Forming Powerful Presbyteral Unity

“No priest ... can on his own accomplish his mission in a satisfactory way. He can do so only by joining forces with other priests under the direction of the Church authorities. ... Priests by virtue of their ordination to the priesthood are united among themselves in an intimate sacramental brotherhood. ... Even though priests are assigned to different duties, nevertheless they carry on one priestly ministry for men.”

— Presbyterorum Ordinis, Nos. 7-8

To paraphrase the recent Farmers Insurance commercial on TV, “I’ve learned a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.” In fact, I will go out a limb and say that I have probably had more experience in speaking to bishops, priests, deacons and seminarians about presbyteral unity than any other priest in the country.

In the last 13 years, I have led well over 100 presbyteral unity convocations, retreats and days of recollections in dioceses — and three abbeys — in nine countries. It could have been more.

With a grant from the Lilly Endowment, I founded the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates at St. Meinrad Seminary in 2004 that promotes presbyteral theology, the integration of foreign-born priests, priestly fraternity and pastoral skill development. During those years, I have published several books for bishops, priests and seminarians on presbyteral theology, spiritual leadership and the transition out of the seminary and into ministry.

In my retirement, I still lead presbyteral convocations and retreats in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. I recently founded a new organization for retired bishops, priests and professional laypersons, called Catholic Second Wind Guild, who want to offer their part-time services to the Church in two poor Caribbean dioceses.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., distributes Communion to seminarians during Mass at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, N.Y. CNS photo

An Overview of Presbyteral Theology

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, issued in 2001, “The corporate sense of priestly identity and mission, although not fully developed even in official documents, is clearly emerging as an important direction for the future.”

The first thing I realized when I got into teaching presbyteral theology in the seminary and doing remedial training for presbyterates on this subject is how little there was from the days of the early Church up to the time of Pope St. John Paul II, to whom I give the most credit for the revival of presbyteral theology that began seminally at the Second Vatican Council.

The following quotes, along with others sprinkled throughout this article, contain the basic theology:

• “[Priests] make the bishop present in a certain sense in the individual local congregations, and take upon themselves, as far as they are able, his duties and the burden of his care, and discharge them with a daily interest.” — Lumen Gentium, No. 28

Father Phillip Erickson talks to priests at the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates’ Associate Pastors program at St. Meinrad Archabbey. Photo courtesy of St. Meinrad Archabbey

• “All priests especially are to manifest an apostolic zeal in fostering vocations and are to attract the interest of youths to the priesthood by their own life lived in a humble and industrious manner and in a happy spirit as well as by mutual priestly charity and fraternal sharing of labor.” — Optatam Totius, No. 2

• “All diocesan priests should be united among themselves and so should share a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of the whole diocese. ... Religious priests ... belong to the clergy of the diocese inasmuch as they share in the care of souls and in carrying out works of the apostolate under the authority of the prelates.” — Christus Dominus, Nos. 28, 34

• “The priest cannot act by himself; he acts within the presbyterate becoming a brother of all who constitute it. ... [Priests] will therefore make every effort to avoid living his own priesthood in an isolated and subjectivistic way, and must try to enhance fraternal communion. ...” — Directory of the Life and Ministry of Priests, Congregation of the Clergy, Nos. 25, 27

• “The ordained ministry has a radical ‘communitarian form’ and can only be carried out as ‘a collective work.’” — Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 17

A Renewed Emphasis on Presbyteral Unity

In the priest convocations, retreats and study days that I have conducted, I always ask this question of priests: How many of you can remember one hour of training in the theology of a presbyterate? Of several thousand, probably less than a dozen priests responded positively, and most of those had attended my seminary class in the last few years.

Thanks to the Second Vatican Council — and especially to St. John Paul II — the theology of a presbyterate, often referred to as “an intimate sacramental brotherhood,” working as a team under a bishop, is once again a priority in the Church. This ancient theology was strong in the early days of the Faith, but its emphasis faded over the past several centuries. Recently, however, more importance has been place on the need for priests to come together and share in the brotherhood of our vocation.

From the New Testament and early Christian writings, we see that the ancient Church did not think in terms of solitary priests but of a presbyterium. It was a college of priests who surrounded the bishop to help him carry out his ministry.

