he explicated again and again different aspects of Vatican II teaching on the priesthood. In doing so he shared with priests his own truly original insights on this topic, and spoke to them in language which conveyed his own profound veneration for the priestly vocation. In a message to priests for the Jubilee year 2000 he said:
Perhaps the most significant expression of this esteem for the priesthood was the custom he initiated, a few months after his election, of writing each year a special letter to all the priests of the Church for Holy Thursday, to celebrate what he felicitously referred to as 'the birthday of priests'. In these letters he reaffirmed once and again the substance and the identity of the priesthood. He explored different aspects of the priestly mission and, in doing so, gave us the benefit of his own immense priestly experience, sharing with us also the insights of a man of uncommon intellectual caliber who had followed very closely in the footsteps of Christ. However, his most complete statement of the christological identity of the priest is given in Pastores dabo vobis. What he says in this document and in the Holy Thursday letters deserves close consideration during this Jubilee Year to respond to the expectations of Benedict XVI.
It is fairly clear that where the priestly life is concerned there is a close interaction between theology and psychology. Hence it is not surprising that Pastores dabo vobis begins its analysis of the nature and mission of the ministerial priesthood with an exposition of the demands which contemporary culture and the social context impose on the priest. Indeed it refers to the question of the priestly identity crisis in this context, and goes on to underline the importance which a deep grasp of the truth about the priesthood has to play in the formation of priests and in priestly life in general. As the post-synodal document assures us:
Hence, a deep understanding of the reality of the priesthood, both at the intellectual and existential levels, is the only solid foundation for an authentic priestly life. Priests cannot carry out their exacting ministerial service without a clear and deep-rooted conviction of their identity – the priesthood has to be the primary and unifying element of their existence. It would be, John Paul II suggested, a pointless exercise to have recourse to the social sciences, or to try to find the authentic image of the priest reflected in the results of social surveys. We should rather 'humbly question the Divine Master and ask him who we are, what he wishes us to be, what is, in his eyes, our true identity'.
Our response to this call, John Paul II affirms, marks 'the highest moment in the use of freedom' and 'has brought about the great and irrevocable option of our life and, therefore, the finest page in the history of our personal experience'. Christ called the first twelve in a specific way: 'Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men' (Mk 1:18). Following Christ meant living with Christ, learning from him, and living his style of life. This was both attractive and demanding.
With the rite of sacramental ordination priests are initiated and consecrated to a new kind of life which, in a particular way, separates them from everything (cf. Heb. 5:1) and unites them to Christ 'with an original, ineffable and irreversible bond'. There is no question here of a mere juridical title. The priest’s mission is not one delegated by the ecclesial community which can be revoked at will by the same community. His service is not a part time one, a priesthood ad tempus. On the contrary, because of the real, ontological change wrought in the soul by the sacrament of Order, he is marked by a permanent seal or character configuring him to the Lord, which enables him to act in persona Christi ('This is my Body'; 'I absolve you from your sins'), the ultimate source of the dignity of priests.
The sacred character affects the priest so deeply that his whole being is directed to a priestly purpose – he is always God's minister, even when dealing with things of a temporal nature. Consequently, 'in him everything, even what is secular, must become priestly as in Jesus, who was always a priest, and always acted as a priest, in all the expressions of his life'. To such an extent does Christ identify the priest with himself in the exercise of the powers he has conferred on him, that it can be said 'the sacrament of Order in effect equips the priest to lend our Lord his voice, his hands, his whole being. It is Jesus Christ who, in the Holy Mass, through the words of consecration, changes the substance of the bread and wine into his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity'. The character received through priestly ordination impresses on the priest the likeness of Christ such that all his actions can resemble those of the Good Shepherd. It engages all his human activities so that he may raise them too up to the supernatural level. This configuration to Christ defines the role of the priest in the heart of the People of God, enabling him to act in persona Christi Capitis (in the person of Christ the Head) teaching, ruling and sanctifying.
