Does the nature of the priesthood matter? I found myself pondering this question along with some friends of mine when it came out last week that my bishop was allowing the Episcopalians to use one of our Catholic parishes for the invalid consecration of a woman to the office of bishop. A public outcry ensued, and in a great act of charity on the part of the Episcopalians, they graciously decided to move the ceremony to another church; presumably one where their doctrine of holy orders is not as diametrically opposed as it is to our own. They did not want to cause division within our ranks, which is absolutely to their credit.
In light of this situation, serious questions arose about the nature of the priesthood. Does it matter how we understand the ministerial priesthood? Do we have an obligation to defend and protect the dignity of the priesthood?
If we are serious about how the Catholic Church understands her priesthood—which is that it is reserved for men alone because it was instituted by Christ at the Last Supper and that an ontological change takes place at ordination which allows them to act in persona Christ—then it should matter how we approach the priesthood as Catholics and in our relationships with our Protestant brothers and sisters.
Confusion Among Us
It’s becoming more apparent that there is very real confusion about what the priesthood actually is and how it is to be understood — by not only the laity, but by many priests themselves. For decades, priests have largely been reduced to glorified social workers or administrators and fundraisers. Every diocese has the priests everyone knows are moved around because they know how to raise money.
This may be necessary, but it also serves to undermine the nature of the priesthood and those priests in their mission. It creates cynicism among the flock and further widens the laity’s misunderstanding of who a priest is meant to be in their lives. Is he a fundraiser and administrator or is he primarily an alter Christus and spiritual father who is supposed to be calling and leading us into communion with the Most Holy Trinity so that we can become saints?
Most average parishioners would probably not have a lot to say about their priest except he is a “nice guy” and leave it at that. The problem with this superficial and dismissive reading of him is that it means the priest is not able to fully execute his office of teaching, governing, and sanctifying because his own flock does not understand his role. Being a “nice guy” who is “always busy” is decidedly not what his sacred office means. This also means that, rather than seeing their priests as holy men who are leading them into deeper communion with the Trinity by their example, the priest is reduced to a functionary or pure instrument. But when the priest is just the man who allows parishioners to fulfill their Sunday obligation and go on their merry way, then something is missing.
Central to the Priesthood
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is central to the priesthood. It is the very reason the priesthood exists in order to proclaim the Word of God and to confect the Holy Eucharist. This is—united with the celebration of the other Sacraments and their call to pastoral charity—the mission entrusted to them by God. They are called to love the flock with the heart of the Good Shepherd and to lay down their lives in His service unto the Cross.
As Kevin Wells explains in his book The Priests We Need to Save the Church, “the priest is called to be a libation united to Christ on the Cross continually offered for the flock.” Their mission is the salvation of souls. They share in Christ’s salvific work through their ordination.
When a priest is reduced to administrator or social worker, this central role is minimized, and it shows. Understanding the priesthood in such a utilitarian fashion is part of the reason we are in the mess we are in in the Church today. Parishioners see their priests as “extremely busy”, but typically due to administrative tasks, not because he is spending extended periods of time in prayer or at the hospital serving the sick.
Much of this is outside of the priest’s control and is as much a source of frustration for them as it is for us in the laity. In fact, most of what is going on in the priesthood is not necessarily the fault of the priests themselves, since much of it has to do with how dioceses are operated and the formation they were offered in seminary.
When the priest’s role is detached from the clear mission given by Christ, we cannot be surprised when there is so much confusion about the nature of priesthood within the Church. What is often missing between priests and the faithful is an encounter with Christ through the person of the priest.
By virtue of the ontological change that takes place in a man upon his ordination, a priest is the first opportunity for the faithful to learn how to see Christ in another person. We are called to see Christ in all people, but it is much more tangible in priests when their role is rightly understood and lived.
