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Priestly Identity: A study in the theology of priesthood

By Thomas J. McGovern.


It is generally accepted that since the end of Vatican II there has been a crisis in the Catholic priesthood. The symptoms were already well defined when the synod of bishops met in 1971 to discuss this very topic. The synod recognized that there was an identity crisis among priests because of the serious doubts raised subsequent to Vatican II about the essence of the priesthood and its purpose. In their response the bishops assessed the problem to be nothing less than a deep spiritual crisis arising from a defective theological understanding of the very nature of the priesthood. The way forward was clear: according to the synod:

Priests … find their identity to the extent that they fully live the mission of the Church and exercise it in different ways in communion with the entire People of God, as pastors and ministers of the Lord in the Spirit, in order to fulfil by their work the plan of salvation in history. [1]

A correct understanding of the nature of priestly ministry is therefore essential for conviction about, and commitment to, this vocation. Such understanding, the synod implied, could only be achieved through a sound ecclesiology and a deep awareness of how the ministerial priesthood is essentially at the service of the faithful.

            The crisis is reflected in two areas in particular – defections from the priesthood and a serious decline in vocations. [2] Over the past thirty years more priests have abandoned their vocation than in any other similar period in the history of the Church. [3] This sad phenomenon has been referred to by the present Holy Father as a ‘counter sign’, a ‘counter witness’ and ‘one of the setbacks to the great hopes for renewal aroused throughout the Church by the Second Vatican Council’.[4] It was largely a universal phenomenon, affecting both secular and religious priests, but one which was most marked in the developed countries of Western Europe and North America.

            It is difficult to understand the onset of the crisis which affected so many priests since Vatican II. The identity of the priest is writ large on the pages of the Gospel, the record of the words and the works of Christ the Priest par excellence. We also have accounts of the life style, preaching and teaching of the first generation of priests in the narratives of the New Testament. In addition, the Magisterium has always had a very clear conception of the role of the priest based on Scripture, the insights of the Fathers, and the exemplary lives of so many priests whose sanctity was publicly recognized by the Church. Particularly in this twentieth century, papal Magisterium has expressed its perception of the priesthood in many significant documents, covering every aspect of the vocation and the life of the priest. [5]

            Why, we might ask, could such a clearly defined job specification as that of the priest become so blurred as to cause tens of thousands to lose sight of it and eventually abandon their commitment? While no one can answer for the very personal reasons involved in each case, theological and pastoral reflection on this phenomenon has identified some of the ideas which negatively influenced the perception of the priesthood during this period. In 1985 John Paul II, in an address to the council of European episcopal conferences, assessed the difficulties as follows:

An analysis of the situation in Europe today shows, together with comforting signs of vitality and revival, a persistent crisis of vocations and the painful phenomenon of defections. The causes of this painful phenomenon are multiple, and it will be necessary to face up to them with vigour, especially those that can be traced back to a process of spiritual atrophy or to an attitude of corrosive dissent. Vocations are not born in these environments. We should also keep in mind that it is not by diminishing the formative and qualitative requirements of the apostle that a more effective and incisive evangelizing action will be realized, but quite the contrary. The ‘memory’ of the Church, regarding, for example, the patron Saints of Europe, constitutes a significant lesson in this regard. [6]

Anaemic spirituality, theological dissent, and deficient formation were thus seen as catalysts in the process leading to the fall in vocations and the problem of defections.

            Organising the 1990 synod of Bishops on the formation of seminarians and priests was John Paul II’s most significant response to the situation he outlined in 1985. At the close of this same synod he suggested further reasons for the crisis in the priesthood:

This crisis arose in the years immediately following the Council. It was based on an erroneous understanding of – and sometimes even a conscious bias against – the doctrine of the Conciliar Magisterium. Undoubtedly, herein lies one of the reasons for the great number of defections experienced then by the Church, losses which did serious harm to pastoral ministry and priestly vocations, especially missionary vocations. [7] 

Theological influences

Apart from the reasons adduced by the Pope for this crisis, other factors also had an effect which have their roots in history. The sixteenth-century Reformers eviscerated the traditional concept of priesthood in two respects. Firstly, the essential distinction between the sacramentally ordained priesthood and the universal priesthood of the laity was denied – and thus Holy Orders was no longer considered a sacrament. Secondly, the cultic aspect of priesthood was replaced by a new emphasis on the ministry of the word. With the rejection of the hierarchical structure of the priesthood and the jurisdiction derived from it, ministers of the new religion were elected or deputed by the ecclesial community. In reply to arguments of the Reformers that there was no such thing as a special priestly office, Trent affirmed the hierarchical nature of Church office endowed with a specific spiritual jurisdiction. In response to the denial of the priestly character conferred on the priest through sacramental ordination, Trent emphasized the link between the visible sacrifice (the Mass) and priestly authority. [8] In doing so, it was simply maintaining the theology of the Middle Ages that the priesthood was to be understood primarily from the perspective of the priest’s sacramental duties and powers. The celebration of the Mass was the key to the priest’s role and identity, and the Church was understood primarily as a hierarchical structure with governing authority. The position of the laity in the Church was therefore a very secondary one, an attitude reflected clearly in 1917 code of canon law which described lay people as simply non clerics. [9] About the time of Vatican II, however, the theological pendulum began to swing back in the opposite direction towards the theology of the Reformers.

