The priest’s identity and the function of the ecclesiastical habit


1.      Continuity in the theological criteria that inspire the rules relating to clergy discipline,  before and after the Council


The ecclesiastical magisterium and the canonical rules de disciplina cleri have always treated the ecclesiastical habit within a suitable theological context, that which has as a fundamental premise the supernatural (divine) character of the vocation and mission of the presbyter in the Catholic Church. The ecclesiastical habit is prescribed in the Church as an external “sign” of an internal “quality”, of a capacity for “public service” which is not to be regarded as a human trait of the presbyter but as an aptness deriving from the supernatural “character” which the sacrament of the Order confers on the sacred minister forever. So with the ecclesiastical habit the presbyter publicly “professes” his complete and unwavering devotion to serving God and the community where he exercises his ministry: his service is directed first and foremost to believers, who form the “mystical body” of Christ, but necessarily extends to all people indiscriminately, insofar as they are destined to be part of it, according to God’s eternal plan.


            This purely theological justification of the rules relating to the habit that the presbyter must wear coram populo, that is in public – before the people and for the spiritual wellbeing of the people – is found not only in the ecclesiastical documents of the period preceding the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, but in the ones of the conciliar period as well. In this regard, it is worth recalling  the acts of the popes that convoked and presided over the Council and subsequently enforced its pastoral instructions: suffice it to mention the strict rules relating to the ecclesiastical habit issued by the blessed John XXIII for the diocesan clergy during the Roman Synod of 1961; the clear theological-pastoral directives contained in the council decree Presbyterorum Ordinis on the way and the ministry of presbyters, approved by the Council and promulgated by Paul VI[1]; the disciplinary norms contained in the new Codex iuris canonici, promulgated by the blessed John Paul II (soon to be canonized also), which he often referred to during the years of his pontificate, in the speeches addressed to the clergy as well as in the disciplinary measures regarding the staff of the pontifical dicastries.


2.      Ministry of the Word and ministry of the Sacraments


In order to truly comprehend the theological reasons for this close connection between the external “sign” and the internal “quality” of the priestly ministry specifically (that is of the “ordained” ministry, which is ontologically superior to that of the “common priesthood” of all the faithful), it is necessary to clearly define what the presbyter “professes” before the community of men and women when he makes himself recognizable as a minister of God in the Catholic Church. He professes himself a sacramental instrument in the hands of Christ, the high and eternal Priest, the one and only true Teacher and Saviour. He professes himself an instrument, knowing, out of faith in divine revelation, that he is such only because divine providence so freely desired: he knows he is not absolutely necessary (he knows that he, together with all the other apostles of Christ, must consider himself as a “useless servant”), but he is also aware that he was chosen “among men” for a mission whose outcome depends entirely on grace but also requires his complete and constant “availability”: his availability – every presbyter knows this well – is what God’s mercy intends to avail itself of in order to bestow upon all men and women the grace of faith and redemption, for eternal salvation.


            In order to better understand this dialectic of grace – the almightiness of the divine Love that avails itself of the availability of the priest to make him, albeit in his human unfitness, a visible instrument of the mysteries of salvation – it is useful to refer to an ecclesiological reflection of Saint Augustine, the great “doctor of grace”, found in one of his commentaries to the Scriptures which the liturgical reform included among the patristic readings of the Liturgy of the Hours:


                “Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it”. The Lord, therefore, buildeth the house, the Lord Jesus Christ buildeth His own house. Many toil in building: but, except He build, “their labour is but lost that build it.” Who are they who toil in building it? All who preach the word of God in the Church, the ministers of God’s mysteries. We are all running, we are all toiling, we are all building now; and before us others have run, toiled, and built: but “except the Lord build, their labour is but lost” [Gal 4, 10-11]. We, therefore, speak without, He buildeth within. We can observe with what attention ye hear us; He alone who knoweth your thoughts, knoweth what ye think. He Himself buildeth, He Himself admonisheth, He Himself openeth the understanding, He Himself kindleth your understanding unto faith; nevertheless, we also toil like workmen; but, “except the Lord build”»[2].


