The Sacred Priesthood
The Sacred Priesthood
By FR. JOHN ZULSDORF
In the small space allotted here, I cannot linger over the profound depths of each and every point I could make about God’s design for our salvation, the role of mediation and why God chose that His gifts to us should be extended through mediators, the mystery of the Incarnation, and the Passion of the Lord Jesus, High Priest. I cannot linger, but I can review, albeit rapidly, these and other marvels of our Catholic Faith and God’s plan as manifested in a “sacred priesthood.”
In looking here at the sacred priesthood in the Holy Catholic Church, I have a specific objective in mind. I want to clarify something about the priesthood which is becoming murky and vague under obscuring errors which have emerged and are doing great harm in our day. Naturally, I cannot undo all the damage being done these days, but I can encourage a renewal of preaching and new view of our perennial teaching on something so very important to us as Catholics. We need a healthy view of sacred priesthood in a time when so many priests have disappointed us and many of our Catholic brothers and sisters have, in turn, been disappointing to our priests. This is not to say that priests and laypeople alike have not been sources of joy to each other in the Church. That is without question. However, it is helpful at times to cut out some of the happy talk and stare problems squarely in the face without flinching.
Having lived in Rome for a good number of years, I have had many an occasion to reflect on what “sacred” has meant in ancient, pagan times and in our own, and what “priests” are, given the sheer density of priests near the Church’s home office. Not all the old customs of Catholic reverence for priests in Italy have faded. Not a few times have people kissed my hand on the street or when meeting me: my hands were anointed with sacred chrism, my hand traces the Cross when blessing and absolving, my hands touch the Host at Mass. I have also been spat upon in the streets of Rome, precisely because I am a priest. Once day, the two gestures of kissing my hand and receiving that less than pleasant acknowledgment happened in the space of less than a minute while walking on the same block. This gives a man pause. After all, nobody knows priests, for good or for bad, like Italians and especially Romans, where they are still both fairly common and where familiarity has bred both respect and contempt. In Rome you can stare the sacred priesthood, at every level from Pope to parochial vicar, squarely in the face.
To speak of the “sacred priesthood” requires that we grasp the terms involved, “sacred” and “priesthood.” Let us begin then immediately by making some distinctions, according to the old Latin dictum “qui bene distinguit bene docet…he who makes distinctions well, teaches well.”
What does “sacred” mean? In creating all things, God made them to be good: there are no created things which are inherently evil. Nevertheless, there are things which are set aside, by man under God’s command or inspiration, for God and for God alone. There are things, places, and persons which are “sacred” and others which are, contrarily, “profane.” The word “sacred” comes from the Latin word sacer, “dedicated or consecrated to a divinity, holy, sacred.” It is “set apart,” in a sense, and removed from the rest of the world with a special consecration (which term contains the root word sacer, though the vowel has shifted). Sacer gives us the Latin word sacerdos, “priest,” who is one who stands between the people and the divinity in a sacred place like a temple.
On the other hand, “profane,” while it has in common use now the connotation of “vulgar” or “irreverent,” really comes from Latin roots meaning “outside the temple,” pro- “before, outside” and fanum “temple.” Aside from the way our modern ears hear “profane,” as in “profanity,” the precise sense indicates “secular,” “of this world.” All that is not “sacred” is “profane.” In this sense, “profane” has absolutely nothing to do with “dirty” or “inferior.”
Next, “priest” comes to us through Old English from the Greek word for an “elder,” presbyteros. The priest, Latin sacerdos, is the duly appointed minister of divine worship, especially in the highest form of offering sacrifice. There is something deeply written into us by which we fallen humans know that our relationship with our Creator is somehow broken, injured. The horizontal bonds of community, of society itself, were tied into the vertical bonds we have within an unseen spiritual world. Because of an injury to the vertical dimension with God, all other horizontal relationships, are wounded as well.
The Convergence Between Heaven and Earth
Even in a strictly pagan sense, making the link between the two dimensions both firm and peaceful was effected from the depths of time through the shedding of blood by a mediator figure seen to have a special relationship, knowledge, and wisdom of the secrets of this mysterious nexus between what is seen and what is unseen. In our own history of salvation we see how God provided a series of foreshadows and antecedents designed to prepare us for the perfect mediation: a perfect sacrifice and perfect priesthood. From the very beginning this was so. When man fell from grace and lost the friendship of God, God did not wholly turn His face away. Even as God pronounced His terrible decree He clothed Adam and Eve in the skins of animals (Gen. 3:21). Thus, for the first time, was blood shed: a sacrifice made as a step toward man’s redemption.