The central role of the priest is word, sacrament, and pastoral charity (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 26). This role, along with his prayer life, should supersede any administrative tasks that are required. Yes, they need to be done, but do all of them need to be done by the priest or could they be done by members of the laity with those gifts? Priests extending themselves to their very limits for the salvation of souls is what they are called to, but far too many are over-extended by tasks that have very little to do with their sacred office or their own spiritual development and the spiritual needs of the flock. Much of this is dependent on bishops, rather than priests, since they are beholden to how their particular diocese is run.
To minimize the sacred role of priests very quickly leads to a loss of the need to protect it from error. If it is of no consequence, and priests are merely social workers or administrators, then why get up in arms about an invalid consecration of a woman in one of our churches? I know my own bishop knows better than this, but many in the laity do not know understand the priesthood, and the truth is, some priests may not. This means the faithful are easily led astray by contradictory actions or teachings.
Rather than a strong defense and reverence for the priesthood, many Catholics do not understand why it matters that only men can be priests, why the Latin celibacy requirement is of deep significance, and the connection between Christ in the priest and the Sacraments. They do not understand that in each Mass they not only encounter Christ in the Eucharist, they encounter him in the priest. Support of activities that directly contradict the Church’s doctrine of holy orders further scandalizes the faithful and separates them even more from who the priest is meant to be, and most importantly, who he represents.
Allowing an invalid consecration of a woman—even though it was not going to be within the Catholic hierarchy—to take place in one of our parishes goes to the very heart of the priesthood, which then goes to the very heart the Holy Eucharist. The priesthood cannot be understood apart from the Holy Eucharist. If we undermine the priesthood, then we undermine the Holy Eucharist, which is why nearly 70% of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. There are limits as to what we should do as Catholics in the name of unity and ecumenism. Undermining the priesthood further in an age of scandal and corruption does even more damage.
Thankfully, the event was moved and even greater confusion avoided, but many of the faithful in the diocese were frustrated about the scandal that arose from it because of our deep love for the priesthood and because we are already carrying the heavy weight of the sins of the hierarchy. We don’t want to see further damage done to priests and the priesthood.
We Should All Defend the Dignity of the Priesthood
Defending the dignity and sacred nature of the priesthood should be a priority for our leaders. They should be leading the faithful into a deeper understanding of what their call to holy orders means, not supporting actions that further sow confusion. It means protecting and defending the priesthood from error. It also necessitates providing for the spiritual welfare and well-being of our priests and a return to the central mission of the priesthood.
Now is the time to reclaim the sacred role of the priest and defend the dignity of the priesthood. Priests are not primarily administrators, social workers, or fundraisers. They are not just the “nice guy” in vestments greeting them on Sunday. They are men called by God to lay down their lives in His service for the sake of the flock, so that all peoples may enter into communion with the Most Holy Trinity. They are called to be Christ in a Fallen world.
My children, we have come to the Sacrament of Orders. It is a Sacrament which seems to relate to no one among you, and which yet relates to everyone. This Sacrament raises man up to God. What is a priest! A man who holds the place of God — a man who is invested with all the powers of God. “Go,” said Our Lord to the priest; “as My Father sent Me, I send you. All power has been given Me in Heaven and on earth. Go then, teach all nations. . . . He who listens to you, listens to Me; he who despises you despises Me.” When the priest remits sins, he does not say, “God pardons you”; he says, “I absolve you.” At the Consecration, he does not say, “This is the Body of Our Lord;” he says, “This is My Body.”
Saint Bernard tells us that everything has come to us through Mary; and we may also say that everything has come to us through the priest; yes, all happiness, all graces, all heavenly gifts. If we had not the Sacrament of Orders, we should not have Our Lord. Who placed Him there, in that tabernacle? It was the priest. Who was it that received your soul, on its entrance into life? The priest. Who nourishes it, to give it strength to make its pilgrimage? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, by washing that soul, for the last time, in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest — always the priest. And if that soul comes to the point of death, who will raise it up, who will restore it to calmness and peace? Again the priest. You cannot recall one single blessing from God without finding, side by side with this recollection, the image of the priest.
— St. John Vianney