The Priest’s Role in the Church

Claims that Redemptorist Fr Tony Flannery is under threat of excommunication from the Catholic Church have dominated headlines in recent weeks.

One of the Vatican’s main concerns is surely Fr Flannery’s perception of the priesthood, and how it came to be established.

In a 2010 Reality magazine article, Fr Flannery said that he no longer believed that “the priesthood as we currently have it in the Church originated with Jesus” or that Jesus designated “a special group of his followers as priests”.

Fr Flannery went on to write: “It is more likely that some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda.”

However, the Church’s long-held teaching on the priesthood is clear. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time. It is the sacrament of apostolic ministry.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) also affirms the Catholic stance on how the priesthood was established. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, explains the apostles, whose successors are the bishops, were sent forth by Christ to serve the Church as shepherds, with St Peter and his successors as the “permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion” (LG, 18).

So, now that’s clarified, what exactly is the role of the priest?

Imprinted with a special character at their ordination, priests share in Jesus’ ministry in order to build up the Body of Christ, to preach the Gospel to the whole world, and to confect the source and summit of Christian life, the Eucharist.

In Presbyterorum Ordinis, the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, the Vatican II Fathers speak directly to priests, reminding them of the special nature of the priesthood, their ministry, their relationships with other members of the Church, their call to holiness, and the traits and education they should cultivate.

Presbyterorum Ordinis recognises that priests, by sacred ordination and mission which they receive from the bishops, are promoted to the service of Christ. “They share in his ministry, a ministry whereby the Church here on earth is unceasingly built up into the People of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.”

Chapter I, ‘The Priesthood in the Church’s Mission’ deals with both the nature of the priesthood and the place of priests in the world.

According to the document, all believers share in the priesthood of Christ. They offer “spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ, and they proclaim the perfections of him who has called them out of darkness into his marvellous light”.

Ordained priests, however, receive a special character and “are conformed to Christ the Priest in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the Head”.

The priest’s ministry flows from and is geared toward the Eucharist. Priests preach the Word and offer the Eucharistic sacrifice for the glory of God and for the salvation and sanctification of humanity, the decree asserts.

Priests are consecrated, set apart, for the work of God. “They cannot be ministers of Christ unless they be witnesses and dispensers of a life other than earthly life.”

At the same time, their ministry requires them to live in the world and serve their brothers and sisters. To achieve this aim, the council suggests priests should cultivate virtues like goodness of heart, sincerity, strength and constancy of mind, that help them relate to others.
The second chapter deals with the ministry of priests, including their function and relationship with others.

According to the document, priests serve as ministers of God’s Word. They are co-workers with the bishops in preaching the Gospel to all people, bringing faith to unbelievers, and helping faith grow in the hearts of Christians.

Through the witness of their lives, their preaching and teaching, and their efforts to “treat contemporary problems” in the light of Christ’s teaching, priests bring God’s Word to all people, inviting them to “conversion and holiness”.

Priests have been consecrated by God in a new manner at their ordination and made living instruments of Christ “that they may be able to carry on in time his marvellous work whereby the entire family of man is again made whole by power from above”.

The decree asserts that priests share in Christ’s priesthood in a special way so that they may celebrate the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

Priests are to instruct the faithful in prayer and penance, offer guidance in the duties of their state of life, and teach them Christian values and morals.

In building the Christian community, priests are “never to put themselves at the service of some human faction of ideology, but, as heralds of the Gospel and shepherds of the Church, they are to spend themselves for the spiritual growth of the Body of Christ”.

They work to create “a house of prayer” in every church and “foster a knowledge of and facility in the liturgy”.

According to the document, priests must always be united with their bishops. “Therefore, by reason of the gift of the Holy Spirit which is given to priests in Holy Orders, bishops regard them as necessary helpers and counsellors in the ministry and in their role of teaching, sanctifying and nourishing the People of God.”

Additionally, on account of this communion in the same priesthood and ministry, “bishops should regard priests as their brothers and friends and be concerned as far as they are able for their material and especially for their spiritual well-being,” the decree says.

As a result of their ordination, priests are “united among themselves in an intimate sacramental brotherhood”.

