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Saint John of Avila and the Reform of the Priesthood

by Sr. Joan Gormley

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  • Description:
    St. John of Avila was a parish priest and theologian in 16th century Spain who exercised some influence over ideas concerning the reform of priestly formation at the Council of Trent. Avila linked the priesthood closely to the Eucharist and regarded holiness as the pre-eminent quality of a priest, who must serve as a mediator between God and man. To this end, he recommended painstaking selection of candidates followed by rigorous spiritual and intellectual formation within a community. For Avila, renewal of the priesthood demanded the priest's conformity to Christ as both Good Shepherd and High Priest.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 18-25
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, April 2004

St. John of Avila was a parish priest and theologian in 16th century Spain who exercised some influence over ideas concerning the reform of priestly reformation at the Council of Trent. Avila linked the priesthood closely to the Eucharist and regarded holiness as the preeminent quality of a priest, who must serve as a mediator between God and man. To this end, he recommended painstaking selection of candidates followed by rigorous spiritual and intellectual formation within a community. For Avila, renewal of the priesthood demanded the priest's conformity to Christ as both Good Shepherd and High Priest.

Sixteenth century Spain was a golden age of sanctity during which a veritable procession of saints appeared on the scene before and after the Council of Trent and contributed in a multitude of ways to the reform and renewal of the Church. We might mention, for example, such saints as Ignatius of Loyola, Peter of Alcantara, Teresa of Avila, Francis Borgia, and John of God. All of these saints were religious who renewed the life of the Church by founding or reforming communities that became renowned for holiness of life and apostolic zeal. Less often noticed, but definitely a participant in the procession of sixteenth century Spanish saints is St. John of Avila,1 a diocesan priest who labored as a preacher, confessor, spiritual director, catechist, evangelizer, educator, and theologian and knew and helped each and all of the saints mentioned above.

Venerated in Spain as the patron of diocesan priests, John Avila was a major figure in the reform of the life and ministry of parish priests who, as shepherds of Christ's faithful, have direct influence on the holiness of the Church. His teaching on the priesthood and its renewal continues to be illuminating for the Church, especially in the contemporary situation in which profound questions have been raised about priestly life and ministry. Avila was profoundly convinced of the holiness of the priestly state and of the holiness of life required of each and every priest. He considered the very holiness of the Church and its members to depend on the careful selection and formation of candidates for the priesthood so that they might be holy and exercise their office of sanctifying others.

Introduction to St. John of Avila

John of Avila was born on the feast of the Epiphany in 1499 in Extremadura in the ecclesiastical province of Toledo, the only child of his parents.2 He spent four years at the University of Salamanca studying law (1513-1517), and then returned to his parents' home where he lived in seclusion for several years. On the advice of a Franciscan priest, the young man left his solitude and matriculated at the University of Alcala, an important center for humanistic studies in Spain, where he studied from 1520-1526. After ordination to the priesthood in 1526, Avila went to Seville to prepare for departure as a missionary to the new world. While waiting to set sail, the newly ordained priest engaged in catechesis and preaching, so impressing the priest with whom he lived and worked, Father Fernando Contreras, that he urged the Archbishop of Seville to keep Avila in Spain, where an enormous mission field had opened up with the end of Muslim domination. Thus, John Avila began the missionary work in Southern Spain that would earn him the title, "Apostle of Andalusia."

During this early period of his priestly ministry, Avila lived in a loosely structured fraternity with Father Contreras and some other priests engaged in preaching, evangelizing, and catechizing. As Avila continued to work in Seville and its surrounding areas, other priests, desiring a similar mode of ministry, became his disciples and lived a simple fraternal life under his direction. By the time sickness forced his retirement, there were about one hundred priests who regarded Master Avila as their director, many of who helped in founding and staffing the schools that Avila established.