Throughout the history of salvation sacrifices have been made to God as expiation for sins, to honor Him, and to make petitions. God Himself described the manner of sacrifice in the Temple of the Old Covenant. This repeated sacrifice endured until the fullness of time when the one, perfect, unrepeatable Sacrifice was made by the God Man, Jesus Christ, simultaneously the victim offered and the sacrificing priest raising the offered victim. In His perfect Sacrifice on the Cross, the broken nexus of vertical and horizontal was mended. Christ Himself described the manner of renewing and perpetuating that one, perfect and unrepeatable Sacrifice: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19): it is to be renewed (not repeated) by a priest in what we call today Holy Mass. In Holy Mass, the priest stands at the most sacred point imaginable: the convergence of heaven and earth in the one, perfect, unrepeatable, saving act offered by the Man God – High Priest Victim – in the fullness of time.
If there is authentic sacrifice, there must be an authentic priesthood: priest and sacrificial victim cannot be separated from each other. The priesthood of the Old Covenant was instituted by God within the context of a People chosen for Himself. God desired a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). And within that priestly People, He set apart the men of one of the twelve tribes, the Tribe of Levi, as a special priestly caste. Levites would exercise the official liturgical service of the worship of the one God according to His prescripts. The men of that tribe, were “set apart” (cf. Numbers 1:48-53). Within the selected tribe, the descendents of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi but descended from one of Levi’s three sons, Kohath, were kohanim, the priests. The rest of the Levites not from Aaron had secondary duties of the sanctuary service (1 Kings 8:4; Ezra 2:70), as assistants to the priests. This is the antecedent of relationship of bishop/priest and deacon. So, just as all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, so too all priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests.
The ancient Levites shed light on today’s priesthood. Levites were formally set apart after the infamous golden calf incident (cf. Exodus 32). The Levites did not take part in the idolatry and upon Moses’ orders later slew 3,000 of those who did (Exodus 32:25-29). Afterward, Moses said to the Levites, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day” (Exodus 32:29). The Levites were natural allies of Moses because Moses himself was of the tribe of Levi (Exodus 2:1-2,10). Levites served at the Tabernacle from age 30 to 50 (Numbers 4:3, 23,30) and they were not counted for military service in the armies of Israel, but were set apart for service to God (Numbers 1:45-50, 2:33, 26:62).
The service at the Tabernacle was considered a form of spiritual warfare for the sake of the whole People of God. The Hebrew word for service, tsaba, used in the phrase “the service, to do the work in the tent of meeting” (Numbers 4:3 – RSV) also means “warfare”! We call God the Lord God of Hosts (Sabbaoth – from tsaba). Tsaba means in the first place “that which goes forth, army, war, warfare, host” and then also “of sun, moon, and stars; the whole of creation.” What would this mean for the priesthood today, the successors of such a sacral arrangement by God for His People? That Bishops, priests and deacons are the officers in the spiritual warfare the Church Militant must constantly wage against the attacks of Hell which threaten our salvation as individuals and as the whole Body of Christ. These clerics do not do this on their own: Christ has conformed them to His own Person and placed on their souls a character which will never fade for all eternity.
The priesthood of the Old Covenant was established by God for the sake of our maintaining communion, even though that communion was wounded, with God, through teaching, prayer, and offering sacrifice. That priesthood, however, was not adequate to bring salvation to fallen mankind. The sacrifices offered were not proportioned to the task of redemption, of repairing the breech in the relationship broken by our Original Sin. The sacrifices of the Old Covenant needed to be repeated endlessly through the centuries. They did, however, foreshadow the one perfect Sacrifice which would achieve our justification and sanctification through the offering of a perfect Victim by a perfect Priest. This Sacrifice, by God’s design, is constantly being renewed through the waiting ages until the consummation of all things in that same High Priest who will return in glory. Just as the renewal of the sacred Sacrifice continues in Holy Mass, there continues also a sacred priesthood of the New Covenant to offer it.
In the New Covenant, during Holy Mass when the priest stands at the altar in his “service,” when he forgives your sins, when he calls down God’s blessings upon you, he is the sacred warrior and commander of the hosts of the Church Militant. He stands at the focal point of all creation (tsaba). He is your spiritual Father standing between you and the grip of hell, standing for you before the heavenly Father. He is alter ChristusÖ “another Christ,” before whom even angels bow and the demons of hell writhe in terror.
