Sunday, March 14, 2010

The hermeneutic of priestly continuity.

Pope Benedict has given a very significant address to participants in a congress on the priesthoold organised by the Congregation for the Clergy.

The subject of priestly identity is, according to the Holy Father, determinant for the exercise of the ministerial priesthood in the present and in the future. It is undeniable, is it not, that the identity of the priesthood has gone and is going through something of a crisis because of erroneous models of priesthood as "social agents", and not least because of the seemingly never-ending allegations of improper behaviour of priests.

What makes the priest different, or even "strange" to today's world?
The priest often seems "strange" to common opinion precisely because of the more fundamental aspects of his ministry such as being a man of the sacred, removed from the world to intercede in favour of the world, constituted in that mission by God and not by men.
I remember towards the beginning of my ministry in this parish, when introducing changes that I felt were necessary to bring the celebration of the Liturgy more in line with the mind of the Church (such as the use of incense, some Latin chant, etc.) someone asked me: do you feel like one of us? I had to reply that I am not one of you. I have been sent to you.
Just as the hermeneutic of continuity is increasingly revealed as urgent to understand in an appropriate way the texts of the Second Vatican Council, similarly a hermeneutic seems necessary that we could desribe "of priestly continuity" which, starting from Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, and going through the 2000 years of the history of grandeur and holiness, of culture and piety, which the priesthood has written in the world, arrives at our days.
Could this be a suggestion that the manifestation of priestly ministry in the liturgy should return to a more majestic form in terms of chant, vestments, i.e. a celebration of the liturgy more rooted in tradition? Could it also imply the need for priests to be more aware, in all humility, of their vocation to teach magisterially and with authority? Not their own authority but that received from Jesus Christ?

On that charism of teaching:
At this time in which we live it is especially important that the call to participate in the one priesthood of Christ in the ordained ministry flower in the "charism of prophecy": There is a great need of priests that speak of God to the world and that present God to the world; men not subject to ephemeral cultural ways, but capable of living in an authentic way that liberty that only the certainty of belonging to God is in conditions to give... Today the most necessary prophecy is that of fidelity, which, starting from the fidelity of Christ to humanity, will lead through the Church and the ministerial priesthood to live one's priesthood in total adherence to Christ and to the Church. In fact, the priest no longer belongs to himself but, because of the sacramental seal received is "property" of God. This "being of Another" must be made recognizable by all, through a clear witness.
The priest's whole life must be consumed by or subsumed into his priestly identity:
In the way of thinking, of speaking, of judging the events of the world, of serving and loving, in relating to persons, also in the habit [clerical attire], the priest must draw prophetic strength from his sacramental belonging, from his profound being. Consequently, he must have every care to subtract himself from the prevailing mentality, which tends to associate the value of the minister not to his being, but only to his function, thus not appreciating the work of God, who influences the profound identity of the person of the priest, configuring him to himself in a definitive way.
I can only presume that the Holy Father is acknowledging that this prevailing mentality is prevalent within the Church. Confer his comments to the Bishops of England and Wales concering dissent.

The great charism of celibacy:
The horizon of the ontological belonging to God constitutes, moreover, the appropriate framework to understand and reaffirm, also in our days, the value of sacred celibacy, which in the Latin Church is a charism required for Holy Orders and is held in very great consideration in the Eastern Churches. That is authentic prophecy of the Kingdom, sign of consecration to the Lord and to the "things of the Lord" with an undivided heart, expression of the gift of self to God and to others.

Pope Benedict reminds priests that their vocation is sublime and that the laity seek three things in/from a priest:
  • that the Word of God be always on his lips;
  • the mercy of the Father which is lavished abundantly and free in the sacrament of Reconciliation;
  • the Bread of New Life, "true nourishment given to men."
I think this address is a great charter for the renewal of the priesthood in these difficult times. We priests need to be ever more rooted in the Sacrament of Holy Orders by which we, though unworthy, have been conformed to Christ the Head and High Priest. As our Holy Father concludes:
Let us pray to God, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of Saint John Mary Vianney, to be able to thank him every day for the great gift of the vocation and to live our priesthood with full and joyful fidelity.


  1. Father

    As an Orthodox Christian, I read this address of the Pope with great interest. Several things about it trouble me, not least the suggestion that only presbyters (and bishops, by extension), belong "ontologically" to God; that the prophetic ministry is therefore in some sense their exclusive prerogative; that non-celibates are somehow in imperfect "ontological" union with Christ. From an Orthodox perspective this looks like "sacerdotalism". Surely ALL of the baptised belong ontologically to Christ; are called to prophetic ministry; are called to witness to the world and to one another? This is not to blur the distinction between those ordained to speak at the altar with the "I" of Christ, and those who are not; but the idea that the former belong ontologically to Christ insofar as the latter don't seems disturbingly off-key to me. The particular context in which celibacy is addressed also makes me glad I'm not in the position of my Uniate brethren.

  2. Moretben: thank you for commenting on this post.

    I think you are introducing conflict between lay and ordained where there is none. All the baptised are configured 'ontologically' to Christ by the seal or character imparted by the sacrament of baptism. All the laity are called to the threefold priestly, prophetic and kingly munera of Christ, particularly through their Confirmation by which another character/seal is imparted empowering the subject to carry out these munera.