            In his address at the opening of the 1990 synod of Bishops, Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed that the post-Vatican II crisis in the priesthood was primarily due to the fact that

the old arguments of the sixteenth-century Reformation, together with more recent findings of modern biblical exegesis – which moreover were nourished by the presuppositions of the Reformation – acquired a certain plausibility, and Catholic theology was unable to respond to them adequately. [10] 

Theological ideas borrowed from Protestantism gave rise to a reinterpretation of the New Testament concept of priesthood, despoiling it of its unique sacral dimension. This change of perception of the essential nature of the priesthood questioned the idea of the priest as a man apart, as somehow ‘different’ from the rest of men. While the supporters of this new perspective admit the existence of various ecclesiastical functionaries in the New Testament such as bishops, deacons, and presbyters, they argue that the cultic dimension is totally lacking and, consequently, while they accept that they were administrators, they deny that they were priests. According to this thesis, only little by little, during the first centuries, was the element of cult added to the administrative and preaching functions. In this way presbyters became priests. The priest was then seen as a representative of the Church rather than as a representative of Christ. As a consequence, in recent decades the tendency has been to ground the identity of the priest ecclesiologically rather than christologically with an emphasis on functionalism. [11] The Lutheran model of priestly ministry was making ground at the expense of the identity of the Catholic priesthood as defined by Trent.

            The Ratzinger critique was directed mainly at the model of priesthood proposed by the Schillebeeckx school of theology. The Dutch Dominican developed a theology of ministry based more on sociological criteria than on the living Tradition of the Church. [12] For Schillebeeckx, priesthood is the emergence of ministry from below driven by the social dynamics of the primitive Christian communities. He maintains that this original ministry gradually developed a cultic dimension which subsequently became the dominant characteristic. In particular circumstances he would say that the sacramental needs of the community could mandate the celebration of the Eucharist by a designated, non-ordained member of the faithful. He thus effectively denies the transmission of a sacred power through the apostolic succession as the foundation of the Catholic priesthood. From this we see that his concept of ministry is essentially Lutheran. In its 1983 Letter, Sacerdotium ministeriale, [13] the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to a number of these errors, but Ratzinger’s 1990 address to the synod of Bishops was in part a follow up to the document he signed in 1983.    


The influences which caused the change in the perception of priesthood have not been theological only. Shifts in cultural and secular attitudes have also played their part. A characteristic of our time is the progressive secularization of society and the drifting of people away from the Church. Even in countries of long-standing Christian tradition people increasingly live without reference to the transcendent. Large numbers have abandoned following Christ as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn 14:6), and live by a relativistic and subjectivist ethic. Economic progress has become the primary goal of individuals and of society, an attitude which leads to practical atheism and drains the life from mystery. [14] Christian values are reflected less and less in society and political programmes are often implicitly hostile to Christian moral teaching. In a situation where religion is relegated more and more to the sphere of private conscience, the traditional status and prestige of priests in society has considerably diminished, especially in urban areas. As a consequence, some priests have lost confidence in the effectiveness of the Christian message of salvation, and in the Church’s ability to articulate a meaningful Gospel. 

            Because one of the current orthodoxies is that the expression of religious values should be confined to the area of personal conscience, many people today will affirm that Christian moral values should not be allowed to influence public discourse or secular realities. Both the sacred and the profane have, of course, their own authentic values and principles. But it was never part of God’s plan that man should live a sort of schizophrenic existence – that his religious life on the one hand, and his professional, social and family commitments on the other, should be completely separate and compartmentalized existences. Nevertheless, there is increasing social and legislative pressure to copperfasten this compartmentalization.

            Despite the efforts of Vatican II to recover the Gospel teaching of the universal call to holiness and of personal sanctification in and through secular realities, a strong, materialistic influence has been active in many areas of society, erasing the notion of man made to the image and likeness of God with a supernatural destiny. Many priests have been affected by this negative pressure, with the result that they tend to see their role as Christian social workers rather than as priests endowed with the key to supernatural life, whose principal task is to lead souls to eternal salvation. A side effect of this secularising influence is that priests very rarely preach about the last things – death, judgement, heaven, hell. If redemption is seen to be closely related to the things of this world, speaking about the last things loses its relevance.

Cultural influences

Another consequence of this loss of supernatural outlook is that priests are in danger of taking their priorities from the political, academic and media elites. As a consequence some theologians have interpreted categories of sin, repentance and grace in collective and social terms rather than in personal and spiritual ones. In this way they have responded to the agenda set for the Church by the world rather than promote the agenda of the Church, which requires the world to open out to the light of the Gospel. Since the fall of Communism the political option has been stripped of its allure, and so the new enthusiasms are for sundry versions of feminism, multiculturalism, and ecological correctness. [15]

            The increased emphasis on the ideas of freedom and democracy in the general cultural environment has created a climate of opinion which critically questions religious authority and ultimately rejects it, especially in the area of moral norms. The fact that the dominant notion of freedom is detached from the concept of objective truth, and that the real nature of religious authority is poorly understood, aggravates the problem. Because the priest is part of a hierarchical structure which is not answerable to the human democratic process, and because he preaches a doctrine which draws its validity primarily from the authority of Revelation, he can feel increasingly uncomfortable in a society which is shaped less and less by the dynamics of Christian culture, and where relativism in doctrine and moral values are the defining theological characteristics. [16]

            When Vatican II ‘rediscovered’ the notion of the common priesthood of the faithful, it changed the existing understanding of things which perceived priesthood in the Catholic Church only in terms of the clergy. However, because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the lay vocation (which is primarily to make the values of the Gospel present in secular society), the swing to the opposite pole has resulted in an increased clericalization of the laity in an effort to get them more involved in the work of the Church. The process of laity empowerment has been understood largely as a conferring of different ministries on them, tasks which previously were often carried out by the clergy. The result is a blurring of the identity of the priest both in the eyes of the clergy themselves as well as among lay people. That this creates problems in the Church at the present time is clear from the attention given to it in recent statements by Pope John Paul II and Vatican departments. [17] These practices ‘give rise to a “functionalistic” conception of the ministry, which sees the ministry of “pastor” as a function and not as an ontological sacramental reality’. [18]

John Paul II and priesthood

Since his election as Pope, John Paul II has made his own unique contribution to the theology of priesthood. He introduced the custom of writing a letter directly to all the priests of the Church for the feast of Holy Thursday, the day which he felicitously refers to as ‘the birthday of priests’. This was an innovation in papal teaching, one which the Holy Father has used effectively over the past twenty three years to comment on many aspects of priestly ministry, and as a means to make his own original contribution to the theology of priesthood.

