Priests: Servants

of Christ’s Flock

General Audience of Wednesday September 22, 1993

Because the priest is set in the midst of lay people in order to lead them to unity, he must be a man of understanding and reconciliation.


1. The "priestly community", of which we have spoken several times in previous catecheses, is not isolated from the "ecclesial community", but belongs to its very essence and is its very heart, in a constant interchange with all the other members of Christ’s Body. Presbyters serve this vital communion as pastors in virtue of sacramental Orders and the mandate that the Church confers on them.

At the Second Vatican Council the Church sought to reawaken in priests this awareness of belonging and sharing, so that each of them would keep in mind that, although he is a pastor, he continues to be a Christian who must conform himself to all the demands of his Baptism and live as brother with all the baptized, in service to "the same Body of Christ which all are commanded to build up."1

It is significant that, on the basis of the ecclesiology of the Body of Christ, the Council stresses the fraternal nature of the priest’s relations with the other faithful, as it had already underscored the fraternal nature of the bishop’s relations with his presbyters. In the Christian community, relationships are essentially fraternal, as Jesus requested in "his" commandment, recalled with such insistence by the Apostle St. John in his Gospel and Letters.2 Jesus himself said to his disciples: "You are all brothers."3

Supportive of the Lay Apostolate

2. According to Jesus’ teaching, presiding over the community means serving it, not domineering over it. He himself gave us the example of a Shepherd who cares for and serves his flock, and he proclaimed that he came not to be served but to serve.4 In the light of Jesus, the Good Shepherd and the one Teacher and Lord,5 the priest understands that he cannot seek his own honor nor his own interests, but only what Jesus Christ wanted, putting himself at the service of his kingdom in the world.

Thus, he knows—and the Council reminds him—that he must act as the servant of all, with sincere and generous self-giving, accepting all the sacrifices required by this service, and always remembering that Jesus Christ, the one Teacher and Lord, came to serve and did so to the point of giving "his own life as a ransom for the many."6

3. The problem of the presbyter’s relationship with the other faithful in the Christian community is particularly significant with regard to the so-called lay apostolate, which, as such, has taken on special importance in our day because of the new awareness of the essential role exercised by the lay faithful in the Church.

Everyone knows that the same historical circumstances have fostered the cultural and organizational rebirth of the lay apostolate, especially in the 19th century, and how a theology of the lay apostolate developed in the Church between the two world wars, leading to the special conciliar decree Apostolicam actuositatem, and even more fundamentally, to the vision of the Church as community, which we find in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, and the place for the lay apostolate it recognizes.

The Council considers priests’ relationship with the laity in the light of the living, active and organic community which the priest is called to form and lead. To this end, the Council recommends that presbyters recognize and sincerely promote the dignity of the laity: their dignity as human persons raised by Baptism to divine adoption and endowed with their own gifts of grace.

For each of them, the divine gift entails a special role in the Church’s mission of salvation, also in places—such as the family, civil society, professional life, culture, etc.—where presbyters ordinarily cannot exercise the laity’s specific roles.7 Both the laity and priests must acquire an ever greater awareness of these specific roles, one based on a more complete sense of belonging to and participating in the Church.

4. The Council also says that presbyters should respect the just freedom of the laity, inasmuch as they are children of God enlivened by the Holy Spirit. In this atmosphere of respect for dignity and freedom, the Council’s exhortation to priests is understandable: "They should be willing to listen to lay people", taking into account their aspirations and utilizing their experience and competence in human activity, in order to recognize "the signs of the times". Presbyters will also seek to discern, with the Lord’s help, the laity’s charisms, "whether humble or exalted", and will want to "recognize them with joy and foster them with diligence."8

What the Council notes and recommends is interesting and important: "Among the other gifts of God which are found abundantly among the faithful, special attention ought to be devoted to those graces by which a considerable number of people are attracted to greater heights of the spiritual life."9 Thanks be to God, we know that there are many faithful—in the Church today and often outside of her visible organizations—who are devoted or who want to devote themselves to prayer, meditation, penance (at least that of tiring, everyday work, done with diligence and patience, and that of difficult living situations), with or without the direct involvement in an active apostolate. They often feel the need for a priest counsellor or even a spiritual director, who welcomes them, listens to them and treats them with Christian friendship, in humility and charity.

