In the fall of 2013, the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops indicated that the theme for the Ongoing Formation of Clergy for 2014 would center on the Sacrament of Reconciliation and delineated its emphasis into three distinct areas: 1) the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, 2) the priest as penitent, and 3) the seal of sacramental confession.
Of these three distinct areas, priests have noted that the second, namely, the priest as penitent, receives the least attention theologically, liturgically and pastorally in terms of formal opportunities for formation.
Any of a number of pertinent issues could be explored here, including the need for reconciliation as an element of authentic sacramental and ontological identification of the priest as alter Christus, a distinct yet faithful liturgical rite for celebrations unique to ordained clergy, or even the availability of opportunities to celebrate reconciliation both regularly and in tandem with sacred moments of the liturgical year that lend themselves to repentance and conversion.
Unfortunately, one aspect virtually ignored by formal efforts to focus upon the distinctive character of priest as penitent is the formation of conscience. Like many of the baptized, priests may find it difficult to articulate those areas of life and ministry where they have fallen short in the fundamental commitment that identify and animate their relationships with God, neighbor, self and world.
Such a conundrum may be the result of the inability to focus upon themes that are distinctly, yet not exclusively linked to priestly life and ministry. While all of the faithful struggle with the reality of sin, the unique context of ordained ministry provides its own particular challenges that paradoxically provide both experiences of grace and encounters with personal brokenness.
Awareness of sources of temptation and weakness is clearly half of the challenge for the priest as penitent, both in terms of naming one’s personal and ministerial shortcoming within the context of the sacrament and firm resolve to avoid occasions of refashioning his character in his own likeness rather than that of the Master.
Accordingly, an articulation of domains for “sinful” tendencies and corresponding particular expressions of vice will prove useful in assisting a priest making preparation for an individual celebration which restores him to right relationships that form his life and ultimately his generous expression of his identity and office. Here, five general categories are proposed, all falling under the general heading of virtue: faith, hope, love, authenticity and fraternity. A brief overview of each of these virtues and corresponding examples of “missing the mark” by way of sin follows.
While faith is clearly “the theological virtue by which we believe in God and all that He has said and revealed to us. . .” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1814), it takes on an even deeper dimension vis-à-vis the sacral character and activity of the priest. For him faith means conversion from personal preference and desire to an unreserved obedience to Christ, for whom the Church is the sacrament (See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Homily at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary for the Third Sunday of the Year, Jan. 21, 1990” in Ratzinger, et alia., The Catholic Priest as Moral Teacher and Guide: A Symposium, Ignatius Press, 1990), 150-152).
Anything that could be suggestive of envisioning the Church as the priest’s own image then becomes potential matter for Reconciliation. Possible examples and actions that may suggest such a state might include self-aggrandizement, disobedience of episcopal or liturgical directives, extremist personal agendas proposed as truth and imposed upon the People of God and slothful disregard for the demanding agenda of the Kingdom due to satisfaction of narcissistic desires. This portion of the examination is critical for evaluation of the priest’s faithfulness and requires a renunciation of pride.
Priests share in the prophetic identity of Christ through participation in the ministry of the bishop of the diocese. As prophets, priests are called to navigate the contours of our present unfolding narrative in order to discover meaning and hope in all of the life contexts in which they find themselves and those whom they serve by trusting in the promises of Christ and the grace and action of the Holy Spirit (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1817).
As regards the lay faithful, priests are called to be icons of hope, as well as the response to it. Icons, artistically, liturgically and ethically, are symbols of divine commitment to human persons; they point beyond themselves, and believers in turn are able to recognize and respond to the promise they enshrine (See Linette Martin, Sacred Doorways: A Beginner’s Guide to Icons, Paraclete Press, 2003, 2. Martin discuses primarily the aesthetics of the painted icon; however, this is easily applied to virtuous dispositions as well). Therefore, as icons of hope, priests are to incarnate God’s discernable presence at both significant milestones on one’s faith journey, and during the unexpected moments of trial and triumph.
Priests must also orient their ministry to the virtue of hope as it regards their own life and work in the world. For them, hope is a genuine optimism that sustains, invigorates and inspires them as they embrace the living Christ whom they image. Thus, for the priest, sins against hope that are to be brought to the sacrament go well beyond the traditional categories of despair and presumption.
