Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted via email communication in August 2019. Some of the answers provided by the interviewee were edited to provide clarity for the reader. The integrity of Fr. Matthew Schneider’s answers was not compromised in the editing process.
What challenges do you face as a priest with autism?
My religious community tends to take on other ministries more often. I was the chaplain and on the formation team at a K-12 school for the 2013-2014 school year. I recognized I had not had a perfect year, but I figured everything was within the learning curve of being new to a certain type of ministry. However, the school administration thought otherwise. They asked that another priest from the community take over after a year of what was supposed to be a 3 or 6 year assignment.
The administration also suggested I might have Asperger’s. I felt devastated but it hindsight this is a blessing as it lead to a diagnosis about 16 months later in January 2016. After that, I was transferred to working more behind the scenes on a few projects for my religious community – preparing a course, local administration, and the national communications – while studying grad theology part time and helping out with the sacraments at our retreat center and a few parishes.
How did the parishioners react when found out you were diagnosed with autism?
The regulars at the retreat center knew me kind of like a parish and they responded quite well. They didn’t really ask too many questions and just accepted the diagnosis when I explained it to them.
Given my situation, one family at the retreat center approached me as they have several autistic children. However, the mother of that family has already managed to get most things in order for her family at Mass, etc. so I probably learned as much from her as I helped her.
What challenges did you face after your ASD diagnosis?
As far as challenges, I definitely have some. I realize that I am not great at reading people. This has a lot of side effects regarding how I approach a lot of things. Right now, I am earning my doctorate in hopes be of service to the Church as a writer or teacher.
I’m more insistent on a confessional screen as I have trouble reading faces which people often expect in face-to-face confession. Also a few times, I’ve struggled with hearing confessions with talking going on in the background like at parishes missions or big events. Usually this issue was resolved by moving somewhere the preacher was not so loud.
How ASD ever affected your approach to the Liturgy?
As far as liturgy, I don’t think it has affected it too much. A “normal” Mass doesn’t set off any sensory difficulties for me. I do tend to prefer a more structured liturgy as opposed to a free-form or charismatic type. I tend to say the black and do the red while tending to simplicity in songs.
Fr. Matthew wants to help you experience Jesus and become his apostle.
He is a priest with the Legionaries of Christ ordained in 2013, and lives in the Philadelphia metro area where he studies at theology doctorate and helps out with a few ministries. Fr. Matthew is also one of the top priests on social media with over 75,000 followers and writes a blog on Patheos. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Fr. Matthew has worked throughout North America.
According to the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, “Raising children is an uncertain thing; success is reached only after a life of battle and worry.” Written over 2,000 years ago, that advice remains ever relevant and new. Parenting feels like a daily battle. Frustrations brew, chaos ensues, and bedtime routine feels like WWIII.
More often than not, my anger gets the best of me. Fatherhood takes a lot of work. Some days I make excuses to not put in the work. Failure and faux pas have became habit. I desire a reset. A new beginning. I want to do better. Become something better. Become someone better for me kids.
Thankfully, I don’t have to look [or travel] that far for the remedy.
The Sacrament of Confession provides Catholics an opportunity to be forgiven and restore one’s relationship with God and their neighbor. St. Isidore of Seville wrote, “Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin, all hope consists in confession; in confession there is a chance for mercy.”
This school year my oldest child receives his First Confession and Eucharist. Next week he will receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. My wife and I have been going through the religious education lessons to prepare him for an understanding and proper disposition to receive the sacrament of healing. In teaching him the basics about this sacrament, I too, actually learned something about Confession.
The Simpler Is Better
Albert Einstein famously quipped, “If you can’t explain it to a six–year–old, you don’t understand it yourself.” It definitely takes a talent to be able to articulate the complexities of the Catholic faith to young minds. This is something I struggle with a bit, but I am getting better. I am used to writing about theology or discussing the faith with adults are the audience.
Less is more. I never actually understand that phrase until after going through these lessons with my son. Sometimes discussion about the sacraments can get bogged down with technical jargon or bias. Essentially the main questions kids and new converts to the faith wonder include:
What are sacraments?
Why are sacraments important?
How do I receive the sacraments
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1131, “The sacraments are efficacious [effective] signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.” To put it is more basic terms, a sacrament is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace. By receiving the sacraments we grow closer to God.