            Like all his other writings, these letters draw deeply from the Scriptures and are more often than not written in the form of a prayerful reflection rather than the traditional doctrinal dissertation. It is clear, too, that he brings the rich experience of his own priestly life to this annual communication with his brother priests. These letters, together with his 1992 document on the formation of priests, Pastores dabo vobis [19], are, among other things, a response to some of the negative elements of contemporary culture which have, perhaps unconsciously, penetrated the formation and lifestyle of  priests. Such elements include a certain rationalism which undermines conviction about the supernatural, and an aggressive individualism which makes binding and permanent commitments difficult. A social climate which is subversive of good human relationships leads inevitably to a type of loneliness which people try to satisfy by way of consumerism and a hedonistic approach to life. These corrosive influences of the cultural environment inevitably filtered into the attitudes of priests and their understanding of the priestly ministry. They also made the promotion of vocations more difficult. These, and other factors, were what suggested to John Paul II the need to renew and revitalize the priesthood in light of Vatican II’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. [20]  

            Consequently, in October 1990 he called a synod of bishops to study the question of the formation of priests. This focussing on priestly formation was, perhaps, a tacit recognition of the fact that the problems giving rise to the crisis referred to above arose primarily from inadequate or defective formation in the seminary and subsequently. The Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores dabo vobis, is the most extensive document of the magisterium devoted to priestly formation and constitutes John Paul II’s most comprehensive statement on the nature of priestly ministry. We can now rightly speak of a magna carta of the theology of the priesthood which will continue to be authoritative for the future of the Church. [21] It is a development of the Vatican II document Optatam totius on priestly formation. [22] It takes up the distilled wisdom of the 1990 synod, to which the Holy Father adds many of his own penetrating insights on priestly formation. It points the way forward for a rediscovery and a reaffirmation of the priesthood of Christ as transmitted through the apostolic succession, and as enriched down through the centuries by the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church. More recently, in the context of his weekly catechesis on the mystery of the Church, between March and September 1993, John Paul II devoted eighteen addresses to a discussion of different aspects of the priesthood, which are a treasure of theology and a source of many practical recommendations. [23]

            The following chapters on priesthood have in a special way been inspired by the teachings of the present Holy Father – that they draw heavily on his ideas will be clear from the multiple references to his writings. The conviction that a deeper awareness of this papal teaching will be of much benefit to priests is what has justified my putting this book together. At the same time I should point out that my purpose is not to present a comprehensive, systematic theology of the priesthood – there are many substantial volumes already available on this topic. Rather my objective is to draw attention to particular aspects of the priestly vocation which help to define the identity of the priest and which I feel need to be emphasized at the present time. The different chapters of this study are gathered together under three main headings – Theological, Spiritual, and Pastoral. These are not watertight compartments, reflecting the fact that in the priestly life itself the spiritual, theological, and pastoral overlap to a considerable degree and cannot be isolated from one another.

Theological considerations 

A deep understanding of the theological nature of the priestly ministry is essential if we are to have a clear perception of how this ministry affects the life of the priest, and the way in which its exercise brings about his personal holiness. We therefore begin our enquiry into theology of ministry by looking in some detail at the priesthood of Christ. It is from this datum that all our subsequent considerations about priesthood derive.

            In Chapter 1, ‘The Priesthood of Christ and its development in the New Testament’, we consider how Jesus’ priesthood is the fulfilment of that prefigured in the Old Testament. We will discover how Christ has all the characteristics of priesthood, which began at the moment of the Incarnation and how, while he exercised his priestly office all during his life, it was on Calvary that it was consummated. The scriptural perception of Christ’s priesthood cannot, however, be taken in isolation. It has to be completed by the insights of the living Tradition of the Church. Through it the Holy Spirit, who is the living memory of the Church [24], progressively leads her to a deeper level of self-understanding (cf. Jn 14:26; 16:13). From Scripture and Tradition we see how the profile of priestly ministry and hierarchical structure developed in the early Church, reflecting the priesthood and teaching of Christ. This is the content of Chapter 1.

            One of the developments of the theology of priesthood in recent decades is a deeper awareness of the vital relationship between ministerial priesthood and the common or universal priesthood of the laity. This has come about as a result of the restatement of Catholic ecclesiology in Lumen gentium, the Vatican II dogmatic constitution on the Church. In summary this document says that the Church has received a unique mission from Jesus Christ, which is entrusted to all the members of the People of God. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation they have been made sharers in the priesthood of Christ to offer God a spiritual sacrifice, to bear witness to Christ before men, and to build up the Church, each according to his own vocation. The mission of the Church extends to all men and all times, and to fulfil it there is one priesthood – Christ’s – in which all the members of the People of God share though in different ways. Together with the priesthood of all the baptized, God has willed that there also be a ministerial priesthood which shares in a unique way in the priesthood of Christ, and which differs essentially from the common priesthood of the faithful. This ministerial priesthood is at the service of the faithful since its primary purpose is to activate and empower the priesthood of all the baptized. Chapter 2, ‘Ministerial priesthood’, examines these complementary aspects of priesthood in some depth, and then goes on to look at basic theological concepts of priesthood such as consecration and mission, and the triple ministerial function of teacher, sanctifier and leader of the People of God. In recent years considerable attention has been given to the idea of pastoral charity as the dynamic and unifying principle in the ministry and spiritual life of the priest. We will be looking at different aspects of this important concept with special reference to John Paul II’s articulation of it in Pastores dabo vobis.              