            This text, if understood correctly, strips every presbyter of any pretext for denying the Lord his availability: either by withdrawing into the confined ecclesiastical spaces where he feels humanly gratified, renouncing reaching out to those who may have recourse to his ministry; or by stepping out from that confined space but without allowing himself to be recognized, for fear that he may be mocked or attacked by those who see in him the symbol of a Church that one wants to eliminate from the public life; or by wearing plain clothes as if to set aside his ecclesial function and show that he wants to share with the people who no longer seek salvation in God a life based only on worldly interests. The text of Saint Augustine reminds the presbyter of the ecclesial meaning and the supernatural end of his specific vocation, which is to be professed interiorly with the willingness to live the life of sacrifice, sometimes even heroic, of the vir apostolicus, but also externally with the habit that makes him recognizable among the people. One must always bear in mind that the work of men who are consecrated in the Church, with the sacrament of the Order, at the service of God as «humble workers in the vineyard of the Lord» (as Benedict XVI referred to himself just after his election to the papal Throne), is not primarily an exclusively human effort (albeit required by the need to witness charity) like the “corporal works of mercy” and all forms of solidarity and human promotion, but is primarily an effort whose efficacy is exclusively divine. It is an effort that consists in proclaiming the Word (catechesis) and bestowing the sanctifying grace (administration of sacraments).


            The term “catechesis”, in its original ecclesial meaning, coincides with the term “kerigma”, which is currently preferred by many theologians, since both refer to the Church’s proclamation of the truth revealed by Christ. In the light of Saint Augustine’s words, the term “catechesis” is preferable since it suggests the logical subordination of human actions to divine initiative; in fact, the Greek etymology of kathekesis (from the verb kathekein, which means “to resonate” or “to echo”) expresses very well the true role of the Ministers of the Word, who are conveyors of a doctrine which does not come from them but directly from God. If the only true Teacher, Christ, underscored the entirely supernatural character of the salvific doctrine when he said «My teaching is not my own but is from the one who sent me» (Jn 7:16), the disciples of the Teacher also must speak in the name of divine wisdom and not in the name of their presumed human knowledge, relying on the salvific almightiness of the Gospel rather than on their own presumed human authority or communicative efficacy. Through the Christian announcement, the Church echoes a proclamation of the truth, the only truth that saves, made by him who incarnates it in himself: Jesus, the Christ, the Word of God, the revealer of the Father. Jesus Christ is him who speaks with authority, because he speaks of what he knows directly, first hand: he is consubstantial with the Father and he alone can reveal to people the supernatural mysteries which are absolutely inaccessible to them. Christ is the «faithful witness» (Rev 1:4), him who conveys faithfully to men and women what the Father ordered him to say, that is his intimate nature (the mystery of the Trinity) and his plans of salvation (the Incarnation and Redemption in Christ)[3]. Vatican II solemnly confirmed the substantially supernatural character that the presence and activity of the presbyter must have among people, as willed by Christ himself:


                «To all men, therefore, priests are debtors that the truth of the Gospel which they have may be given to others. And so, whether by entering into profitable dialogue they bring people to the worship of God, whether by openly preaching they proclaim the mystery of Christ, or whether in the light of Christ they treat contemporary problems, they are relying not on their own wisdom for it is the word of Christ they teach, and it is to conversion and holiness that they exhort all men. But priestly preaching is often very difficult in the circumstances of the modern world. In order that it might more effectively move men's minds, the word of God ought not to be explained in a general and abstract way, but rather by applying the lasting truth of the Gospel to the particular circumstances of life» (Vatican Council II, Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 4).


            The “profession of service” that the ecclesiastical habit implies refers to this sacramental ministeriality. With his recognizable presence among people, the presbyter announces or recalls the salvific event of the Incarnation, Redemption and the institution of the Church as a «universal sacrament of salvation» through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Regardless of whether or not he is understood and accepted by everyone, the presbyter must present himself as God’s minister in the Church, for the supernatural ends for which Christ willed the Church. It is the presbyter’s duty to present himself, in all of his actions, for what God had in mind when he entrusted to the Apostles the «keys of the Kingdom». Then it will be the Lord, who has given him the mission and the grace to accomplish it, to see to it that, on a case by case basis, all people «destined for eternal life» (cfr Acts 13:48) will truly understand, albeit in different ways and to varying degrees, the identity of the presbyter as a mediator of the love of Christ for every member of the Church and every person that can be reached by the Christian announcement and the grace of Baptism.


