Priestly Identity and Vocation

Priests are valuable; they are a wealth for the entire Church. Their ministry is a gift to be welcomed, but also a concrete answer to be given day by day through an open and authentic witness to the Gospel, to be lived and carried out by way of a pastoral lifestyle that manifests God’s love in the various situations where each one operates. In these days of “educational emergency,” one perceives a pervasive need for hope, necessary in order to revive the deep meaning of the priestly identity, so that the being and the acting of this ministry may be integrated “in the spirit and style of Jesus, the Good Shepherd” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, [PDV, No. 73] On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day).  

Indeed, those who have been called to the pastoral ministry, both diocesan and religious, are summoned to guard the gift of truth they carry within with a lively and diligent love. They will do this by living in love the ministry given to them. As shepherds of souls, they respond to the call for the good of others, “in an atmosphere of constant readiness to allow oneself to be taken up, as it were ‘consumed,’ by the needs and demands of the flock” [PDV, No. 28] to the point of being fully absorbed in the apostolic mission. In the ministry of total dedication, their duty is to follow the example of Christ, who gave himself totally for humanity, in order to bring to fulfillment the loving will of the Father, who had called him to carry out his work of salvation for the whole world. 

In the uniquely singular aspect of his vocation, every priest feels he is an important link for the safekeeping of the Gospel values of justice, peace and solidarity, not just as objectives of human existence but as signs of God’s kingdom among people. Hence, the priest cannot shut himself into a private and limited outlook of his vocation; on the contrary, he is called to give witness to the truth by proclaiming it, in words and by the example of his life, to the brothers and sisters entrusted to his pastoral care, keeping his eyes fixed on the Gospel of Christ the King.  

To respond to this call means not simply to act among men, but above all to be a witness of the new life that the priest experiences in his journey of faith and communion within the entire Church. This means that he must deepen his own priestly identity, nourish it and take care of it during his entire life. 

This identity, which must be acknowledged and enhanced, is the result of a deep relationship, patterned after the Holy Trinity and expressed in a capacity of communion and love which is reflected in the priest’s lifestyle and in the relationships he establishes with others. It is a fundamentally “relational” identity that corresponds to the need for the psychological and existential consistency of everyone who is called [PDV, No. 12].  

However, the fundamental condition for a priest’s life to be consistent with his call is his willingness to let himself be modeled after Christ who is the true example of love and self-sacrifice. Indeed, he will be able to face the various pastoral situations and give himself to the faithful with generosity and unselfishness; he will be able even to go through the emotional stress and fatigue of his work as long as he is docile to the promptings of Christ’s Spirit (Presbyterorum Ordinis, On the Ministry and Life of Priests [PO, No. 12]). Only in this manner will he become a total gift to others, if he lets himself be transformed by Jesus, source of love and example of dedication. 

An Identity Strengthened by Pastoral Work

Priestly identity is nourished directly by the very pastoral care of the faithful; indeed, it is in dedicating himself to the faithful that the priest can bring to fulfillment his vocation by way of the powerful witness of the word and the total availability to take upon himself all the situations he encounters in life “until ‘Christ is formed’ in the faithful” [PDV, No. 22]. As he leads them towards Christ’s unity, “he will be able to come closer more effectively to the perfection of the one whom he represents” [PO, No. 45] making ever more transparent his journey of spiritual growth and his vocational response.  

At the basis of his choice of life we find the disposition always to be open to the needs of the people and their demands, at times even pressing, which call for the emotional commitment of whoever has the duty of pastoral care. This commitment entails a transformation of the heart and mind to integrate the divine call in one’s own existence, so as to live the service of the ministry as an authentic witness of love [PO, No. 12].  

To be faithful to Christ’s love means to foster one’s capacity to love, but also to take seriously the process of continuous growth as a lifestyle that helps one to be docile to the voice of the Holy Spirit. In this way, one learns from the Gospel the art of total dedication to others. For this reason it is necessary that the priest possess a lifestyle in conformity with the words he preaches, so that the faith he professes may be confirmed by the manner whereby he gives witness to God’s presence in history and in everyday events.  