Is this how you see your priests? Is this how Father comports himself? If this is not so, why not and what can be done to reclaim a sense of sacred priesthood?
When we think of the “sacred priesthood” we must reconsider with care who the priest is and what “sacred” means. We have looked at the origin of the word and considered the Old Covenant and the perfect Sacrifice of Christ. We ought to ponder what the archaic language of the sacral means for us today and what implications it has for our daily Catholic lives, what it means for how we see priests and how they see themselves.
Today the word “sacred” still implies in common usage “set apart,” and that is correct. However, “sacred” also now often communicates that something, or someone, is “untouchable,” “superior” in a way that is remote and even unapproachable. In fact, that is very frequently how priests are seen, even when they are outgoing and have extensive office hours. Practically speaking, since there aren’t enough priests today, their schedules make the priest remote from the everyday spiritual needs of the flock in his charge. Without question many of those who have the fullness of the priesthood, the bishops, nowadays dwell more in light inaccessible than otherwise: just try to get a private appointment with your bishop! Perforce and because of God’s design for a 24 hour day, the clergy seem remote and set apart in a negative sense.
There are some historical cultural influences behind the view of priests as “sacred” in the negative sense of being remote. For centuries, priests often came from noble families: they were educated when the people were not; they wielded mysterious powers at the moments of birth, marriage, and death; they spoke an ancient tongue, stood apart, and wore solemn clothing. For some people the priest himself was nearly “God.” Similar to what Winston Churchill once said of the now defunct Soviet Union, the priest was rather like “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” It is easy to fear and idolize such a figure, but hard to love and even harder to approach, especially if the priest takes his own reviews too seriously. In a similar vein, because of their perception of Father and his precious time Catholic lay people might avoid asking for the spiritual benefits they need. As a result, faithful Catholics may be giving priests a negative reinforcement which pushes them, weak humans as they remain, into personal pride. Just as the Soviet Union could not possibly continue as it was, neither can the priesthood under such a negative view: both are destined to collapse and come part.
The point is this: a fearful and idolizing view of priests is decidedly sad and harmful. It is spiritually dangerous, both for the laity who need what priests can give and also for the priest himself. Lay people who have this negative, seemingly reverent image, might wind up placing priests on remote pedestals or growing to fear them, and when the priests – poor weak men like everyone else – do not live up to expectations, our paradigms are shattered, sometimes irreparably. If people bow and scrape to priests, we shouldn’t be surprised if after a while priests start to believe themselves to be superior. Satan hates priests with a meticulous hatred made more vicious by his dread of them. The enemy works on all of us, seeking to undermine us through our weaknesses, widening a tiny character crevice into a wide chasm. Imagine the terrible pressure created in the mind and heart of, for example, a bishop! There is an old adage that once a man is made a bishop two things will never happen to him again: he will never have another bad meal and no one will ever tell him the truth again. This is an exaggeration, but there is a stern truth at the heart of that aphorism, a warning for all clerics and lay people alike.
This is not to say that priests should not be treated with regard, or that they are “nothing special.” They are, but they aren’t. As a backlash to the negative fearful regard shown to priests, and a possible clerical pride which could have asserted itself, many priests and lay people alike (remember, priests were not always priests!) fell prey to the attitude that priests are nothing special. They adopted a view of ministry as being effectively task oriented, what you do rather then who you are. Subsequently, we have been suffering for a long time now under a malignant blurring of roles of priests and lay people. The concept of who a “minister” is, what “ministry” is has been terrifically confused, just as the concepts of “sacred” and “profane” have been jumbled together. This can be expanded a bit. Again, we must make some distinctions.
The Second Vatican Council brought the common priesthood of all the baptized back to the bright light of day. This is the priesthood lay people possess by baptism. It comes from Christ the High Priest. It allows them to offer spiritual sacrifices. Still, it has often been forgotten over the last few decades that the way in which lay people are priests and the way the ordained are priests are quite different, different in a qualitative or “essential” way. The priesthood of the ordained is not simply something “added on.” Nor does ordained priesthood make a man “better” than or “holier” than a lay person, “sacred” in the negative sense addressed above.
