The Decree on “The Ministry and Life of Priests,” in the chapter entitled “The Priesthood In the Church’s Mission” defined the mission of priests: “Since they share in the function of the apostles in their own degree, priests are given the grace by God to be the ministers of Jesus Christ among the nations, fulfilling the sacred tasks of the Gospel.”

This teaching is applied to all priests everywhere in the world. The concepts of divine vocation and “alter Christus” go with it. The candidate is ordained sacramentally by the Church to serve God and His people. In other words, wherever a priest goes and whatever he does, he is still a priest. Today, these concepts are challenged by the new realties of the changing world. 

Divine Vocation vs. Call 

In the Catholic Church, the term vocation was traditionally understood as the vocation of those who live a life directly consecrated to God as a priest or religious. This divine vocation was explained broadly by some theologians as the predestination of someone who was chosen and reserved by God to continue His mission of preaching the Good News. 

The very popular and often used readings about divine vocation come from the book of Samuel when the Lord called him in a dream, and from the synoptic Gospels, when Jesus called his first four disciples. These callings have been the inspiration for many candidates to religious and priestly life. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sm 3:1-10) is a strong but somewhat romantic response of those who want to follow the divine call. 

However, not all priestly candidates have the same dream as Samuel, and not everyone can quickly leave everything behind to follow Jesus. Therefore, other factors can be considered as the signs of this divine vocation. 

According to the United States Program of Priestly Formation (PPF), based on Optatam Totius and Pastores Dabo Vobis, the four dimensions — the square one — seminarians must develop and integrate as they prepare to become priests are human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. The response of the seminarians to these formations is a good sign of their divine vocation. 

Human Formation 

Human formation helps the candidate to be a prudent and discerning man who knows how to respect himself and other people’s values of life. He is a man who can communicate well. He is free of overt prejudice and is willing to work with people of diverse cultural backgrounds. 

The PPF emphasized “the various dimensions of being a human person — the physical, the psychological, and the spiritual — converge in affective maturity, which includes human sexuality. Education is necessary for understanding sexuality and living chastely. 

Those preparing to live out a celibate commitment face particular challenges, especially in today’s cultural context of permissiveness.” Practically, instruction from the rector and faculty members, personal reflection, community life and feedback, interactions with other people in the seminary, spiritual directions and psychological counseling play a significant role in shaping the human life of the future priest. 

Spiritual Formation 

While human formation is important, spiritual formation has been a factor, if not the main factor, of training. The seminarian is taught to receive the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist as the essential moment of each day, and to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently. 

The celebration of these sacraments is aided by the practice of a daily examination of conscience. The Liturgy of the Hours and reading and meditating with the Bible prepare seminarians for their lifelong ministry. They are asked to practice daily prayer and contemplation in order to grow in communion with the Lord. Popular devotions such as Eucharistic Adoration, praying the Rosary, and reading the lives of the saints are highly recommended. 

Retreats and days of collection, asceticism and penance assist them to embrace the cross and to share the lives of those who are poor and less fortunate. They are asked to meet with their spiritual director regularly to figure out the integration needed for growth in sanctity and virtue. 

Intellectual Formation 

Together with spiritual formation, intellectual formation is one of the key elements. For years it has been a question for formation directors: Should spiritual formation be more important than intellectual formation or vice-versa? If a seminarian is distinguished in spiritual formation but weak in intellectual formation, what should be recommended? Do lay people prefer a good preacher and leader or a spiritual pastor? 

It is noted here that once seminarians become priests, intellectual formation is not needed as before! These priests have already passed all the necessary exams. Self-satisfaction can lead to a bad habit. They do not pay much attention to ongoing formation. They do not often update their knowledge of new decrees, apostolic letters and instructions from the Church. 

Sadly, their intellectual formation progresses slowly after the training in the seminary. Meanwhile, not only has the world changed, but also the knowledge of lay ministers about Scripture, liturgy and theology is more up to date. Clearly, though priests are very busy, it is important for them to attend workshops to assist them in their ministries.

Pastoral Formation 

This challenge leads to another issue: pastoral formation. Should priests be open to the spirit of the Old Testament or of the New Testament? Should they wait for the faithful to come to them at the church, or should they be the missionaries of the Church to visit the sick, the elderly and the marginalized? What are their ministerial priorities? How can they arrange their time and schedule properly so they can serve both practicing and non practicing Catholic?  

How open are they to the new needs of the local communities in regard to multi-culturalism and ecumenism? How do they view newly arrived migrants and refugees? Is it a big challenge for priests to address the concern that students in religious education classes have no formation after the reception of first Holy Communion and after the reception of Confirmation? How should priests communicate with parents who do not often go to Church, and thus, do not take their children with them? 