A Brief History of Sin and Salvation
Adam and Eve disobeyed God. This disobedience caused sin to enter into the world. Sin separates us from God. God sent His only Son Jesus to restore that relationship through his death on the Cross. Before Jesus’ Ascension he promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Apostles. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit met the Apostles and gave them the ability to preach the Gospel.
The Apostles, the first bishops, ordained their successors. This Apostolic succession continued throughout history. Jesus gave Peter and the rest of the Apostles the authority to forgive sins (see John 20:1-23) and consecrate the Eucharist. Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the successors of the Apostles (bishops) ordain men as priests. Jesus Christ works through those men in the Sacraments of Confession and Eucharist.
We explained to our son that Jesus is working through the priest. When he will confess his sins to our priest it will actually be Jesus that he will be talking to and it will be Jesus who forgives sins. The priest is an instrument by which God works through.
Another lesson I [re]learned in preparing my son for the Sacrament of Confession, is that everyone is in need of God’s mercy. “Even the pope goes to confession!” I told my eight-year-old. I went on to tell him about Saint Pope John XXII who received that sacrament daily.
Although the sacrament of Baptism cleanses us from original sin, humans still have the ability to freely choose to love or to not love God. Choosing to not love God or others results in sin or separation. As a father, I am definitely reminded of my need for forgiveness. Patience does not come naturally. It is a virtue tested daily, hourly, and sometimes every minute in the Chicoine household.
Being able to tell Jesus through the priest of my failures as a parent, husband, friend, worker, and neighbor is an incredible gift. Even more incredible is God’s mercy of absolving me from my past sins.
Reaping the Fruit of Our Sacramental Marriage
The third thing I learned about the Catholic faith while teaching my son about Confession is that the Holy Spirit delays certain gifts and gives them at key times in our life. My wife and I received the Sacrament of Matrimony in 2010. We took [and still take] our faith seriously. The primary purpose of marriage is to help the spouses grow in holiness.
According to the Catechism paragraph 1661,
The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1799).
In my post Toddlers: An Adorable Trace of the Trinity I wrote, “A fruit of the sacrament of marriage is children…I think of my children as the best gift that God has given me personally to grow in virtue daily.” Kids test your love. They give you opportunities to grow in understanding, patience, kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and gratitude to name just a few virtues. Educating our children about the faith provides my wife and I chances to rekindle our love for the Church and Christ.
If you are experiencing doubt, impatience, anger, resentment, worry, or other vices I strongly encourage you to examine your conscience and ask God for forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession. Build up the Body of Christ and seek God’s mercy!
In the modern world “reform” is a frequently used word. During the 2008 presidential election, a major issue was the reform of the United States healthcare system. Currently, violent revolutions occurring in Libya and Egypt cause people to call for political reform. The modern world frequently criticizes the Church. Many people believe that the Church should update its doctrine by permitting gay marriage and contraceptive use.
The Church is Incarnational
Though being a human institution, the Church has a Divine aspect, and is guided by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, all of its doctrines are immutable and Her truths are eternal. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the “liturgy as the sacred action par excellence is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed and it is likewise the font from which all her powers flow.” So the Church desires liturgical worship focused on God rid of excesses that deter from that goal.
Papal authority throughout the centuries advocated liturgical reform when abuses crept in. A prime example of this can be found in the 6th century with Pope Gregory the Great. He made several changes to the Roman Rite in response to heretical groups which caused some bishops to become scrupulous with prayer texts.
Another instance of immense liturgical reform occurred in the 16th century when the Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant Reformation, sought to elucidate the Catholic doctrine, in particular the sacraments and reaffirming the Sacrificial nature of the Mass. While successful in clarifying the Church’s teaching, the rigidities of Trent led to decay in liturgical participation among the laity.
Context for Liturgical Reform
Within the 20th century, the 2nd Vatican Council provided the renewal needed for the liturgy of the Roman rite. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium states, “The liturgy builds up those who are in the Church, making of them a holy temple of the Lord, a dwelling-place for God in the Spirit, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Because of the importance of the liturgy, the Council required that reforms should be made and practical norms established. Yet, the reform decrees found in the conciliar document did not develop in isolation. Rather, liturgical reform was several years in the making. Starting as a pastoral movement, the Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century began in monastic centers and sought to return piety to the liturgy. It gained papal impetus through Pius XI’s Divini cultus in 1928 and Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei in 1948.
Since the liturgy’s development is organic, many of the renewal efforts of the Liturgical Movement pushed for a return to earlier Christian liturgical elements such as: an increased focus on the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice, better use of Scripture reading, greater emphasis on Gregorian chant and promotion of active participation among the laity. Ultimately, these concerns were addressed and declared by the Church in the 2nd Vatican Council.
