By Father James W. Mayer, O.de M.
Seventh in a series explaining the priesthood in the Church’s Year of the Priest.
The Catholic priesthood, ever ancient and ever new – to borrow a phrase from St. Augustine – has seen its share of misunderstandings in both its lofty peaks and abysmal valleys. In spite of the many identity crises of our century, the perennial integrity and value of the priesthood never changes.
Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Pastores Dabo Vobis (no. 12) wrote and tellingly so: “The priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the Priest.”
In a word, priests act and exist in order to proclaim the Gospel to the world and to build up the Church in the name and person of Christ – the head and shepherd” (no. 15). The call to serve and witness as an ordained priest within the Church can take different shapes, often different roads and expressions. There is not only the diocesan priesthood to consider, but there are also priests in the religious or consecrated life as well.
In the Church of the West, the concept of diocesan (or secular) priesthood shared expressions and, to varying degrees, lifestyles, with its consecrated counterpart.
In “The Christian State of Life” noted theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says, “The concept of vow or vows was clarified in religious orders, especially by the introduction to the ascetic trio of poverty, chastity and obedience that was speculatively supported by Scholasticism and particularly by St. Thomas Aquinas. Among secular priests, the concept of vows gradually disappeared, although these priests retained the structure of obligation of celibacy as a votum implicitum (implicit vow) and that of obedience, which they no longer understood as a vow, but only a promise.
“In essence, however, the spanision of states within the Church into the state of religious and the state of secular priests was merely a legal one; in the ascetic sense, secular priests belong now, as they have always done, to the state of perfection. They are consecrated to God not only by sacramental ordination, but also in a subjective (personal) and moral sense, and their state obliges them to strive for evangelical perfection through observance of the evangelical counsels – that is, of chastity, ecclesiastical obedience, and that poverty of spirit that manifests itself as detachment from the things of earth.” (p. 299)
In light of this, “secular priests should be aware that fundamentally they are the true religious… ‘Yes dear brethren, you belong to the first order that was founded in the Church; your founder is Jesus Christ himself’; the first religious of this order were the apostles whose successors are the bishops and, in union with them, the priests.” (p. 325) “If such diocesan priests are called ‘secular clergy’ it is only because they do not visibly observe the external way of life of monks who live in community.” (p. 325)
A priestly life of Christian perfection can be lived within the Church, whether one is “in vows” as consecrated religious or as a member of the diocesan clergy. The call to priesthood is essentially the same. The diocesan clergy are ordained for the diocese to which the priest belongs, whereas the priest in the consecrated life, belonging to an Institute of Pontifical or Diocesan Right, is ordained to serve the Church wherever the Religious Institute serves – which can be beyond one particular diocese.
In essence, both the diocesan clergy and those in the consecrated life are ordained for service for the local and universal Church. Priesthood is a sacramental ministry rooted in the person and mystery of Christ. As mystery, it resists tagging as a job or profession and remains a gift of and to the Church, a gift that is both ever ancient and ever new.
Father Mayer, O.de M., is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Philadelphia, which is staffed by the Mercedarian Friars (Order of Mercy).