Vatican II on Priests: Priestly Ministry
Oddly enough, since the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church focused on bishops and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity tended to overshadow everything else at the time, the Second Vatican Council has often been said to have ignored priests. But priests are the only group to which two documents are devoted. We have already surveyed the Decree on Priestly Training which Vatican II issued in October 1965. On December 7th, the Council returned to this subject so dear to its heart and issued its fifteenth document, the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis). The text is of medium length, and I’ll cover it in two entries.
Presbyterorum Ordinis begins with this statement: “Priests by sacred ordination and mission which they receive from the bishops are promoted to the service of Christ the Teacher, Priest and King. They share in His ministry, a ministry whereby the Church here on earth is unceasingly built up into the People of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit” (1). This sets the tone for the entire document, which is divided into three chapters.
The first chapter covers “The Priesthood in the Ministry of the Church”, and it explains that the ministry of the priest derives from what is completely unique to priests, namely the “sacred power of orders to offer sacrifice and to forgive sins.” Thus priests “are signed with a special character and are conformed to Christ the Priest in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the Head.” They receive a “special grace to be ministers of Christ among the people” so that “the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ.” Indeed, “the ministry of priests is directed toward this goal and is perfected in it.” Properly understood, then, the purpose of priestly ministry and life “is to procure the glory of God the Father in Christ” and “that glory consists in this—that men working keenly and with a grateful spirit receive the work of God made perfect in Christ and then manifest it in their whole lives” (2).
The second chapter covers “The Ministry of Priests”. In section 1, the Council enumerates and explains “Priests’ Functions” as follows:
- The primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel: “To all men, therefore, priests are debtors that the truth of the Gospel which they have may be given to others.” They are not to rely on their own wisdom but on the “word of Christ”, and they are to apply “the lasting truth of the Gospel to the particular circumstances of life” (4).
- Performing sacred functions: By their special title in the priesthood of Christ, priests are to act as His ministers. “Especially by the celebration of Mass they offer sacramentally the Sacrifice of Christ” to which all the other sacraments and all apostolic work are directed. Priests are to lead their people to pray, confess their sins, live the evangelical counsels, and offer their own lives with the Eucharist. (5)
- Gathering the family of God together: Priests are given a spiritual power for the building up of the Church. “They should act towards men, not as seeking to please them, but in accord with the demands of Christian doctrine and life.” They also have a special obligation to the poor and, in seeking to minister to every person and group they must foster a spirit of community which embraces “not only the local church but also the universal Church.” (6)
The second section covers “Priests’ Relationships with Others.” Priests are “necessary helpers and counselors” to bishops, who must “regard them as their brothers and friends and be concerned as far as they are able for their material and especially for their spiritual well-being” (above all, the Council states, “upon the bishops rests the heavy responsibility for the sanctity of their priests”). Priests in turn must respect in their bishops “the authority of Christ, the Supreme Shepherd” and must stand by them “in sincere charity and obedience” (7). Priests are also united with each other in “an intimate sacramental brotherhood”, and must “help one another always to be fellow workers in the truth” (8). The Council calls for a priest senate in each diocese to advise the bishop (7) and expresses the desire that “some kind of common life or some sharing of common life be encouraged among priests” (8).
With respect to the laity, the priest stands in the role of “father and teacher”, leading them in the discipleship of the Lord that they share in common. Thus priests are to “acknowledge and promote the dignity of the laity,” listen carefully to their concerns, and allow them “freedom and room for action”. Priests “have been placed in the midst of the laity to lead them to the unity of charity”, and they must be “defenders of the common good, with which they are charged in the name of the bishop.” They are to be “strenuous assertors of the truth, lest the faithful be carried about by every wind of doctrine” (9).
The third section (“The Distribution of Priests, and Vocations to the Priesthood”) emphasizes that priests are ordained “for the widest possible and universal mission of salvation ‘even to the ends of the earth’.” The Council stipulates that the norms of incardination and excardination should be revised to bring about a better distribution of priests throughout the world. However, priests should not be sent out alone to new fields of labor, but by twos and threes, making sure they have learned the language and studied the psychological and social milieu of the people they go to serve (10). All the faithful are to “cooperate in one way or another, by constant prayer and other means at their disposal, that the Church will always have a sufficient number of priests to carry out her divine mission” (11).
After these two chapters on the ministry of priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis turns to the life of priests in chapter three, which I'll explore in the second entry on this document.
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