A brief liturgical history from the Reformation to the 20th century will help to put the Liturgical Movement into perspective. Protestant reformers rejected not only the abuses of the Church, but the medieval liturgy as well. Dustan Tucker viewed the Reformation as “essentially an anti-liturgical revolution”.
Council of Trent and the Liturgy
The Council of Trent responded by criticizing such departures from Tradition. Pope Paul V declared, in the papal bull Quo primum, a return to the rite of the Early Fathers. This included removing lengthy and unnecessary prayers, ornate elements, and superstitious piety from the Mass. Soon after Trent, the Church implemented this reform. From 1568-1570 the Tridentine Missal and Breviary took shape. Requirements to pray the office of the Blessed Virgin and of the dead were lifted. General rubrics at the beginning of the missal provided uniformity in worship.
For the next few centuries there was stability in liturgical reform. However, abuses in the liturgy still arose. For instance, the number of feast days increased from 182 to 300 between 1584 and 1903. Many started to take priority over Sunday. Several attempts at reform failed during the three centuries preceding the Liturgical Movement.
Influence of Prosper Gueranger
Liturgical study blossomed within monastic communities in France in the 19th century. The Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes, in France, housed one of the early promoters of the European liturgical movement, Prosper Gueranger. He advocated a return to Gregorian chant as the authorized liturgical music for the Church. By the 1870s, his fellow monks researched chant manuscripts and desired to purify the texts to their original content. Gueranger made liturgy the center of monastic life.
Despite his positive contributions, he never encouraged the essential liturgical principle full and active participation by the whole congregation. Despite this, reform in France soon found its way to Germany and later Belgium around the turn of the century.
Though Gueranger had an important part in the liturgical reform in Europe, many historians acknowledge the movement’s true founder as the Belgian Benedictine, Dom Lambert. Beauduin. A speech given by him at the Catholic Conference at Malines in 1909 marked the beginning of the Liturgical Movement.
Pius X and Spread of Liturgical Reform
Influenced by Pius X’s motu proprio, Beuduin called for complete and active participation of all Christians within the liturgy. He wanted to reach beyond the people of Belgium to all Catholics. To accomplish this, Beuduin wrote a missal for the laity. Later he organized his abbey to provide liturgical education and even published a journal, Les Questions liturgiques.
The Liturgical Movement soon spread beyond Germany, France, and Belgium. As the century continued, the liturgical reform came to the Netherlands in 1911 and Italy in 1914 and eventually throughout the rest of Europe.
The liturgical movement traveled across the Atlantic in 1926, under the efforts of Virgil Michel. As a student of Beuduin, he sought to promote liturgical piety in the United States. To endorse the movement, Michel founded the journal Orate Fratres and Liturgical Press at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. He once said, “Should not every devoted Catholic try to the utmost of his power to participate actively in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to follow the priest in mind and heart, to pray with him and act with him?”
Origin of 20th Century Liturgical Reform
While the liturgical movement originated and grew forth from the monastic centers in Europe, the Holy See was not detached from this development. At the beginning of the century, in 1903, Pius X held the liturgy in high esteem. In his motu proprio, Tra le sollecitudini, the pope referred to the liturgy as “the Church’s most important and indispensible source.” Papal support continued with Pius XI’s apostolic constitution Divini cultus in 1928. Released on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Pius X’s motu proprio, this document advocated an increased need for reform in liturgical music. The pope declared,
For the Liturgy is indeed a sacred thing, since by it we are raised to God and united to Him, thereby professing our faith and our deep obligation to Him for the benefits we have received and the help of which we stand in constant need. There is thus a close connection between dogma and the sacred Liturgy, and between Christian worship and the sanctification of the faithful.
Pius XI also states that task of the popes are to maintain the Liturgy like a custodian. In his 1924 bull Inter multiplices, he warned the Church of the dangers of modernism and upheld the notion of the liturgical growth as an organic development. Read in light of Divini cultus, the papal bull is not an ultramontane claim of papal power over the liturgy. Rather it is a warning to prevent liturgical reform from falling victim to antiquarianism.
Pius XII’s Mediator Dei
Papal impetus to the Liturgical Movement continued under Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei. Written in November 1947, this document solidified the relationship between the movement and the Holy See. The encyclical gave the Liturgical Movement official papal approval, yet at the same time warned against liturgical abuses. Mediator Dei became the first encyclical dedicated solely to the liturgy.
