Note: I originally wrote this article for a course on the Teachings of Vatican II during my Master’s degree. I have noticed across social media that some Catholics are misinforming others that to have married priests it would be a heresy. Married priests are a matter of discipline not relating to the tenets of our faith as outlined in the Nicene Creed.
By examining the Vatican II document on the priesthood, Presbyterorum ordinis, I hope the laity will a greater appreciation for the ordained life. I also hope this reflection will lead others to petition the Holy Spirit for guidance during these confusing times in the Church.
In the post-conciliar era, the Catholic Church has experienced both joys and tribulations. On the positive side the Church opened up to the world from a bulwark against polemical, rationalistic, and heretical tendencies to seeing itself as the “light” drawing humanity towards its ultimate end─ namely Christ. Yet, despite Pope John XXIII’s and the Council Fathers’ enthusiasm for reform, several developments in stark contrast to their intentions emerged after the Second Vatican Council.
According to Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, “it is not Vatican II and its documents that are problematic” (Messori, The Ratzinger report, 29). Hastily made translations of the texts and failure to properly interpret them considering the whole conciliar documents caused many Catholics to lose sight of the intended reforms.
State of Affairs with the Catholic Priesthood
Poor execution in the reforms called for by the council had adverse effects on the external visage of the Church, particularly regarding the priesthood. A study showed that worldwide the numbers of registered active diocesan priests diminished from 35,000 in 1966 to 21,000 in 2005 (Schoenherr).
Due to such a figure, many people lament over the Church’s situation and Her seeming decline. Yet, the present time should not be a time for despair among Catholics. The Holy Spirit is continually working within the Church, albeit not always according to man’s time. Every pope since the council has fervently called the faithful to a life of holiness. It is through this sanctification of the individual that authentic ecclesial reform occurs.
A reading of the conciliar documents would also be of great advantage to the laity. In doing so, Catholics can discover the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council (Messori, 40). To combat the “crisis” of the priestly shortage, a proper appreciation of the priesthood is essential. By becoming acquainted with the conciliar text on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum ordinis, Catholics will gain knowledge of the role of the ministerial priesthood and its connection to Church life.
At the beginning of the conciliar text, a distinction is made between the common and ministerial priesthood. The entire baptized are called to share in the priestly office of Jesus. Participation in this type of priesthood occurs through the offering up of spiritual sacrifices to the Lord. Yet, the Council Fathers state, “the Lord also appointed certain men as ministers, in order that they might be united in one body in which ‘all the members have not the same function’” (Romans 12:4). Endowed with the sacred power of Orders, these men have the authority to forgive sins and offer sacrifices on behalf Christ’s name (PO art. 2).
Acting in Personi Christi
Priests are also sharers in the ministry of the bishops’─ to a lesser degree. Together they act in authority given by Christ to sanctify and build up the Church (PO art. 2). An indelible mark is made on a priest’s soul upon receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This special imprint allows select ordained men to act in the person of Christ the Head. The prime way priests act in Persona Christi is by the confecting of the Eucharist. According to the Council Fathers, “The ministry of priests is directed to this and finds its consummation in it (PO art. 2). A more thorough treatment of this topic will be addressed later in the paper.
Though the sacrificial nature of the priesthood seems to be highly spiritual and sacramental, priests are not to be aloof from the world. On the contrary, the conciliar document proclaims that, while being “set apart” in a specific way from the People of God, they are not detached from humanity (PO art. 3). Christ came to live in among men in all ways but sin, in order to save all men. Priests are called to live in a similar way. “Their very ministry makes a special claim on them not to conform themselves to this world; still it requires at the same time that they should live among men in this world as good shepherds,” declare the Council Fathers (PO art. 3).
The Ministry of Priests
After learning about the nature of the priesthood, the ministry of priests can be addressed. A major component of their office is the role priests carry out for the Church. “For since nobody can be saved who has not first believed, it is the first task of priests as co-workers of the bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all men,” states the conciliar text (PO art. 4). Easily overlooked as a priestly function solely done from the pulpit, priests are not called to preach to their congregation in that way alone. Through both word and deed priests spread the gospel message to all.
Reflecting on this point calls to mind a talk I had with my cousin about preaching the gospel as a priest. He recently got ordained, but our talk occurred during his time in seminary. My cousin shared his fears about sharing the gospel in everyday concrete situations with his future parishioners. He worried his shyness would hinder the spreading of the gospel to others. However, the decree on the ministry and life of priests says, “Thus the ministry of the Word is exercised in many different ways according to the needs of the hearers and the spiritual gifts of preachers” (PO art. 4). I assured my cousin, that charisms given to him by the Father would assist in preaching to meet his parishioners’ needs.