Priestly identity

With these reflections as context, the ground is now prepared to consider in some depth the theological dimensions of priestly identity. This, as we have seen, has been a much discussed question since Vatican II. It has also been referred to on many occasions by John Paul II. In his pastoral visits to different countries he has always made a point of speaking to priests and seminarians to confirm them in their vocation, and to show them how to find their true identity in Christ, the Eternal High Priest. He has repeatedly said that their lives will be authentic to the extent that they reflect Christ, in so far as they become alter Christus, other Christs. [25]

            Priestly identity in the writings of John Paul II is the main theme of Chapter 3. It can be considered from many different angles. What I have done here is to examine it from the perspective of divine vocation and sacramental character, and the consequences these realities have for the life of the priest. Then follows a study of the Trinitarian identity of the priest with special reference to the christological dimension – this latter includes a consideration of the priest as icon of Christ. It will not be surprising that a fundamental theme running through this chapter is how the priest acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), a defining characteristic of priestly identity.

            In this context the relational character of priesthood also needs to be considered, especially the priest’s relationship with the Church, with his bishop, and with his brother priests. The theological concept of communion (communio), which has been developed more thoroughly since Vatican II, is the key used to penetrate more deeply into these relationships. In the final part of this chapter we examine some of the negative influences which tend to blur and obscure the clarity of priestly identity.


Many of those who left the priesthood in the post-Vatican II era claimed that the demands of celibacy were no longer tenable theologically, psychologically, or at a practical level. The Vatican II decree on The ministry and life of priests [26] reaffirmed the Church's position on celibacy, and this teaching was cogently developed a few years later in Paul VI's encyclical on priestly celibacy (Sacerdotalis coelibatus) in 1967. The mind of the Church on priestly celibacy today was stated very clearly by the 1990 synod of bishops and was incorporated in John Paul II’s synodal document on priestly formation, Pastores dabo vobis. In it he reiterates 'the Church's firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin rite'.[27]

            There is justifiable sadness and, indeed, a certain scandal at reports of a priest’s failure to keep his vow of celibacy. For many people his priesthood, in a very real sense, is worth what his celibacy is worth – this is a measure of the importance of this charism for the ordinary faithful. However, the intensity of media concentration on failures in this area is often a reflection of the anticlericalism which pervades much of the media ethos. Newspapers and TV are, by and large, committed to a permissive ethic in the area of sexual morality, and the only opposition which is offered to this agenda is the consistent moral teaching of the Catholic Church. One cannot help feeling at times that the active prosecution of failures in celibacy by the media is another way of attacking the Church’s stand on sexual morality by trying to show it to be self-contradictory.

            Since I have recently published a comprehensive study of celibacy, [28] it is not my intention to deal at length with this aspect of priesthood here. Much of what I say in that work is a development of important issues raised by John Paul II in an address to a group of Canadian bishops in 1993:

Cultural considerations, and the scarcity of priests in certain regions, sometimes give rise to calls for a change in this discipline. To give decisive weight to solutions based on criteria deriving more from certain currents of anthropology, sociology or psychology than from the Church's living tradition is certainly not the path to follow. We cannot overlook the fact that the Church comes to know the divine will through the interior guidance of the Spirit (cf. Jn 16:13), and that the difficulties involved today in keeping celibacy are not sufficient reason to overturn the Church's conviction regarding its value and appropriateness, a conviction constantly reaffirmed by the Church's Magisterium, not least by the Second Vatican Council (cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, no.16). Like the Church in other countries, the Church in Canada is called to face this situation with faith and courage, trusting ‘in the Spirit that the gift of celibacy ... will be generously bestowed by the Father, as long as those who share in Christ's priesthood through the sacrament of Orders, and indeed the whole church, humbly and earnestly pray for it’ (ibid.). [29]   

Our Chapter 4 – ‘Body and soul to Christ: priestly celibacy’ – will consider the main scriptural and theological arguments for this charism.

Spiritual dimension

Having established a clearer idea of the theological identity of the priest, of his unique bonding with the Incarnate Word through sacramental consecration, we can investigate more closely the nature of the personal relationship which the priest is called to have with Christ. Pastores dabo vobis, recalling the doctrine of Vatican II, speaks about the priest's specific vocation to holiness, based on the sacrament of Holy Orders. And it makes the very valid point that, if all Christians are called to holiness, then the priest has a particular responsibility to be holy if he is to act effectively in persona Christi, and be configured to Christ the Head and Shepherd. [30] While we priests certainly accept this in theory, in practice our attitude may often be one of just surviving spiritually rather than making a serious effort to follow the Master closely. One of the objectives the priest should have for his spiritual life is to try to interiorize the rich theological doctrine available about priesthood and priestly identity which we discuss in the first part of the book. By reflecting on this teaching in the presence of Christ, he will put down deep roots into the soil of his vocation and acquire a spiritual and emotional maturity which will be a solid defence against passing theological fads and temptations related to perseverance in vocation.  .

