Priestly identity: A study in the theology of priesthood
By Thomas J.McGovern.
Review by Fr. Bede McGregor OP
There have been a large number of books published on the priesthood since the Vatican Council. It seems to me that they fall into three types. First you have the two extremes that grab the most headlines. There is the firndamentalist conservative type of book on the priesthood and then the fundamentalist liberal kind. These two extremes have a great deal in common. They both put their personal experience and opinion as the ultimate criterion for the truth about the priesthood and both think the Second Vatican Council got it wrong either by going too far or not far enough. As a consequence the Council is blamed for much of the trouble with the priesthood today. Both extremes inject their own personal problems and anger into the bloodstream of the Body of Christ to the pain and detriment of all. For them, the priesthood is simply a question mark and a burden today. They feel called to teach the Church rather than be taught by her.
The third type of book on the priesthood is one that is deeply in tune with the Church. It sees the priesthood as a gift and as an unspeakable privilege. It recognizes that there is a crisis in the priesthood in many parts of the Church but it seeks a solution to this crisis in the teaching of the Church and the gifts of grace God incessantly offers us through her. This book on the theology of the priesthood is a superb example of this third type of book on the priesthood. The author displays an impressive familiarity with the documentation of the magisteriurn on the priesthood, especially the writing of John Paul II. He is well up on the major theologians in this area who transparently love the Church. He does not condemn or belittle those with whom he disagrees but simply puts the problems clearly and offers very persuasive answers to them. It is a joyful, serene and objective book on the priesthood, full of compassion and understanding, well researched and clearly written. He is not interested in scoring points in a debate but proclaiming the good news of the priesthood with love and conviction.
It treats all the major aspects of the priesthood and some points that I have not seen covered before in this type of book. An example of this would be a fine section on 'Preaching about chastity, marriage, and Humanae Vitae'. For the last thirty years many lay people and indeed priests have been deprived of the splendid gospel of the Church on human sexuality and married love and friendship. There has been a noticeable silence on these topics in our preaching and teaching in adult education and in the pulpit. It is sometimes seen as politically incorrect to speak on these sacred areas. Yet I think it can be argued that a lack of communication on these major themes is one of the basic reasons why so many young married couples or those living together leave the church. It is difficult to practice the faith at any deep level if one is habitually living in a way that blocks grace. Fr. McGovern puts the rich teaching of the Church in a way that is encouraging, hopeful and above all true. If God asks married people to live the teaching of the Gospel it must be delightfully possible. The alternative will always lead to unhappiness and endanger marriages. Certainly it is unjust and harmful to our people to suggest even implicitly that the teaching of the Church on chastity within and outside of marriage cannot really he lived.
I found this book personally very helpful and I will certainly go back to it again and again. If you want to give a priest or a seminarian a gift on any special occasion this is the book to get him. It is away out in front of any other books on the priesthood that I have come across in the last few years.
Fr.Bede McGregor OP
Review by Rev. Tom O'Toole
Priestly Identity by Thomas McGovern (Four Courts Press, Dublin 2002) has been written as an antidote to the malaise affecting some priests. As an antidote it is extremely good. But the book is much more than that. It is, in fact, a textbook on the priesthood as envisioned by Vatican II and Pope John Paul II. But it is also much more than a textbook. Often textbooks are viewed as informative and very useful works on a particular topic, but also as being of their very nature a little dull. Priestly Identity is anything but dull. It is an invigorating and exhilarating work. It is a spiritual and theological blood transfusion.
One of the great features of Priestly Identity is its thoroughly positive and optimistic outlook. This tidal wave of optimism sweeps away the faulty premises and ideological falsehoods that have fabricated the identity crisis and uncertainty among priests. Without being polemical, Father McGovern has won a battle for truth. Outlining the crisis he begins by going to the roots of priesthood - the New Testament and the priesthood of Christ. How often, in lectures and articles, have priests been told that Christ himself was not really a priest? How often, in recent times, have we had our priestly vocation attributed to a compromise with the later Roman juridical system? Father McGovern goes to the heart of the matter by illustrating the essentially priestly nature of Christ's life, death and resurrection. He relates Christ's priesthood to his office as servant, shepherd, mediator and king -themes he develops throughout the book. The Gospels, St Paul's Letters and, of course, the Letter to the Hebrews all point to Christ as priest. It is clear from the New Testament that the priesthood is passed on through the Apostolic Succession. Priestly Identity shows us that we priests do not have to listen to fairy tales about fourth-century Rome to discover the basis of our vocation.
