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Vatican II Priestly Spirituality

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

As we approach this immense subject, we should remind ourselves that Pope John Paul II has been the principle spokesman for priestly spirituality in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council. He has spoken or written literally thousands of words, on what priests should be and how they are to exercise their sublime ministry.

In order to do justice to this library of knowledge given to us by the present Vicar of Christ, it will be wise to divide our subject into at least two principal areas. We must first see the priesthood as instituted by Jesus Christ on the night before He died. But then we must look at the trials which face the faithful priest in our day.

The sacrament of orders is so closely associated with the sacraments of the Eucharist and penance that everything pertaining to these unique gifts of Christ to his Church also pertains to the unique powers that only those specially ordained to the priestly office possess.

Yet in our day, as in other significant eras of Catholic Christianity, certain aspects of the priesthood have come under special scrutiny or face extraordinary challenges. In the process of undergoing the reflection and self-understanding that these occasion, the Church has become more aware of what the priesthood really means, and its teaching has taken on a clarity that promises to make this mystery of the faith particularity vital in the years to come.

The ultimate basis for the sacrament of orders is Christ’s own priestly ministry on earth, coupled with the historical fact that He went out of his way to associate others with Him to learn His teachings, acquire His spirit, receive His powers, and thus continue His saving work for the human race.

If we look for precedents to this communicated ministry of Jesus, we find it in the ancient prophets who passed on their prophetic powers to those who would follow them as teachers in Israel. We find it in the priestly castes of the family of Aaron, which by divine legislation passes on its sacerdotal privileges from father to son. We find it in the royal family of David and his descendants, of whom the Messiah was to be born.

Christ made sure that this concept of succession from the past to his time, and from him into the future, was clear in everything he did. His choice of the twelve apostles, who would judge the twelve tribes of Israel, and the very name of “apostles,” as men whom he was sending became the keystone of the messianic community after his Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit. Time and again he told the apostles that he was sending them into the world to teach and preach, to baptize and sanctify, to go into the whole world and make disciples of all nations. What he did at the Last Supper, when he told the twelve to continue what He had just performed, and on Easter Sunday night, when he told them to forgive sins in His name, were only the culmination of His entire public life and the logical outcome of what he had been promising to confer since he first called them, one by one, to follow him and he would make them fishers of men.


While there had been questions raised at various times about the nature and function of the priesthood before the sixteenth century, there were not so sweeping or incisive as occurred during the Reformation. It is not surprising, then, that the Council of Trent should have faced the issues raised and left the Church an extensive presentation of Catholic doctrine on the sacrament of orders. What is more surprising perhaps is that the Second Vatican Council, for centuries later, went over the same ground covered by Trent and consciously restates the same doctrine, while adding nuances and highlighting certain features that will call for special emphasis today.

Holy Orders is “truly and properly invention thought up by Christ our Lord.” It is not a mere “human invention thought up by men, a kind of rite of choosing ministers of the word of God and the sacraments.” Ordination is not simply an installation of Church leaders or administrators of the sacraments.

When the bishop pronounces the words “receive the Holy Spirit,” there is a special conferral of divine gifts, in such a way that the sacramental “character is imprinted by ordination.” As a consequence, it is impossible that a man “who was once a priest can become a layman again.” The process of laicization, as it is called, whereby a priest is dispensed from certain priestly duties and, if he had been a celibate, may even be allowed to marry, does not mean that he is literally reduced to the lay state. This cannot happen because the Catholic Church believes that the priestly character is indelible and therefore unchangeable. One of two things may occur, however, depending on circumstances. More commonly the still remaining priest is given a dispensation from priestly obligations if he agrees to not exercise his priestly ministry, and may thus publicly not be recognized for what he really is. Or more rarely his ordination ritual may be declared null and void, for extraordinary reasons – not easily provable – such as the absence of genuine intention to become a priest.

The basis of sacramental orders is its origin, not only that somehow God inspired the Church to create the sacrament, but that the priesthood is truly a revelation of the New Testament. The Catholic faith, therefore, excludes any such explanation as the following:

That there is not a visible and external priesthood in the New Testament, or that there is no power of consecrating and offering the body and blood of the Lord, and of remitting and of retaining sins, but says that there is only the office and simply ministry of preaching the Gospel, or says that those who do not preach are not priests at all.

In the Catholic understanding of the priesthood, the “cultic” or liturgical elements are so fundamental that they constitute the essential difference between those who are and those who are not possessed of sacerdotal powers.

One more feature of holy orders, which at least partially accounts for the name “orders,” is the different levels or grades of ordination recognized in the Church. At this point, the Second Vatican Council introduced a number of clarifications and also innovations that typify a doctrinal development of the faith.

Priestly Spirituality, The Spirit of Martyrdom

What exactly are we saying? We are saying that for a Catholic priest who wants to be loyal to his priesthood in today’s world, must resign himself to the life of a martyr. Not a few Catholic priests in the twentieth century have died a martyr’s death including, I am happy to report, some 2000 of my fellow Jesuit priests in Communist Spain.

But that is not the focus of our reflections here. We know that there are two kinds of martyrdom, the red martyrdom of blood, and the white martyrdom of professing one’s faith with heroic courage in the face of virulent opposition from hostile forces in a society that militate against the Catholic Priesthood. We could name a whole catalogue of obvious forces:

  • Like the rampant secularism that sees man’s purpose in life as ending with bodily death. On these terms, there is no need of a priesthood whose professed function is to prepare people for eternal life in a heavenly destiny.

