Why the Catholic Church needs two different kinds of priesthood
Readers of the Dec. 27, 2018 issue of Origins will encounter a document that is both theologically rich and pastorally inspiring. “To Serve the People of God: Renewing the Conversation on Priesthood and Ministry” is an important new statement on priesthood, the result of a two-year seminar whose participants were faculty members and others affiliated with Boston College. The study group was co-chaired by eminent theologians Richard Lennan, Richard Gaillardetz and Thomas Groome. It was composed of women and men, laity and clergy, academics and pastoral practitioners.
The authors acknowledge that while the document reflects within the limits of the challenges and cultures of the United States today, they hope that “its approach may be beneficial for other local churches.” While its starting point is the current discipline and teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in ordaining only celibate men to the priesthood, it recognizes that there is nevertheless “ongoing discernment” about such issues within the church community.
Both the Introduction and the Conclusion of “To Serve the People of God” suggest that it might serve as “a foundation for discussion of all issues that affect the ordained priesthood.” It is this invitation that has prompted us to offer a few reflections in conversation with the document on another kind of priesthood that is exercised in the church—the priesthood that is lived within religious or consecrated life. We do this as religious priests ourselves, and as editors of a new book on priesthood in religious life: Priesthood in Religious Life: Searching for New Ways Forward (Liturgical Press, 2018).
Not all Christians are called to ministry, but all are called, as disciples, to participate in various ways—through the gift of the Spirit—in the mission of the church.
A Missionary Church, A Ministry that Serves Mission
Part 1 of “To Serve the People of God” lays out the ecclesiology within which ministry, and especially ordained ministry, can be adequately understood. Key to this ecclesiology is the sacramental nature of the church, making it the “sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all people” (“Lumen Gentium,” 1). Such sacramentality establishes an “irreducible bond” with mission; understood here is the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the church as “missionary by its very nature” (“Ad Gentes,” 2). Members of the church, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ, identifying with his life and mission. Nurturing disciples to make the church shine forth in its sacramental nature is the context for the exercise of ministry.
Not all Christians are called to ministry, but all are called, as disciples, to participate in various ways—through the gift of the Spirit—in the mission of the church. “For the sake of the church’s mission, ministers guide and support members of the body of Christ, encouraging them to respond to the Spirit of their baptism,” the authors write. “The heart of ministry, therefore, lies in forms of service that aid the realization of the church’s mission.”
Priests should be: competent preachers; inspiring leaders of worship and prayer; community leaders who collaborate with laity, especially women; worthy and competent representatives of the church; and practitioners of “pastoral charity.”
Ordained Priesthood in a Missionary Church
In this ecclesiological context, Part 2 of the document outlines “A Profile of the Well-Formed Priest.” All Christians participate in the baptismal priesthood as disciples. Ministers help cultivate that discipleship. Ordained ministers do this by a special commission (ordination) that confers a particular character and conforms them to Christ the head of the Body. Baptism and confirmation confer characters that “establish the identity of believers as disciples, orienting them to share in the church’s mission.”
In the same way, ordination confers a character that is also for mission, a character that empowers the one ordained for church leadership with the authority and spirit of Christ. Ordination “repositions” the priest within the community of faith for the sake of the community’s mission. The document quotes “Pastores Dabo Vobis,” 15: Priests “promote the baptismal priesthood of the entire people of God, leading it to its full ecclesial realization.”
For the priest to do this effectively, the document outlines five characteristics of priestly ministry that should serve as goals of priestly formation. Priests should be: competent preachers; inspiring leaders of worship and prayer; community leaders who collaborate with laity, especially women; worthy and competent representatives of the church; and practitioners of “pastoral charity.” These reflections, to our mind, represent some of the most inspiring and challenging paragraphs of the document.
Lay women and men should have a role to play in seminary formation and seminarians should be educated and formed alongside those preparing for lay ministry in the church.
A Formation That Includes Laity
Part 3 of “To Serve the People of God” identifies ways that programs of formation might contribute to the shaping of ordained ministers who can embody the ideals mentioned above. Caution must be taken in admitting anyone into schools that prepare candidates for ordination, and discernment must be made regarding their human and psychosexual maturity, their capacity for spiritual growth, their enthusiasm for pastoral service and their ability to integrate their academic studies into their spiritual and pastoral lives.
The authors recommend that those studying for the priesthood should not be isolated from the laity. Lay women and men should have a role to play in seminary formation and seminarians should be educated and formed alongside those preparing for lay ministry in the church. “The benefits that accrue when diocesan seminarians and those in formation for lay ecclesial ministry are able to study together argue for the importance of adopting this approach whenever possible.”
Part 3 goes on to talk about the importance of ongoing formation. Updating is essential for priests as professionals, a notion that is fully reconcilable with priesthood as vocation. Formation also occurs as priests collaborate with and learn from lay ministers, and school themselves in resilience and hope.