Instruments of God
Besides the task of ministering the Word of God to all mankind, priests share in the unique priesthood of Christ. Through the special grace received by the Holy Spirit during the sacraments of Orders, priests are able to administer sacraments to make Christ present to individual assemblies of the faithful. This is most perfectly done with the celebration of the Eucharist. “Hence priests teach the faithful to offer the divine victim to God the Father in the sacrifice of the Mass and with the victim to make an offering of their whole life, proclaim the Council Fathers (PO art. 5).
During the Rite of Ordination to the Priesthood, the newly ordained men receive a paten and chalice from the bishop. These items demonstrate the importance and primacy of the priest’s role in confecting the Eucharist. After my cousin’s ordination when asked about the most important function of the priest, he mentioned that consecrating the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ as being the “most basic and essential role a priest can ever do”.
Daily Devotions of a Priest
Liturgy of the Hours also holds an important place in a priest’s daily life. Clergy are required to pray at least five times a day. “By their fulfillment of the Divine Office priests themselves should extend to the different hours of the day the praise and thanksgiving they offer in celebration of the Eucharist,” states the conciliar document (PO art. 5). Through the official prayer of the Church, priests pray to God on behalf of the Church. For me, this shows how much of a priest’s work goes unnoticed. Until a few years ago, I lacked an adequate understanding of the Divine Office and never knew bishops and priests were bound to recite five “hours” daily.
In addition to administering the sacraments, priests constantly strive for holiness in their personal lives. To aid them the Church gives them a prescription for saying Liturgy of the Hours on a regular basis. It is through liturgical prayer that priests continue to offer thanksgiving to God daily.
Along with the liturgical function of the priest, they are also given authority given by Christ to lead God’s people. As mentioned by the Council Fathers, “For the exercise of this ministry, as for the rest of the priests’ functions, a spiritual power is given them, a power whose purpose is to build up” (Po art. 6). But this building up of the Church must be done in charity.
Role of Teaching the Faithful
Instructing the laity in Christian doctrine becomes another essential task for the priest. “Very little good will be achieved by ceremonies however beautiful, or societies however flourishing, if they are not directed towards educating people to reach Christian maturity,” states the Second Vatican Council (PO art. 6). Priests should provide service to people both individually and communally. Regarding the former, priests have a special duty to care for the elderly and infirmed. For the latter, article 6 of the document reiterates the importance and centrality that the Eucharist has in building up the Christian community.
One final point on this topic that I found interesting pertained to a priest’s inability to take a political stance. The text declares, “In building up a community of Christians, priests can never be the servants of any human ideology or party” (PO art. 6). For in publicly advocating a certain political agenda, there is a potential for priests to succumb to the logic and notions of the temporal world. They should be promoting the Gospel message to all people, not getting wrapped up in passing ideologies.
While the ministry of the priesthood often involves interaction with the laity, priests have a relationship with the clergy as well. A unity exists among priests and their bishop by nature of the Sacrament of Orders.
Unity in the Person of Christ
Due to the sharing of the same priesthood, bishops should respect their priests as brothers and friends (PO art. 7). Furthermore, those holding episcopal offices are urged to listen to the needs of their priests. But the relationship does not work one-way. “Priests for their part should keep in mind the fullness of the sacrament of Order which bishops enjoy and should reverence in their persons the authority of Christ the supreme Pastor,” demands the conciliar text (PO art. 7).
At my cousin’s Ordination Mass, after the examination of the candidates they pledged obedience to the local bishop. Many family members asked my cousin which parish he would be assigned to. In response he said, “Wherever my bishop decides to place me”. A priest obeying the bishop is necessary to maintaining proper management of a diocese and preventing confusion in doctrine.
The Priestly Life
Now that the ministerial aspect of the priesthood has been addressed, the rest of the paper will expound upon the life of priests. From the onset of the third chapter of Presbyterorum ordinis, the call of priests to holiness is emphasized. As the gospel of Matthew puts it, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (PO art. 12). It is through a holy life that priests garner a fruitful fulfillment of their ministry. Specifically, they obtain holiness through the threefold exercise of their priestly office─ priest, prophet, and king.
Regarding the priests’ sacrificial function, the work of our salvation is continually carried out. Because of this, the Council Fathers strongly encourage daily celebration of the Eucharist by priests (PO art. 13). Moreover, they are called to be available for administering Confession whenever a member of the faithful reasonably requests. I think that all Catholics need to read this portion of the document, for it concretely states that the laity has the option to ask for Penance at any time, as long it is a reasonable time.
Oftentimes, Catholics miss out on this sacrament. They might make the excuse that their schedules do not match up with allotted confessional times. A priest’s purpose is to serve the congregation in a sacramental way. He does this by striving to always assist those in need as best as possible.
