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Priestly Identity: A study in the theology of priesthood

By Thomas J.McGovern.



Ever since man has asked questions about his existence and his purpose in life, the idea of identity has shaped his understanding; and in the course of history this understanding of one's identity has led to either peace or war.

Not surprisingly in the years since Vatican II commentators have concentrated on this question of identity when discussing the priesthood. Following on from his previous work on celibacy, Fr Thomas J. McGovern D.D. of the Holy Cross Prelature brings much-needed clarity to this debate in his new book Priestly Identity (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2002).

Dr McGovern identifies a radical shift in the understanding of the sacerdotal image since the Council. The shift was not intended by the Council, but rather by figures such as Küng and Schillebeeckx who, in "the spirit of the Council", tended to strip the priesthood of its true nature. Such thinking ignited the crisis which culminated in defections from the ministry and the drying up of vocations. Not since the Lutheran revolt of the 16th century has such a serious problem arisen in the Church.

New evangelisation

The author offers a three-fold framework for dealing with the problem: theological, spiritual and pastoral.

Theologically, the priest must be identified totally with the salvific mission of Christ, the One High Priest, and daily dedication to the Mass helps him achieve this.

Spiritually, he must see Christ as the sole master, and this will be accomplished by the practice of the virtues such as humility, poverty and compassion.

Pastorally, the effective living out of Church teaching by word and example, and solid apologetics, will lead first to the holiness of the priest himself and then to that of his flock.

The radical call by the present Holy Father for the new evangelisation of the West is at the centre of Fr McGovern's thesis. By straight preaching, combined with love, the priest will bring many to know Jesus Christ, and thus confirm his own priestly identity. As Luke states (
5:32): Non veni vocare iustos sed peccatore in paenitentiam ("I have not come to call the just; I have come to call sinners to repentance.")

New understanding

Throughout this work the examples of the saints are placed before us as models for this rediscovery of the adventure of' sharing the priesthood of Christ. The Curé of Ars showed how the impossible can be achieved; Blessed Padre Pio wasn't afraid to call sin by its proper name, and to challenge sinners to repent - but in love; and Blessed Josemaria Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, in his infectious joy at knowing God's love, taught that all are called to share and spread this love.

This is a work that stimulates a new understanding of just how important the priest is in God's eyes, but its style will appeal to laypeople as well as clergy. Fr McGovern has a gift for making deep theological ideas understandable, and therefore enjoyable to read.

In short, he has done a great service in giving all priests the means by which they can rediscover who they are and what they are about. Along with his previous book, this must be essential reading not for just for clergy and religious but for all who wish to learn more about this great gift given by God - the priesthood.

The above review first appeared in The Brandsma Review, Vol 11, No. 3 May-June 2002

Review by Bishop Luc Matthys

Priestly identity: a study in the theology of priesthood by Thomas J. McGovern (Four Courts Press Dublin, 2002), pp 320. Pounds Stg 19.65 (at A$70 with p&.p): available: info@four-courts-press.ie

The author states in the long introduction that, "
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 emphasised at the present time". In this he succeeds very well, and more.

We would all be familiar with the
crisis in vocations and the painful phenomenon of defections. (During the period 1964-1997 there were over 60.000 defections from the priesthood, diocesan and religious). Some may object the use of the term defections which the author uses in the correct technical sense. Others may deny that there is a crisis in vocations. Numbers, or lack of numbers in vocations, point only to a vibrant faith or lack of it.

Too often, in my opinion, are we told of "a changing priesthood" in our day, probably in an effort to accommodate the fast moving world in which we are living. The author would not agree, and directs our attention to the long tradition and practice of the Catholic priesthood.

Post Vatican II theological speculation, the secularisation of the society, cultural influences, Pope John Paul II's Pastores dabo vobis, celibacy, the universal call to holiness, the bonding between the priest's spiritual life and the exercise of the ministry, the ministerial priesthood as well as the common priesthood of the faithful, Christ's Eternal Priesthood, all receive close attention and thorough analysis by the author. He deeply hopes that priests will regain a love of the priesthood as the greatest of God's gifts to mankind. It is to priests that this book is primarily directed.

Under three headings (Theological, Spiritual, Pastoral) the author examines 'Priestly Identity" in twelve chapters. I list them to show the length and breadth of the subject matter.

I. The priesthood of Christ and its development in the New Testament
2. Ministerial priesthood
3. Priestly identity: other Christs
4 Body and soul to Christ: priestly celibacy
5. The spiritual life of the priest
6. Eucharistic identity: priest and victim
7. Some priestly virtues
8 The priest as evangeliser
9. Preaching about chastity, marriage and
Humanae Vitae
10 The Holy Spirit, sin, reconciliation
ii. Spiritual guidance for priest and laity
12. The Priest and the liturgy.

The author's use of writings of Pope John Paul II on the priesthood as well as many other magisterial documents is extensive and impressive. While not trying to diminish the vast theological content of the book, I venture to say that he is not offering new insights on "Priestly Identity". What the book does do is to bring together between the covers all the traditional and current material about the priesthood, from Council documents, Papal Addresses, and other magisterial documents. For example, four of the major Vatican II documents are frequently quoted as well as the
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Correctly the author uses quotations from Pastores dabo vobis dozens of times. This should surprise no one because Pastores dabo vobis is the "bible" of priestly life and ministry. His command of English facilitates easy reading.