The following are quotations regarding presbyteral unity and its importance in the formation process of priests:

• “To pursue the ongoing formation not simply of (individual) priests, but of a presbyterate as a whole, brings us to new territory. ... The corporate sense of priestly identity and mission, although not fully developed even in official documents, is clearly emerging as an important direction for the future.” — The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, USCCB

• “The formation of the presbyterate in its unity is the responsibility of all its members.” — The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

• “Through common life in the seminary and through relationships of friendship and of association cultivated with others, [seminary students] are to be prepared for fraternal union with the diocesan presbyterium whose partners they will be in the service of the Church.” — Code of Canon Law, No. 245.2

• “A bishop has many responsibilities, and many things claim his attention. Presbyteral unity may not seem to be as pressing, for example, as dealing with individual priests who are problematic, with the distribution and assignment of clergy, or with the recruitment of new candidates. Working for presbyteral unity can slip to a lower end of a list of priorities. In fact, its neglect favors divisions and, ultimately, a number of attendant problems in the diocese.” — The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, USCCB

Priests participating in the World Priest Program at St. Meinrad Archabbey celebrate Mass. Photo courtesy St. Meinrad Archabbey

What Priestly Fraternity Is and Isn’t About

When priests hear that I am coming to talk about priestly fraternity, they tend to assume at least three things:

1. They tend to assume that I am going to propose that priests dedicate themselves to becoming some sort of a “good old boys” club or a “turned-in-on-themselves” grinning support group where everybody likes everybody else.

2. They tend to assume that I am going to propose some adapted version of communal living, similar to that prized by traditional religious communities.

3. They tend to assume that I am going to propose that priestly fraternity is mainly about priests reaching a new level of personal happiness. Nothing could be further from the truth in all three cases.

First, our fraternity is directed outward, not inward. Our brotherhood is “for service.” Priestly fraternity is more about delivering a more unified and coherent ministry to the people of God. Our promise of obedience, which has an apostolic and communal dimension, also has a pastoral dimension. In other words, all three dimensions direct our focus toward the needs of the flock.

Like our promise of celibacy, which frees us up for total service, our promise of obedience forms us into a “lean, mean ministry machine.”

Pope Francis on Priestly Fraternity
"[Another] thing I should like to share with you is the beauty of fraternity: of being priests together, of following the Lord not alone, not one by one, but together, and also in the great variety of gifts and personalities. Indeed, this is precisely what enriches the presbyterate, this variety of background, of age, of talents.... And all lived in communion, in fraternity.

Second, as diocesan priests we are more like the apostles than a religious community. We come together periodically to be strengthened for going out. We are called from the people, to live with the people, in order to empower the people. Our charism is not fundamentally about living together as much as it is about working together.

Third, a priest’s personal happiness is not the primary goal of priestly fraternity; it is only a byproduct. True happiness is never sought directly. Focusing on quality shared ministry will bring the happiness that individual priests need. It is always the result of a life well lived. Priests do not become happy by seeking happiness as a goal, but by dedicating themselves to the goal of an effective shared ministry that results in the People of God exercising fully the common priesthood it has received. A priest’s personal happiness is the result of faithful effective ministry.

Fruits of Intentional Priestly Fraternity

According to The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests: “The bishop is both a sign and instrument of the unity for his presbyterate. He holds the mission of the local church and its presbyterate before the priests and redirects the presbyterate to its singular purpose.”

The smartest, most effective way for priests to work, especially in light of today’s numbers, is to work as a team. We are used to seeing the bishop as a sign of unity, but what we need to see is the bishop as an instrument of unity, directing the presbyterate to its singular purpose. Presbyteral unity fundamentally is about delivering high-quality, unified and coherent ministry, even during a priest shortage.

Priests need this effective leadership. “A genuine leader,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “doesn’t reflect consensus, he molds a consensus.” Priests need bishops who are trained and skilled in molding a consensus — a way forward — with his priests.

A true leader knows how to unleash the power of the team and direct individual efforts toward team goals. He knows how to inspire and motivate the members of his presbyterate. Knowing how to preserve and unleash the human resources of a shrinking presbyterate, he will be more able to address a growing list of pressing problems.

A Parable of Unity for Our People

Priestly fraternity can be a living parable of unity in a fractured world and polarized Church. When the People of God look at their presbyterates, they should see a school of communion, where a spirituality of communion is obviously and clearly practiced in a way that can inspire others to do the same.

Pope St. John Paul II, in his millennial document Novo Millennio Ineunte, said, “To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings” (No. 43).

He called for a “spirituality of communion,” which means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters as “those who are part of me. ... A spirituality of communion implies an ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a ‘gift for me.’ A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to ‘make room’ for our brothers and sisters, bearing ‘each other’s burdens’ and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, No. 43).