In 1531, Avila was denounced to the Inquisition and spent a year in prison (1532-33), a time during which he claimed to have learned more than in all his other studies. In prison, he began his major work, Audi, filia, a guide to the spiritual life, written for a young woman who was living a consecrated life under his direction. He also continued his study of the letters of St. Paul, becoming so immersed in them that later, a religious priest who heard him preaching said: "I have heard St. Paul interpreting St. Paul." In July of 1533, the Inquisition absolved Avila of all charges against his orthodoxy and he resumed his priestly ministry. He was incardinated in the diocese of Cordoba in 1535 and preached there and in Granada during the next several years, making many converts, including John of God and Francis Borgia. It is thought that in Granada, around 1538, Avila received the title of "Master in Sacred Theology." It became the custom to call him "the Master," a title with an academic connotation, but used in a more general sense for Avila, to capture the central aspect of his priestly vocation as a preacher, teacher, and director of souls.

Avila's outstanding work during the middle years of his ministry was the establishment of schools at every level: schools of doctrine for children and adults; colleges-the equivalent of our high schools-and universities, the most notable of which was that of Baeza. His disciples played an important part in this enterprise since they taught in these schools. When the time came for Avila to give up this phase of his life's work, he desired that the Jesuits would take it over, especially the University of Baeza. His desire did not come to fruition as he wished, but about thirty of Avila's disciples did go, with the Master's encouragement, to the Society of Jesus.

Beginning in 1551, Avila was increasingly burdened by ill health, and, within a few years, was forced to give up his missionary endeavors. For a brief period, there was discussion with the Jesuits, including Ignatius of Loyola, of his possible entry into the Society. However, Avila's failing health prevented this move, and he spent the last years of his life in semi-retirement in Montilla in the diocese of Cordoba. He continued to engage in ministry as his health permitted and wrote a vast number of letters to people in various states of life. John of Avila died on May 10, 1569, and, in accord with his wishes, was buried in the Jesuit Church in Montilla. Beatified on September 15, 1894, he was declared patron of diocesan priests in Spain on July 2, 1946, and was canonized on May 31, 1970 by Pope Paul VI.

Avila's theology of priesthood

Throughout his life and ministry, John Avila maintained an abiding interest in all that concerned the priesthood. He was spiritual director to many priests and wrote at length to them about their life and ministry. He often preached sermons and gave conferences to priests on the subject of their vocation, convinced that reform of the clergy at all levels was the key to the reform of the Church. Father Avila also wrote two systematic documents for his friends in the hierarchy who were participating in the Council of Trent.3 The first of these is the "Memorial" or "Memorandum" (1551) entitled "Reform of the Ecclesiastical State." The Archbishop of Granada, Pedro Guerrero, had invited Avila to attend a session of the Council of Trent as a peritus. Unable to accept because of failing health, Avila wrote a document for Guerrero's use, both to prepare the Spanish delegation to Trent and as a guide for statements made within the Council. Much of this material found its way into the Council's documents on reform of the clergy. In 1561, he wrote a second "Memorial" for the same Council with the title, "Causes and Remedies of Heresies" in which he advocated reform at every level of the Church's life, including the Papacy and Episcopacy.4 A third document, "Treatise on the Priesthood," was written about 1563, apparently as preparation for some conferences on the priesthood he was to give.5 Together, these three works provide an overview of Avila's theology of the priesthood and his vision for its reform.

St. John of Avila defined the priesthood first of all in terms of its relationship to the Eucharist. By it "bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, our Lord," and the Lord Jesus Christ is thus present by a real presence. Avila insists that there is no greater power on the earth than that of priests, for "they have power over God himself." Moses' power turned the sea into dry land and Joshua's voice was obeyed by creatures (Jos. 10:13-14). But the priest's power in celebrating the Eucharist is far greater than theirs, for by his word and action, the priest gives sacramental being to God made man. The power of his word is similar to that of Mary in the Incarnation. At her word, the Son of God was made flesh in her womb; at the priest's word, the Son of God is sacramentally present under the forms of bread and wine and offers himself to the Father.