The priest then, 'always, and in an unchangeable way, finds the source of his identity in Christ the priest. It is not the world which determines his status, as though it depended on changing needs or ideas about social roles. The priest is marked with the seal of the Priesthood of Christ in order to share in his function as the one Mediator and Redeemer'. Because of this bond an immense field for service to souls opens up to the priest, for their salvation in Christ and in the Church.
In persona Christi
To ensure that the priest’s conviction about his own identity is not undermined by the pervasive secularism in which he has to live out his vocation, it is essential that he have a profound appreciation of its theological basis. Since we tend to look at things primarily in their horizontal dimension, the priest must never lose sight of the vertical axis of his vocation which is what gives it its essential meaning. Hence a firm grasp of the theology of priestly identity is a primary requirement for perseverance and fidelity.
Sacramental identification with the Eternal High Priest inserts the priest in a very specific way into the Trinitarian mystery. It is this special communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit which defines the identity of the priest. If every Christian through baptism acquires a relationship with the three divine Persons, sacramental ordination reinforces this Trinitarian communion in the soul of the priest in a new way. This relationship, John Paul II tells us, is the foundation of ‘our identity, our true dignity’.
The priest has an essential relationship to the salvific love of the Father expressed in the ministry of the word and sacraments. He receives from the Holy Spirit the power to generate a multitude of new children of God. As a consequence of his celibacy the priest acquires a ‘true and real spiritual paternity which has universal dimensions’. Thanks to this total self-giving which the priest freely embraces, and the renunciation of a paternity according to the flesh, he receives in return a notable enrichment through the gift of spiritual paternity. This renunciation is rooted in his love for Christ and for his Church, a love which the priest develops in his care and concern for people. As John Paul II teaches:
The spiritual paternity of the priest is expressed in a special way in the sacrament of confession:
Jesus Christ associates the priest with his own mission: ‘As the Father has sent me, I also send you’ (Jn 20:21). The priest should be an authentic representative and messenger such that Christ is able to say of him, ‘He who hears you hears me’ (Lk 10:16). This has profound implications not only for the quality of his preaching, but for the impact his whole life-style and personality have on the people entrusted to his care. Acting in persona Christi he is the mediator of the message of salvation and the means to achieve holiness.
During the post-conciliar period of deepest crisis in the priesthood, the expression in persona Christi to define the identity of the priest, frequently used by Vatican II, was ignored or rejected. Here it is worth noting that the expression in persona Christi was not invented to exalt the priestly ministry, but was an ineluctable requirement of the nature of Christ’s mediation. Precisely because the mediation, priesthood and sacrifice of Christ are unique, the actions of the priest are not added to or juxtaposed to the actions by which Christ gathers and sanctifies his Church. Rather they are instrumental actions by means of which Christ himself continues to exercise his priesthood. As Vanhoye points out,
This configuration of the minister with Christ the Priest, and the resulting capacity to act in persona Christi, is a consequence of, and at the same time, manifests the unicity of the priesthood of Christ. For this very reason it is Christ, present in the liturgical action, who renders cult to the Father and offers his body to men through priests. This is the context in which the fundamental role of the ministerial priesthood in the economy of salvation has to be seen.
Blurring of priestly identity
As the Vatican document on the participation of the laity in the liturgy points out, there has been a propensity over the past decades to eliminate differences in roles between priest and laity. This leads to a levellng off of functions, a tendency which is not uninfluenced by appeal to a more ‘democratic’ model of the Church. As a consequence, the distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful is often blurred. John Paul II refers to ‘a tendency to obscure the theological basis of this difference’ which ‘can lead to a faulty clericalizing of the laity and a laicizing of the clergy’. What is now clear, he tells us, is that ‘where the essential difference between the priestly and lay vocations is ignored, vocations to the priesthood all but disappear, and this is certainly not Christ’s will nor the work of the Holy Spirit’. Neither was this the mind of Vatican II when it encouraged greater lay involvement in the life of the Church:
Reaffirmation of the respective roles of priest and laity in line with Vatican II teaching is essential for several reasons, not least to guarantee an authentic perception of priestly identity and to facilitate the promotion of vocations with a clear conviction about the role of the priest in the Church.