In the ministerial priesthood, we are informed, "there is a double participation in the priesthood of Christ" (p. 49). Rooted in the theology of Vatican II (especially Lumen Gentium and Presbyterorum Ordinis) the necessity and wonderful dignity of the ministerial priesthood is outlined in a manner which also enhances the dignity of Baptism and the vocation of the laity. Unfortunately at times the insights of Vatican II on the Church as the People of God have been misunderstood and misapplied in order to dilute the importance of the ordained priest. Father McGovern makes a convincing argument that a true appreciation of the vocation of the laity, as outlined by Vatican II, makes more urgent an understanding of the great calling of the ordained priest to be minister of the Word and Sacrament. Our attention is drawn to the basic tasks of and qualities required by the priest as enumerated by Pope John Paul II in Pastores dabo vobis.
The theological heart of the book is, I believe, found in chapters 3 and 4. They deal with the priest as "another Christ" and consequently challenge the priest to belong, body and soul, to Christ. Throughout these chapters we are left in no doubt that the idea of the priest as icon of Christ is firmly based on the teachings of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI (Priestly Celibacy) and Pope John Paul II (Pastores dabo vobis, and his Holy Thursday Letters to Priests).
These two chapters, and a related third one, are 'disturbing', in that they speak the truth in a very challenging way. The feeling is akin to the 'disturbance' caused by Jesus' Last Supper Discourse as reported in St John's Gospel. These chapters are the most moving and challenging in a very moving and challenging book. They 'disturb' only to console. The challenge is to see ourselves and be "other Christs". The awesome realization that "sacramental identification with the Eternal High Priest inserts the priest in a very specific way into the Trinitarian mystery" (p.75) is made all the more attractive by the fundamental role of the priest as the dispenser of the mercy of God. Clearly to blur this special identity is to perpetrate an injustice on Christ, the laity and ourselves.
Chapter 4 deals with the importance of celibacy and its intrinsic link to the priestly calling. The call is to spousal union with the Church. It is beautiful to realize that priests share in Christ's love for his Bride. Priests are part of Christ's spousal gift of himself to the Church. At the same time Christ is, in some way, the spouse of the priest's soul. How cheap is the talk of celibacy as a legalistic burden! How off-target the talk of the 'loneliness' of the priest. Yet how 'disturbing' and challenging for us poor sinners who often prefer to be lukewarm functionaries!
The means of living out this great vocation are treated in the chapter on the spiritual life of the priest. It leads directly to that other 'disturbing' chapter earlier referred to. This section of the book might be termed the 'spiritual feast' -Eucharistic Identity: Priest and Victim. We face the well from which we drink to nourish our joyful vocation. We are shown how the priest must live in intimacy with his Eucharistic Lord. Father McGovern does not shy away from reminding us that we must identify with Christ the Victim and share in his Cross.This special intimacy with our Lord, and with his Blessed Mother, lies at the heart of John Paul II's teaching.
The joy of the priestly vocation is brought out as the author illustrates the
The great priestly task of evangelising with love but without compromise is dealt with in an exciting way. The special task today of preaching about chastity and the teaching of Huinanae Vitae is explained very well, and in a manner to instil joy and confidence in the priest himself. It is the sometimes cynical world and the 'compassionate' compromises that appear sad, confused and empty in the light of this chapter.
Many say that the Holy Spirit has been the great discovery of the post-Vatican II period. Priestly Identity links the role of the Paraclete with the role of the priest as healer of sinful souls - the great work of the confessional. As the book shows, the Holy Spirit will enrich the priest in many ways but particularly in sending him to the confessional and enabling him to bring his people along with him to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The book closes with two crucial chapters on spiritual guidance and the celebration of the liturgy.
This is a 'disturbing', moving and exhilarating book. It is an excellent commentary on Vatican II and Pastores dabo vobis. It corrects post-conciliar misunderstandings of the Council itself and of recent Magisterial teachings.
Father McGovern, a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature, has faced the crisis and presented us with a joyful invitation to do likewise. Priests and laity will read this book to their great advantage.
Rev Tom O'Toole is a priest of the diocese of Ossory
The above review came from Position Papers, April 2002
This version: 7th June 2002