            How should the priest respond to the extraordinary powers and the immense treasures of grace placed in his hands? Of its very nature the priestly vocation demands a deep friendship with Christ – ‘I have called you friends’(Jn 15:15), he told his first priests at the Last Supper. Friendship with Christ, however, is not something that comes automatically as a consequence of ordination. It is a relationship that has to be cultivated in prayer in the seminary, and allowed to mature progressively during the lifetime of the priest. The accumulated wisdom of the Church, and the witness of truly effective pastors down through the centuries, testifies to the fact that a committed prayer-life is the only sure means to acquire that intimacy with the Master which the priestly vocation demands.

            Pastores dabo vobis gives central importance to the bonding between the priest’s spiritual life and the exercise of the ministry. [31] Nevertheless, the integration of consecration and mission in the priest can only be achieved through unity of life. Here we are dealing with a fundamental element of priestly spirituality which was fully outlined in Presbyterorum ordinis [32] and subsequently developed in Pastores dabo vobis. [33] Given the fragmentation and dispersion which characterize the current social and ecclesial context, Pastores dabo vobis affirms that the demand for unity of life in the priest is even more urgent at the present time. Chapter 5, ‘The spiritual life of the priest’, discusses some practical ways in which priestly holiness can be related to ministry in the context of unity of life. It also draws out the implications priestly fraternity has not only for the spiritual life of the individual priest, but also for the diocesan presbyterate as a whole.


In the course of an address delivered in 1993, John Paul II made the striking point that:

In order to have an adequate understanding of the ordained priesthood, and to deal correctly with every question concerning the identity, life, service and ongoing formation of  priests, it is necessary to be always aware of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, of which they are the ministers. [34]

The identity of the priest is inextricably linked with the Eucharistic sacrifice. To say that a priest is one who renews the sacrifice of Calvary is, in a very real sense, to have said everything significant about him. This affirmation grounds and supports every other theological statement that can be made in relation to him. It also defines the essence of his spirituality, and immediately leads to the assertion that the sum total of his ministry is to build up a Eucharistic community. Chapter 6: ‘Eucharistic identity, priest and victim’, discusses, in the first place, the scriptural basis for these claims. It then proceeds to develop a eucharistic theology of priesthood, and its relevance for ministry and for the priest’s own interior life. The chapter ends with a discussion of the implications of Christ’s role as Victim for the priest’s spiritual life.       

Priestly virtues

St Augustine points out that unlike ordinary food, which after ingestion we change into ourselves, the food of the Eucharist assimilates us to Christ. [35] By eating his Body each day we gradually acquire his attitudes and sentiments – we learn to see people and events through his eyes. Consequently, if priests have a deep Eucharistic life they will easily acquire the essential priestly virtues, which we see reflected in Christ’s life as we read the pages of the Gospel. At times some of these virtues – humility, spirit of service, compassion, etc. – will be underdeveloped and so they have to be worked at if priests are to acquire the attractive profile of the Master. Jesus had a perfect human nature, and St Mark adds that as a man he did everything well (cf Mk 7:37). Despite his human limitations the priest has a duty to try to develop those natural virtues – cheerfulness, generosity, empathy – which make his pastoral work more effective. Above all he needs to mature his talents for communication and social interaction so that his message comes across as credible and compelling despite all the competing messages in the air waves. As Pastores dabo vobis points out, the priest’s human personality should be a bridge for others to encounter Christ.[35] Chapter 7 looks at some of the more important human and Christian virtues which facilitate the priest reproducing in himself the image of the Good Shepherd.


A key role of the priest is to preach the word of God, to be an evangelizer. In the present cultural environment, where people are constantly bombarded with competing audio and visual images, it is difficult for the priest to make his voice heard above all the static in the air waves. His preaching is also challenged by the pervasive catechetical illiteracy. Since he is a bearer of the only message that will bring about personal happiness, following the example of St Paul he is asked to preach the good news of salvation in and out of season if he is to convince people that the attractions of this world do not in the long run provide redemption.

As minister of the essential saving acts, he places at the service of all men not perishable goods, nor socio-political projects, but supernatural and eternal life, teaching how to read and interpret the events of history in a Gospel perspective. This is the primary task of the priest, even in the area of new evangelization, which requires priests who, as primarily responsible together with their Bishops for this renewed Gospel sowing, are ‘deeply and fully immersed in the mystery of Christ’(Pastores dabo vobis,18). [35]

In Chapter 8, ‘The priest as evangelizer’, some of the implications of this aspect of the pastoral role are developed. Since the thrust of evangelization and preaching is to help people discover their individual vocation in the Church, an integral part of the priest’s role is to help those who are so called to discern vocation to the priesthood. Because of the radical decline in vocations this aspect of evangelization has now acquired a special urgency. John Paul II warns that priests can no longer adopt a passive role in relation to nurturing priestly vocations – he strongly encourages them to be proactive and to positively invite young men to follow Christ along this path. The chapter concludes by considering ways in which the priest can respond to the challenge of the vocations ministry.

Chastity, marriage

 A sad feature of Western society over the past few decades has been the corruption of sexual moral values and the growth of a hedonistic culture even in countries with a deep-rooted Christian tradition. This has had profound negative effects not only on individuals but also on families and society as a whole. Therefore to preach about chastity in the present context is very much a counter-cultural exercise. Yet even secular society is beginning to recognize the bitter fruits being reaped from an amoral approach to human sexuality as reflected in the rapid growth of unwed teenage pregnancies, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, and the collapse of traditional family values. The immense social cost of sexual irresponsibility is now forcing public authorities to look again at traditional values in this area, even to the extent of organising advertising campaigns which extol the value and advantages of virginity.

