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Apostolate for Priests

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Over the centuries, the Church has exhorted the faithful to do everything they can for the priests who trace their priestly ancestry to Christ’s ordination of the apostles at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday night. Catholics are to pray for priests. They are to make sacrifices for priests. They should have Masses said for priests. They should encourage priests to remain faithful to their high vocation and do everything in their power to ensure the sanctity of priests.

We know that, without the priesthood, there would be no Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, no Sacrifice of the Mass, and no Holy Communion. Without the priesthood, there would be no sacrament of Confession, and therefore, no infallibly-assured means of recovering the friendship of God after falling into mortal sin.

Surprisingly, our focus in this conference will be, to say the least, unique. On the feast of the Assumption in 1997, the Holy Father ordered a several thousand-word document to be published on the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the sacred ministry of priests. In the time at our disposal, I will concentrate on what I consider the main issues about which the Holy See is most deeply concerned. Concerned about what? Concerned about the intrusion of the laity into the divinely reserved precincts of the sacred priesthood.

There is a widespread laicization of the Catholic priesthood. It is deeper than anything in the history of the Church since the Protestant revolution in the sixteenth century. Over the years, in teaching students in Protestant divinity schools, I have told them that my favorite definition of Protestantism is “Priestless Christianity.”

In one simple declarative sentence, I would say the principal responsibility of the Catholic faithful in the apostolate for priests is to put into practice their faith in the priesthood instituted by Jesus Christ.

The Ministerial Priesthood and the Common Priesthood of the Faithful

Jesus Christ is the Eternal High Priest, whose death on the cross merited our salvation and who continues offering Himself to His heavenly Father for our sanctification.

But Jesus Christ made sure that His followers would share in His priesthood in two different ways. There is what we call the ministerial priesthood, which is rooted in the apostolic succession and consists in the power and responsibility of acting in the person of Christ, the Head and Shepherd of His flock. It is the priesthood which makes its sacred ministers servants of Christ and of the Church by means of authoritative proclamation of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments, and the pastoral direction of the faithful.

The common priesthood of the faithful is the privilege which all the baptized enjoy. They have a free will which they can surrender to the will of God and are thus able to live a life of sacrifice after the example of Jesus Christ, who offered Himself to the Father on Calvary.

Thus the ordained priesthood is absolutely irreplaceable. Without it, there would be no Church founded by the Son of God. No words can exaggerate the duty of fostering vocations to the priesthood. This duty falls on the whole Christian community, and they should discharge it principally by living full Christian lives.

Practical Provisions

Given the widespread confusion in Catholic circles, it is necessary to clear up the vocabulary. In countries like the United States, Protestantism is not only the dominant form of Christianity. It has determined our whole vocabulary. The word “minister” or “ministry” is applied to just about everyone who is engaged in some religious enterprise. As the pontifical document states, “the language becomes doubtful, confused, and hence, non-helpful for expressing the doctrine of the faith whenever the difference ‘of essence and not merely of degree’ between the baptismal priesthood and the ordained priesthood is in any way obscured.”

Therefore, Catholics must beware. “It is unlawful for the non-ordained faithful to assume titles such as ‘pastor,’ ‘chaplain,’ ‘coordinator,’ ‘moderator,’ or other such similar titles which can confuse their role and that of the pastor who is always a bishop or priest.”

Concretely, the exercise of the ordained ministry applies to giving homilies. Catholics are therefore being told that “the homily, during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, must be reserved to the sacred minister, priest or deacon, to the exclusion of the non-ordained faithful, even if these should have responsibilities as ‘pastoral assistants’ or catechists in whatever type of community or group. This exclusion is not based on the preaching ability of sacred ministers, nor their theological preparation, but on that function which is reserved to them in virtue of having received the sacrament of Holy Orders. For the same reason, the diocesan bishop cannot validly dispense from the canonical norm, since it is not merely a discipline or a law, but one which touches upon the closely related functions of teaching and sanctifying.”

The Vatican document then goes on, “For the same reason, the practice, on some occasions, of entrusting the preaching of the homily to seminarians or theology students who are not clerics is not permitted. Indeed, the homily should not be regarded as a training for some future ministry.”

To close the issue once and for all, the document concludes, “All previous norms which may have admitted the non-ordained faithful to preaching the homily during the Holy Eucharist are to be considered abrogated.”