The brief concluding section summarizes the five aspects of priestly identity mentioned earlier and calls for boldness and creativity in the spirit of Pope Francis. “The specifics of the priesthood’s future, like all aspects of the church’s life, are unknown (and unknowable). Nonetheless, the God who desires to make all things ‘new’ (Rev 21:5) the God who is ‘eternal newness,’ empowers the church, through the Spirit, to construct a path to the future.”
Priests ordained within communities of religious life exercise and live another kind of priesthood, distinct from those directly related to a diocese and a bishop.
A Distinct Exercise in Priesthood
The Boston College seminar is quite clear that its document focuses “particularly on diocesan priests and their formation” and as such it is excellent—certainly one of the best reflections on priesthood we have ever read. Our thought here is to supplement the document’s reflections with ones that will highlight how religious priesthood is a distinct exercise in priesthood, and one that is in every way complementary to the priesthood exercised and lived out by diocesan priests. It is a priesthood that is shaped by religious life, where the primary identity of the ordained person is not the priesthood itself, but his membership in a particular religious community.
Of course, we are aware that “religious life” is a term that covers a lot of complex territory. Not all “religious priests” are religious canonically. Some take vows (solemn or simple). Others are canonically members of “societies of apostolic life” and bind themselves by “promises” or “oaths.” Nevertheless, whether Benedictine, Passionist, Divine Word Missionaries or Maryknoll, priests ordained within these communities exercise and live another kind of priesthood, distinct from those directly related to a diocese and a bishop.
In religious life today, emphasis is placed on making one’s community life the center of one’s life, a source of one’s major friendships and affective life, a life where one finds not only “community” (living together) but “communion.”
Priesthood Shaped by Community
Priests who are religious are or should be shaped by their religious community. “To Serve the People of God” insists that priests today cannot be “lone rangers,” must collaborate with lay men and women (including, we would imagine, religious men and women) and need to draw “sustenance from relationships within the Christian community and the wider world” (including their brother priests). Religious priests, however, are committed to a much more intense community life with members of their own religious congregation. In religious life today, emphasis is placed on making one’s community life the center of one’s life, a source of one’s major friendships and affective life, a life where one finds not only “community” (living together) but “communion.”
While this kind of commitment to community in no way excludes close friendships with women and men who are not community members, it does insist on a certain priority in attendance at communal prayer, meals and special congregational events. In religious community ordained members often live with lay, non-ordained members (religious brothers).
Often—certainly more and more here in the United States—community is marked by multiculturality, a fact that calls for the mutual interaction referred to as “interculturality.” As religious from various cultures, generations and sensitivities rub elbows with one another year after year, they might more easily acquire the flexible “bamboo” resilience that vănThanh Nguyễn, SVD speaks of in his essay in our recent book. Living a life of real community is not always easy, but it can be deeply rewarding. Community rubs off many rough spots and inspires religious in countless ways. It is a source of strong support, challenge and edification.
Priestly ministry so shaped by community might have distinct characteristics, and even some advantages. Living honestly with other dedicated men might have the effect of disabusing a priest of any kind of “specialness” that would separate him from those he lives with or those he serves. Living in close quarters with laymen might make a priest less awkward and more open with lay women and men. The Boston College seminar recommends that priesthood candidates be formed together with lay women and men. This is something that religious congregations have already been doing for years in “Union” schools of theology like Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
Living in an intercultural community might make a religious priest particularly sensitive to the multiculturality of the parish, hospital, academic or other communities in which he ministers. Living in a community of equality might aid a religious priest’s ability to collaborate more easily with those with whom he ministers. And the kind of leadership exercised in religious communities might affect the way an ordained member of a religious community leads and cooperates with leadership in his ministry.
Sacred Heart priest David Szatkowski writes how the commitment to community in religious life might be lived out concretely in a communal parish leadership that would attempt to implement Canon 517 regarding “in solidum.” This canonical structure entrusts the care of a parish to several priests at the same time, so that they co-responsibly exercise their pastoral ministry by joint effort. Community clearly shapes priesthood in religious life, and particularly inspires the kind of “pastoral charity” with which they minister.
Living in an intercultural community might make a religious priest particularly sensitive to the multiculturality of the parish, hospital, academic or other communities in which he ministers.
Priesthood Marked by Prophetic Witness
Pope Francis, particularly during the Year of Consecrated Life in 2015, called women and men religious to embrace the prophetic aspect of religious life. The main way that religious do this is the public profession of vows (or promises) of chastity, poverty and obedience. Lived authentically and reflectively, religious life can offer a strikingly countercultural lifestyle as its members willingly accept a single, celibate life for more risky and unselfish service and dedication, a simple life of community of goods in a world of consumerism and accumulation and a life that eschews personal ambition and accomplishment for a life open to working for their community’s goals.
