Called to Holiness and Service:
Through Baptism all of God's people are called to holiness. Jesus said, "I
am the vine, you are the branches...without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Holiness
is this intimate connection with the Lord.
It is a friendship with God leading to a fruitful and productive life. Priestly
ministry will be effective in proportion to the holiness of the ordained.
The Second Vatican Council gave major consideration to the ordained ministry
of deacons, priests and bishops in three of its 16 documents. In them the Council Fathers
looked intently at both the life and ministry of those ordained for service to God's people.
The focus of my reflections here will be on the ministry of priesthood. Three
questions will be addressed: 1) What is the function of the priest in today's Church? 2)
What is the cultural context in which priesthood is being lived out? and 3) What does the
future look like for the priesthood?
Changing ministry of priests
A priest has four tasks: to proclaim the Good News of God's love and mercy,
to preside at and celebrate the sacraments, to serve the local Church community as servant-leader,
and to reach out to all in need—both within and beyond one's own community. Some priests
will be called to specialized ministries (administrators, chaplains, teachers, etc.), but
all are ordained to proclaim, celebrate, serve and reach out.
In a sense this has always been the mission of the priest—before, during and
after the Second Vatican Council. Yet our growing understanding of Church as the whole
people of God has altered how the priest goes about his tasks.
In proclaiming the word of God priests now deliver a "homily," a reflection
on the Scriptures as they apply to people's lives. Prior to the Council, the preaching
of priests was often instructional, going through the creed or Ten Commandments every few
years. These "sermons"
were not necessarily linked to the Scriptures. Also, since Vatican II, laypeople now proclaim
the first two readings as a participation in our common priesthood arising from Baptism.
As presider at Eucharist and the other sacraments, the priest is to lead the
community to full, conscious, active participation. Previously many who attended Mass felt
like spectators. Now the priest leads the faith community to a meaningful participation
in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord. The priest is called the "presider" to
make it clear that the entire assembly is celebrating the sacraments according to their
For centuries, the priest was the central authority in a community, the dominant
figure in a parish. Prior to Vatican II there was no parish council to advise the priest
in making decisions, no finance committee to monitor parish monies, no lay liturgical ministers,
etc. The priest also ran the entire educational effort of the parish.
Today many people participate in the administrative, educational and liturgical
life of the parish. Collaboration is the key word. Appropriate sharing of authority and
responsibility is essential.
This "working with" others is now a central characteristic of a good pastoral
team and has affected the life of the priest in many ways. The priest must be willing to
let go of some favorite ministries and to orchestrate the vast number of ministries necessary
for healthy parish life.
Pastoral care, service to those in need, is an essential part of the priest's
ministry. Here, too, things have changed. The priest is often unable to personally address
all the concerns in the parish. Hands-on ministry is giving way to coordinating ministries
in which others are trained and commissioned to offer pastoral care.
Challenges of our culture
Ministry, be it that of priests, religious or laity, is done in a cultural
context. Three factors deserve attention as we reflect on the ministry of the ordained.
1. Authority. People in authority have power. When someone is put in
a position of leadership—a president, a principal, a parent, a priest—he or she must also
be given the power to fulfill his or her responsibilities. Power can be used for self-serving
interests or for servant-leadership. Priests are called to serve. If they use their authority
for personal gain or abuse their power, they contradict their vocation.
Authority in the United States has fallen on hard times. Freedom has become
the primary value, and few people are comfortable with the concept of submission. Authoritarian
leadership will be rejected. Servant-leaders will be respected and followed.
2. Expectations. Prior to Vatican II priests were expected to provide
the sacraments and be responsible administrators and caring pastors. Most of their time
and energy was given to celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, visiting the sick, counseling
those with problems and instructing people preparing for the sacraments. The expectations
of priests have escalated. The priest must not only preach well but also be aware of and
address social issues, reach out to the ecumenical community, lead a pastoral team, handle
hiring and conflict resolution, show pastoral sensitivity, foster stewardship and a sense
of mission—and more.
These many demands can lead to discouragement, anger and burnout. Too many
irons in the fire make for an unbalanced life and can cause serious health problems—physical,
psychological and spiritual. One of the challenges for priests today is to discern which
expectations are realistic and appropriate, which are neurotic and damaging.
One of the markings of holiness is humility. Everyone bumps up against limitations
and weaknesses. Priests are not immune to this human condition. One cannot be "all things
to all people." Today more than ever, priests should not be put in a position that will
lead to failure. Clarification of roles and boundaries is extremely important.