In defining the Sacred Liturgy and affirming liturgical piety as the center of the Christian life, Pius XII’s encyclical is viewed as the Magna Carta that set up the general reform in Sacrosanctum concilium. The conciliar document’s theme of the presence of Christ in the liturgy is declared in Mediator Dei. “In obedience, therefore, to her Founder’s behest, the Church prolongs the priestly mission of Jesus Christ mainly by means of the Sacred Liturgy, states Pius XII. This displays a striking similarity to a passage in Sacrosanctum concilium regarding the presence of Christ in the liturgy. According to the conciliar text, “The liturgy, then, is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ”.
Sacrifice of the Mass
Another major point given by Pius XII is the fact that the Liturgy should be seen as a sacrificial act. The salvific effects of Christ’s sacrifice are explained by the pope, “…it can be said that on Calvary Christ built a font of purification and salvation which He filled with the Blood He shed; but if men do not bathe in it and there wash away the stains of their iniquities, they can never be purified and saved.” By placing such stress on the sacrificial nature of the Mass, Pius hoped to prevent the faithful from error in viewing the liturgy exclusively as a memorial banquet.Sacrosanctum concilium reaffirmed the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice as well.
Practical Liturgical Reforms
Along with a deeper understanding in theology of the Mass, the Liturgical Movement also promoted pragmatic reform such as active participation for the laity. “The cooperation of the faithful is required so that sinners may be individually purified in the Blood of the Lamb,” stated Pius XII. Such cooperation could be facilitated by involving the laity. As previously mentioned, promotion of active participation started in the monasteries during the late 19th century. Publication of missals for the laity ensued at the turn of the century. This allowed them to follow along through prayer responses and singing along in the “dialogue Mass”.
A large majority within the Liturgical Movement agreed that the preferred understanding of the liturgy could not be reached until more vernacular was infused into the Mass. Many of the early pioneers of the movement such as Michel advocated for vernacular usage in the Mass. German bishops asked the Holy See, in 1949, to allow the epistle and gospel reading to be in the common language. By the 1950s more papal allowances permitted vernacular usage in the liturgy.Musicae sacrae disciplina, Pius XII’s encyclical on liturgical music granted hymns during Mass to be sung in the language of laity.
Issues with the Vernacular
Not all involved in the Liturgical Movement agreed on the amount of vernacular to be introduced into the liturgy. Many groups, like the English Liturgy Society in particular, welcomed the use of the vernacular and believed it should replace Latin in many rites including: baptism, anointing of the sick, and funerals.
An issue from usage of common language, raised by H.A. Reinhold, is faulty translations. He stated, “What I am personally afraid of …is a ‘commission’ of professors who know all about their fields but do not speak the language of the people…And that would be worse than what we have now, because it would falsify the spirit of our Roman Liturgy.”
Loss of meaning occurs when translating a biblical text into various languages. “The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth,” proclaimed Pius XII on the importance of keeping Latin in the liturgy.
Another aim of liturgical reform in the 20th century dealt with sacred music. The Liturgical Movement sought a restoration to an unadulterated Gregorian chant. In the previous century, a method for renewal in sacred music began in Abbey of Solesmes. Here monks researched liturgical music and undertook the reinstatement of Gregorian chant in the Mass. While support for this style of music lacked uniformity, the majority in the movement endorsed Gregorian chant. In his motu proprio, Pius X called it the “supreme model for sacred music.”
Participation in the Mass
Further promotion of this style occurred with Divini cultus by which Pius XI encouraged an end to “silent spectators” and urged an active participation among the laity. “In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be made once more to sing the Gregorian chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it,” the pope stated. His predecessor’s encyclical Musicae sacrae disciplina reaffirmed Pius X’s motu proprio. At the same time, Pius XII’s document displayed openness to development in sacred music. Yet, music must not become profane for the sake of mere exhibition in the liturgy. Rather, sacred music is an integral part of liturgy and must be given a high honor.
Lay Involvement with the Liturgy
Besides the external elements of the liturgy, the Liturgical Movement encouraged inward participation of the laity during Mass. According to Romano Guardini, the chief goal of the liturgy is not concerned with individuals showing reverence towards God. He states,
The liturgy is the Church’s public and lawful act of worship. It is performed and conducted by the officials whom the Church herself has designated for the post— her priests. In the liturgy God is to be honored by the body of the faithful, and the latter is in its turn to derive sanctification from this act of worship. Here the Catholic conception of worship in common sharply differs from the predominately individualistic Protestant style of worship.
