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The Catholic Priest in the Modern World:
A Living Martyr for His Faith in the Priesthood

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

You may rightly wonder at the title of this chapter. When I asked what I should speak on, I was told, “The Priesthood.” So I took the liberty of choosing the full title that I just gave you: “The Catholic Priest in the Modern World: A Living Martyr for His Faith in the Priesthood.”

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, he 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 reflection. Be assured that there are two kinds of martyrdoms, 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 militates 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, desacerdotalized. Vocations to the priesthood decrease, as 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, 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 the main reason is the spread of alien 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 whom they want to serve their spiritual needs. The idea of being specially ordained for the priesthood is becoming a 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 nonsacral 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, or 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 person who is to celebrate 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 preside 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, this eucharistic presider will probably continue to be the diocesan or religious priest who is already ordained. As these priests die, the future presider 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.

  • That 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 sinners with an offended God.

  • 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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