  • Like the preoccupation with material possessions that typifies what we call developed countries like the United States. There is no material prosperity that comes from the priesthood.

Consequently, as a society becomes more secularized and materially preoccupied, there will be a corresponding lack of interest in the priesthood. Once-flourishing Catholic cultures that have become materially wealthy, become proportionally de-Catholicized and, to coin a term, desacerdortalized. Vocations to the priesthood decrease, departures from the active priesthood increase. As we might add, naturally.

The modern media in societies like our own are, with rare exception, not friendly to the Catholic Priesthood. Or, more accurately, the media are friendly in so far as Catholic bishops and priests do not challenge the secular values of a society—like contraception or sodomy or adultery. But once these values are challenged, the opposition is a plain fact of contemporary history.

However, this is not, in my judgment, the main grounds for claiming that a Catholic priest must expect to live a martyr’s life in the modern world. I believe that the main reason is the spread of strange ideas in nominally Catholic circles about what exactly is a priest.

Articles in popular magazines, studies in scholarly journals, lectures and seminars and even whole volumes are being published disclaiming that Christ never really instituted the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The key word now is “ministry.” Every baptized Christian, it is said, can be called to the ministry. The call comes from God, but through the People of God. They decide on whom they want to serve their spiritual needs. The idea of being specially ordained for the priesthood is the remnant of an outmoded theology.

Let me quote, at length, from a standard book on the subject, by a contemporary writer who is himself a priest.

  • Ordination as a rite and ceremony that confers power or office does not exist in the New Testament. Ministry does not need to be empowered by mandate or delegation of a superior possessing power. The forms of “ordination” are subject to the dispositions of the churches in any given period of history. Priesthood, as a specific type of ministry, does not exist in the New Testament.

  • “Ministry,” or diakonia, is a consacral word. The early church leaned heavily on this secular term to describe its main ministering activity.

  • Ministry in the New Testament is primarily functional. It is concerned with doing, like teaching, preaching, governing.

  • The historical Jesus was not a priest.

Once you deny that Christ himself was a priest, and that He ever instituted the sacrament of the priesthood, you have to provide for some one person who is to “provide” at the liturgy of the Eucharist.

Those who deny that Christ ever ordained the Apostles as bishops or priests, commonly give the following explanation of what happened in the early Church. But underlying this explanation is that we give up the idea of any real distinction between the laity and the clergy. It must be assumed that this distinction is a later invention and is not found in the New Testament.

Here is how the explanation goes:

In the early Church there existed a plurality of church organizations. Some churches were ruled by a committee or council of lay elders. Others were ruled by prophets and teachers. Still others were ruled by traveling apostles.
Depending on who was ruling a given church, so the argument runs, different persons would be “eucharistic presiders.”
The theology of the early church would demand that whoever presides over the community also presides over the Eucharist. One would assume that the person presiding over the community has arrived at this leadership position because of the leadership qualities discerned by the community. The presider would be the one whom the people have discerned to have the functional competence to be a good liturgist, an effective preacher of the Word and excel in enabling all the pastoral ministries of the community.
Such a eucharistic presider would be ordained to call together a community, to continue building community, and then to celebrate it. This presider would be the public embodiment, the living symbol, of the community’s goals and values. As such, the presider would be a sacrament of God’s presence in the community. At the same time, he/she would be a unifying symbol who reconciled the members of the community to God and to each other. He/she would bring order and harmony into the community so that all its ministries would build up the church. This presider, in the prophetic tradition, would also extend the community’s vision to include the whole human community. Finally, he/she would represent the larger institutional church. Despite its human frailty, the institutional church is the visible sacrament of God’s saving grace for all humankind. Neither the Eucharist nor its presider ever become the property of one community.
In the immediate future, so it is claimed, this eucharistic presider will probably continue to be the diocesan or religious priest who is already ordained. As these priests die, the future presiders will have to come from the community’s actual leaders, male or female, married or single. Presiding over the Eucharist will always remain one among many shared ministries to the community.

As you hear these statements, in print, widely circulated, and written by priests, you ask yourself, “Am I dreaming, or is this real?”

My answer is “It is real!”

We begin our reflections with saying that a Catholic in the modern world must be ready to live a martyr’s life for his faith in the priesthood.

What is this faith? It is the faith professed now for twenty centuries,

  • The Jesus Christ did institute the sacrament of Holy Orders on Holy Thursday night, when He ordained the apostles bishops with the full power of the priesthood.

  • That the apostles ordained men bishops and bishops ordained other bishops and priests.

  • That from the very dawn of Christianity, it was given to only ordained priests.

  • Only priests could offer the Sacrifice of the Mass.

  • Only priests could change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

  • Only priests could absolve sins in the sacrament of confession and thus reconcile them with an offended God.

  • That only priests could administer the sacrament of the sick.

Once you believe this you have no choice. As a priest you cannot deny your faith. All the learned jargon about the lay ministry is just that: jargon.

But those priests who believe they are divinely empowered by Christ to do what no one else can effect

  • like change bread and wine into the living Christ

  • like reconcile sinners with their God-such priests will have to pay dearly for their faith convictions. I know! I know!


The Church is going through the worst crisis of her Catholic history. But she will not only survive, she will thrive. On one condition: that we priests be willing not only to live, but to die a martyr’s death for our faith in the priesthood given to us by Jesus Christ on the night before He died. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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