The Blessed Virgin Mary gave the Word of God his being as a man, begetting him from her most pure blood and becoming his true natural mother. In this no one was, is, or will be her equal. But the sacramental being which the priest gives to God made man, through so exalted a means is similar to what Mary gave. It is a being that at first the Word did not have.6

Since by the power he exercises, the priest has the supreme dignity of acting as mediator between God and man, he must be holy. The Old Testament required holiness for priests who would instruct and offer sacrifice but would not have the sublime dignity of the New Testament priest: "The priests of the Lord offer incense and bread to God; therefore they shall be holy to their God" (Lev. 21:6). Avila interprets the "offering of incense to God" as a reference to the priest's role as mediator. Christ is the only true Mediator and the great High Priest, but the priest shares in Christ's priesthood and thus, at the altar, represents Christ as he offers himself to the Father.7 For this, the priest must live in loving intimacy with the Lord, and be conformed to his image. The other side of his role as mediator is to care in Christ's name for those committed to his care. These he must love more than earthly fathers love their children.

As the one who "offers bread to God," that is, as the one who celebrates the Eucharist, the priest must participate in the holiness of the Lord: "If sanctity is not required to touch the most pure body of Christ our Lord, the holiest thing of all, I do not know for what it is needed on earth."8 Following the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, Avila links the Eucharistic and pastoral tasks of the priest, insisting that holiness is also essential for the priest's office of caring for and sanctifying the Mystical Body of Christ. In short, Avila holds with St. Gregory and St. John Chrysostom that the same holiness is required of the priest for touching the Mystical Body of Christ as is demanded for offering the Sacrifice of the Mass and touching the Eucharistic Body of the Lord.9

The priesthood is God's gift to the Church, and no one, Avila emphasizes, should dare to take the office on himself but must receive it as a call from God, verified by the Church through the bishop. The same pertains to seeking higher ecclesiastical offices. It is a great deception on the part of men to desire for themselves the exterior splendor of the ecclesiastical state and the honor given to the priest or bishop as Christ's representative. But if they enter this exalted state by their own will, they will find themselves with obligations beyond their means and will end up causing no little harm to themselves and to the Church.10 Avila will insist on this point in his vision of the way to reform of the priesthood.

The shape of reform and renewal

St. John Avila was not alone in his conviction that reform of the Church as a whole required reform of the ecclesiastical state, especially the priesthood. One purpose for the foundation of the University of Alcala, which Avila attended, was precisely to provide good priests and bishops for the dioceses of Spain. The first years of Avila's studies in Alcala coincided with the brief reign of Adrian VI (1522-1523), who, at his first consistory, summarized the situation of the Church in graphic words: "Depravity has become so taken for granted that those soiled by it no longer notice the stench of sin."11

Contemplating the massive task of ecclesial and ecclesiastical reform, especially with the Protestant "reformation" in full swing, Father Avila called first of all for each individual to reform his own life. He knew the dangers lurking for the zealous who are outraged at the sight of the failures of others. In his guide for the spiritual life, Audi, filia, he warns that eagerness for the reform of the Church is no guarantee of a divine call to bring it about. On the other hand, each person is called by God to the reform of his own life.

There have not been lacking in our time persons who have held it as certain that they were to reform the Christian Church and bring it to the perfection it had in its beginning, or to another greater. Those who have died without doing this have been enough proof of their deceived hearts. It would have been better for them to have dedicated themselves to their own reform. That is a thing that, with God's grace, would have turned out to be easy, rather than, forgetting their own consciences, turning the eyes of their vanity on a thing that God did not want done through them.12