The concept of reserving divine call or vocation only for priests and religious faded in the last few decades. Influenced by the ideas of collaboration and equality in the eyes of God and society, Vatican II has moved away from the idea of giving priests strong power over the congregation to having partnership with lay people. Priests are with people, not over people. 

Vocation is now applied to all people, both married and non-married. God created each person with different gifts and talents oriented toward the life one chooses. Each person is the image of God. All people need to find out how they as individuals reflect God, and what is their vocation. 

Implicitly, the openness of Vatican II shares some similarities with Protestant churches. They do not recognize the Sacrament of Holy Orders and do not use the term vocation, but rather the term “call.” All ministers are “called” to serve the Lord. This openness invites more Catholic lay people to be involved in the ministries of the Church. 

Responding to God’s call, they bring their vocation to another level. They serve the Church well as altar servers, lectors, extra-ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, or ministers of hospitality. In the past, these ministries were reserved for candidates who were preparing to become priests. Today, especially at Mass, the terms ordained and non-ordained ministers are used more often.

Ordained vs. Non-ordained Ministers 

This idea leads to another challenge. What are the differences between an ordained minister and a non-ordained minister? Are these real differences, or are they only for the sake of the distribution of works? Can people perform priestly ministries without being ordained? 

The terms ordained and non-ordained minister have caused confusion for some laity. The title “ordained minister” has been used in different ways. One can read on the Internet an advertisement such as, “Becoming an ordained minister is the most important thing you can do to start your independent ministry or church. Ordination is your legal authority to do all Christian services, including performing wedding ceremonies, baptisms, funeral services and more. Receive ordination and become an ordained minister, ordained pastor, ordained chaplain, ordained apostle, ordained missionary, ordained preacher, ordained bishop. . .” or “You pick the ordination title that you wish,” a popular sales pitch. Of course, the requirements to be an ordained minister of one of these denominations are very simple. 

Though Thomas Aquinas in Summa contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica explained that the main effect of the sacrament is grace that perfects the soul and allows human beings to participate in the Divine Nature, the Catholic Church needs to explain more not only about the role but also about the nature of ordained and non-ordained ministers. 

However, the bigger challenge for priests comes from another dimension. It has been a dilemma for years. This longtime problem is the choice between ministry and interior life. What is the priority? 

Interior Life vs. Ministry 

Nobody doubts of the importance of the interior life of the priest. As minister of God’s Word to preach the Good News, as minister of the sacraments and the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit is working through him and with him. The sacramental graces unite the priest with Jesus. 

In preparing homilies, he examines his conscience daily. In administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation, he comes face to face with conversion with the Father of love and mercies. His interior life is fed with his priestly ministry. His priestly ministry reflects his interior life. 

But not all ministries explicitly build up the priest’s interior life. Even being a good preacher at Mass, an intelligent educator in teaching Scripture and theology, a diligent counselor in hearing confession and a loving server to the sick, does not mean his interior life is strong. Further, his duties are not only limited to the sacraments. He must deal with administration, finances and the structure of both the Church and society. This dimension can be a distraction. 

Renewal of the Priesthood — Go Back to Square One? 

Even though today, in some dioceses, priests are nearly free of administrative duties because there is a pastoral or business administrator, the dilemma between interior life and ministry still exists. What is the proper balance? Furthermore, dealing with the problems of child abuse, the shortage of priests and too much work, priests may not have enough time for their interior life and for building up their own spiritual life. Priests must find for themselves access into the interior life with God. 

On March 16-18, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to the Congregation for the Clergy, stated that priests must be “present, identifiable and recognizable — for their judgment of faith, their personal virtues and their attire — in the fields of culture and charity which have always been at the heart of the Church’s mission.” Then, in his letter to priests, he said: “In this context of a spirituality nourished by the practice of the evangelical counsels, I would like to invite all priests, during this year dedicated to them, to welcome the new springtime which the Spirit is now bringing about in the Church.” 

This story is well known: A man was seen looking for something in his front yard. His friends asked him what he was looking for. “The key to my room,” he answered. All of them looked for it for a long time, but they could not find it. Finally, one friend asked him “Where do you think you lost the key?” “I know where I lost it, in the kitchen.” “Why you are looking for it here?” He answered, “More light, and it is easier to see here. The kitchen is too dark.” To welcome the new springtime, should priests go back to square one? TP

Father Dao is administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Montclair, Calif., and former director of the Pastoral Care of the Migrants and Refugees Office at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.