He must be aware of the power and gifts of which he is the bearer in order to distinguish them from the limitations which at times weaken his ministry, particularly when work is too heavy, or when he seeks more an emotional personal need rather than following the example of Christ the Good Shepherd, who gave his life for his sheep. 

Emotional Growth in a Priestly Vocation

Changes and hardships become an opportunity to take seriously the duty of the pastoral care of the faithful, by displaying a sincere charity and practicing “the liberty whereby Christ had freed us” [PO, No. 6]. It is therefore an exercise that transcends the priest’s role as such, and at the same time fully fulfills him by way of an authentic lifestyle consistent with the Gospel. 

Hence, one cannot speak of priestly vocation without reference to an emotional growth that every priest undertakes during his entire existence in the way he lives and loves. We cannot take for granted that a priest is altruistic by nature for the simple fact that he serves others or because he is endowed with a ministerial task. On the contrary, the priest must continuously strive to serve his brothers and sisters entrusted to his care in order “to be a manifestation and image of the Good Shepherd who gives his life” [PDV, No. 49]. 

A Lifestyle of Dedication

This illuminating perspective of the priest’s capacity to love marks not just how many actions or pastoral projects he carries out but what is their value, namely the way whereby he devotes himself to others. Hence, he will be able to respond to his priestly duty if he lets himself be transformed by the love of Christ to acquire a lifestyle of dedication qualitatively focused on the faithful and their real needs, inspired by and patterned after the deep aspirations of the Gospel approach.  

Only in this manner, after the example of Christ, will the priest live an attitude of authentic pastoral love, which is innate and consistent with his life choices. It is this central characteristic of an authentic love, manifested by his dedicated lifestyle, which gives meaning to his actions and pastoral choices, even when he goes through difficult and negative emotional experiences, or when he is weary, or when beset by a difficult temperament, or even when the people do not live up to his expectations. Pastoral love must be open, with an attitude of constant search, to God’s mystery hidden in the brothers and sisters entrusted to his priestly care. 

Learning from Personal Limitations

The dignity of a priest’s ministry does not exempt him from difficulties, temptations and weaknesses, which at times trouble and test harshly his journey to holiness. Loyalty to the gift he has received is not something taken for granted, but is the outcome of a steady effort that prompts him to seriously face the real situations he lives through in his work, taking care to reflect on his vocation, beginning with the experiences of his daily life. 

At times, priests too feel overcome by many pastoral challenges to the point of being overstressed by work that slowly can hurt them, from a psychological point of view. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that: “Above all, priests should strive to unify their interior spiritual and emotional lives with their exterior program of pastoral work. By uniting themselves with Christ, who is united to God, priests can accomplish this inner unity which will produce great fruit for the Gospel” (PO, No. 14).  

The quality of their pastoral work may be negatively affected by the many hardships they come across, in particular when they are overcome by many needs and various emergencies, and they are unable to maintain the balanced equilibrium between their strengths and the demands of the environment in which they operate. Many times they must work in difficult pastoral situations, even though this does not slow down their zeal for the pastoral care of the souls.  

Their total availability does not protect them from the risk of depleting their emotional and physical energies, to the point that they feel stressed out and spiritually drained. 

When the work becomes excessive, when the demands are too many and pressing, or when they realize that there are too many problems that need to be resolved, they may get tired. “It seems almost that we must always have a solution for everything,” a young priest observed. Moreover, the priestly activity absorbs them not simply about things that must be done, but also in personal relationships that are emotionally intense and stressing: when they work among the youth or see elderly people, or speak to couples in difficulty, or visit the sick, they must face personal demands that call for their continuous attention, listening, sharing or compassion. 

All of this, if not offset by a healthy inner life, may cause the emergence of a sense of insecurity and insufficiency; or there may arise the fear of failure or of feeling scrutinized, thus causing them to lose sight of the meaning of their work. At this point, the urgency for dedication may be transformed into an unproductive activism, coupled with negative emotions of lack of confidence in themselves and of cynicism towards others, as they realize that their efforts are never enough.  