In Mediator Dei, the pope encouraged Christian participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass. Such involvement takes place in laity’s offering of the bread and wine and of alms to the priest. Upon their behalf the priest offers the sacrifice. Through the liturgy and their sacrificial offerings the Christian becomes more attentive to the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Second Vatican Council
The activities of the Liturgical Movement culminated in the 20th century with the Second Vatican Council. Here the nature of the Church became better clarified. The Constitution, Sacrosanctum concilium, expanded upon the advocated reforms by the previous council. The conciliar document’s stress on the presence of Christ in the liturgy also harked back to Pius XII’s Mediator Dei.
Regarding Holy Scripture, in the 1950s, the movement sought for greater emphasis placed on the Word in the liturgy. Pius XII granted limited sanctions by having the epistle and gospel read in the vernacular, but only after said in Latin first. This allowed for greater attentiveness in Mass. Sacrosanctum concilium continued such reform in permitting use of the common language in places like the readings and some prayers. But the document still maintained to keep the Latin language as the norm in the liturgy.
Mystical Body of Christ
Another theme found in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the Nature of the Church as the Mystical Body. About twenty years prior to the council, the encyclical Mystici corporis christi examined the Pauline concept of the Church being the body of Christ. This provided great insight on the nature of the Church. Like the monks from Solemes and the popes, especially Pius X, the Council held sacred music with high esteem. Sacrosanctum concilium decreed, “The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride and place in liturgical services.” Furthermore, the document declares that the liturgy’s development must be organic. “Therefore no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority,” asserts Sacrosanctum concilium.
It is God who “wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” Through liturgical worship humans are sanctified and receive Christ in the Eucharist. Yet, because of the human aspect of the Church, abuses have entered into the liturgy. Because of this, reform is constantly needed. In the twentieth century, this renewal came in the form of the Liturgical Movement.
Established first in monastic hubs in Europe, the movement eventually gained papal momentum from the encyclicals Divini cultus and Mediator Dei. They promoted a return to early Christian liturgical practices and encouraged more usage of Scripture, Gregorian chant, and active participation of the laity during the Mass.
Cabie, Robert, and Aime Georges Martimort. “The Celebration of the Eucharist in the West from the Council of Trent to Vatican Council II.” In The Church at prayer: an introduction to the liturgy. New ed. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1988. 173-185.
Chupungco, Anscar J. Handbook for Liturgical Studies: Introduction to the Liturgy. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997.
Flannery, Austin. Vatican Council II: the Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents. New revised ed. Dublin; Northport, NY: Dominican Publications; Costello, 1996.
Guardini, Romano. The Spirit of the Liturgy. New York, N.Y: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998.
Jounel, P. “From the Council of Trent to Vatican Council II.” In The Church at Prayer Volume 1: Principles of the Liturgy. New ed. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987. 63-84.
Pius XII. Mediator Dei: On the Sacred Liturgy. Encyclical Letter. Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1947.
Reid, Alcuin. The Organic Development of the Liturgy: the Principles of liturgical Reform and their Relation to the Twentieth-century Liturgical Movement prior to the second Vatican Council. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005.
Smith, Fidelis . “”Musicae Sacrae Discplina”: Pius XII’s Encyclical on Sacred Music .” The Musical Quarterly 43, no. 4 (1957): 461-479.
The Veneration and Administration of the Eucharist: the Proceedings of the Second International Colloquium on the Roman Catholic Liturgy organised by the Centre International d’Etudes Liturgiques. Southampton: Saint Austin Press, 1997.
 Ernest B. Koenker, “Objectives and Achievements of the Liturgical Movement in the Roman Catholic Church since World War II,” Church History 20, 2 (1951), 15.
 Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963), 2.
 Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy: the Principles of liturgical Reform and their Relation to the Twentieth-century Liturgical Movement prior to the second Vatican Council 2nd Ed.( San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005), 39.
The Veneration and Administration of the Eucharist: the Proceedings of the Second International Colloquium on the Roman Catholic Liturgy organised by the Centre International d’Etudes Liturgiques. (Southampton: Saint Austin Press, 1997), 123.
 RobertCabié and Aimé Georges Martimort, “The Celebration of the Eucharist in the West from the Council of Trent to Vatican Council II.” In The Church at prayer: an introduction to the liturgy, New ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1988), 183
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.