August 29, 2013

Priesthood and the Second Vatican Council

By Bishop George Thomas *
Nearly 50 years ago, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council issued a groundbreaking document on the Catholic priesthood.

In doing so, they provided us with not only a more expansive understanding of the ministerial priesthood, but also fresh insights into the priesthood of the faithful.


The Council Fathers taught that the whole community of believers is a priestly people, and that the lay faithful exercise their priesthood through the unfolding of baptismal and confirmation grace. “Each one ought to hallow Jesus in his heart,” wrote the Fathers, and bear witness to him through the goodness of our lives.


The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood, and is the means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church.

By virtue of their vocation and ordination, priests are set apart in the midst of God’s people, ordained to be of the service to the common priesthood. In his inimitable way, Pope Francis told priests to go out “among their flocks” and know the people they serve “like shepherds living with the smell of sheep.”

The common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, while interrelated, wrote the Council Fathers, “differ both in essence and degree.”

Through the service of the ordained minister, Christ himself is present to his Church as Head of his body, Shepherd of the flock, High Priest and Teacher of truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest acts in persona Christi capitis – in the person of Christ the head. This is the mysterious means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church.


Both the priestly people and those called to Holy Orders share a common call and a common destiny – the call to holiness and the hope of eternal life.

The essential foundation of all discipleship, and in particular, the core of priestly ministry, is a deep, personal bond with Jesus Christ.

The priest must be a man who knows Jesus Christ intimately, and has encountered him personally. The priest must be, above all else, a man of prayer, a truly spiritual man. Priestly holiness is a gift to and for the people. “Without a strong spiritual substance,” wrote Pope Benedict, “a priest cannot long endure his ministry.”


In a challenging reflection on priestly life and ministry, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote the priest “must learn that the main purpose of his life is not self-realization and success. He must learn that he is not in the business of building himself an interesting or comfortable life, or of setting up for himself a community of admirers and devotees, but is working for another and that it is He that truly matters.”


The Council Fathers enjoined each priest to remember that he has as his primary duty the proclamation of the Gospel to all. But before becoming a proclaimer of the Word, the priest must first be a hearer of the Word, and a frequent guest at the Lord’s table.

The Word of God is so essential in the life of the clergy, indeed for all the faithful, that St. Ignatius of Antioch used eucharistic imagery to describe the Word when he wrote, “I commend myself to the Gospel as to the flesh of Christ.”

The preacher of the Word cannot be influenced by the desire to please public opinion, or to win adulation or approval through clever word craft that is empty of meaning or devoid of spiritual nourishment.

The priest is to faithfully re-present the Word of God and the Church’s hallowed teachings, in season and out of season. He must allow the Lord to fill his mind and heart through contemplation of the Word, assiduous study, prayerful attention to the Liturgy of the Hours and commitment to the Lectio Divina. He must never forget that the most profound homily he ever will preach is the witness of his daily life.


The Fathers of the Council declared that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the life of the Church. All of the sacraments point to or flow from the Eucharist. For God’s people, liturgy prepared well and celebrated prayerfully is a blessing beyond measure. Each pastor does well to call forth, form and commission the full complement of liturgical ministries envisioned by the Council.

The Eucharist must serve as the center and foundation of priestly spirituality, and the source of the priest’s personal sanctification. In the parlance of St. Augustine, “We become what we receive.”

In calling for the “full, active, and conscious participation” of the faithful in the liturgy, the Fathers understood the power of the Eucharist to change not only individual lives, but also to transform entire communities. Eucharistic Adoration helps us deepen and prolong our communion with the Lord in Eucharist.


In his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” Pope Benedict underscored that liturgy naturally leads to the practice of charity, especially toward the least, the last and the lowliest, both at home and far away.

The priest must help the community make vital connections between Eucharist and charity, liturgy and compassion, mystery and mandatum, love of God and love of neighbor, always with a preferential option for the poor.


The Fathers of the Council underscored the concept and practice of shared responsibility when they wrote: “Pastors also know that they themselves were not meant by Christ to shoulder alone the entire saving mission of the church toward the world.” Words such as cooperation, collaboration, consultation and collegiality emerged from the Council’s vision. Pastors must “know what they don’t know,” and gather together wise and knowledgeable persons and strong consultative bodies in both parish and diocese. The wise pastor welcomes the expertise of the laity, particularly in the management of the Church’s temporal affairs.


As they call forth the gifts of the laity, pastors are admonished not to mistake uniformity for unity, nor diminish the gift of lawful diversity in the Church, especially through the powerful expressions of language, culture, and popular piety.

A wise admonition to bishops from Pope Benedict serves as a useful rule of thumb for all pastors: “They must not pursue uniformity in their pastoral planning, but must leave room for the doubtless often troublesome multiplicity of God’s gifts – always, of course, under the criterion of unity of the faith.”


In their ministry among the laity, it also is good to remember the 1946 counsel of Pope Pius XII, when he described the lay faithful as “on the front lines” of the Church’s life, and reminded pastors that the laity must be well prepared for the task at hand. Catechetical formation of the youth must hold pride of place in his community.

Priests must never forget that the lay faithful are indispensable in transforming the secular order, building the Culture of Life, establishing a Civilization of Love and carrying out the New Evangelization. Priests must make themselves available to provide or oversee sound theological formation, education, and visionary leadership in each and every parish. Sound formation helps to unlock the immense potential of the laity, immersing people in sound doctrine and introducing them to Catholic social and moral teaching.


The priest must constantly ask, “Who is not at the table?” He must include in his ministry to the gathered a fulsome and intentional ministry to the scattered. By word and example, Pope Francis has admonished pastors to move beyond the safety and security of the sacristy, and open their hearts and lives to the poor.

Like Christ the Good Shepherd, the priest sometimes must leave the 99 as he searches for the lost lamb. He should be found regularly at the bedside of sick, at the service of immigrants, in nursing homes and jails and soup kitchens, among the homebound or wherever human need is found.


The Church, we must remember, is founded upon forgiveness, and is by nature the home of forgiveness.

The priest must be a practitioner of mercy, and work hard to remove from his life the roots of sin, pride, anger, arrogance and selfishness. The spiritual life of the priest, like that of the laity, is predicated on the awareness that all of us need Christ’s tender mercy, and conversion of heart is the lifelong and shared endeavor of every Christian.


Finally, the vision of the Council Fathers encourages us to disallow our parishes and people from becoming self-enclosed, overly introspective or preoccupied with self.

In short, pastors must work to establish deep and meaningful union with the wider Church, communion with the diocesan bishop and with the Holy Father, and intentional outreach to mission territories.

This will help to actualize our people’s understanding that we are a Church that is “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.”


The election of Pope Francis has given both priests and people a wonderful example of priestly life well lived. He is an exemplar of humility, holiness, humor, joy, accessibility and love for God’s little ones.

As we celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Second Vatican Council, I am thankful for the lives and example of so many good and holy priests in our diocese, and I am ever-grateful to shepherd people the Lord has chosen to be his own.

Reprinted with permission from the Montana Catholic, official newspaper for the diocese of Helena.
Most Rev. George Thomas is bishop of the Diocese of Helena, Montana.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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