A Saintly Priest: Father Damien of Molokai
Photo credited to Sacred Hearts Archives, Rome – In Public Domain
“In the unity of the Christian life, the various vocations are like so many rays of the one light of Christ, whose radiance “brightens the countenance of the Church….’ Sacred ministers, for their part, are living images of Christ the Head and Shepherd who guides his people during this time of “already and not yet”, as they await his coming in glory.” (Vita Consecrata, #16)
“The priestly vocation is essentially a call to sanctity, in the form that derives from the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Sanctity is intimacy with God; it is the imitation of Christ, poor, chaste and humble; it is unreserved love for souls and self-giving to their true good; it is love for the church which is holy and wants us to be holy, because such is the mission that Christ has entrusted to it. Each one of you must be holy also in order to help your brothers pursue their vocation to sanctity.” — Pope St. John Paul II, Rome, Italy, Homily on October 9, 1984
“His calling is a declaration of love. Your response is commitment, friendship, and love manifested in the gift of your own life as a definitive following and as a permanent sharing in his mission and in his consecrations. To make up your mind is to love him with all of your soul and all of your heart in such a way that this love becomes the standard and motive of all your actions. From this moment on, live the Eucharist fully; be persons for whom the Holy Mass, Communion, and Eucharistic adoration are the center and summit of their whole life. Offer Christ your heart in meditation and personal prayer which is the foundation of the spiritual life.” —Pope St. John Paul II, Valencia, Spain, November 8, 1982
“The world looks to the priest, because it looks to Jesus! No one can see Christ; but everyone sees the priest, and through him they wish to catch a glimpse of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur and dignity of the priest!” —Pope St. John Paul II, Rome, Italy, October 13, 1979
The Vocation of Priesthood
Priesthood is the vocation of men who are ordained and consecrated to serving the People of God in persona Christi, or “in the person of Christ” who is Teacher, Priest, and King. Priests share in Christ’s ministry, building up the People of God as the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
Priests take the vow of celibacy, in order to be more closely configured to Christ and so that they can completely dedicate themselves to their priestly ministry. They also take a vow of obedience to their bishop (in whose priestly ministry they share). The primary areas of priestly ministry are teaching, governing and sanctifying the People of God. Key aspects of priestly ministry include:
- administering the sacraments, especially celebrating the Eucharistic Sacrifice and absolving sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation
- preaching the Word of God and explaining it
- shepherding the People of God, accompanying them on their journey
Because they are called to lead the People of God on the way of salvation, priests have a special obligation to a life of holiness. Their vocation to love is that of service, but rather than an exclusive service dedicated to their own family, priests are called to be fathers and shepherds to everyone. Their vocation can be summed up thus: A priest is called to be Christ for all whom he meets.
Here is an excerpt from Vatican II’s document on the priesthood, Presbyterorum ordinis, describing the purpose of the priesthood:
The office of priests, since it is connected with the episcopal order, also, in its own degree, shares the authority by which Christ builds up, sanctifies and rules his Body…. Priests, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are signed with 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 purpose, therefore, which priests pursue in their ministry and by their life is to procure the glory of God the Father in Christ. That glory consists in this—that men working freely and with a grateful spirit receive the work of God made perfect in Christ and then manifest it in their whole lives. Hence, priests, while engaging in prayer and adoration, or preaching the word, or offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice and administering the other sacraments, or performing other works of the ministry for men, devote all this energy to the increase of the glory of God and to man’s progress in the divine life. (#2)
To sum up, priests are called, ordained, and consecrated to God’s service, sharing in the very ministry of Christ himself, and continuing Christ’s presence in the world through celebrating the sacraments, proclaiming the Gospel, and shepherding the People of God throughout their lives. They are dedicated in a particular way to the service of the Church.
Particular Graces & Strengths of Priesthood
The framework for priesthood is a celibate life dedicated to ministry. Presbyterorum ordinis highlights several virtues or characteristics that are especially helpful for priestly ministry: goodness of heart, sincerity, strength and constancy of mind, zealous pursuit of justice, and affability. In talking to priests, Pope Francis often highlights the importance of the priest’s relationship to Christ, the priest’s closeness to the people he serves, his dedication to service, and personal integrity and humility as key aspects of what it means to be a priest.
Pope Francis’s recent reflections on the priesthood are helpful in understanding how important human formation and the family, closeness to Christ and his flock, and the call to serve, are to the life and vocation of every priest. You may wish to bring his thoughts, as well as the Scripture passages below, to prayer.
A good priest, therefore, is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history, with its riches and its wounds, and who has learned to make peace with it, reaching an underlying serenity, that of a disciple of the Lord. Human formation is therefore a necessity for priests so that they learn not to be dominated by their limitations, but instead to build on their talents…
We priests are apostles of joy, we proclaim the Gospel, that is, the “good news” par excellence; it is certainly not we who give strength to the Gospel — some believe that —, but we can either help or hinder the encounter between the Gospel and people. Our humanity is the “earthen vessel” in which we safeguard the treasure of God, a vessel which we must take care of, in order to properly pass on its precious content.
A priest cannot lose his roots; he always remains a man of the people and of the culture that engendered him. Our roots help us to remember who we are and where Christ has called us.
Answering God’s call, you become a priest to serve your brothers and sisters. The images of Christ that we take as a reference for the ministry of priests are clear: He is the “High Priest”, close in the same way to God and to mankind; he is the “Servant”, who washes feet and who becomes a neighbor to the weakest; he is the “Good Shepherd”, who always has as his goal the care of the flock.
There are three images that we should look to when thinking about the ministry of priests: sent to serve men, to help them obtain the mercy of God, and to proclaim his Word of life. We are not priests for ourselves, and our sanctification is closely linked to that of our people, our unction for their unction; you are anointed for your people….The good that the priests can do is born mainly from their closeness and their tender love for people. They are neither philanthropists nor officials; priests are fathers and brothers. The fatherhood of a priest does so much good.
Closeness, the depths of mercy, a loving gaze: to experience the beauty of a life lived according to the Gospel and the love of God, which is also made concrete through his ministers. God never refuses. —Address of Pope Francis, Nov. 20, 2015
Resources for Prayer and Reflection About the Vocation to Priesthood
Here are a few Scripture passages to pray with, that could be helpful for someone discerning his vocation to the priesthood.
- Exodus 3:1-15 Call of Moses
- Isaiah 42:1-7 “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations”
- Matthew 9:35-38 “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”’
- John 13:1-15 Jesus washes the feet of the disciples
- 1 Peter 2:4-10 “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”
- Hebrews 4:12-16 “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor”
- Hebrews 5:1-10 “You are a priest forever”
If you are reading this blog but not discerning priesthood, join me in taking a few moments to pray for future priests: those currently discerning, and those who have not yet received Jesus’ invitation to become a priest.