The three-page Epilogue beautifully summarises thc content of the book. Mind you, read the book first. Then the epilogue will stay in your mind for a long time. It may lead to your re-reading long sections of the book.

Father Thomas J McGovern, a priest of the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, was ordained at Rome, together with seventy-eight others by John Paul II on Trinity Sunday 1982. The occasion has left an indelible impression on him. At present he is a university chaplain in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author also of a comprehensive
Priestly Celibacy Today (1998).

The above review first appeared in May 2002 THE PRIEST - Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy

Priestly Celibacy Reflects Who - and Whose - We Are


A priest was recently asked about priestly celibacy on a network television program. Sad to say, he responded by nonchalantly stating that the celibacy requirement for priests was only instituted about 800 years ago - "to keep property out of the hands of family heirs."

If that were true, celibacy would be worse than wrong.

Why a cleric with virtually no critical competence should have been called on as a "spokesman" for the Church can only be explained by the network. The man himself made things worse by his off-handedness,

The history of celibacy, as it has been subject to intense scholarly review in recent years, does not deserve glib treatment. Rather, it deserves the kind of thoughtful reflection it receives in Priestly Identity: A Study in the Theology of Priesthood by Opus Dei Father Thomas McGovern.

Published by Four Courts Press in Dublin, this work presents a deft response to shallow perception. It follows Father McGovern's previous, equally worthwhile Four Courts book, 1998's Priestly Celibacy Today, which was similarly mindful of celibacy as a charism.

A close reading of the new work will do much to enlighten the faithful on the true nature of priestly identity - an understanding of which is essential for any who would speak out on priestly celibacy.

Indivisible identity

Recent crises in the Catholic priesthood have provoked hostile demands for restructuring. Many of these calls are notable only for their lack of understanding about what a priest is and why Christ instituted the priesthood the way he did. Father McGovern explains the big picture in clear language, paying close attention to detail,

The romantic utopianism that animated many naive churchmen in the period of Vatican II was sorely dashed by the volcanic eruption of defections from the priesthood and the decline in vocations, especially in the West. The author writes from Ireland, which has experienced the sharpest rate of decline in the number of seminarians in all of Europe.

Papal teaching since Vatican II will be as highly regarded in future generations as it has been ignored in our time. That neglect is in part accountable for the moral disarray around us. Yet people continue to look to their priests and have even become almost presbyterian in their support for faithful priests - and their frustration with an episcopate that has become, in popular opinion, excited by the secular media: a symbol of clericalism impeding priestly life. A high theology of the priesthood cannot be separated from a high theology of the episcopate that embodies the fullness of the priesthood. Such theology cannot breathe if the priesthood degenerates into a bureaucratic caste.

Father McGovern recovers the essence of such seminal documents as Pope John Paul II's 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of' the Present Day) to explain what the Church means by the man ordained for others. He divides his analysis into three sections that parallel, perhaps by a happy intuition of grace, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: His account of the priestly life is in terms theological, spiritual and pastoral. As the Holy Trinity is undivided, so can these aspects of priestly life be isolated one from the other only at the price of priestly integrity.

Most people know their priests from their words at the altar, in the confessional and behind the pulpit. And, indeed, all other aspects of the priest's work flow from these places. Josef Pieper said that the crisis in priestly identity is rooted in a defective faith in the sacrifice of the Mass. Father McGovern is very practical in describing what has happened to the liturgy, preaching and spiritual direction, profiling a priesthood that transcends "democratic" and "autocratic" models alike.

It is not impious to say that papal documents generally lack popular diction. Apologists exist to popularize them; good apologists render them in the vernacular without abusing them. The McGovern book, not prodigal with words, would be valuable if only for its bibliography. This cites not only the expected conciliar documents and classical sources, but also the likes of such popular popularizers as Joseph Pierce, Catherine Pickstock, Wanda Poltawska, Malcolm Muggeridge, John Saward, Janet Smith, Eamon Duffy, Alec Guinness and Aidan Nichols.

Gift and Mystery

Soul-numbing mistakes have been made in the liturgy and seminary formation. Even earnest churchmen invested so much of themselves in those miscalculations that, in their sunset years, they cannot admit the essential defects in their dated enthusiasms. Meanwhile saintly modern examples of priestliness have been undercut by a failure to correct bad examples.

A notorious instance was the 1982 visitation of seminaries in the United States, whose failure has only now been acknowledged. A new generation has appeared for whom all that is a curious history. Its members need good guides. What Father McGovern writes could not be more timely.

The ranting of Pharisees in the press is a warning of how much ignorance fuels a hatred of the priesthood which, as one French historian wrote of the Revolution of 1789, is the oldest animus in Western civilization. With prescience - if understatement, in light of the present crisis - Father McGovern says: "One cannot help feeling at times that the active prosecution of failure 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."

As the priesthood is Christ's gift to the Church to enable the Church to be the Church and given the confusion over the priesthood in our time, Priestly Identity should be required reading for lay faithful as well as priests.

Father George W Rutler is pastor of The Church of Our Saviour in New York City. Both
Priestly Celibacy Today and Priestly Identity: A Study in the Theology of Priesthood can be ordered over the internet at www.four-courts-press. ie

The above review first appeared in the COMMENTARY & OPINION section of National Catholic Register June 23-29, 2002

Page Contents Copyright ©; Named Review Authors 2002

This version: 25th September 2002

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