Active and Passive Priesthood
In “olden days,” before the Second Vatican Council, the two different modes of priesthood were often identified as an “active” priesthood (of the ordained) and “passive” (of the baptized). Thus, the indelible mark imposed by baptism meant that lay people were assimilated to Christ the High Priest – priesthood in a “passive” mode enabling them to receive the other sacraments with all the treasures of grace and truth which Christ gave to the Church. In a complimentary way, the indelible mark placed by Holy Orders conformed a man to Christ the High Priest in an “active” way, enabling and obliging him to exercise hierarchical power and dispense the saving treasures of Christ to the baptized. The Second Vatican Council did not eliminate this way of thinking about the two modes of priesthood, but expanded upon them, teaching that there exists “a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ” (Lumen gentium, n. 10 – emphasis added). There remains nevertheless a difference that does not diminish the equality in dignity of priests and lay people.
What is the difference between priests and lay people going beyond “active” and “passive”? A very helpful 1997 document from the Holy See entitled Instruction on certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the sacred ministry of priest teaches clearly that the “essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood is not found in the priesthood of Christ, which remains forever one and indivisible, nor in the sanctity to which all of the faithful are called.” This is to say that there is one priesthood (that of Christ) and we all, priests and laity, have one overriding vocation (holiness). All the faithful, laity and priests alike, participate in the unique priesthood of Christ. Christ’s priesthood is therefore the source of and guarantee of our equality in dignity.
The essential difference between the common priesthood of lay people and of the ministerial priesthood of the ordained is that “the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood” (Instruction 2 – emphasis added). The service to which priests are called reflects the old distinction of “active” priesthood but phrased in a way that emphasizes the equality of dignity in different roles of priests and laity. Put another way we can say that the common priesthood of all the baptized is for evangelizing the whole of the world. For that reason, the ministerial priesthood aims at “the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (ibid.). Hence, lay people shape the world and priests shape the lay people who shape the world. The Instruction continues, “Consequently, the ministerial priesthood ‘differs in essence from the common priesthood of the faithful because it confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful,'” a sacred power for teaching, governing and sanctifying, which is the essence of pastoral service. Being a “minister” in the Church, in an authentic sense, always refers first and foremost to who the person is, and not merely the task the person does. This is at the heart of understanding properly the complimentary difference between the sacred and the profane, ministry and other forms of evangelization, priests and lay people. Authentic ministry in the Church, especially in liturgical matters, refers first and foremost to the clergy, though there are ways in which lay people can collaborate in ministries which do not require the sacred character imposed by Holy Orders with the effects that sacrament works at the level of the soul.
The last decades have seen a blurring of distinctions of the sacred and the profane (in the proper sense), between priests and laity particularly in the Church’s liturgy. To many people today this language – even the concept – seems archaic, from a lost and now even mythic time. The loss of distinctions of sacred and profane has resulted in a conflict of the profane and sacred in the Church. This is manifested at times in attacks on church buildings (sacred spaces for worship), persons (priests and religious) and objects (statues, rosaries, holy water, etc.), even language (Latin vs. vernacular, traditional terms vs. new labels): their purposes have been made fuzzy. In churches, altar rails have been taken out, thus blurring the distinct ways priests and lay people offer sacrifice; altars have been turned around, making less clear how a priest is leader and mediator; vestments have been shed or degraded by cheapness or ugliness, lowering the expectations of worship’s dignity both in the mind of the priest and congregation; clerical clothing is abandoned, making it harder for priests and lay people alike to recognize respectively who they are; titles have been dropped from a false humility and horizontality, resulting in the deplorable “Father ‘Just-Call-Me-Bob!'” virus, as if Father is no different in who he is from any of the people he is ordained to serve as a ministerial priest. If priesthood comes down to task, if it is not sacred, then anyone should be able to do it.
Set Apart For Service
The sacred priesthood of service conferred upon the ordained imposes the burden of teaching and governance together with sanctification of the flock. But the teaching and governing the Christian People of God is not to be carried out in the manner of a master over slaves. Christ revealed His manner of priestly service in all He said and did during His earthly life and gave concrete commands to His first priests, the Apostles, at the Last Supper. By the ordination a priest is a spiritual father, he exercises a fatherly role and is due the respect, not negative or fearful attention, due a spiritual Father.
Priests are fathers. They teach, govern and sanctify as fathers of God’s family. St. Paul understood his apostolic, priestly, ministerial role in the Church when he wrote (as he did in many places) to the Corinthians: “I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:14-15). The Apostle John also grasped this and wrote: “No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth” (3 John 4). As “other Christs” by their ordination, they stand as the Spouse to their Bride the Church and as a Father to her children.