3. Culture. Priests, like all people, are influenced by movies, television,
the Internet, consumerism, violence and all the other societal forces that affect daily
life. Some of these influences are healthy and life-giving, others are destructive and
harmful. For good or ill, we breathe in the air of our culture. No one is exempt.
Never before has there been such a need for courageous, discerning hearts to
keep the priest and his people grounded in gospel values—the dignity of the human person,
the power of love and forgiveness, the need for compassion and courage, the presence of
a God of mercy and love.
The Vatican II document, The Church in the Modern World, points out
the need to integrate faith with the political, social, economic and cultural forces that
impinge on our spiritual lives. Priests need a familiarity with social issues, political
concerns, economic influences and cultural movements if they are to bring the gospel into
contemporary life. In bringing the Good News to today's world, priests need a clear understanding
of the signs of the times and how to adapt the message for various groups and elements
Future of priestly ministry
It has been nearly 40 years since the last session of Vatican II. During that
time tremendous changes have taken place in both the world and the life of the Church.
Our self-understanding as Church and our sense of ministry have developed and been transformed.
The revision of the sacraments, new emphasis on Scripture, deeper appreciation of Tradition,
dialogue with world religions and cultures, and ecumenical activities have all affected
the life of the ordained minister. Where are we now, and what does the future hold?
1. Shortage of priests. The response to the call to priesthood has dramatically
declined in the western world. Many dioceses are in crisis as they attempt to provide pastoral
care. While the shortage has drawn more laypeople into ministry, parish sacramental needs
remain urgent. Some priests are celebrating up to six Masses each weekend. Many priests
are serving two, three, even four parishes and feel inadequate trying to provide comprehensive
leadership. Seeking priests from other countries is one response to the shortage, but this
has its limitations. The reduction in family size has shrunk the vocation pool, and the
secularization of our society is an obstacle for many in hearing God's call. Yet, in all
this, we know that God is calling.
2. Sexual abuse. The clergy sexual abuse crisis has done great harm
to the victims of this crime as well as to the entire Church. The problem is being addressed
but the harm has been done, and it will take many years before trust is restored.
The whole culture is radically confused about the issue of sexuality. The current
media, be it television, movies or the lifestyles portrayed, continue to give a distorted
vision of God's great gift of human sexuality. Priests and all the people acutely need
a reverent appreciation of this gift.
3. Friendship/Community. Our social nature as humans demands healthy
and wholesome relationships. Priests need affection and support, friends and community.
Our American individualism has fostered a loneliness that affects all members of society.
Good friendships are a tremendous grace. In friendship, joys and sorrows are shared and
life is lived deeply. Community is at the heart of the Church. To care for and share with
one another, to serve the common good, is part of the work of the Kingdom.
4. Spirituality. A petition from the Divine Office reads: "Lord Jesus,
you are the true vine and we are the branches: allow us to remain in you, to bear much
fruit, and to give glory to the Father." Drifting is one of the diseases of our age. Spirituality
provides a center and an anchor. Priests need to ground their lives in prayer and ministry.
Out of their dialogue with God, priests will be able to sustain a vision and offer people
a perspective. By serving people with love and compassion they will build up the Body of
Christ. Connected to the Lord through prayer and sacraments, their spiritual life will
flourish, leading to service of people and the glory of God. Priests, acting in the name
and person of Jesus, must maintain a deep relationship with the Lord if their ministry
is to be fruitful and joyful.
Identity and mission
In Stephen Covey's popular book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the
author suggests writing a mission statement before one attempts to live one's responsibilities.
Vatican II was a mission statement process wherein the identity of the Church and all its
members—lay, religious and ordained—were given a vision of identity as well as mission.
The 16 documents are blueprints that we will do well to pray over as we journey together
as the people of God. Priests, called to holiness and service, have a unique role to play
in fostering the Kingdom and giving God glory.
The role of the priest is still changing as a result of Vatican
II as well as the declining number of those responding to the call to priestly
ministry. What changes have you experienced?
Are the changes in the priesthood affecting your parish community
in positive or negative ways? Some of both? What are the pros and cons of these
How can you offer support to the priests you know and encourage
young men to consider a priestly vocation?
NEXT: Called to Holiness and Service: Lay Ministry by Karen Sue Smith
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