But there were those in the Church through whom God did want to accomplish the work of ecclesiastical reform of the Church, namely, the bishops, who were obligated to it by their office. Reform of the priesthood and of the Church had to begin with them. In the first "Memorial," Avila advocated that the bishops should move from discussion to action. Already, there had been plenty of discussion and sharing of opinions. Consequently, we can "excuse ourselves from deliberation and take up the task of putting into practice something that fell into disuse because of the sins and calamities of the Church."13 The bishops should also refrain from issuing more statements, regulations, and penalties, for there was an abundance of these already, and they were not being put into effect by the very bishops who formulated them, nor were they observed by the clergy to whom they were addressed. Statements and regulations are comparatively easy to make, and indeed, Avila adds, they can be formulated without charity. Master Avila exclaims at the marvelous laws that already exist for every area of life and with marvelous penalties attached. "Yet, with all of this, everyone knows how wicked, how ignorant, and how disordered we ecclesiastics can become."14

What then are the reforming bishops to do? Before they immerse themselves in the work of reforming priests, Avila, in effect, calls the bishops to examine themselves and their fundamental attitudes toward the exercise of their office and towards their priests. They must make certain that their attitudes correspond to those of Christ whom they represent. For reform to take place, the first requirement is that the bishops be with their priests and treat them with fatherly charity. This may, Avila states with some irony, be burdensome to the bishops and may disrupt their own settled ways of life,15 but it is absolutely necessary if the ecclesiastical state is to be transformed according to the pattern of Christ. In dealing with their priests, the bishops are servants, not masters dealing with slaves. If they begin from this attitude, the way ahead will become clear, and it will be the way of Christ who, though he was the greatest, became as the least.

Since the prelates are to be with their clergy as fathers with their sons, not as slave owners with their slaves, let the Pope and the bishops provide for the formation of clerics as sons. Let them exercise the care required by the high dignity these clerics are to receive. Then the bishops will have great glory in having wise sons and much joy and rest in having good sons. The whole Church will rejoice greatly in having good ministers.16

Actions for reform of the priesthood

To bring about reform of the clergy, Avila wanted the bishops to remedy the two root causes he saw for the ruin of the priesthood: the acceptance of men unsuited for the priestly vocation and the poor formation given to candidates.

The cause of the ruin of the clergy has been the entrance of worldly people who have no knowledge of the grandeur of the state they are undertaking and whose hearts are on fire with earthly ambitions. Once they enter, they are formed in an atmosphere of false liberty without discipline of study or virtue.17

The first step that Father Avila recommended to the bishops was that they take great care in the choice and acceptance of men to be prepared for ordination. He stressed that no unsuitable candidate should be accepted for the priesthood under any condition, no matter who supported his entrance. In fact, entrance into the ecclesiastical life should be made difficult so that those unsuited for such a lofty vocation would not want to enter. Avila compares the situation in his own day to that at the time of Jeroboam in the Northern Kingdom of Israel when anyone who wanted could become a priest (1 Kgs. 13:33). In the same way, many bishops and superiors accepted and ordained men who had no sound understanding of the priestly state or who desired it for worldly reasons. Avila complains that some candidates conceive of the priestly life as compatible with the concupiscence of the flesh and the eyes and the pride of life. "Because of this, we are as we are," he says. And because of this, reform requires that the entrance to the ecclesiastical state be guarded and that only those qualified to live it well be accepted into it. To take any other is to cause great harm to the Church. The Body of the Lord in the Eucharist will be unworthily treated by such priests and the holy Mystical Body will be greatly harmed as "those who were supposed to be shepherds turn themselves into wolves and make carnage in the souls of those they were supposed to bring to life."19

The most important qualification for candidates is the intellectual and spiritual capacity required to profit from the formation and education for which the Council was to provide. If bishops are going to accept men without this capacity, then Avila comments that they should change the topic of their discussion from formation to that of "the cultivation of fields in barren lands." He is not saying that all candidates must be capable of the highest academic achievement, but that all should see the importance of study and be willing to engage in it according to their capacity. The lack of spiritual capacity is a far greater hindrance. At all costs, men who enter "to have something to eat without having to work for it," must be refused. The Christian people pay dearly when such men enter in response not to God's call, but to "the call of money and an easy life."