Thus, priests are different from, not superior to, lay people. They are distinct and set apart for this service and given spiritual gifts and tools for that servitude with special graces through a sacrament. They are at once distinct but perfectly integrated into the Church. Priests, too, are members of the Christ’s faithful in the Church. Priests are sacred persons. This is why when a person harms a priest or sins in regard to him in some way, he commits (in addition to the obvious sin) also the sin of sacrilege. Moreover, in harming himself through sin, the priest sins sacrilegiously.
It is of critical importance to reclaim a proper sense of the sacred if we are ever going to see a healthy renewal of the Church in every facet of her life and mission on earth. God clearly wants us to have a clear view of sacred, things, places, times and persons as is evident from His actions in human history recounted in Scripture. The Church is faithful to this and even provides in her legal book, the Code of Canon Law, a section on sacred times (e.g., Lent). The sacred is to be treated with due and proper regard without a distorted view. That which is sacred, and those who are sacred, require proper integration into our daily lives in a healthy way. We are made in God’s image and likeness, destined for the glory of heaven. In this life our challenge is to integrate what is sacred into our lives and sanctify thereby, in God’s service, all we do and all we say, each according to our vocations. The sacred priesthood plays an indispensable role in this sanctification of our daily lives. The priest serves the laity in their own vocations by teaching, governing and sanctifying, by manifesting a spiritual fatherhood, by making evident the ways of holiness – our common call.
An Integral Part of Daily Life
The shortage of priests today makes it very difficult to imagine what Catholic life could be like, indeed all of society everywhere, were there enough priests – good Catholic priests – to go around. Just as a family or society must have enough food, water, shelter and culture to be considered healthy, so too for our spiritual family and society the Church to be healthy we must have enough of the benefits God has designated for us. This includes priests, for most of what we need must come from the hands and mouth of the priest. To be healthy we need enough priests to teach, govern, and sanctify the people.
But how many priests would constitute “enough”? There is no way to apply mere quantitative criteria to the number of priests we really need. Can the Old Testament offer a clue? Under the Old Covenant, God provided for a hereditary priestly class. God designated the men of the tribe descending from Levi, the son of Jacob or Israel, as those set apart (Gen. 29:34). If we consider that the Tribe of Levi was one-twelfth of the People of God and the males of the tribe were Levites and/or kohanim (priests), then roughly one person (though they were males only) in 24 was a Levite, though the number of priests was smaller within that group. After some generations, there would have been Levites distributed abundantly through the whole of the People. They were very numerous, proportionally, within the populace. While we don’t know what the demographics of ancient Israel were, some say there were 38,000 Levites at the time of the reign of King David. So, if we take the ratio of 1:24, perhaps we might say that in our times “enough” priests might be situated in a scenario of, say, one per extended family.
That sort of ratio, even a much smaller ratio of 1:240, would mean that there would be priests pretty much everywhere. They would be a part of daily life in the most complete sense of “daily life.” Priests and what they can give would be a readily available resource, ready to teach about the mysteries of salvation and confer blessings, counsel, absolve and provide the spiritual food for our sojourn in this vale of tears, the Eucharist. Were there “enough” priests, fulfilling their vocations in the world, then the Catholic Christian faithful would have the opportunity to integrate more completely the sacred into their daily lives, sanctifying through the spiritual benefits the priest can mediate, all they have and do.
Just as an example, there is a reflection of this ideal found in the older and newer, post-Conciliar forms of the Roman Ritual which have a section dedicated to blessings. As Catholics we should constantly be seeking the blessings of the priest for ourselves our loved ones and those sacramental objects which are the weapons of spiritual warfare. In both the pre-Conciliar and reformed books, there are blessings which can be bestowed on people, places, and things in just about every exigency of human living. There were blessings of bridal chambers, of fishing boats, and of communities to ward off pests (mice, rats, locusts, etc.). There were blessings for schools, crops, and printing presses. There were blessings for seeds and seedlings, homes, and brick-kilns. There were blessings, of young crops and vineyards, bridges, linens for the sick. There were blessings for lilies on the feast of St. Anthony of Padua, throats on St. Blaise, and bonfires on the Feast of St. John the Baptist. And when there was no specific blessing in the books, the priest could have recourse to the blessing for “all things.”
In fact, just about everything helpful for living our vocations from womb to tomb could be the object of a priest’s blessing. Some years ago when I had a rectorate in an Italian town, I spent a good share of the feast of St. Anthony the Abbot blessing the pigs and horses people would bring by. This harkens back to a time when for your family to survive your livestock had to thrive. It is no wonder people sought blessings for the things of their daily lives.
