Priestly Identity and Priestly Holiness

Prof. Michael Hull, New York

November 23, 2004

Undoubtedly, there is need for renewal in the priesthood today. The fond hopes for a renewal of the priesthood engendered by the Second Vatican Council have not come to fruition in the last forty years. Rather, the last forty years have shown an unparalleled crisis in the priesthood hallmarked by defections from the priestly state and a dearth of vocations to the priesthood. This crisis cannot be explained away by blasé claims that it is only transitory or that it is somehow coupled with a renewed understanding of the vocation of the laity. The crisis must be addressed directly with attempts not only to understand its roots, but also to discern aspects for a renewal of the priesthood. Two aspects for a renewal of the priesthood are the recovery of priestly identity and priestly holiness. They are inextricably linked, and are, as it were, two sides of the same coin, for the priest’s identity and holiness can be distinguished but never separated.

Priestly Identity

A recovery of priestly identity is central to a renewal of the priesthood. The identity of the priest is founded upon his configuration to Jesus Christ. Indeed, priestly identity subsists in the priest’s unique identification with Christ. Yet in recent times many within and without the Church have confused the roles of priest and laity. Some priests have mislaid their identity by exalting the role of the laity to the point of equating the priesthood of the faithful with the ministerial priesthood; some laity, too, have confused the fruits of the sacrament of Baptism with those of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The disordering of proper roles has often brought about a laicization of the clergy and clericalization of the laity — both of which are extremely detrimental to the distinctiveness of various members of the Church and the proper pursuit of holiness on the part of priests and laypersons. For this reason, Pope John Paul II specifically addressed the crisis of priestly identity at the 1990 Synod of Bishops in Rome and in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day [1992]). Therein, the pope states: "The priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one high priest of the new and eternal covenant. The priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the Priest" (PDV, no. 12). While it is of course true that all Catholics—priests and laypersons—are incorporated into Christ and his Church in Baptism, there is a substantial difference between priests and laypersons. Priests, by virtue of Holy Orders share in a unique relationship with the high priest, a relationship that differs not merely in degree, but in kind, from the relationship between Christ and his lay faithful.

The 1990 Synod of Bishops and Pastores dabo vobis followed closely upon the 1987 Synod, which resulted in the pope’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici (On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World [1988]). Therein, the pope gives careful consideration to the role of the laity in the Church and the world in light of the Council with especial attention to Lumen gentium. Lumen gentium is crystal clear in noting that the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial (or hierarchical) priesthood "differ essentially and not only in degree" (no. 10). Following the lead of the Council and the 1987 Synod, the pope, in Christifideles laici, also devotes much attention to the danger of confusion between the priestly and lay state. He points out that "the ordained ministries, apart from the persons who receive them, are a grace for the entire Church" (CL, no. 22). This is a salient point because it focuses on the fact that priests are ordained for a specific reason, namely, service to God’s people. Should the ontological difference between priests and people become lost, so also will be lost the important service of the ordained to the people. A crisis in priestly identity is sure to ensue when the specific ontological bond that unites priests—and priests alone—to Christ is forgotten or rejected. It is with ordination that the bond is forged and that the priest becomes an alter Christus. Because he is "another Christ," the priest has the right and responsibility to sanctify (munus sanctificandi), to teach (munus docendi), and to govern (munus regendi). His efforts to sanctify, teach, and govern those entrusted to his pastoral care mark his identification with Christ, who is at once priest, prophet, and king. Consequently, once priests fail to sanctify, teach, and govern their identity is skewed and distorted, and the laity are bereft of the fundamentals of priestly service, which are "totally necessary for their [the laity’s] participation in the mission of the Church" (CL, no. 22).

Hence, the renewal of the priesthood in terms of priestly identity rises and falls with the exercise of the priestly office in the Church. The ministerial priesthood must be exercised boldly and unabashedly with the concomitant respect it deserves from both clergy and faithful; so too, there cannot be any usurpation of priestly identity on the part of the laity, even if such usurpation is wantonly blessed by some in the Church. Nonetheless, since the Council there has been much confusion about the role of priests and laity. Despite the fact that Lumen gentium is so unambiguous in delineating the God-given characteristics of each state in life and their differences, this confusion has been slow in abating. The two recent documents that have been most helpful in arresting the crisis are the Congregation for the Clergy’s Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests (1994) and the inter-dicasterial Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests (1997). Both of them offer a cogent summary of the Church’s teaching on this matter, albeit from different perspectives, with plentiful reference to the documents of the Council and those of the post-conciliar popes, especially John Paul II. However, if the truth be told, these documents and the truths they espouse have not been welcomed in some quarters because some believe that the distinctions between priests and people are fabricated by men rather than by God. Such a profound mix-up calls for prayer and penance. The proper collaboration of priests and faithful called for in much of the Church’s teaching can be realized only when each and every one of us—priest and layperson—knows his state and is satisfied with and in it.

