The Priest After Vatican II

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), through the passage of centuries, the priestly figure (iereus–sacerdos = bishop & presbyter) has gone through an evolution of shapes and images. The metamorphosis seen through one image and the other has been the fruit of adapting to that specific time’s society, culture, and theological reflection. But what should be said about our own time, in light of the Council’s documents? What are the more agreeable features to an office which has in itself so many and parallel facets to make bishops and presbyters unique?

This brief essay, in line with the relevant teaching of Vatican II, will describe some characteristics that will simplify our understanding of the role of the priest (bishop & presbyter) in the contemporary and postmodern world. While this reflection will not be heavy on theological virtues such as faith, hope and charity or the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, it will be a more user-friendly “lay” approach to make the priestly/sacerdotal role more understandable at a time when world events necessitate a true seriousness of resolutions and actions.

In prioritizing values a priest must hold, the quality of integrity/uprightness begins the list. It is necessary that priests are upright and honest men. People who meet them should easily be able to see in them an abiding obedience to civil laws. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes teaches: “It is not wise to ask, ‘Why is everything worse than it used to be?’ ” (Eccl 7:10).

A second important characteristic a priest needs is loyalty/reliability. Men need to be open to tell the truth and never lie for any reason whatsoever. This refers to men who have never been caught “red-handed,” that is, their life is truly transparent with nothing to hide and no hidden agenda.

A third characteristic of post-Vatican II priests will be patience/forbearance, an ancient virtue, but ever necessary today. A saintly Eastern bishop used to say: a priest has three virtues: first, patience; second, more patience, and third, still patience — especially with those who invite us to be patient.

A fourth characteristic of a priest is compassion/mercy. The postmodern priests ought to be men of tender mercy and infinite compassion. The many suffering of this world, the severe pains and lost hopes, beg that the Church exercise her whole ministry as a loving and caring mother — a mother expert in giving hope to all those “who live in the dark shadow of death” (Lk 1:79).

Some additional qualities of a priest include good education, gentleness of feature, paternal firmness, love for beauty and its forms. The priest should never be too rigid and secure in his own answers lest anyone think of him as like talking to a “robot.” The post-Vatican II priest should be a humble man who conquers hardships through sweetness, who knows how to be discreet, how to laugh at himself and his own frailty; a man who is capable of looking at himself and to recognize his own errors without any self-justification. In a word — a priest is a true man.

All of this cannot be possible without having at the center the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word of the Father made visible by the Holy Spirit, from whom every generous giving and every perfect gift came down and continues to come down on earth, now and forever.

FATHER GALLARO, a priest of the Eparchy of Newton, Mass., is professor of Ecumenical Theology and Canon Law at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Pittsburgh, Pa.