3. The presbyter’s dignity (conferred by divine grace) is not thwarted by his personal unworthiness (caused by human misery)


The presbyter’s mediation is in fact felt by the Church’s faith conscience, through the work of grace, especially in the preaching of the word of God, in the administration of the sacraments and in the guidance of the Christian community, all actions that he can carry out in persona Christi capitis, insofar as they are directly linked to the three-fold ministry of Christ – the teaching ministry (munus docendi), the sanctifying ministry (munus sanctificandi) and the shepherding ministry (munus regendi) ― who, by the will of God and through the work of the Holy Spirit, is the only Teacher of truth, Redeemer of all men and King of kings. The vocation and mission of the priest are intimately characterized by these actions, which the priest can carry out legitimately and effectively not by virtue of his personal qualities but because it was Christ himself who, once the Paschal mystery was fulfilled and as he was preparing to return to the Father, revealed that he wanted to remain effectively present in his Church, until the end of time, through the priestly ministry, endowed with the necessary charisms and the divine authority which he himself bestowed (cfr. Lumen Gentium, n. 28). Such an authority (a term which in the Church is equivalent to the Greek diakonia, insofar as auctoritas, in the Latin of late antiquity, meant the capacity to feed and make grow) maintains all of its salvific strength of truth in every Christian who has received the priestly consecration, whatever it may be, in the different stages of his life among the People of God, his personal holiness, his inner virtues and his external conduct, the visible works that may have earned him a well-deserved “bona fama”.


            Ever since the Middle Ages, with Saint Peter Damiani, theological doctrine and canon law have reassured the faithful as to the validity of the sacraments administered by priests who may even appear to be unworthy. The same applies to the transmission of the Catholic faith (which is the faith of the Church, not so much and only the subjective faith of the priest), which in itself is always capable of enlightening the minds and kindling the hearts, making them open to fruitful participation in the Eucharistic celebration and to receiving the sacraments. In both cases – the efficacy of the sacraments and the efficacy of the doctrine – the Gospel itself establishes the criterion according to which the supernatural power of the res sacrae cannot be limited to the personal flaws of him who, from time to time, is its minister. Suffice it to recall the teaching of Jesus when he says that the teachings of the doctors of the Law (whose hypocrisy he stigmatized) is to be heeded and put into practice, even though their bad conduct must by no means be regarded as a model[4]. Surely the presbyter has the serious duty and the fundamental responsibility to conform his existence ever more (his inner life and external, visible actions, which characterize his conduct among the people of God) to the needs of his ecclesial mission, and for this the minister of the sacrament of Penance himself shall often have recourse to the grace of reconciliation and purification: but never shall his personal unworthiness (which is felt internally by his conscience or is denounced externally by the people) be a pretext for holding back from humbly offering his specific service.  Such a renunciation corresponds to “burying the talent” that God has entrusted to him in the Church of Christ, rendering unusable the charism that he has received from God through the priestly ordination. One way to bury the talent – that is revoking one’s willingness to serve – consists precisely in disobeying the Church, which, in a wise and holy way, has laid down the canonical rules relating to the ecclesiastical habit.


Antonio Livi


[1] See the text of the decree Presbyterorum Ordinis published in 2013 by Cantagalli di Siena with an introduction and comment by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy.

[2] Saint Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 126, 2 : Corpus Christianorum Latinorum, vol. 40, p. 1858.

[3] Cfr Ecumenical Vatican Council I, dogmatic constitution Dei Filius on the Catholic faith, 24 April 1870 : «God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason from created things; "for the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made" [Rom 1:20]; nevertheless, it has pleased His wisdom and goodness to reveal Himself and the eternal decrees of His will to the human race in another and supernatural way, as the Apostle says: "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all, in these days hath spoken to us by His Son" [Heb 1:1 f]».

[4] It is necessary to quote the Gospel pericope in its entirety, in order to better grasp its meaning in relation to what we are discussing here: «Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.' As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called 'Master'; you have but one master, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.» (Mt 23 : 1-13).