Most Catholics understand that the well-being of our priests depends on the whole parish community. That’s one reason why the Catholic Church is observing a special “Year of the Priest,” which started on June 19, the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI called for this special year to focus our Church on the priesthood and to encourage priests’ yearning for what he called “spiritual perfection,” the keystone for effectiveness in their ministry. To paraphrase the Holy Father, it’s a good time to strengthen and appreciate our understanding of this ordained ministry.
But what is the state of the priesthood today? In this Update, we’ll take a quick look at that ministry, how it has changed in recent years and what the future may hold.
The Second Vatican Council, which convened in the early 1960s, beautifully described the role of the priest by noting three functions: “preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful and...celebrate divine worship” (Lumen Gentium, 28). Interestingly, most Catholics may be most familiar with “celebrating divine worship,” for example, the Mass. But the Second Vatican Council gives renewed priority to the ministry of the Word, which makes for a Gospel-based priesthood, and to the pastoral care of the faithful, which makes for a service-based ministry.
Many priests find themselves drawn towards one or another of the many models of priesthood that have been popular since Vatican II. For me, one that works well is the “servant leader.” Jesus shows us what a servant leader ought to be when he washes the feet of the apostles at the
Last Supper: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15). That’s part of the ministry of the bishop, too: the pope himself is traditionally described as the “servant of the servants of God.”
The priest has a special kind of service to the faithful as the preacher of the Word, as the one who celebrates the sacraments and also, perhaps in a more hidden way, in his day-to-day actions: the quiet way he lives his own Christian life, for example, by being kind, loving and charitable. In all this he serves the faithful, and so serves God and the Church by being a servant leader.
We see that role of service clearly when we consider that priests in the Catholic Church are first ordained as deacons. The word deacon, as most of us know, comes from the Greek word diakonos, which means “servant.” Service is a key element of priesthood.
Another helpful model is “preacher of the Word,” which is explicitly mentioned by Vatican II. The priest, like all followers of Jesus, is called to live the Gospel message. But, in a special way, he is asked to be one of the “experts” for the community on the Scriptures, helping to break open the Word for people to enable them to actualize it in their own lives.
Call to Service
Let’s return to another role mentioned by Vatican II: the shepherd. Now, the traditional image of “shepherd” may turn off some people either because they’re not from a farming culture—or because they don’t like thinking of themselves as sheep! But it nonetheless describes well the person who cares for everyone.
Let me illustrate that with a story. In the early 1990s I lived in Kenya and worked for the Jesuit Refugee Service. One day, while driving my Jeep in the countryside, a sheep ran out in front of me, crossed the road and headed off down a hill. Then, from out of nowhere, it seemed, a teenage shepherd, a Maasai boy, ran after the sheep. He clambered all the way down a steep rocky hill, found the sheep and pulled him back up. I couldn’t help but think not only of the image of the lost sheep—which I literally saw in front of me—but also the image of the Good Shepherd, who is Christ. That’s who the priest is supposed to emulate: the one who cares that much for his people, just like that young African boy.
So while for many people the shepherd image may be antiquated, for me it’s a beautiful one, not so much because it talks about the faithful as sheep, but because of the great invitation it offers to the priest—that is, to love.
Those three roles of priest as preacher of the Word, shepherd of souls and celebrator of divine worship are intimately related—because each is a service.
Let’s return to “preacher of the Word.” All Catholics are called to understand and meditate on God’s Word day and night, as the psalms say, but the priest is especially to be immersed in the Gospel. From this immersion he breaks open the Word and guides the faithful through the Gospels, helping to bring God’s Word alive for them. “Shepherding souls” is also a service, in terms of caring for people’s spiritual needs—not only through the sacraments, but also by counseling them, helping them through difficult times and helping them to pray. Finally, the “celebrator of divine worship” leads the community in prayer, especially while presiding at the Eucharist. All these priestly roles flow not just from Vatican II, but fundamentally from the example of Jesus. In short, these are models of service.
The Universal Call to Holiness
None of this means that the priest has any monopoly on holiness or in imitating Christ! The Church speaks of a common call as “priest, prophet and king” that we all receive at our Baptism. One of the Church’s greatest modern scholars, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., wrote in his 1997 book, The Priestly Office, “The common priesthood belongs to the whole people of God....Lay persons share the common priesthood with clergy and religious.”
The ordained priest is the public representative of the Church and has specific functions within the ministry of all believers. But each of the priestly roles can, in a sense, also be seen as the roles of the laity, who are also called to preach the Gospel, to care for one another and gather, under the presiding of ordained priests, to participate in the Eucharist.
A key difference is this: The priesthood of the laity flourishes in the secular world. All Christians are called to be disciples who follow and share in the ministry of Jesus. This means that each of those roles is broadly shared: In the formal, sacramental life of the Church they are the service of the ordained; in the secular world they are the service of laity. That’s how I like to think of our “common priesthood.”
A Priesthood in Crisis
The decline in ordained priestly vocations has been a deep concern in recent decades. You can attribute that to several reasons. As we discussed in the preceding section, Vatican II reminded people that it’s not simply priests who have a vocation—everyone has a baptismal call. Catholics today see more than one way to follow the discipleship of Jesus. This may have led to less of a desire for the priesthood and religious life.
The second reason may be the decline in religiosity in Western culture. That naturally affects priestly vocations.
The third reason may be a lack of desire for long-term commitment. Divorce rates have risen, couples marry later and it’s harder for young people to make lifelong commitments.
Finally, there is a decline in the respect given to celibacy, which today is seen more as a negative than as a positive—that is, a way of loving many people freely and deeply.
The priest, in recent decades, is also no longer seen as the only mediator between the people and God. Happily, the faithful appreciate more their own participatory role in Mass. Prior to Vatican II, the priest and altar, for example, faced the same way the people faced as a sign of deep reverence to God. The turning around of the altar—which expressed that reverence in a new way by reminding us of the presence of God in the faithful—was an important symbol for the Second Vatican Council.
Some years ago, Bishop Kenneth Untener, of Saginaw, Michigan, when speaking to a group of soon-to-be-ordained Jesuits, mentioned that he liked to play the piano. Then he sat down at a piano and said, “I’d like to play you a song.” The bishop sang (on his own) a familiar hymn. Then he said, “Now I’d like you to sing along with me.” We obliged by singing along. Then he said, “What did you think of the first version?” Wondering where this was all going, we said, “Well, it was enjoyable listening to you!”
He continued, “And what did you think about the second version?” And we said, “Well, it was fun to participate with you and to sing along.”
Then the bishop said with a smile, “The first version is the priesthood before Vatican II; the second version is the priesthood after Vatican II.” It was a good illustration of what happened after Vatican II: The faithful became more involved in not just the Mass but also the Church; they have a greater role; they participate more with the priest.
They were certainly participating before, but now it’s more overt. The same is true in our broader understanding of vocation and the “universal call to holiness” (see Lumen Gentium, Ch. 5).