Jeremiah weeps for the evils of his time that have come for the sins of the prophets and the priests who shed blood in the midst of Jerusalem (cf Lam 4:13). We can weep for the same thing in our own time, understanding that the slaughter of souls that we see die, is through the wickedness and negligence of ecclesiastics, and the scourges God is sending us are the effects of their evil. The reason that this evil exists is that there are unworthy men in the Church who have entered the wrong door. Block up this wrong entrance and its bad effects will cease.20

The next task that John of Avila recommended for the bishops in their attempts to reform the priesthood was the establishment of a rigorous program of formation and education to be carried out in a place apart, the school we have come to know as the seminary. No one with any sense, Avila says, would entrust a wounded animal to an untrained veterinarian. How then entrust one for whom Christ died to someone who has no training in the "art of arts," the care of souls? Common sense operating in various areas of life, "from human beings to plants," dictates otherwise.

For a tree to grow straight, it is necessary to guide and straighten it from the time it is small. For a horse or a mule to be driven, they have to first be under the hand of a trainer. In all human occupations, the skilled person is not born ready-made but must become good at what he does. Becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a carpenter, a shoemaker, or anything else, requires its year or years of initiation and apprenticeship so that the person can learn little by little the skill that afterwards he can exercise without danger. Well, being a priest and becoming a good one is a thing of great perfection and difficulty.21

Avila's program for the formation of priests, which had profound influence on the Council's decisions on priestly formation, had three major components: a community life; intensive study of theology and doctrine; and further study for those capable of it.

First of all, Avila considered a fraternal life in community and under authority to be essential so that the young men might learn goodness as well as the Arts and might without risk become directors and builders of souls. Avila's own experience taught him the value of living the Christian life in a communal setting. During his early priesthood in Seville, he had lived with other priests in a loosely structured community, and for many years after, disciples gathered around him to live a kind of fraternal life. He also cited the example of St. Jerome who founded a monastery for the training of clerics and said to one wanting to be a priest: Live in a monastery in such a way that you may deserve to become a cleric.22 Another example was St. Ambrose who had a monastery outside the walls of Milan for the training of clerics.23 "If we acted as they did, within a few years, there would be a different kind of priest and people than there are now." It is noteworthy that Avila sees the establishment of seminaries for the training of priests as a return to the practice found in the early Church.

The second element in the future priest's program was an intensive and challenging program of studies. Avila considered it a scheme of the devil himself to cause ignorance of doctrine in the Church, and throughout his ministry, he combated such ignorance at every level of education and in every area of the Church's life. In view of the priest's work in parishes, all were to study grammar, cases of conscience and Sacred Scripture and this, for a long period of time since they are learning what St. Gregory called the "art of arts," the care of souls. "There should be at least four or five years of grammar so that, growing with age, goodness, and learning, the priest may speak with authority and, without danger, may exercise his high office."

Finally, Avila was convinced that every local Church needed some priests who were dedicated to higher learning in the Sacred Sciences and who could help the bishop and other priests as was necessary. They could be a tremendous help in avoiding the errors that can easily creep in when there is a little knowledge and in dealing with difficult cases which are sure to arise. The time candidates for the priesthood spend in study can be considered time well spent "because it will bring forth men who can be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and the glory of Christ.26

For John of Avila, renewal of the priesthood demanded that the reality of the mystery of the priest's conformity to Christ as the Good Shepherd and the High Priest had to be acknowledged and acted upon in the choice and formation of men for such an exalted office. The Pope and the Bishops responsible for choosing and preparing men for the priesthood had to make certain that they ordained only men worthy of handling the Eucharistic Body of the Lord and his Mystical Body, the Church. The holiness of the Church depended on the holiness of priests and without the latter the renewal of the Church could not be accomplished, even if here and there, saints would rise up.