This is not magic. Sure, at times unhealthy superstition dominated common sense and sound catechism. But at every moment a person working at home or away, at school or in the fields and factories, would have the benefit of knowing what he did by hand and word in this world had the support of God’s special blessing conferred through the Church’s minister, the priest. These blessings are still found in the newest books the Church has provided, but they are hardly in use. And there are not enough priests to go around, it seems, who could bless all the houses and crops and herds and special places of work in our society, not to mention many of the priests there still are, are of the Father “Just-Call-Me-Bob” variety, who are not to be troubled by all this talk of “blessings” unless it is in the most vague, warm, fuzzy and even at times condescending way.
But, imagine if there were. Imagine, enough priests in the Church so that you could attend not the lone Mass at a parish, perhaps in the morning at a time you could not make it, but any of several Masses throughout the day. Imagine the number of churches and chapels and oratories growing, together with the number of priests, to accommodate a greater demand from people for the spiritual benefits only priests can provide. No longer might going to daily Mass seem unusual or bothersome. Asking the priest for a blessing would not be occasional or special in the sense of rare. No penitent would need to delay long to make a confession or receive counsel. Imagine, therefore, an integration of the sacred into the daily in such a way that the sacred and the “profane” remained distinct but integrated, entirely and seamlessly intertwined by the very fact that the sacred and the profane were in a healthy rapport.
In such a scenario as the one I have painted with these few strokes, it would be not in the least surprising for the faithful to kiss the priest’s hands, because they were anointed with chrism and because the touch the Sacred Host at Holy Mass, but they would be considered as well concomitantly friend and “other Christ,” just as Christ the High Priest ought to be known by us as brother in our humanity though God in His divinity, Good Shepherd and also King of Fearful Glory.
The 2004 Kenedy Directory, an official directory for the Catholic Church in the United States, says that the U.S. Catholic population at the start of 2004 was 67,259,768 or 23% of the total U.S. population. The number of priests was 44,212 this year (14,729 religious and 29,483 diocesan) or .066% of the population of Catholics. In 1965 there were 58,000. In 2020 it is estimated that there will be 31,000 priests and only 15,000 under the age of 70. Right now there are more priests aged 80 to 84 than there are aged 30 to 34. I don’t want to be silly with numbers here, but it is a sobering thing to mull over: the time of King David in the Holy Land, when the total population of that area was far less than that of the United States today, had perhaps 38,000 Levites when we who have a Catholic population of more than 67 million have only 44,000 priests.
A Common Treasure
The sacred priesthood is the common treasure and responsibility of the whole Church. When we see declining numbers or priestly malpractice it is neither fair nor realistic to say simply “Why don’t the Pope and the bishops do something about this?!” Yes, theirs is the primary responsibility, but people get the number of and quality of priests they deserve. Holy priests come from a holy foundation. Holy households and families have long been known to be a first seedbed of priestly vocations. A healthy view and recourse to priests is necessary if we want our priests to be sound and a blessing to the Church. Treating them with realistic respect, like priests, rather than like laymen, will help them to remember who they are and what they are here for: we cannot expect men to be happy in their vocations and dedicate themselves to this exalted calling if everything that pertains to them in the Church is taken away from them through neglect or a false understanding of the rapport of the laity and the clergy. Reverence for priests, without fawning or fear, is needed today. Real men respond well to high expectations and strong support and young men will be inspired to embrace the same.
Above all, remember that priests and especially bishops, are under the fierce attacks of hell itself. Pray for priests and bishops. Support them in charity. Everyday you should spend at least some little time praying specifically for priests, or perhaps for one particular priest, maybe even one who is troubling in some way. Express gratitude for the service they give, when good, the teaching they provide, when sound, and the example they are, when lived. It is always a good thing both to ask a priest for a blessing and then thank him for it, to ask for absolution when confessing and then express gratitude, to stop a priest when you meet him and express appreciation for his priesthood.
For us to be the sacred People God desires, we must have a sacred priesthood and holy priests. God provides the calling and graces but we must all respond, each according to our own vocations. We must cooperate with God’s plan by taking responsibility for Holy Church’s sacred priesthood.
FR. JOHN T. ZUHLSDORF was ordained by the Pope John Paul II for the diocese of Velletri-Segni in Italy in 1991. He is a former collaborator with the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei and has served in parishes both in Italy and the U.S. He writes a weekly column in The Wanderer on liturgical translation. Fr. Zuhlsdorf is on the board of directors of the Wanderer Forum Foundation.
This article, The Sacred Priesthood is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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