John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Christifideles laici, articulated an exciting vision of a laity fully living its mission of bringing Gospel values into the family, society, culture and the world of work. In this way they exercise their common priesthood as an expression of the universal call to holiness. This call is ‘intimately connected to mission and to the responsibility entrusted to the lay faithful in the Church and in the world’. Their task is to continue Christ’s saving mission in the world ‘which is the place and means for lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation’. The sanctification of the world – society, culture, work – is the distinctively ‘secular’ vocation of the laity.
The temptation to clericalize the laity by adjusting their vocation into involvement in priestly activities should be resisted for the sake of the integrity and dignity of the lay vocation. The assumption that they can adequately fulfill their vocation by assuming clerical responsibilities undermines the grace of baptism, from which the laity derive their mission to the world, and falsifies the reality of the Church as communion. What is at stake here is the fundamental ecclesiological principle articulated by Vatican II – on the one hand, that of the unity of the Church’s mission in which all the baptized participate, and on the other, the essential difference between the priestly ministry, rooted in the sacrament of Orders, and the role of the laity in the Church deriving from the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. And so,
The new evangelization encouraged by John Paul II demands a Church which has transcended clericalism. The primary and only reason for the Church’s hierarchical structure is to serve the needs of the mission of the laity to the world. This is also the core responsibility of the priest.
Reverend Thomas J. McGovern, who is a priest of the Opus Dei prelature, works in Dublin. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Navarre, Pamplona, Spain. He is the author of Priestly Celibacy Today; Priestly Identity:A study in the Theology of Priesthood, and Generations of Priests (forthcoming). He has written several times for HPR, most recently in July 2002 (email@example.com).
40. When John Paul II explained in his apostolic letter, Ordinatio sacerdotalis (22 May 1994), that the reservation of the ministerial priesthood to males is irreformable doctrine, he spoke of the way God had planned it through Trinitarian relationships: ‘Christ chose those whom he willed (cf. Mk 3:13-14; Jn 6:70), and he did so in union with the Father, “through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2), after having spent the night in prayer (cf. Lk 6:12)’. See also George W. Rutler, A Crisis of Saints, San Francisco, 1995, p. 74.
52. ‘The deepest reason for the distinctive role of the priest in the Eucharist lies in the fact that only God can offer worthy sacrifice to God: the Christian God is so transcendent to the world, so holy, that no act of human religion is adequate in his presence. Only the incarnate Son of God can make the suitable offering and exchange. The priest must speak and act in persona Christi, because only Christ can act in the appropriate way in the presence of the Father; in what other name could the Church speak and act? The offering of the Son of God is not just mentioned or remembered in the Eucharist but expressed and actuated in the Son’s own words. The community, in adoration and thanks, joins in this offering, but the offering is first there through the action of Christ, who uses the words and actions of the priest to re-enact his perfect offering sacramentally’ (Robert Sokolowski, Eucharistic Presence: A Study in the Theology of Disclosure, Washington DC, 1994, p. 18).
54. ‘The priest is first and foremost the leader of the people entrusted to him. The Church’s structure transcends both the “democratic” and “autocratic” models, because it is founded on the Father’s “sending” of his Son and on the conferral of a “mission” through the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Twelve and to their successors (cf. Jn 20:21) … This is an authority which does not originate from below and therefore its extension and exercise cannot be defined by any assembly from below … The ordained minister carries out this mission with an authority and grace which do not come from knowledge and skill, however necessary, but from ordination’ (John Paul II, Address, 15 October 1998, no. 4.)
56. Cf. John Paul II, Address, 21 November 1998, no. 5 (italics in original). See also Report of Interdicasterial Meeting with Representatives of the Australian Bishops, no. 23, released on 14 December 1998
This article first appeared in February 2010 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
This version: 9th February 2010