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Vatican II on Priests: Priestly Life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 06, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

While the first two chapters of the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) dealt primarily with the ministry of priests (see previous entry), the third and final chapter covers “The Life of Priests” in three sections. The first section, “The Vocation of Priests to the Life of Perfection” discusses in some depth the special grace of the priesthood, the need for priests to “mortify the works of the flesh in themselves and give themselves entirely to the service of men”, and the need for priests to strive for holiness (12)—which will be best achieved by indefatigably performing their duties in the Spirit of Christ, including offering themselves entirely to God in the Sacred Liturgy and joining the voice of the Church in the recitation of the Divine Office (13).

There is in this section an interesting discussion of the problem of “burn out”, in that priests can feel “constrained by so many obligations of their office” that they “have reason to wonder how they can coordinate and balance their interior life with feverish outward activity.” The document notes that “neither the mere external performance of the works of the ministry, nor the exclusive engagement in pious devotion, although very helpful, can bring about this necessary coordination.” Rather, the Council teaches that the way priests can solve the problem is to imitate Christ, seeking the will of the Father in a complete gift of self to the flock, in complete fidelity to the Church, not in a vacuum, but with strong bonds of union with their bishop and brother priests. “Fidelity to Christ,” Presbyterorum Ordinis categorically states, “cannot be separated from faithfulness to His Church” (14).

The second section touches on “Special Spiritual Requirements in the Life of a Priest”. The first requirement is obedience to the Church, to the Holy Father and their own bishop or superior: “By this humility and by willing responsible obedience, priests conform themselves to Christ. They make their own the sentiments of Jesus Christ who ‘emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant,’ becoming obedient even to death” (15).

The second requirement (expressed without prejudice to the different custom in the Eastern Church) is celibacy, which is “held by the Church to be a great value in a special manner for the priestly life” and is “a sign and stimulus for pastoral charity and a special source of spiritual fecundity in the world” (16). Priests are exhorted to “magnanimously and wholeheartedly adhere” to celibacy, acknowledging it as an “outstanding gift of the Father which is so praised and extolled by the Lord” (16).

The third requirement is detachment from temporal goods. Priests should achieve freedom “from every inordinate concern and become docile to the voice of God in their daily life,” for priests “have the Lord as their ‘portion and heritage’ (Num 18:20).” Excess income provided to the priest for the exercise of his ecclesiastical office should be “set aside for the good of the Church or for works of charity”. Ecclesiastical goods themselves should be “administered by priests with the help of capable laymen” and should as far as possible “always be employed for those purposes in the pursuit of which it is licit for the Church to possess temporal goods”: divine worship, “honest sustenance” for the clergy, and apostolic and charitable works. Finally, priests “are invited to embrace voluntary poverty by which they are more manifestly conformed to Christ and become eager in the sacred ministry” (17).

The third section considers “Aids to the Life of Priests”, which include: (1) The Eucharist and fruitful reception of the sacraments (especially Penance), daily examination of conscience, spiritual reading, devotion to Mary, and “the spirit of true adoration” (18); (2) Ongoing meditation on and study of Sacred Scripture, as well as pastoral studies, with the aid of such centers as ought to be erected in each territory (19); and (3) Suitable remuneration for priests (20), including the establishment of social assistance funds and health insurance programs as needed (21).

In its Conclusion, Presbyterorum Ordinis notes that a common problem today is that faithful priests “and sometimes the faithful themselves” can “feel like strangers in this world.” There are, the Fathers note, “new obstacles which have arisen to the faith: the seeming unproductivity of work done, and also the bitter loneliness which men experience can lead them to the danger of becoming spiritually depressed” (22). The depressing character of this lack of visible success can be overcome only by a sure Faith and confidence in Christ, which the Fathers express clearly in this final exhortation:

All priests cooperate in carrying out the saving plan of God, that is, the Mystery of Christ, the sacrament hidden from the ages in God, which is only brought to fulfillment little by little through the collaboration of many ministries in building up the Body of Christ until it grows to the fullness of time. All this, hidden with Christ in God, can be uniquely perceived by faith. For the leaders of the People of God must walk by faith, following the example of faithful Abraham, who in faith “obeyed by going out into a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Indeed, the dispenser of the mysteries of God can see himself in the man who sowed his field, of whom the Lord said: “then sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed should sprout without his knowing (Mark 4:27).

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Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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