             Since sexuality is such an integral constituent of the human personality, and since it is a gift given by God for a very noble purpose, precisely because it is a human capacity that can easily be misused and perverted we need to be regularly reminded of the moral dimension of sexual activity. Yet homilies about God’s plan for human sexuality, both inside and outside of marriage, are rarely heard today. This may be due in part to the prevalent media hostility to the Christian perception of chastity, and the Church’s supposed over-concern with sexual morality at the expense of other areas of moral action. Up to the time of Vatican II there may have been a certain negative emphasis in preaching about chastity. However, it is a rare experience today to hear a homily on this topic, and even rarer for married couples to listen to an explanation of Humanae vitae from the ambo.   

            Chastity is not, of course, the first or the most important of the Christian virtues. Yet because the proper ordering of sexuality has such profound consequences for the good of the family and society, it demands adequate attention in any homiletic or catechetical programme. The extensive catechesis of John Paul II at the beginning of his pontificate (1979-84) on ‘the nuptial meaning of the body’ has left priests a wealth of material for preaching about chastity and Humanae vitae in an encouraging and challenging way. He draws his doctrine from scriptural sources and a rich Christian anthropology and, in so doing, demonstrates how Catholic moral teaching on human sexuality is always pro-love and pro-life. Chapter 9, ‘Preaching about marriage, chastity and Humanae vitae’, is primarily a presentation of this teaching of John Paul II on the theology of the body, a teaching which provides the necessary context to make Catholic doctrine on sexual morality credible and convincing. Because pastoral work in relation to marriage and the family at the present time is so crucial for the future of the Church, a point consistently made by the present Pope, I have dealt not only with a number of key aspects of family apostolate, but have tried to give a clear statement of the underlying theological issues as well.             

Holy Spirit, sin, reconciliation

The essence of the message of salvation is the invitation to respond to God’s grace and to experience the adventure of being adopted children of God through baptism. Vatican II has reaffirmed the idea that Christ calls all his followers to holiness and to grow progressively in friendship with him. Yet this noble aspiration for sanctity in man is often thwarted by his sinful tendencies. Because his nature was damaged by original sin, he will continue to experience in his soul the barb of pride, selfishness and sensuality. Living in a materialistic and hedonistic environment, he will also have to do battle with many external enticements to sin.

            To respond to this undoubted moral fragility, with the sacrament of  Reconciliation Christ left us a formidable antidote to sin. On the very day of his resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles in the Cenacle and imparted to them the sacred power to forgive sins in his name. This extraordinary prerogative is linked by Christ to a special infusion of the Holy Spirit which he bestows on his apostles that first Easter evening (cf. Jn 20:21-23). To plumb the depths of sacramental power conferred on him by ordination, the priest needs to be familiar with the action of the Holy Spirit both in his own soul and in the souls of those to whom he ministers. Chapter 10, ‘Holy Spirit, sin, reconciliation’, reviews this dimension of the priestly life, with particular reference to the sacrament of Penance. It discusses some of the factors which have led to a loss of the sense of sin in contemporary Western culture, and the role of the Holy Spirit in ‘convincing about sin’. It also suggests ways of addressing the dramatic fall-off in the use of the sacrament of confession.. 

Spiritual guidance

In Pastores dabo vobis, John Paul II reminds priests that : 'It is necessary to rediscover the great tradition of personal spiritual guidance which has always brought great and precious fruits to the Church's life'. [37] The Vatican II decree on The ministry and life of priests also encouraged them to have a very high regard for this ascetical practice. [38] The aim of Chapter 11, ‘Spiritual guidance for priest and laity’, is to develop this point and to highlight some of the many practical advantages which the priest can derive from personal spiritual guidance. Not the least of these will be his increased effectiveness in giving spiritual direction to lay people.

             Referring to the role of the priest in giving personal attention to souls, the Holy Father reminds us that

the community dimension of pastoral care cannot overlook the needs of the individual faithful ... The Council stresses the need to help each member of the faithful to discover his specific vocation as a proper, characteristic task of the pastor who wants to respect and promote each one's personality. One could say that by his own example Jesus himself, the Good Shepherd who ‘calls his own sheep by name’ (cf. Jn 10:3-4), has set the standard of individual pastoral care: knowledge and a relationship of friendship with individual persons. It is the presbyter's task to help each one to utilize well his own gift, and rightly to exercise the freedom that comes from Christ's salvation, as St Paul urges (cf. Gal 4:3; 5:1,13; see also Jn 8:36). [39]

Here we get a glimpse of the ‘standard of individual pastoral care’ expected of the priest, especially in the context of the universal call to holiness proclaimed by Vatican II.

            The pastoral fruitfulness of spiritual guidance for the laity depends to a great extent on how well the priest understands the nature of the lay vocation in the Church. Recently the Pope felt obliged to clarify once again the theological character of this vocation as distinct from that of the priest. He reminds us that in the first place what Vatican II

called for was lay involvement in the world of the family, commerce, politics, intellectual and cultural life – which are the proper field of specifically lay mission. The Council therefore stressed the essential secularity of the lay vocation (Lumen gentium, 31; cf also Evangelii nuntiandi, 70; Christifideles laici, 17). This does not mean that lay people have no special place or work to perform in the life of the Church ad intra: in many pastoral, liturgical and educational tasks, they clearly have. But the main focus of the lay vocation should be engagement in the world, while the priest has been ordained to be pastor, teacher and leader of prayer and sacramental life within the Church. [40]

In this chapter I have tried to summarize the main elements of lay spirituality outlined in the documents of Vatican II as a context and a reference for priests so that the personal spiritual guidance they offer will be more effective. 

