The Holiness of Priests: A Life Rooted in Love

“Pastoral study and action direct one to an inner source, which the work of formation will take care to guard and make good use of: This is the ever-deeper communion with the pastoral charity of Jesus, which, just as it was the principle and driving force of his salvific action, likewise, thanks to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of orders, should constitute the principle and driving force of the priestly ministry. It is a question of a type of formation meant not only to ensure scientific, pastoral competence and practical skill, but also and especially a way of being in communion with the very sentiments and behavior of Christ the good shepherd: ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.’”

— Pope St. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 57

Priestly formation is always ongoing. Every cleric strives to remain available to the truth of his vocation by way of retreats, spiritual direction, lectio divina and more. The lynchpin for priestly spirituality being integrated at the heart of ministry is the priest’s own “communion with the pastoral charity of Christ.” From all eternity, the Son receives divinity from the Father and is one with him. Jesus came to recognize this truth, this metaphysical reality, with his intellect when he developed humanly and reflected on his own identity. At that point, he was faced with a choice: How would he live his human life? Scripture makes it clear that Jesus chose always to live his human life in a way that flows from his divinity, namely, by always doing the Father’s will. This human attentiveness involved listening to the Father’s “voice” not only in the revelation of Hebrew history but especially in quiet prayer. Thus, Christ experienced his Sonship as a gift he received from the Father from all eternity, and he responds to this gift, not only in his divinity but also in his humanity, by his own gift of self-surrender. Mysteriously, then, his act of reception elicits his loving choice to surrender.

Recognizing that Jesus responded humanly to the gift he received by choosing always to obey the Father is powerful motivation for the priest who strives to be like Christ, and is a key to opening his participation in Christ’s pastoral charity. The priest, too, is faced with a choice: How will I live out my vocation? The appropriate response is to be like Christ in living an obedient, upright life of self-surrender, but one can live such a life happily only if it emanates from the heart. Like Christ, then, the priest must listen raptly, not least in quiet prayer, and respond by surrendering his own will to the Father out of the power and joy he receives from being in communion with Christ. This communion is simply the result of the priest inviting Christ to live his Sonship over again in him. In so doing, Christ is free to live the mystery of receptivity as surrender and surrender as receptivity over again in the cleric, thus securing the man to the Trinitarian life of love in ever deepening ways. This surrendered receptivity in Christ is healing, is the life of holiness; such communion is the branch being grafted to the Vine (see Jn 15:5).

Accepting God’s Gift of Love

What communion with Christ means, then, is to surrender to God the Father in Christ by way of the Spirit as an ongoing act of receiving his great love. This forms the basic dynamic of a priest developing an interior life. This communion is maintained, deepened and fulfilled by way of an interior life that seeks only to host the pastoral charity of Christ, not simply as one act of oblation but as the movement of one’s very being.

Further, this communion is assured and secured by the very nature of its being given within, and by way of, the sacramental reality of the Church. While he was still in formation, the priest entered this mystery by accepting whatever was the truth revealed about himself and his vocation in the light of faith. As a seminarian, he learned how to host the truth, to suffer its coming for the sake of his own holiness. This truth is uncovered in spiritual direction, study, fellowship and pastoral ministry. The priest continues to learn how to keep receiving this truth about himself — and Christ — even as he follows the daily rounds of parish ministry.

This openness to truth, not as an abstraction but as the reception of his status before God as “son” in Christ, is to become habitual. The instilling of such a habit will become the hallmark of priestly ministry and growth in holiness. Communion with Christ offers the priest an untold healing of his affection for sin and a firmer grasp upon his true identity in Christ, repudiating any other identity imposed upon him by the popular secular culture, limited, finite friendships or even neurotic conditions within which he was raised as a boy. Initial and ongoing priestly formation is a conspiracy of the Spirit to move each man deeper into the reality Christ promised at baptism, for him to become a new creation (see 2 Cor 5:17).

Life Rooted in Prayer

In this way all diocesan priestly formation and ongoing formation is ordered toward the maturation of men who are contemplatives even in action. They draw their dynamic and developmental acceptance of their sonship from a continual receptivity to Christ’s own love now alive in them. Pope St. John Paul II echoed the same insight, saying during a 1993 general audience that “those called to share Christ’s mission and sacrifice find in his example the incentive to give prayer its rightful place in their lives, as the foundation, root and guarantee of holiness in action.”

A life of prayer keeps open the wellspring that is the soul so that the priest can live out his ministry from the depths of interiority, from a place of deep union with Christ. This wellspring animates a cleric’s natural gifts and talents, gifts him with healing and consolation, and invites him to receive the call to turn from sin. Ultimately this place is the heart, formed in an ecclesial context, where one continually hears Christ’s own voice sending each priest on mission. For a man to be ordained without knowing how to go into the heart and wait on the Lord, eager and open to receive divine love and truth, is to have constructed a failed formation process. Without such knowledge, he is driven to cope with the burdens of ministry through functionalism.

Love Grows

If the first virtue of priestly life to be jettisoned is prayer, as reportedly it is, then surely the first goal of clergy renewal always is to secure a love of prayer and a habit of prayer over time.

If this interior communion with Christ is secured in faith, hope and love, then the priest more likely is to acknowledge this communion as preeminent because it gives rise to a ministry that shares in Christ’s own pastoral charity. Without prayer, the priest is a busy man of skilled efficiency; with prayer, the priest bears the coming of Another.

The primary focus of spiritual direction in priestly life is to guard the inner source of communion between the priest and Christ. From this interior source will flow the “principle and driving force” needed to be a public minister, from such a source he becomes a man who gives witness to the ongoing availability of Christ’s own charity.

Pope Benedict XVI articulates this vision in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”):

“Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave. ... If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. … The saints — consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta — constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbor from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a ‘commandment’ imposed from without … but rather of a freely bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love” (No. 18).

Priestly holiness is secured by way of the man clinging to the sacrificial mysteries of Christ as a way of being with the people. Drawing from his sublated diaconal identity, the priest cries out in Christ, “I am among you as one who serves.” But this pastoral charity will carry pointed power from the Cross and Resurrection if the priest himself is a spiritual and virtuous bridge to Christ for the people — and not an obstacle. An ever-receding distance between Christ and the cleric is the way of holiness for the priest, and mysteriously for his own people as well. Love grows through love.

DEACON JAMES KEATING, Ph.D, is the director of theological formation with the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University.