To all of this, they may react with a special kind of adaptation to stress which is defined as the burnout syndrome, fraught with symptoms of dissatisfaction and uneasiness, triggered by too many demands from the people they attend. If they fail to recover the necessary energies, they risk falling into the vortex of things to be done to the point of feeling stressed out and emotionally void.  

For this reason, it is necessary that they maintain a constant vigilance about themselves, their human and spiritual needs. In addition, they must pay a steady attention to the one who calls them to become servants, namely Jesus the Good Shepherd, who is aware of their disposition and the limitation of each of them to the point of addressing to them at the appropriate time the salutary invitation: “Come away with me to a secluded place, and rest a while with me!” 

To give oneself to others without this effort of integration between a psychological and emotional life and faith may result not only in draining one’s energies, but also in living through instabilities that often generate uncertainties and ambiguities in relationships with other people, to the point that they become a mistaken love, often a sick love, which risks to change into a sterile self gain, useful perhaps to offset one’s own emotional weaknesses rather than to serve Christ.  

At times, an inadequate preparation, unresolved psychological problems, the fear of losing the esteem of others or of one’s superiors may lead the priest to become stiffened in his positions and to opt for compromising shortcuts that may save him from his personal anxiety, but makes him less free in his capacity to love. 

For this reason, every priest must be able to be vigilant in the way he lives his pastoral love, in order to integrate his vocation with his human and psychological realities, thus participating actively in his own continuing process of conversion and personal growth to be carried out in his everyday life. This awareness is reflected in his personal lifestyle and in how he takes care of his needs. “Are you exercising the care of souls? Do not thereby neglect yourself. Do not give yourself to others to such an extent that nothing is left of you for yourself. You should certainly keep in mind the souls whose pastor you are, but without forgetting yourself” (St. Charles Borromeo, quoted in PDV, No. 72). 

In order to avoid this debilitating spiral, it is important that those who work in pastoral ministry know how they live their dedication to others, thus grasping not only the symptoms of their unease in their everyday life, but above all to discover the deep motivations of their apostolate. Without this special concern, they risk acting in vain in the many things they do, thus forgetting what is essential in their priestly identity.  

This responsibility demands that their dedication be based on a lifestyle that is consistent with the faith they profess, after the example of Christ the Good Shepherd who loves and gives himself totally to his fold. For this reason, the desire to devote themselves to the manifold activities must be in accord with a love that is not centered on their personal interests or psychological and emotional needs, but is truly focused on the well-being and salvation of the persons entrusted to their pastoral care. 

Looking forward to the future, it is therefore necessary to integrate the love for a never ending vocation with a healthy sense of realism which takes into account the many questions that arise from their work of witnesses of God’s love in the various places of their pastoral mission. For this reason a new formative perspective is needed to help them face reality squarely.  

In his life, a priest needs to identify ever more adequate “boundaries” which allow him to face the situations of the pastoral service beginning from an ever clearer idea of his human and vocational identity, capable of living in harmony with the various situations without losing sight of his special charisma. This entails the rediscovery of a new even balance in relationships with people, with collaborators in pastoral work, with other priests, with the environment. It entails also a new way to conceive of oneself, one’s role and one’s activities. Therefore it is important that those who work in the pastoral care of souls become capable of discovering the motivations of faith that are at the base of their pastoral zeal and guide their ways of dedication to others, so that their actions may be in conformity with the Gospel. 

It is this steady attention to what is essential in their vocation that makes every shepherd an authentic witness of the love of Christ, by making him maintain a constant attitude of conversion. Acknowledging the spiritual resources at his disposal he is able to celebrate the joy of his priestly mission in the concrete circumstances of his ministry. This effort of integration, at times very arduous, but always possible, between vocational demands and the reality of his own spiritual history, invites the priest to give concrete and unifying answers that are truly consistent with the call to holiness that characterizes his ministry. TP

Father Gallaro, ordained in 1972, is professor of Canon Law and Ecumenism at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of SS. Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh, Pa.