For the ordained, the lack of integrity of presence to the Pilgrim People of God, both in terms of quality and availability must be considered sacramental matter. Specifically, disregard for the sacred importance of one’s duties, both sacramental and pastoral, not only affects the faithful adversely, but also erodes the foundation of hope confirmed in priestly ordination. Moreover, negativity and cynicism blur the identity of priest as prophet almost beyond recognition and consequently require formal reconciliation (See Msgr. Dennis Murphy, A View from the Trenches: The Ups and Downs of Today’s Parish Priest, Paulist Press, 2009. p. 65).
Msgr. Dennis Murphy offers the perfect point of departure for the third pillar of priestly conscience formation by way of the following keen observation: “Ultimately, we must be men of many loves. We must love God, love the people we serve, love our friends, love our brothers in the priesthood, and love ourselves. . . .” The foundational requirement of these loves for priests, when examining their consciences, may be summarized as follows.
Love of God requires faithfulness to formal prayer promises as well as spontaneous expressions of praise and thanksgiving coupled with a firm desire and effort to know the Beloved through formal study and contemplation. Love of those whom we serve, is expressed in our ready and constant availability to them, our promotion of their dignity, and our solidarity with them through compassion that is neither metered in expression nor colored by personal preference. Love of friends requires a healthy understanding of intimacy that impacts all of the priest’s relationships. Love of brother priests involves explorations in fraternity that exceed bonds of blood and have the building up of the Kingdom through affirmation of one another as its ultimate purpose and goal. Finally, love of self requires a commitment to ongoing personal stewardship in the areas of human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral formation.
To the degree that these essential elements of priestly love are not met, the priest must avail himself of sacramental reconciliation and healing.
The traditional theology of the priest as alter Christus, i.e., another Christ, is a crucial component of priestly conscience formation when viewed in the appropriate interpretive key. Sulpician Father Ronald Witherup’s simple yet insightful observation is helpful here: “it [ministerial priesthood] is rightly intended to be a way of being and not merely a way of doing” (Ronald Witherup, “The Biblical Foundations of Priesthood: The Contribution of Hebrews” in Ronald D. Witherup, Lawrence B. Terrien, et alia., Ministerial Priesthood in the Third Millennium: Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests, Liturgical Press, 2009. p. 18). Thus, sacramental functionalism is not the means of priestly identification, but only one measure of priestly integrity and authenticity.
This does not imply, however, that genuine virtuous priestly identity, evaluated through the priest’s examination of conscience is not related to his cultic role. Therefore, the priest must call himself to task if he fails to be inclusive, reconciling, self-sacrificing, chaste and a source of healing, all of which are personal virtues that manifest themselves in his presiding over sacramental celebrations.
The priest must evaluate his personal life to the degree that it effectively mirrors his public role. In addition, being a public leader of prayer demands steadfast allegiance to his commitment to the daily prayer of the Church embodied in the Divine Office. In terms of his prophetic and kingly role, he must care for the faithful through his embrace of the scent of the sheep leading them through the gate of truth who is Jesus the Christ (See Pope Francis, Homily: Chrism Mass, March 28, 2013).
An assessment of authentic priestly fraternity rounds out an appropriate and honest examination of conscience on the part of the priest penitent. The aforementioned discussion of love of brother priests holds hard and fast in this arena; yet fraternity exceeds mutual affirmation borne out of love. Related to the notion of affirmation, genuine fraternity identifies any speech of behavior that is derogatory toward one’s brother priests, clearly beyond the realm of fraternal correction, as matter for the celebration of Reconciliation.
In addition, extended and inappropriate solitude from the presbyterate at the very least hinges upon sin due to the mutuality inherent in the common priestly vocation. Finally, clericalism and oppressive patriarchal pyramidal models may arise from failure to attend to the opportunities and challenges of priestly fraternity.
Laundry lists of sins and basic appeals to the commandments prove to be less than comprehensive as priests stand before God in need of reconciliation. Appeals to the aforementioned categories of virtue in assessing one’s foundational relationships as priest both disposes the priest to the grace of the sacrament and correspondingly may improve the genuineness of the priest’s own reconciling ministry.
At the very least, faith, hope, love, authenticity and fraternity serve as benchmarks of spirituality that dispose the priest to enter ever more deeply into the divine life as he attempts to thrive in the role of servant leader among and not apart from the People of God in need of mercy.
FATHER SLOVIKOVSKI, a priest of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., is the director of Ongoing Formation of the Clergy, and faculty member in the theology and religious studies department at St. Francis University, Loretto, Pa.