At St. Benedict’s Parish in Ridgely, Md., parish groups are sending appreciation cards to every priest who ever served in the parish, as well as to all deacons, seminarians and other religious in the community. At St. Anne’s Church in Albuquerque, N.M., a children’s Rosary Rally will be held before a late afterernoon Mass and evening fiesta to honor priests. Special events to honor priests and religious will abound that day.
For many Catholics in the pews, Priesthood Sunday, Oct. 26, does not come any too soon. For the last several years, a great shadow has been cast over the priesthood by the sexual abuse scandal. The sinful actions of some priests and the misguided actions of some bishops have made it seem that the priesthood is so tainted that it is no longer to be treasured and cherished in the church. These and other issues surrounding the priesthood have caused confusion and questioning about the centrality and value of priests in the church and in the world. Indeed, this questioning has made it easy for some to dismiss the priesthood as a viable vocation for young men in the American church today.
The purpose of Priesthood Sunday is to engage every level of the church in the United States in a national conversation about the priesthood. When Mom and Dad, sister and brother, priest and catechist, liturgist and school teachers sit down to talk, a rediscovery of the importance of a vocation to the priesthood can emerge. When we talk about the work of priests in our parishes and in our homes, this conversation can create a renewed understanding of priesthood and an appreciation for those who are serving as priests. This renewal, in turn, may open doors to new vocations and even nourish a more vital Catholic community in our country.
Many parishes will take Priesthood Sunday as an occasion to “give Father a pat on the back.” The response to a national mailing from the National Federation of Priests’ Councils has so far been very encouraging. Events sponsored by parishes or schools and led by lay people are being planned in many places across the country.
Comprehensive ideas for using the liturgy of the day, with emphasis on the verse in the second reading, “You are a priest forever,” from the Letter to the Hebrews (5:1-6), are available at the Web site www.priestsunday.org.
Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, the number of priests in the United States has declined. In 1950 there were 652 Catholics per priest in this country. By 2000 there were 1,257 Catholics per priest. By either necessity or the grace of the Holy Spirit, the shift in numbers brought about a shift in the priest’s ministry. In 1950, priests regularly taught children’s catechism, ran the youth group, trained the altar boys, said Mass, prepared people for marriage and mowed the lawn. Today, priests collaborate in ministry with a wide variety of specialized lay ecclesial ministers and deacons who serve as directors of religious education, youth ministers and pastoral associates and fill many other roles. The priest’s role has consequently evolved into that of pastoral and spiritual leader.
The need for strong priest-pastoral leaders is clear. But while faith communities are growing, the priesthood continues to suffer losses. There are 19,000 Catholic parishes in the United States. Only about 4,000 are ministered to by more than one priest. Some priests are serving two or more parishes by themselves. Eight thousand parishes are served by a single priest.
It was from thinking about the issues confronted by the church and priests today that the idea for Priesthood Sunday arose. It fell to the National Federation of Priests’ Councils to take the lead in promoting this proposal. The Knights of Columbus, the U.S. Council of Serra International, the National Association of Lay Ministers, the National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood, the National Association of Hispanic Priests and the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors joined forces with the Federation of Priests’ Councils. Other national Catholic organizations also have contributed, because they understand the importance of raising the issue of priesthood with American Catholics who in coming decades may be shocked at the decline in parish priests as it affects parish after parish.
In addition to the celebration of liturgies and recognition of the ministries of priests, Priesthood Sunday will also emphasize the need for parishes to begin a dialogue on the importance of priesthood. This dialogue will raise such questions as these: Are priests—not just Roman Catholic priests—important for the world? Why have there been priests in every society and every human community since the very beginning? What does the priest bring to a society, to a people, to individuals? What is it about priests that people throughout history have found so important?
A person does not have to be a Roman Catholic to know that priests play an indispensable yet mysterious role in mediating between two worlds. Priests are understood to be different, set apart from the mainstream. They are different because they live in two worlds: the immanent world that is immediate, physical and historical and the transcendent world that is beyond time and without limits. Priests are “bridge people.” They put people in touch with what is beyond those limitations of time and space, of localities and histories. Priests make it possible for people to be in touch with the “other-worldly,” beyond the bonds of earth and death. “Priest” and “priesting” translate, therefore, across cultures and faith traditions. “Priest” speaks to us in ways that the titles of other specialized professions do not. Across cultures and throughout the millennia, there has been something powerful and unique about priesthood. That is why the concept of the priest is found in so many traditions, including some of the world’s most ancient religions that have nothing to do with Christianity. Priests are central to human experience. In both a theological and sociological sense, priests bridge the space between the everyday and the eternal.
For Roman Catholics, priesthood is central. The Roman Catholic priesthood is unique, unlike any other, because it is embodied and made real in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. All the men who are priests in the Catholic Church are priests in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. In and through the priesthood of Jesus Christ, Roman Catholic priests act in this world as pastoral leaders who draw people into the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. There all that is human, even death, is transformed.
The lives of Catholics are touched and changed by God through the lives and actions of priests. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy has put it this way: “The sacraments, privileged moments in communicating the divine life to man, are at the very core of priestly ministry. Priests are especially conscious of being living instruments of Christ, the Priest. Their function, in virtue of sacramental character, is that of men complying with the action of God through shared instrumental effectiveness” (The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium [3/19/99]). There is a new dimension to who we are and what we are about because of the priesthood of Jesus Christ made present to us through our priests. For most of us, saints and sinners, regularly practicing or sporadically attending, our experience of Catholicism is inextricably tied to our experience of the ministry of priests.
The Catholic tradition is sacramental, filled with the conviction that community life and God’s grace are expressed in real actions instituted by Christ. Within that Catholic tradition, priests re-present Jesus’ actions and witness to the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, in baptism, in the preaching of the word and in countless other ways large and small. As Pope John Paul II said: “Without the priest, there is simply no Catholic Church.” How then can priesthood as a fulfilling and exciting vocation be dismissed?
Does it make a difference if there are priests in the world? We hope that on Oct. 26 American Catholics will answer with a resounding “Yes!”