The priest and the liturgy

The celebration of the liturgy is what defines the essence of the priest since his principal task is to renew on the altar Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. In recent decades, however, because the sacrificial aspect of the Mass has tended to be eclipsed by over-emphasis on other aspects of the Eucharist, an essential element of priestly identity – the sacrificial – has become somewhat shrouded and obscured. While Josef Pieper relates the crisis of priestly identity to a deficient faith in the sacrifice of the Mass, [41] Cardinal Ratzinger is of the opinion that the crisis in the Church as a whole is not unrelated to problems which have to do with the liturgy:

A renewal of liturgical awareness, a liturgical reconciliation that again recognizes the unity of the history of the liturgy and that understands Vatican II, not as a breach, but as a stage of development: these things are urgently needed for the life of the Church. I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy, which at times has come to be conceived of etsi Deus non daretur: in that it is a matter of indifference whether or not God exists and whether or not he speaks to us and hears us. [42]

            Loss of belief in the Real Presence is not just a consequence of deficient catechetics. The erosion of the numenous character of the liturgy over the past three decades also had its part to play. Unconsciously, perhaps, there was a dismantling of religious awe to encourage social participation in the liturgy.  But as has been pointed out:

The foundations of worship are fragile. Reverence is not hereditary ... It has to quicken anew in each generation. Consequently its modes of transmission have to be conserved and cherished. We need to be watchful not to dislodge a certain fear of the Lord – the trembling of the ancient psalmist – without which reverence cannot endure. It matters tremendously the things we choose as evocations of the divine mysterium. So much depends on the settings we create for the life of prayer. Lex orandi, lex credendi (how we pray determines what we believe). [43]      

In Chapter 12, ‘The priest and the liturgy’, I have tried to bring together the main theological principles underlying Catholic worship. I point out the continuity between the worship of the Old and the New Covenants, and some of the lessons to be learned from this. This chapter also deals with the nature of signs and symbols used in the liturgy, its sacramental dimension, participation of the laity in the liturgy, how silence and song are important elements of cult, and the influence of church art and architecture on the eschatological and doxological aspects of Catholic worship. A deeper sensitivity by the priest to these elements of the liturgy will enhance his role in the work of redemption.       


As I have already indicated, much of what I say in this book draws on the writings and teaching of John Paul II. It will be seen that his addresses to priests at many different times and places, the annual Holy Thursday letters, and the apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis are repeated sources of reference in the chapters which follow. On Trinity Sunday of 1982, with seventy-eight others, I had the privilege of being ordained to the priesthood by present Holy Father in St Peter’s in Rome. One way I feel I can perhaps show appreciation for this exceptional favour is by making more accessible some of the rich doctrine John Paul II has given us about the priesthood during his long and fruitful pontificate.

            How one writes about priesthood is obviously influenced by personal perception and experience. All during my life I have had the good fortune to know priests who reflected in different ways the attractive image of Christ the Good Shepherd. Among these I would like to mention two in particular. The first is Saint Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, whom I had the privilege to know personally. From him I learned many things, but especially what it means to be alter Christus, another Christ, as I saw it reflected in the generous example of his priestly life and in his rich theology of the priesthood. The second is Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, prelate of Opus Dei and successor to  Saint Josemaría. He called me to the priesthood, transmitted to me and my colleagues the benefit of his immense pastoral experience, and taught us how to love the priesthood as the greatest of God’s gifts to mankind. From that pastoral and spiritual inheritance I have drawn deeply in writing this study, often times perhaps unaware that I am repeating their ideas and insights. It goes without saying that none of the limitations of this study can be held against them.

            Since I am writing primarily for priests, occasionally I use ‘we’ rather than ‘they’ to avoid pedantic repetition and also where I feel such usage expresses more clearly what I am trying to say. Because the priesthood is the greatest gift I have received and the source of deepest personal fulfilment, I would find it difficult to discuss it in a totally detached, clinical way. I write, as it were, with my heart on my sleeve. However, I do not think that this approach will detract from its objectivity,               

            Among the bibliography referred to I wish to recognize the debt I owe to the material presented at the 1990 International Congress organized by the Theology Faculty of the University of Navarre, Pamplona (Spain). The topic of that congress was ‘The nature of priestly formation as demanded by contemporary society’. In particular I would like to express my gratitude for the insights gained from the papers presented by Professors L. Mateo-Seco, J. L. Illanes, E. Borda, and A. Sarmiento. [44]

            I would also like to thank the following who read through previous drafts of the text and who offered many helpful suggestions and ideas – Mgr Michael Manning, Fr James Gavigan, and Fr Tom O’Toole.


[1]   De sacerdotio ministeriali, pars II,  AAS,  68 (1971) 909.

[2]   Despite the decline in vocations in Western Europe, North America and Oceania, there has been a significant growth in vocations over the past twenty years in Africa, South America, South East Asia, and Eastern Europe - cf. Osservatore Romano, 31 July 1996. See also Review of Church statistics for the period 1979-97 in Seminarium, XXXIX (1999), no. 4, Dimensione quantitativa della Chiesa Cattolica alle soglie dell’Anno giubilare, p. 652. 

[3]   During the period  1964 to 1997, there were 60,126 defections from the priesthood (Diocesan and Religious). See Osservatore  Romano, 13/20 August 1997; Seminarium, ibid., p. 646.

[4]   Address to Priests at Maynooth, 1 October 1979. The addresses of the Holy Father to priests down through the years can be found in the pages of Osservatore Romano (English language weekly edition). A number of these, covering the first five years of his papacy (1978 83), are to be found in A Priest Forever, ed. Fr. Seamus O'Byrne, St. Paul Publications, Athlone, Ireland, 1984. To avoid overloading the footnotes with dates, when referring to a papal address, I simply give the date it was delivered, as the address can then be easily sourced in the relevant edition of the English weekly edition of Osservatore Romano.