A few more quotes on the fruits of presbyteral unity:

• “The examination of divisions in presbyterates leads to a practical conclusion about the necessity of deliberately linking priests across different categories. It is important to link priests across generational lines, theological persuasions, ethnicity and differences in places of origin. It will not happen spontaneously. It needs explicit commitment on the part of the priests and some creative and deliberate mechanisms of implementation.” — The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, USCCB

• One “aspect of the priest’s obedience demands a marked spirit of asceticism, both in the sense of a tendency not to become too bound up in one’s own preferences or points of view and in the sense of giving brother priests the opportunity to make good use of their talents and abilities, setting aside all forms of jealousy, envy and rivalry.” — Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 28

• “Far from being closed in on itself, a truly unified presbyterate dynamically redirects itself outward in pastoral charity. The formation of a presbyterate in its unity and fraternity aims, ultimately, to promote a more intense pastoral charity … and makes it a more transparent sacramental sign … of God’s plan of unity for the Church and for all humanity.” — The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, USCCB

Vocation Promotion and Retention

The best program to promote vocations today, I believe, would be one that is directed at building intentional presbyterates.

Young men today will not be attracted to a loose association of “Lone Rangers,” but rather to the religiously saturated environment of a happy and effective presbyterate with a clear identity and mission. As the Second Vatican Council said so many years ago, “All priests especially are to manifest an apostolic zeal in fostering vocations and are to attract the interest of youths to the priesthood by their own life lived in a humble and industrious manner and in a happy spirit as well as by mutual priestly charity and fraternal sharing of labor” (Optatam Totius, No. 2).

If this is true, when we pray for more vocations to the priesthood, we ought to move away from asking God to change his behavior and toward asking God to help us change our behaviors — that we might be more humble and energetic in our individual ministry and see it as our share in a collaborative ministry, especially with our bishop and fellow priests.

Dean R. Hoge’s 2001 study of newly ordained priests, “The First Five Years of Priesthood,” which helped St. Meinrad’s Institute for Priests and Presbyterates secure nearly $2 million in funding to address the needs of priests in their first five years, said that 10-15 percent of new priests leave because of loneliness and feelings of being unappreciated. In light of those facts, building priestly fraternity may be the best way not only to promote vocations but also to retain them.

Keeps Us Focused on the Big Picture

In The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, the U.S. bishops said that divisions in presbyterates lead to diminished effectiveness, undermining the resources needed to address pressing problems. Divisions also “constitute an anti-sign for the community of the faith ... discourage those who might feel called to the priesthood ... and shift the ministerial focus of priests from a wide-ranging, diocesan perspective to a narrow, localized emphasis on one’s own parish with a resultant parochialism or congregationalism.”

One of the saddest but most useful comments I have heard in my work in teaching presbyteral theology was one from a priest who was overwhelmed by the complexity of living his priesthood in today’s contentious environment of a typical diocese. When I asked him whether he was going to a particular meeting, he responded: “I don’t go to those meetings any more. I’m in ‘private practice.’” He wanted to be left alone in his own parish. Dropping out, becoming invisible, had become for him a coping mechanism. I know that his feelings are more universal than we may want to believe.

Likewise, when I was beginning to develop a retirement program for the huge numbers of priests retiring in the United States, I assumed that a majority would be open to imaginative new opportunities for ministry that would involve doing something they always had wanted to do but never got the opportunity. I was shocked that was not universally true.

The Church cannot afford infighting, isolation and demoralization among its priests. We need all hands on deck. If we need all hands on deck, we need to start seeing our diversity as a blessing. We must firmly and consistently reject the approach to presbyterates where we feel free to demonize and attribute the worst possible motives to those with whom we disagree. If every snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty, we must individually reverse the process and begin to practice the spiritual discipline of blessing each other by intentionally looking for goodness to affirm in each other.


Ultimately, the most important dividend to come from priestly fraternity is the unleashing of a powerful, coherent spiritual leadership that can only come from a truly unified presbyterate with its bishop. What is needed for this is not a new program, but a new mindset. I believe at the root of things is a need for a radical conversion of mind and heart by priests and bishops toward one another for the good of the Church they serve. 

FATHER J. RONALD KNOTT, a retired priest of Louisville, Kentucky, gives presbyteral unity retreats while developing his missionary Catholic Second Wind Guild for retired priests, bishops and lay professionals.

Additional Reading
Works regarding the formation of the presbyterate are used throughout this In Focus. Here is a list of the documents cited and shortened links where you can read them in full online.