    However, the priest is configured to Christ in an additional way that, as Vatican II affirms, differs not just in degree but in essence from the configuration of all the baptised. Priests are specifically configured 'ontologically' to Christ the Head. That is, within the ecclesial body, they occupy the position of the Head. And so they exercise their prophetic munus most especially within the ecclesial body. This configuration is ordered towards servicing the other members of the Mystical Body. Their 'prophecy' should be an 'enabling' force for the prophecy that the laity exercise in the world.

    And yet the priest's ordination radically configures him at the core of his being, and so he also exercises a prophetic munus towards all mankind in a way that is different to the manner in which the non-ordained exercise it.

    I think you need to get under the skin of the celibate to really understand him. As a Latin Catholic, I hugely respect the Eastern traditions. And yet I think the fact that I am celibate is a great gift from God, not just for me, but for my parishioners. I hope those you call 'Uniates' do not feel less 'Catholic' by observing their tradition of a married clergy. Whether or not celibacy amongst the clergy is of apostolic tradition has been the subject of much research. The limited research that I have carried out leads me to the conclusion that celibacy (or at least the observance of continence by the ordained) is of apostolic origin.

    The Church has always held that, whilst marriage is a great sacrament, the call to virginity for the sake of the Kingdom is, of itself, a higher state.

  3. A very timely reminder Father, on the nature and duties of the ordained priesthood!

    In the years following Vat II and the upheavals of the 60s the role of the priest became debased. Instead of being “ordained for men in the things that appertain to God” he was seen more as a sacramental administrator, liturgical presider and a glorified social worker.

    Contributing to the formation of this view were things like ‘Worker Priests’ in France, ‘Liberation Theology’ in Latin and South America, a misunderstanding of ‘the Primacy of Conscience’ and ‘the Priesthood of the People’ from Vat II documents and opposition to ‘Humanae Vitae’. This last also reflected on celibacy, as in: “what do celibate men know about married life?” – as if this were a new teaching and the ‘celbate old men’ were expounding a doctrine of their own instead of reiterating the constant teaching of the Church.

    In Ireland, where priests had been put ‘on a pedestal’ in the past, there was a sense of ‘bringing them down to size’ or ‘leveling the playing field’. And while some had certainly abused their position, the trust placed in them and the dignity of their office, many others found themselves ‘under siege’ and questioning their identity and role in the Church. Keeping their heads while it appeared that all around them others were losing theirs made for a difficult time for priests these past forty years.

    The misguided liturgical interpretations contributed to this and continue to do so – as the Holy Father well knows. As he pointed out in The Spirit of the Liturgy, turning the altar towards the people caused the focus to be on the priest and not on God. He was merely the ‘presider’ and with so many ‘functions’ being performed by laypeople, he became more of a primus inter pares rather than the indispensable element without whom we would not have the Mass or any of the Sacraments.

    The unfortunate events of recent years make it harder for good priests to fulfill their vocation. But it has never been easy and the priest will always be ‘a man set apart’ – not by personal ability, but by his calling and ordination. And pace the ‘women-priest’ movement, no one takes this upon himself, but only those called by God.

  4. Father, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I'm sorry I missed it earlier. I don't think there can be any reasonable doubt that celibacy and continence were Apostolic recommendations, for all the baptised "able to bear it" (regular fasting from the marital act remains indispensibly part of the ascetical discipline that all Orthodox faithful are encouraged to follow to this day). I don't doubt either that celibacy is especially appropriate to the ordained ministry, for a variety of reasons, spiritual as well as purely practical, which is also the view of the Orthodox Church. Not clearly Apostolic, however, is celibacy or total continence as a requirement, 'ontologically' bound up with the ordained ministry. That, clearly, is a later development, absolutised subsequently within the Latin tradition. I note that in discussion of this address on a Traditionalist Catholic site, particular mention is made of its relevance to the "problem" of the Eastern Catholic discipline, regarded as defective on the basis of "ontological" requirement. Needless to day, this is not encouraging to those of us favourable to a more eirenic relationship with "Rome".

  5. Whilst it may not be a matter of ontology, there is little doubt that the discipline is apostolic. Why should St Paul stipulate that men should only have been married once if they are to be admitted to the sacred ministry? Not because there were those in the early Church who were practising polygamy. Rather it was because a man who had married again after the death of his first wife was deemed not to be able to live in continence.

    Similarly, he was supposed to have raised his children in a good manner. This could only be proven once the children had grown up, and so it can be assumed that men destined for the sacred ministry and their wives had completed the child-bearing period of their lives and, since the conjugal act is primarily ordered towards procreation, sex would be something they would not be engaging in, or at least could live without.

    On the other hand St Paul had to warn the early Christians about the dangers of abstaining from sexual relations with their spouses as they seemed to embrace abstinence from such relations rather too enthusiastically.

    So, it seems to me from the studies I have read that St Paul encouraged spouses to be moderate and not to abstain from each other for too long. On the other hand, he indicated that those who were to be ordained should be judged as able to live a continent life.

    Sorry if this doesn't seem encouraging. I think you should allow the Latin Church its traditions as the Latin Church allows and respects the Eastern traditions. In that way we can live in mutual respect for one another. And it needn't be a barrier to full communion.

  6. Priesthood is most-beautiful,
    a most-rare flower
    which blooms in darkness,
    nourished by blood and water


Please avoid being 'anonymous' if at all possible.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...