The transformation from clericalism to priests as servants

The annual Chrism Mass celebrates the unity of the priesthood as well as the unity of the diocesan Church.


The annual Chrism Mass celebrates the unity of the priesthood as well as the unity of the diocesan Church.

April 28, 2014

Few groups went through as much change because of the Second Vatican Council as did diocesan priests.

This would not be apparent from reading any history of the four years of Vatican II. While there was much controversy over the theology of bishops' collegial authority and a lot of attention was given to the role of the laity, priests seemed to be the forgotten ones.

Indeed, this caused significant problems following the council. While the bishops who participated in the council were knowledgeable about conciliar teachings, it was parish priests who, more than anyone, were called upon to turn those teachings from ideas into action. In many cases, they had not been equipped to do so.

Moreover, the understanding of the role of the parish priest underwent a vast change because of the council's renewed understanding of the nature of the Church.

In many places, especially in predominantly Catholic societies such as Quebec and Ireland, the village priest was not only a cultic figure who hatched, matched and dispatched his parishioners, but also one who had power in the local society that was of considerable importance.

In Quebec, the Quiet Revolution of the early 1960s shunted the Church from a position of power to a seat on the sidelines in just a few short, tumultuous years. Vatican II's teaching gave added momentum, in various ways, to the diminished role of the clergy in such a society.

Small wonder that there was a mass exodus from the priesthood in the years after the council as the clergy struggled to find a new identity!

The commission established to prepare for Vatican II recommended the council pass 17 decrees on the role of the priest. All of those decrees were based on a cultic model of the priesthood which saw the priest as the celebrator of sacraments and an arbiter of morality and Church law.

Those documents were quickly whittled down in number to just two – one on priestly formation and the other on priestly ministry.

This week's article focuses on the second document which was originally called Clerics, then Priests, then the Life and Ministry of Priests, and, finally, the Ministry and Life of Priests. The final shift in the title was made because the council fathers determined that the ministry of priests should form their spiritual lives and not the reverse.

From reading the final document, one would never guess at the behind-the-scenes tussles and tug-of-wars that went into creating it. The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) is a beautiful document, perhaps the most lovely and pastoral creation of the council.

The emphasis of Presbyterorum Ordinis is less on the cultic notion of priesthood and more on the priest's role in building up the Body of Christ.

Further, while the pre-conciliar thinking was that the bishop is an elevated form of the priesthood, the council taught that bishops are ordained, not consecrated. The priest is now seen as a co-worker of the bishop, as participating in his ministry.


The decree also dances between two extremes of priestly relationship with the world. On one hand, the priest is "set apart" within the People of God; on the other hand, he must not "remain aloof" from the concerns of the lives of the faithful. The priest should not conform himself to this world; he must also be the good shepherd who knows his flock (PO 3).

There is much one could say about Presbyterorum Ordinis. I would like to look briefly at how it describes the priest's role as prophet, priest and king.

The document, in an important move, places the prophetic role first, giving it greater priority than the cultic role. "It is the first task of priests as co-workers of the bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all" (PO 4). The Word of God anchors the sacraments and forms the Christian community.

Further, the priest must not only know and preach the Gospel to his flock, he must show the people how to apply "the eternal truth of the Gospel to the concrete circumstances of life."

It is in that context that the priestly, cultic role of ministering the sacraments must be placed. As the Word of God forms God's people, so once formed, the Body of Christ is strengthened by the sacraments.

In third place is the role of governance. Here, the decree says ordination gives priests "a spiritual power . . . whose purpose is to build up the Church" (PO 6). The priest not only cares for individual members of his flock; he has the daunting task of forming "genuine Christian community."


That spirit of community includes development of strong parishes. Not to be forgotten, however, is the strengthening of that community in relation to the universal Church. The parish is not an island.

It is by carrying out these roles of prophet, priest and king that the priest grows in holiness. If the parish is not an island, neither is the priest. His spirituality is not an austere, private life of prayer and fasting. It is by forming, nurturing and leading the Christian community that he becomes holy.

Priests need an asceticism "suited to a pastor of souls, renouncing their own convenience, seeking not their own good, but that of the many, that they may be saved" (PO 13).


They need also to recall that it is not their own holiness that opens people's hearts to the Gospel, but rather the Lord himself. When the priest relies on the power of God, not his own spiritual power, then the flock can be united through the Holy Spirit with Jesus Christ.

The insight of Vatican II was that the priesthood has a relational character. The priest is a co-worker of the bishop and a shepherd of the people. He leads, not through his own power, but through that of the Spirit.

This is a different way of looking at the priesthood than was common prior to the council. It does not throw the baby out with the bath water, but it does thoroughly undermine clericalism. The priest is no longer the power in the community; he is the mediating agent through whom the Lord calls his people into one body.