Priests also have a duty, according to the council fathers, to work together with the lay faithful and “sincerely acknowledge and promote the dignity of the laity and the part proper to them in the mission of the Church”.

They must “willingly listen to the laity, consider their wants in a fraternal spirit, recognise their experience and competence in the different areas of human activity, so that together with them they will be able to recognise the signs of the times”. Likewise, they should confidently entrust to the laity duties in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom and room for action.

The faithful, in turn, are obliged to treat their priests with filial love and help them in any way possible, the document says.

Priests share in the fullness of the Church’s mission to bring the Word of God and loving service to all people. They must, therefore, be flexible and mobile so that they can embrace the tasks and locations assigned to them.

However, priests “should not be sent singly to a new field of labour, especially to one where they are not completely familiar with the language and customs”.

Priests themselves are particularly responsible to promote vocations through the witness and example of their lives, through preaching, through prayer, and through spiritual direction.

Presbyterorum Ordinis also offers priests deep insights into their special call to holiness, lays out the spiritual requirements of the priesthood, and offers advice to help priests live out their vocation.

In the third chapter, the council reveals that by their ordination, priests are obliged to “seek for perfection” according to their call, and they are given special grace to be “living instruments of Christ the Eternal Priest.”

Sharing as they do in Christ’s priesthood, prophetic office, and kingship, priests must be immersed in Sacred Scripture, which they read, study, and teach in humility and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

They must also “offer themselves entirely to God, and when they are nourished with the body of Christ they profoundly share in the love of him who gives himself as food to the faithful”.

The Council Fathers understand that because priests are often caught up in many different duties, they run the risk of losing their internal and external harmony. To maintain that unity of internal life and external ministry, they should follow the example of Christ and entrust themselves to Christ, so that he may always be the source of their lives of prayer and service. The Eucharist, especially, must be the centre of priestly life.

Among the virtues that priests must possess for their sacred ministry none is so important as a frame of mind and soul whereby they are always ready to know and do the will of God.

Aware of his own weakness, “the true minister of Christ works in humility trying to do what is pleasing to God”. “He understands this desire of God and follows it in the ordinary circumstances of his everyday life. With humble disposition he waits upon all whom God has sent him to serve in the work assigned to him and in the multiple experiences of his life.”

Celibacy is a “sign and a stimulus for pastoral charity and a special source of spiritual fecundity in the world”. It allows priests to adhere to Christ with “an undivided heart” and “dedicate themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and men”.

The council purports that celibacy is a gift from God and a symbol of the mystical marriage between Christ and the Church. The Holy Synod asks “not only priests but all the faithful that they might receive this precious gift of priestly celibacy in their hearts and ask of God that he will always bestow this gift upon his Church”.

According to the document, Scripture and the Eucharist are the preeminent spiritual aids that help priests foster their interior lives and grow in union with Christ. Priests should also frequently receive the Sacrament of Penance, engage in spiritual reading, foster a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and pray meaningly in a variety of ways.

Study is important for priests and they are admonished by their bishop in ordination that they “be mature in knowledge” and that their doctrine be “spiritual medicine for the People of God”.

The Council Fathers advise priests to study the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, traditional spiritual classics, the teachings of the Magisterium, theology, and pastoral methods. Priests should have access to a variety of courses, libraries, and other aids to learning.

Priests must also receive a just wage for their work that will allow them to maintain a decent standard of living. Moreover, “those who have dedicated themselves to the service of the priesthood, by reason of the remuneration they receive, should not only be able to honourably provide for themselves but also themselves be provided with some means of helping the needy.” The Council Fathers even take the opportunity to encourage priests to take an annual vacation.

The document concludes that priesthood in the modern world offers a whole range of challenges, difficulties, and obstacles but also great joy.

The Church cares for the world, for God loves it, and priests assume a position of leadership in providing that care. In the words of the council, the “world which today is entrusted to the loving ministry of the pastors of the Church is that which God so loved that he would give his only son for it”.

Finally, priests should trust in God’s powerful assistance in carrying out their work, the document suggests. Priests are never alone as they “cooperate in carrying out the saving plan of God” and dispense the mysteries of Christ.