Editor’s note: Today, I’m very happy to continue our series of blog posts being shared by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops for the Year of Faith. We thank the USCCB for making this post available for our readers. LMH
The Council at 50: The Priest: Ever Growing for His People
Welcome to one of the series of blogs on the Second Vatican Council. Each piece reviews one of the 16 documents produced by the Council Fathers during the extraordinary occasion in Church history. Vatican II, which drew together the world’s bishops, opened fifty years ago in St. Peter’s Basilica, October 11, 1962.
The qualities of today’s priest stood out in Presbyterorum Ordinis (of the Order of Priests), the “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” promulgated December 7, 1965 by the Second Vatican Council.
The decree highlighted the call to preach the Gospel to all people as the “first task of priests.” The Council refocused the Church on the centrality of the Word of God and raised the Liturgy of the Word to greater prominence within the Mass. Since then, priests have worked to improve the quality of preaching to move the hearts of both priest and the faithful to conversion and a more dedicated fidelity to Jesus Christ.
The “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” speaks of priests as the “indispensable helpers and advisers” of the bishops in the ministry of teaching, sanctifying and shepherding the People of God. Since this decree, the Church has developed the Presbyteral Council, a group of priests chosen by the bishop to advise him in diocesan matters.
The most important development occurred with Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation I Will Give You Shepherds. The pope wrote that within the Church, the priest is a “man of communion.” This phrase captures the heart of priesthood: a man in communion with God who is called to become a mediator of this relationship, bringing God to people and people to God. This happens in many ways, and especially at Mass. As a man of communion the priest also is called to become “a man of mission and dialogue.” Priesthood is never simply about the priest. It is about mission – carrying the message of Jesus Christ into a world hungry for meaning and purpose. It is about dialogue – bringing people within the Church and outside of it into community. The priest is to be a man of witness and a man of peace.
The “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” called for the Church to engage in the “progressive formation” of priests. Since then, a great deal of vision and effort has gone into the formation of priests after their ordination. Blessed John Paul spoke with eloquence on this need for the ongoing formation of priests quoting St. Paul in his Second Letter to Timothy: “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you.” The U.S. Bishops promulgated the Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests in June 2000 to implement the pope’s vision for the renewal of priests here in the United States.
This “rekindling” must happen in several areas. The priest is called to grow in human formation, the decree said, “to develop and sharpen his human sensitivity” to understand the needs and unvoiced questions of his people. He needs spiritual formation, to deepen his relationship to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. He needs intellectual formation to be an ongoing student of Scripture, theology, and the culture in which he lives. And he needs on-going pastoral formation to help him grow in his pastoral charity, exercising a shepherd’s care for his people. In other words, he is to grow in the virtue of love.
Each priest is called to engage in this formation as a young, middle-age, or older priest.
Finally, “The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” calls priests once again to imitate Jesus the Master: They are to serve and not be served. They are called to improve their ability to listen before they speak. This humility is central to the spirituality of the priesthood and is an ever-present challenge to any attitudes of superiority or pride. Clericalism has no place in a Church that seeks to evangelize – to bring Christ and his love to the world.
Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.