These vows, however, should lead religious to other prophetic actions and stances both in the church and in the wider world. Choices of places of priestly ministry, for example, might be determined by a congregation’s option for the poor. Decisions to promote lay people in particular ministries, especially to include women at a significant level, might be the result of an understanding of obedience that promotes consultation and wide participation. More cutting-edge ministries like working with migrants and asylum seekers, pressing for death penalty reform, demonstrating at places that might get priests arrested and ministering to the LGBTQ community could flow from the freedom that comes from voluntary chastity. Redemptorist priest Maurice Nutt’s essay in our book suggests that African-American religious priests might specially dedicate themselves to ecumenical work. This might be a particularly important area of work for all priests who are religious.
Religious congregations have always represented a somewhat charismatic aspect of church and church ministry, an aspect that is sometimes in tension with more institutional values of order and obedience. At times this puts religious men and women, and in particular religious priests, at odds with diocesan policies or liturgical rules. In the spirit of a wider “pastoral charity,” parishes, retreat houses, social justice ministries or schools served by religious priests might sometimes invite speakers, hire staff members or engage in innovative liturgical practices that they have to defend before diocesan officials, an instance of what Claretian priest Eddie de Leon calls a “prophetic priesthood.”
Religious congregations have always represented a somewhat charismatic aspect of church and church ministry, an aspect that is sometimes in tension with more institutional values of order and obedience.
Priesthood Responding to Charism
Every religious congregation has been formed in response to special needs in the church and according to a particular charism given to it by its founder. A priesthood shaped by religious life is one that lives out priesthood in ways that embody that charism within priestly ministry. For example, the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) charism is one that is missionary—and so highly attuned to and appreciative of culture, and setting its sights on places and peoples in which the gospel has not been preached or sufficiently rooted. Many other missionary congregations have visions that are similar.
Passionists have a particular ministry of preaching retreats and missions, calling women and men to meditate on the passion of the Lord and to more deeply enter into the mystery of suffering in human life. The Missionaries of St. Charles (otherwise known as Scalabrinians) carry out their ministry among migrants and refugees. The Missionaries of the Precious Blood focus on the ministry of reconciliation. Jesuits are well known for their teaching ministry and academic excellence and, after Vatican II, have committed themselves to cutting-edge work for justice. Benedictines live a life of prayer and immerse themselves in the church’s liturgical life. Franciscans have lately emphasized their lay character as brothers, emphasizing their equality whether ordained or not, and dedicating themselves, like their founder, to the care of creation.
Priesthood is lived out in a particular way in each of these congregations. Reflecting on the five characteristics that the Boston College seminar proposes, we might imagine more monastic congregations (e.g., Benedictines, Trappists, Norbertines) emphasizing the centrality of liturgical leadership for priests in their communities. Passionists or Redemptorists might cultivate the ministry of preaching and the ministry of the Word as their special expertise and interest. SVDs, Maryknollers or Columbans might shape their priests as pastoral leaders who build up communities in faith and connect them to the wider, global church. Franciscans might live out priesthood as an intense exercise of pastoral charity. Jesuits and others engaged in education might focus on being representatives of the church and models of Christ in all they do. Franciscan priest Dan Horan has suggested that all religious priests might concentrate on the preaching ministry as a way of exercising their presbyteral ministry.
Franciscan priest Dan Horan has suggested that all religious priests might concentrate on the preaching ministry as a way of exercising their presbyteral ministry.
Priesthood with a Global Vision
The international and multicultural character of many religious congregations brings the gift of a more visible catholicity to the entire church. Priests in religious communities often are formed and minister in situations where they interact with members from several different areas of the world, and are also reminded of their congregation’s internationality and catholicity by international general chapters, communications from their generalates and members returning to their home countries who may have served abroad. On the one hand, they are rooted in the diocese and country in which they serve. On the other hand, they are keenly aware of the global nature of Christianity and the Catholic Church.
Priests from these congregations can offer a vision of intercultural harmony to the people among whom they work. Their homilies, retreat talks, prayers of the faithful at Mass, the vestments and altar decorations they use at Mass, can all reflect such a worldwide view of being Christian. They can be in the forefront of anti-racist and anti-xenophobic movements in parishes and the wider communities in which they live.
Priests in religious congregations can offer a vision of intercultural harmony to the people among whom they work.
“To Serve the People of God” is an important document, one that needs to be read, studied and discussed by as many people as possible in the church. It is balanced, profound and inspiring. What our reflection has tried to do is simply to highlight the fact that in the church there is another kind of priesthood that parallels and complements the priesthood presumed in the document. We are not saying that the aspects we have highlighted for religious priests are not present or possible within the priesthood in which diocesan priests participate. We are saying, however, that the aspects on which we focus are perhaps more accessible, more “natural” to priests in religious congregations. Both priesthoods complement each other. Neither is complete without the other. Both can learn from the other. The Spirit has greatly enriched the church with each one.
It is our hope that ongoing reflection on these two expressions of priesthood will enrich our understanding of ordained ministry and lead to more effective formation of candidates for the priesthood.