Prophetic Office of the Clergy
The second distinguishing way priests attain holiness is through exercising their prophetic office. This can be done through daily reading of the scriptures. “If they strive at the same time to make it part of their own lives, they will became daily more perfect disciples of the Lord,” proclaims the document (PO art. 13). In addition to mediating upon the Word of God, priests are called to teach to faithful what they read. A homily is a great way for priests to instruct their parishioners on the message contained in Sunday’s scripture passages.
Lastly, the kingly role of priests relates to how they govern and direct the People of God. An image that the Council Fathers drew upon with respect to this function was Christ the Good Shepherd. Like a shepherd that guides and cares for his sheep, priests need to develop a similar care for their parishioners. The conciliar text says, “They [priests] set up a steadfast hope for their faithful people, so that they may be able to comfort all who are in distress by the exhortation wherewith God also exhorts them” (PO art. 13). Priests are called to be sacrificial putting their congregation over themselves.
Spiritual Gifts Priests Receive
Priests also rely on several spiritual gifts in daily life to assist them in carrying out ministerial work. Among the first virtues mentioned by the Council is humility. The Council Fathers proclaim, “Therefore the true minister of Christ is conscious of his own weakness and labors in humility” (PO art. 15). As the Church’s representative of Christ, it makes sense that such a virtue is expected of priests. Jesus humbled himself by taking on the form of man and served his disciples. Likewise priests are called to serve the faithful.
A second virtue in the priest’s arsenal for holiness is obedience. Only through complete union within the hierarchical system of the Church can a priest’s ministry come to full fruition. Practically speaking, this includes reverence towards their bishop and the Pope and submitting to their will. The conciliar document concisely explains the significance of these two spiritual gifts in a priest’s life, “By this humility and by responsible and willing obedience priests conform themselves to Christ. They reproduce the sentiment of Jesus Christ who ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a servant …and became obedient unto death’” (PO art. 15).
A key gift to the priesthood along with the virtues of humility and obedience is celibacy. On this point, many people contest the necessity for priests to maintain a celibate life after being ordained. The Council even states that the nature of the priesthood does not mandate celibacy (PO art. 16). For a time married priests existed in the Western Church. Yet, tradition from the early Church, even in the Eastern churches, bishops practiced chaste living. Moreover, the conciliar text gives a multitude of reasons why celibacy is in harmony with the priesthood. For instance, “By preserving virginity or celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven priests are consecrated in a new and excellent way to Christ”, declares the Council Fathers (PO art. 16).
Furthermore, as an eschatological anticipation of Heaven, celibacy represents undivided loyalty to the Church. Married to the Church, priests are fitted into a broader fatherhood in Christ, by which the People of God become their spiritual children (PO art. 16).
Time for More Married Priests?
A common hindrance to those contemplating the priesthood, in the Latin rites, revolves around the inability to marry and have kids of their own. But viewing celibacy in this way helps a person better understand the Church’s perspective. I have friends in the seminary who have struggled with that very issue about family and children. Ultimately what got them through such struggles was studying the Church’s teaching and understanding on celibacy.
In addition to the spiritual gifts, priests need some external and practical aids in their life. During the rite of ordination, the bishop commands the new priests to be highly educated and ready to answer questions presented by future parishioners. To meet this need, they should pursue continued study, aided first and foremost by sacred Scripture (PO art. 19).
Another concrete help for priests in daily living is a just compensation for their work. The Council Fathers continue by saying, “Moreover, priests’ remuneration should be such as to allow the priest a proper holiday each year. The bishop should see to it that priests are able to have this holiday” (PO art. 20). This struck me as the most interesting of all the articles in Presbyterorum ordinis. Usually the words vacation and priest are never uttered in the same breath. However, I think that Council Fathers saw the importance of pointing out that priests need rest just like any normal human. Even the Lord demanded that people be repaid fairly for their hard work.
Renewed Appreciation for the Priesthood
A pessimist might view the Second Vatican Council as a complete failure for the Church. Confusion about doctrine and a dwindling number of priests occurred in the years following the council. While a contradiction between the intention of the conciliar texts and its application in the world ensued─ hope is not lost. At the end of the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, the Council Fathers reiterate Christ’s consoling words, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (PO 22).
Along with continual reliance on the Lord, a keen study of Presbyterorum ordinis will create a deeper love and appreciation for the priesthood in the faithful’s hearts. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium seeks to properly implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. For when executed correctly, the understanding of the conciliar teaching will foster an ecclesial environment with fruitful vocations, especially those to the priesthood.
Messori, Vittorio. The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985. Print.
Second Vatican Council, Presbyterorum ordinis: The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (7 December 1965).
Schoenherr, Richard A. “Numbers Don’t Lie: A Priesthood in Irreversible Decline.” Commonweal 122 (1995): 11-14. Print.