This series of teaching editorials focuses on the call to ministry through five major roles in the Church: priesthood (diocesan and religious), women religious, diaconate and lay ecclesial ministry.
To reflect on diocesan priesthood, it is worthwhile to rely on wisdom from the patron saint of diocesan priests, St. John Vianney, who related, “Priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.” Such a conviction echoes the earthly precedent established by Jesus Christ himself in the Gospels. Matthew 9:36 relates, “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”
How the Lord responds to this distressing need is poignant. Verses 37 and 38 tell us that Jesus then told his disciples, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”
In the same way that Jesus himself set the disciples aside as ongoing witnesses to his ministry in the Gospels, so are ordained priests throughout the history of the Church set apart for the work of building up the Body of Christ. Paragraph 1536 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” relates, “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.”
Lest one conceive that theTeaching O purpose of ordained ministers being set apart is for anything less than a sacred mission, the teaching of the Church is clear on the matter. Paragraph 3 in “The Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests” from the Second Vatican Council offers, “The priests of the New Testament are, it is true, by their vocation to ordination, set apart in some way in the midst of the People of God, but this is not in order that they should be separated from that people or from any man, but that they should be completely consecrated to the task for which God chooses them.”
The “Catechism” echoes this sensibility in paragraph 1534 when it reflects on the purpose of the sacraments of holy orders and matrimony: “If they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so.”
The promises of celibacy, obedience and Gospel simplicity that undergird priestly life reinforce and enhance — rather than hinder — this model of service.
Having established this theological foundation for priesthood, what then are its implications for diocesan priesthood? Answering this question relies on resolving the purpose for which diocesan priests are set apart.
In this light, the Church sees diocesan priests as those ordained to serve the local church in a particular diocese. Most often, the hallmark of diocesan priesthood exists in parish ministry, though many other forms of service are incorporated into priestly life. In the Archdiocese of Louisville, diocesan priests have left a legendary legacy of service in classrooms, hospitals, prisons and beyond.
If we say with St. John Vianney that priesthood owes its inception to the love of the heart of Jesus, we also can say that priesthood plays a role in returning humanity and even creation to God.
Here, another saint is particularly enlightening. In the recently published spiritual diaries of St. John Paul II entitled “In God’s Hands,” the former Holy Father relates, “Priesthood is the returning (the offering in sacrifice) of all that is created to God.”
Such a great and necessary work in the life of the Church points above all to the necessity of prayer, both by priests and for priests. No priest is worthy by his own merits to absolve sins or to preside at the holy mysteries of the altar during Mass. As such, priesthood is a life made possible by the grace of God alone.
In a speech given on Oct. 1, 1990, at the opening of the eighth Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Priestly Formation, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger related, “If church usage calls ordination to the ministry of priesthood a sacrament, the following is meant: This man is in no way performing functions for which he is highly qualified by his own natural ability, nor is he doing the things that please him most and that are most profitable. On the contrary: The one who receives the sacrament is sent to give what he cannot give of his own strength; he is sent to act in the person of another, to be his living instrument. For this reason, no human being can declare himself a priest; for this reason, too, no community can promote a person to this ministry by his own decree. Only from the sacrament, which belongs to God, can priesthood be received.”
Very Reverend Michael T. Wimsatt is the director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Louisville and pastor of the Cathedral of the Assumption.