[5]   Cf. The Catholic Priesthood: Papal Documents from St Pius X to Pius XII, ed. Mgr. P. Veuillot, Dublin 1957. To mention but a few of the more important ones: St Pius X: Exhortation, Haerent Animo, on Priestly Sanctity, 4 August 1908; Pius XI: Encyclical, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, on The Catholic Priesthood, 20 December 1935; Pius XII: Apostolic Exhortation, Menti Nostrae, On the Sanctification of Priestly Life, 23 December 1950; John XXIII: Encyclical Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, on Priestly Perfection, 1 August 1959; Paul Vl: Encyclical,  Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, on Priestly Celibacy, 24 June 1967.

[6]   Address, 11 October 1985 (italics in original).

[7]   Discourse at the end of the 1990 synod of Bishops, 27 October 1990.

[8]   Cf. ‘Decree concerning the Sacrifice of the Mass’ (22nd Session, 17 September 1562); ‘Decree concerning the Sacrament of Order’ (23rd, 5 July 1563), in The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder, Rockfort, Il., 1978. 

[9]   Cf. canon 107.

[10]   Address, 1 October 1990, in Osservatore Romano, 28 October 1990.

[11]   Anton Ziegenaus, ‘Identidad del sacerdocio ministerial’ in La formación de los sacerdotes en las circunstancias actuales, Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona, 1990, pp 81-86.

[12]   Cf. E Schillebeeckx, Ministry: A Case for Change, London, 1981;  idem., The Church with a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry, London, 1985. See critique of Schillebeeckx’s theory published by Albert Vanhoye and Henri Crouzel, ‘The ministry in the Church: reflections on a recent publication’, Clergy Review, 68 (1983), 155-74.

[13] Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Certain Questions concerning the Minister of the Eucharist, 6 August 1983.

[14]   Cf. Pastores dabo vobis, 7 (25 March 1992), subsequently abbreviated to PDV in the footnotes.

[15]   Cf. J. Nuechterlein, ‘Pastoral Concerns’, in First Things, no. 77, November 1997, p. 9.

[16]   Cf. PDV, 8. See also Gisbert Greshake, The Meaning of Christian Priesthood,  Dublin, 1988, pp 17-20.

[17]   Cf. Address, 21 November 1998, no. 5;  Instruction on Certain Questions regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests, 15 August 1997.

[18]   Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Reflections on the Instruction regarding the collaboration of the Lay Faithful in the Ministry of Priests - 6’, Osservatore Romano, 29 April 1998.

[19]   Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores dabo vobis, 25 March 1992.

[20]   Cf. George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II, New York, 1999, p. 656.

[21]   In the text of Pastores dabo vobis, John Paul II specifically affirms the fact that he is issuing this document as ‘Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter’ (no.4). 

[22]   Decree on the Training of Priests, Vatican II, Optatam totius, 28 October 1965.

[23]   Addresses of 31 March; 21 April; 5, 12, 19 and 26 May; 2, 9, 30 June; 7, 17, 21, 28 July; 4, 25 August; 1, 22, 29 September – all in 1993. These are available in the weekly English language edition of the Osservatore Romano, usually the week following delivery.  A compendium of these addresses is also available under the title Priests for the Third Millennium, published by  Midwest Theological Forum, Chicago, 1995.

[24]   Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1099 (subsequently abbreviated to CCC).

[25]   Cf. Address, 23 October 1993.

[26]   Presbyterorum ordinis, 7 December 1965.

[27]   PDV, 29.

[28]   Thomas McGovern, Priestly Celibacy Today, Dublin and Chicago, 1998.

[29]   Address, 8 November 1993 (italics in original).

[30]   Cf. PDV, 20 and 21.

[31]   Cf. no. 24.

[32]   Cf. no. 14.

[33]   Cf. PDV, 23.

[34]   John Paul II, Address, 22 October 1993.

[35] Cf. St Augustine, Confessions, Ch. 7, 10.

[36]   Cf. PDV, 43.

[37]   John Paul II, Address,  23 October 1993.

[38]   No. 46.

[39]   Cf. no.18.

[40]   Address, 19 May 1993.

[41]   John Paul II,  Address, 21 November 1998, no.5. 

[42]   Josef Pieper, In Search of the Sacred, San Francisco, 1996, p. 30.

[43]   Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, San Francisco, 1998, pp 148-9.

[44]   Maureen Mullarkey, ‘Worship gone Awry’, in Crisis, July/August 2000, p. 27.

[45]   These papers were subsequently published under the title: La formación de los sacerdotes en las circunstancias actuales, Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona, 1990.  

Priestly Identity: A study in the theology of priesthood

By Thomas J.McGovern.

Originally Published by Four Courts. Pp.320
ISBN 1-85182-655-6 price €24.95

Fumbally Lane, Dublin 8, Ireland
e-mail: info@four-courts-press.ie

This book is out of print at the moment but is in the course
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1 The priesthood of Christ and its development in the New Testament 28
2 Ministerial priesthood 45
3 Priestly identity: other Christs 68
4 Body and soul to Christ: priestly celibacy 97


5 The spiritual life of the priest 123
6 Eucharistic identity: priest and victim 154
7 Some priestly virtues 179


8 The priest as evangelizer 193
9 Preaching about chastity, marriage, and Humanae vitae 216
10 The Holy Spirit, sin, reconciliation 239
11 Spiritual guidance for priest and laity 256
12 The priest and the liturgy 278


Copyright ©; Fr. Thomas McGovern 2010

This version: 4th February 2010

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