Presbyterorum Ordinis

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What the Council said on Priesthood:
Is it still prophetic?

We live in a complex and fluid society. We are experiencing a crisis of a pastoral approach that seems to becoming less relevant on many social levels. Parishes are being reorganized and priests are overloaded. Priests are leaving the ministry and others are just somehow getting by. We see a decline in vocations and the average age of priests is increasing. Cases of abuse are undermining credibility. Dissatisfaction that – out with the concrete demands – results in a cry of alarm: "We cannot carry on like this!"

However, there are priests who generously go on the missions or are engaged in serious social action. There are songwriter priests and blogger priests who communicate the Gospel to young people in a language which they understand. All of this and much more invites us to ponder on the identity, service and life of priests today.

50 years have passed since the Second Vatican Council promulgated
Presbyterorum ordinis, the decree on the ministry and life of priests [1]. Could those pages help us find answers to many of the current questions? Could this anniversary be an opportunity to rediscover the prophetic dimension of this document which could reshape the image of priests against a background of an ecclesiology of communion? Three points, among others, emerge from this text: the identity of priests is essentially relational; their spirituality cannot be monastic, but must take their secular character into account i.e. the fact that they live in the midst of the world; and their way of life must bear witness to the evangelical radicalism of Jesus' message.

Where do we stand - not in theory but in practice! - with the implementation of this
relational identity which conceives the priest - as expressed in Pastores dabo vobis - in the light of the Trinitarian mystery which continues in the Church, in a "multiple and rich interconnection of relationships": with his bishop, the other priests, and the whole people of God, in order to draw all people to Christ (cf. PDV 12). In a more concrete way: to what extent does sacramental brotherhood in the presbyterate take the form of effective cooperation and an affective communion of life that means, among other things, hospitality, forms of common life, sharing of material resources (cf. PO 8)? And to what extent is being brothers among brothers achieved between priests and laity in a shared responsibility that enhances the multiplicity of gifts for the common mission, while respecting the specificity of vocations (cf. PO 9)? Does it achieve the point of reaching, through the various structures of communion, a real sinodality in decision making? These are areas that have already brought about much fruit, but still offer many opportunities.

We can ask ourselves similar questions regarding the development of a
spirituality that provides inspiration and motivation to men of God who are called to live among people (cf. PO 3) and serve a Church whose mission, in the spirit of Vatican II, does not end in the religious field but has the task of bringing into existence a complete humanism in different contexts, in collaboration with all the forces of good will. The resurfacing of certain forms of ritualism and neo-clericalism have certainly not helped to make the Church more attractive and creative in response to today's circumstances. Above all they have not conveyed the meaning of the Paschal event that has torn the temple veil and destroyed the barriers between the sacred and the profane: at this point everything belongs to God! The words of Albert Vanhoye, a Jesuit and great scholar of the priesthood in the New Testament, invite us to reflect: "The priesthood of Christ was not carried out as a ceremony, but as an event, as the offering up of his own life. The priesthood of the Church does not consist in carrying out ceremonies, but in transforming actual existence by opening it up to the action of the Holy Spirit and to the impulse of divine love." [2].

Lastly, what can be said about the radicalism of the
evangelical counsels (cf. PO 15-17)? Thank goodness there is so much authentic life. However, there are also painful deviations which become the cause of scandal. We are not only talking about the cases of abuse, but prior to that about ministry lived-out, perhaps unconsciously, as a social status, with a bourgeois rather than a missionary spirit. This phenomenon has many faces to which Pope Francis has dedicated several analyses articulated under the title "spiritual worldliness" (cf. Evangelii gaudium, nn. 93-97).
What can we do so that this event is not reduced to a 50
th anniversary celebration or to mere reflections, but responds to the signs of the times with the prophecy of the conciliar event? The reflections and life experiences shared in this issue of Being One are many and proceed along inseparable dual tracks, which are not contradictory: the reaffirmation of the primacy of God and attention to the humanity of priests; the emphasis on missionary work, putting communion as the basis of it; openness to the world and dialogue, but also fidelity to one's own identity, to the Gospel.

It is typical of priests and Christians to go about their lives amid these contradictions. They ultimately lead us to the foot of the crucified Christ who was able to bear these polarities and has made them exceedingly fruitful. In the end relational identity, a spirituality open to the world and evangelical radicalism have their source in Him. There is an urgency to rediscover this and fix our lives on this, becoming capable - in the words of Bishop Klaus Hemmerle - to cry out as He did, "Abba, Father!" from the peripheries of the world. Being able to say as He did, "this is mine" when faced with challenges and sufferings, as Fr. Silvano Cola suggested on April 30, 1982, at the memorable meeting of 7,000 priests, religious men and seminarians held in the Vatican.


[1] The Optatam totius decree on the formation of priests was also promulgated in the last phase of the council (October 25, 1965).

[2] Albert Vanhoye, Old Testament Priests and the New Priest. Petersham, Massachusetts: St. Bede’s Pubblications, 1980, p. 315.