Master Avila was utterly persuaded of the importance of careful formation and education in an atmosphere where prayer, virtue, and study are held in high esteem. He saw the value of fraternity with others preparing for ordination, both for the atmosphere such unity of purpose gave to the seminary and for the training it gave in living and dealing with other people. He wanted candidates for the priesthood to cultivate the intellectual life, not just as a means to ordination, but as a necessary part of their vocation, which they engaged in for the sake of the Church and would continue throughout life. He considered the ideal to be that each man would have "his vessel" filled to its capacity.

Many of the points made by Avila in his Memoranda to the Council of Trent and other writings on the priesthood have become part and parcel of the Church's ongoing life. We owe the establishment and existence of seminaries to the foresight of men like Avila who were intent upon renewal of the Church in the period of the Council of Trent. But Master Avila continues to have much to say to the Church today as it works to renew the priesthood in the post-Vatican II era. He insisted that holiness of life is inherently necessary for the holy state of the priesthood and that anyone who does not possess the spiritual and intellectual capacity for this exalted state should be excluded from entering. He insisted that, before ordination, candidates undergo a rigorous program of spiritual and intellectual formation in accord with the Gospel and the Church's teaching, and that they continue to grow in these areas after ordination. Any review of the formation and education of priests today can only profit from being so strongly reminded of the nature of the priesthood and the indispensable role of the priest in the sanctification and salvation of the members of the Church.

End Notes

1 Juan de Avila was the son of Alfonso de Avila and Catherine Xixon, both of whom were from families of converted Jews. Avila is the surname of Juan de Avila, not as in the case of St. Teresa of Avila, the name of her place of origin.

2 Some authors place his birth in 1500, but the latest critical edition of Avila's works argues convincingly for 1499. See Obras coinpletas de San Juan deAvila, I (Madrid: BAC, 2000), pp. 17-18.

3 Avila wrote other documents on related topics for use in Provincial Councils that met in Spain with a view to putting the Tridentine decisions into practice.

4 These two Memorials, Reforma del estado ecclesiastico and Causas y remedios de las herejias, are found in Obras completas,II (2001), 485-619. They will be referred to in the text as Mem I and Mem II.

5 Tratado sobre el sacerdocio in Obras coinpletas I, 907-46. Subsequent references will be to the paragraphs of Treatise.

6 Treatise, 2.

7Treatise, 5-6.

8Treatise, 12.

9Treatise, 37.

10Avila insists that the desire of the candidate is not sufficient to indicate a call to the priesthood. Neither is a desire of parents or prelates. Mem 1, 6.

11 Erwin Iserloh et al, Reformation and Counter Reformation, History of the Church V, edited by Hubert Jedin and John Dolan, 7. In Mem II, Avila expressed the view that the evils which had come upon the Church, especially that of the rise of heresies, were due to the sins of Christians and, above all, to those of priests and prelates.

12 Audi, filia, ch. 50.

13 Mem I, 11.

14 Mem 1,3.

15 Avila implies that some bishops resisted reform because of the change it would demand in their own way of life.

16 Mem.1, 5.

17 Mem. I, 6.

18 Mem I, 16-18. In Treatise, 42, Avila supposes that the bishops are asked why they ordain as priests men who are unqualified and places this response on their lips: "You give us better ones and we will take them: we do not have others; we take the least bad ones of those we find." Avila laments this response and adds to it the failure on the part of prelates to provide formation and education to those accepted.

19 Treatise, 42.

20 Mem I. 16.

21 Mem I, 9.

22 Mem I. 12. Avila says this quotation is from Augustine, but it is actually from Jerome, Epist. 125, 17.

23 St. Augustine, Conf 1.8 c.6,15. Et eratmonasteriunt Mediolani plenum bonis fratribus, extra urbis moenia, sub Ambrosio nutritore.

24 Mem. I, 12.

25 Mem. I, 13.

26 Mem. I, 14-15. Avila attempted to explain Scripture in accord with the decrees of the Council of Trent and became convinced that priests had to be formed for this work by education beyond the Seminary program.


Sister Joan Gormley teaches theology at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. This is her first article in HPR.

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