Encouraging the Laity regarding

the Apostolate of the Church

One could say that the moral and social crisis of our time, with the problems it brings to both individuals and families, makes this need for priestly help in the spiritual life more keenly felt. A new recognition of and a new dedication to the ministry of the confessional and of spiritual direction are to be strongly recommended to priests, also because of the new requests of lay people who more greatly desire to follow the way of Christian perfection set forth by the Gospel.

5. The Council advises priests to recognize, promote and foster the cooperation of the laity in the apostolate and in the same pastoral ministry within the Christian community, not hesitating to "give lay people charge of duties in the service of the Church" and to "give them freedom and opportunity for activity and even inviting them, when opportunity occurs, to take initiative in undertaking projects on their own."10

This is consistent with respect for the dignity and freedom of the children of God, but also with Gospel service: "service to the Church", the Council says. It bears repeating that all this presupposes a deep sense of belonging to the community and of belonging to the community and of actively participating in its life. Even more deeply, it presumes faith and confidence in the grace at work in the community and in its members.

What the Council says could serve as a key to pastoral practice in this area, namely, that presbyters "have been placed in the midst of the laity that they may lead them all to the unity of charity."11 Everything revolves around this central truth: in particular, openness and acceptance of everyone, the constant effort to maintain or restore harmony in order to encourage reconciliation, foster mutual understanding and create an atmosphere of peace. Yes, priests must always and everywhere be men of peace.

6. The Council entrusts this mission of community peace to priests: peace in truth and charity. "Theirs is the task, then, of bringing about agreement among divergent outlooks in such a way that nobody may feel a stranger in the Christian community. They are to be at once the defenders of the common good, for which they are responsible in the Bishop’s name; and at the same time the unwavering champions of truth lest the faithful be carried about ‘with every wind of doctrine’.12 Those who have abandoned the practice of the sacraments, or even perhaps the faith, are entrusted to priests as special objects of their care. They will not neglect to approach these as good shepherds."13

Thus, they are concerned for everyone in and outside the flock, in accordance with the demands of the missionary dimension that pastoral work must have today. Against this background every presbyter will view the question of contacts with non-believers, the non-religious, even those who call themselves atheists. He will feel spurred by charity towards all; he will strive to open the doors of the community to everyone. On this point the Council calls priests’ attention to "those fellow Christians who do not enjoy complete ecclesiastical union with us." This is the ecumenical horizon.

Finally, the Council invites them to "regard as committed to their charge all those who fail to recognize Christ as their Savior."14 To make Christ known, to open the doors of minds and hearts to him, to cooperate with his ever new coming into the world: this the raison d’être of the pastoral ministry.

Deserving of the Love and Support of the Laity

7. Through the Church priests have received a difficult charge from Christ. It is quite understandable that the Council asks all the faithful to cooperate as far as they can, to help them in their work and their problems, first of all with understanding and love. The faithful are the other element in the relationship of love linking priests to the whole community. The Church, which urges priests to care for and to look after the community, calls the faithful in turn to solidarity towards their pastors: "The faithful for their part ought to realize that they have obligations to their priests. They should treat them with filial love as being their fathers and pastors. They should also share their priests’ anxieties and help them as far as possible by prayer and active work."15

The Pope says this again, addressing to all the lay faithful an urgent request in the name of Jesus, our one. Teacher and Lord: help your pastors by prayer and active work, love and support them in the daily exercise of their ministry.






1. Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 9

2. Cf. Jn 13:14; 15:12, 17; 1 Jn 4:11,21

3. Mt 23:8

4. Cf. Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28

5. Cf. Mt 23:8

6. Mt 20:28

7. Cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 9

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Eph 4:14

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.