Priestly Holiness

A renewal of the priesthood must acknowledge that priestly identity and priestly holiness are intertwined. Insofar as priestly identity is in need of recovery, so too is priestly holiness. As with priestly identity, priestly holiness must be set apart from the general and generic holiness of Christ’s faithful. All of us are called to holiness, but not all of us are called to the priesthood. This is neither a belittlement of the importance of holiness for all those who call upon the name of Christ nor is it an unjust discrimination, but it is a commendation of the particular facets of holiness appropriate to the priest, who stands before his people in persona Christi capitis. The holy father speaks of this vocation to holiness in Pastores dabo vobis in connection with the teaching of the Council: "The Council’s statement that ‘all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity’ [LG, no. 40] applies in a special way to priests. They are called not only because they have been baptized, but also and specifically because they are priests, that is, under a new title and in new and different ways deriving from the sacrament of Holy Orders" (PDV, no. 19). The sacrament of Holy Orders is the source of priestly holiness. According to Presbyterorum ordinis, "the priesthood . . . is conferred by its own particular sacrament. Through that sacrament priests by the anointing of the Holy Spirit are signed with a special character and so are configured to Christ the priest in such a way that they are able to act in the person of Christ the head" (no. 2). As a result of their sacred ordination, priests are given a dignity of union with Christ above and beyond their baptismal dignity. Though they may fall short of this dignity with personal sin, the expectation and exaltation of their state is attendant to holiness.

As a matter of fact, it is in the action of their state as priests—as ministers of the things that are holy—that priestly holiness ought to be manifest. The grace of the priesthood is certainly to be found in the priest himself as he seeks to follow the Lord in pursuit of personal holiness, yet that same grace is most marked in his pastoral solicitude for the people for whom he cares. "Since every priest in his own way assumes the person of Christ, he is endowed with a special grace. By this grace the priest, through his service to the people committed to his care and all the People of God, is able the better to pursue the perfection of Christ, whose place he takes. The human weakness of his flesh is remedied by the holiness of him who became for us a high priest ‘holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners’ (Heb 7:26)" (PO, no. 12). In seeking holiness in his ministrations, the priest becomes holier as he becomes more priestly; the more attentive he is to his flock as "the good shepherd [who] lays down his life for the flock" (John 10:11), the more he is like Christ. It is of the very nature of the priest’s unique identification with Christ to offer up prayers and supplications to God and to attend to the spiritual needs of the faithful (cf. Heb 5:7); the more he attempts "to seek and save the lost" (Luke 19:10), the more he finds himself and cooperates in his own salvation. It is never more perceptible that the priest is acting in persona Christi than when he stands at the altar as the mediator between God and man. There, in his most important role, priestly holiness is indefatigable, for "[p]riests will acquire holiness in their own distinctive way by exercising their functions sincerely and tirelessly in the Spirit of Christ" (PO, no. 13). Priests are holy by being priests, by doing that which priests do: confecting the Holy Eucharist, absolving sins, and anointing the sick, just to name the most important three.

And it is the most important three that count here and in the hereafter. Although a priest’s typical duties unquestionably include the spiritual and corporal works of mercy that are incumbent upon all Christ’s faithful, the priest has as his "principle function" the offering of the eucharistic sacrifice in which "the work of our redemption is continually carried out" (PO, no. 13; cf. Hebrews 5 and 7). A priest has no greater role to play in heaven or on earth than that of a priest. Neither social workers, counselors, therapists, facilitators, presiders, enablers, nor so many of the other roles too often assumed by priests or thought to be their roles by the misinformed, priests have no more imperative and no more sanctifying tasks than those entrusted to them directly by Christ the high priest, whom they are called to imitate perfectly as priest, prophet, and king. The identification of priestly holiness with that of the holiness of the faithful or the reduction of priestly holiness to the tasks proper to secular society is a loss beyond compare. Priests have a vital and irreplaceable function in the holiness of the entire Church. The Council taught plainly that the Eucharist is the "source and summit of the Christian life" (LG, no. 11). The priest is indispensable for the holiness of the Church. The Sacrifice of the Mass is the ultimate act of worship and infinite source of grace and holiness. Thus, for the holiness of the Church, the priest "is utterly irreplaceable, because without the priest there can be no eucharistic offering" (PDV, no. 48).

To be sure, priestly identity and holiness are bound together. And both are in need of renewal. The Church needs to discover again and again that a strong and vibrant priesthood is not a sign of the Holy Spirit alive in the Church but the very means by which the Holy Spirit is operative in the salvation of the world. The profusion of defections from the priesthood in the last forty years and the scarcity of men in study for priestly service today is a worry for all the faithful. In more ways than one, the health and vitality of the priesthood is coterminous with the health and vitality of the Church. Therefore, it behooves us all to pray as Jesus taught us in this regard: "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (Luke 10:2).