Is it any wonder that, within a week of the publication of these directives from the Holy See, there was a loud outcry verbally and in print throughout the United States. The new liturgists protested that their years of effort to clericalize the laity were being nullified.

However, it was not only the new liturgists who protested. It was also members of the hierarchy.

One bishop told his fellow-prelates at their national assembly that this Vatican document “eliminates everything we have been doing” for thirty years. Another bishop suggested that the document applies only to countries like the Netherlands, where people have “gotten used to worshipping without a priest.” [1] He feared that the Vatican declaration may be interpreted as “a great criticism of lay ministry in the Church.” [2]

The most unhappy bishops were the heads of large dioceses where for years they have been planning for priestless parishes and developing a Church run by the laity. The most critical prelates were those who had been promoting women preachers, allowing women to read the Gospel at Mass, and supporting theologians who have built their careers on the assumption that there is no fundamental difference between ordained priests and the so-called priesthood of the laity.

I will never forget the prime-time lecture of Father Richard McBrien to an ecumenical audience of Catholic and Protestant theologians. For one hour, in the plainest language, he told us that Jesus Christ did not institute the sacrament of the priesthood. The priesthood, he claimed, was a second- and third-century invention of the Church. Out of a hundred theologians at the lecture, I was the only one who openly challenged the speaker, telling the audience that every sentence of McBrien was heresy.

Despite the papal condemnation to the contrary, in one parish after another, and not only in the United States, lay people are becoming involved in running the Church’s organization. Hence, the following prohibition of the Holy See. “Deacons, non-ordained members of the faithful, even if collaborators with the sacred ministers, and those priests who have lost the clerical state or who have abandoned the sacred ministry do not have either an active or a passive voice in the council of priests.”

Nor is that all. Throughout the western Church there are pastoral councils and parochial finance councils. As anyone familiar with the situation in our country knows, the laity are deeply involved in these organizations. Now comes a blockbuster. The Bishop of Rome, through his representatives at the Vatican, declares that these councils, “of which non-ordained faithful are members, enjoy a consultative vote only and cannot in any way become deliberative structures. Only those faithful who possess the qualities prescribed by the canonical norms may be elected to such responsibilities,” but they have no right to make decisions. This is reserved for those in sacred orders.

More still, in parishes and dioceses, there are what are called deans or assistant vicars. Says the Roman document, such persons “must always be priests. The non-ordained faithful cannot be validly appointed to these offices.”

We have so far covered about one half of what I am sure will become a historic document. As everyone knows, there are widespread abuses in liturgical celebrations, where the distinction between priests and the laity is being erased. In the words of our Roman legislation, these perversions “are to be eradicated.” To exemplify:

  • In Eucharistic celebrations, deacons and non-ordained members of the faithful may not pronounce prayers, especially the Eucharistic prayer, with its concluding doxology — or any other part of the liturgy reserved to the celebrant priest.

  • Neither may deacons or non-ordained members of the faithful use gestures or actions which are proper to the same priest celebrant. It is a great abuse for any member of the non-ordained faithful to “quasi preside” at the Mass, while leaving only that minimal participation to the priest which is necessary to secure validity.

  • In the same way, it is absolutely unlawful for unordained members of the faithful to use sacred vestments, which are reserved to priests or deacons, for example, stoles or chasubles, at liturgical ceremonies.

  • Every effort must be made to avoid even the appearance of confusion, which can spring from unauthorized liturgical practices. Sacred ministers are obliged to wear all of the liturgically prescribed vestments. So, too, the non-ordained faithful may not presume to put on clerical vestures which are not proper to them.

  • The Vatican directive is especially hard-hitting on the subject of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. In the clearest language possible, we are told that the current practice in many places generates confusion. To be stressed is that the use of extraordinary ministers for distributing the Holy Eucharist is truly extraordinary. Two norms are specified. To avoid creating confusion, the following practices must be avoided if they are not yet in effect and terminated where they are practiced:

    1. Extraordinary ministers may not receive Holy Communion apart from the other faithful as though they were somehow concelebrants of the Mass.

    2. The habitual use of extraordinary ministers at Mass must stop. This practice arbitrarily extends the idea of “a great number of the faithful.”

No words can do justice to the massive laicization of the priesthood and the corresponding clericalization of the laity, which the rampant use of extraordinary ministers for distributing Holy Communion has produced in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Apostolate of Faith

In this conference, we are addressing ourselves to a subject which is as broad as the ocean and as high as the Rocky Mountains. No one who knows what is going on in the Catholic Church has any illusions. It is a massive crisis of faith, touching on every mystery revealed by the Incarnate God.

Among these mysteries that are being challenged and undermined in our day, none is more basic than the mystery of the Catholic priesthood. In the half-century of my own priesthood, I have found two passages from two Doctors of the Church telling us what a priest is and should be.

St. John Chrysostom, in the late fourth century, wrote his masterpiece De Sacerdotio, “On the Priesthood.” He says:

The priestly office is discharged upon earth, but holds the rank of heavenly things; and very rightly so. For not man, nor angel, nor archangel nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this order, and induced those who yet abode in the flesh to make manifest the ministry of angels. Wherefore it behooves him that is consecrated to be as pure as one who stands in heaven itself among those powers.

St. Catherine of Siena was an academically uneducated person, but divinely enlightened to understand what God had revealed. Writing in the latter half of the fourteenth century, she is quoting our Lord in what He expects of His priests:

They are my anointed ones, and I call them my Christs, because I have given them the office of administering me to you, and have placed them like fragrant flowers in the mystical body of Holy Church. The angel himself has no such dignity, for I have given it to those men whom I have chosen for my ministers, and whom I have appointed as earthly angels in this life. In all souls I demand purity and charity, that they should love me and their neighbor.… But far more do I demand purity in my ministers, and love towards me and towards their fellow-creatures, administering to them the Body and Blood of my only-begotten Son, with the fire of charity and a hunger for the salvation of souls, for the glory and honor of my name.

These two passages from Sts. John Chrysostom and Catherine of Siena deserve to be memorized. They tell us what the apostolate for priests is all about. It is an apostolate which recognizes that very human, human beings are ordained by Jesus Christ to bring the Savior down to our earth and keep Him in our midst in the Holy Eucharist. To repeat, they are very human beings ordained by the Savior to absolve us from our sins, no less truly than He absolved the sinful woman in Palestine and promised the repentant criminal on Calvary that he would enter paradise.

The enemies of Christ know exactly what they are doing. They are seducing Christ’s priests into sin. They are using the media to discredit the Catholic priesthood as only the evil spirit could enlighten his agents to do. They are emptying seminaries and writing learned books in their demonic effort to erase the real distinction between the laity and the priesthood.

What, then, is at the heart of the apostolate for priests? It is nothing less than a re-education in the meaning of the priesthood instituted by the Savior, and putting that meaning into our daily lives.

However, none of us is blind to reality. It is not only deepening our faith in the priesthood that is the foundation of the apostolate for priests. It is also strengthening this faith in spite of the inhuman pressure under which we labor when we see so many priests who are not living up to their sublime calling. It was Cardinal Manning, writing in the nineteenth century, who made this memorable statement, “A blot upon a layman’s coat is little seen; a spot upon an alb cannot be hid.”

How sadly true this has been over the two thousand years of Catholic history. The sins of a priest are never passed over. They are never forgotten. They are remembered years after the sins were committed. They are a temptation to believing Catholics to question or doubt or even deny what their faith tells them is true.

That is why I recommend to all of you, not only to pray daily for us priests. I urge you especially to pray and sacrifice for those priests whom you know are not living truly priestly lives. There is such a thing as expiation for the sins of others. This means putting into practice what others should be doing but are not. Dare I say it? The very virtues that you see priests of God not practicing, are the very ones on which you should concentrate, to obtain for them the grace of repentance which they need.


Jesus, I pray to you for your faithful and fervent priests; for the unfaithful and tepid; for those laboring at home or abroad in distant mission fields; for tempted priests; for the lonely and desolate; for young priests; for the aged, sick, and dying; for the souls of your priests in purgatory.

But above all, I commend to you the priests dearest to me: the priest who baptized me; those who absolved me from my sins; at whose Masses I assisted and who gave me your Body and Blood in Holy Communion; who taught and instructed me or helped me and encouraged me; all the priests to whom I am indebted in any other way, particularly (NAME). Jesus, keep them all close to your Heart and bless them abundantly in time and eternity. Amen.

[1] Likoudis, Paul. The Wanderer. November 20, 1997. New document ‘Eliminates everything We’ve Been Doing,’ Cries Archbishop.

[2] Ibid.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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