Priests: “Resolve” to Love the Laity

The Church was also in need of change, but only to the extent that she needed to look again at how she could most effectively change the world. We have allowed a missionary council to be domesticated. The greatest failure of the post-Vatican II Church is the failure to call forth and to form a laity engaged in the world politically, economically, culturally and socially, on faith’s terms rather than on the world’s terms.

–Francis Cardinal George, The Difference God Makes, p.30.

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All Catholic educational and formational institutions bear part of the blame for the situation that Cardinal George so succinctly and honestly articulates above. Many Catholic universities, for example, wasted the last fifty years promoting their theology departments as circles of critical prophets who research and teach against church teachings. These same institutions then focused their attention on training intra-ecclesial lay ministers, with no real focus upon the main call of the laity as outlined by the Second Vatican Council:

The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. …They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. …Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer…. Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth. Thus every layman, in virtue of the very gifts bestowed upon him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church itself “according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal. (Lumen Gentium, 31, 33)

Further, according to the Council, the parishes, schools and universities were to be active in forming the laity not simply as helpers to priests in the parish but as true evangelizers of culture:

In regard to the apostolate for evangelizing and sanctifying men, the laity must be specially formed to engage in conversation with others, believers, or non-believers, in order to manifest Christ’s message to all men…. In regard to the Christian renewal of the temporal order… laymen should above all learn the principles and conclusions of the social doctrine so as to become capable of working for the development of this doctrine to the best of their ability and of rightly applying these same principles and conclusions to individual cases. (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 31)

Since the Bishops have limited authority in light of the ruling power of university boards of trustees (except for a few institutions that may be charged to them specifically), the best way to insure that the laity will be formed in the dignity of their vocation as evangelizers of culture is to direct seminary formation to this end. In this way, under the leadership of recently ordained priests,the parish can become a center for lay formation in their expressly secular character and mission. A key document on seminary formation opens the door to this reality:

It is particularly important to prepare future priests for cooperation with the laity…. Above all it is necessary that he be able to teach and support the laity in their vocation to be present in and to transform the world with the light of the Gospel, by recognizing this task of theirs and showing respect for it. (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 59)

Very specifically I would argue that priestly formation in spiritual direction, homiletics and in the social and moral doctrines be directed toward helping priests guide the laity in their call to evangelize culture. These courses of study should not simply be “generic” in their approach to content but ordered specifically toward the vocation of priests vis a vis their lifelong commitment to form the laity in holiness. The seminary professor is to assist seminarians to assist the laity in accomplishing what the new translation of the Roman Missal now commissions them to do: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

In order that this be accomplished the seminary formator must invite the men he is training to become fascinated with lay holiness. Priests give their lives in service of lay holiness and yet the secular mission of the laity, as transformers of culture, is not studied with great depth in most seminaries. The pastoral question is: How shall a priest invite the laity to make the Eucharist, the action of Christ’s self sacrifice, their guiding reality for living within culture? Unless priests love the lay life, study it, and promote its secular mission, the laity may not know how to take the Eucharist they have received beyond the Church doors on Sunday.

The experimentation of accommodating to the age, what was called “the pastoral approach,” has failed. After fifty years of accommodating to the age we only have about 30% of Catholics worshiping on Sunday. There are no other markers of “success” for pastoral initiatives then this: the laity, in huge numbers, worship the Father in and through Christ’s Paschal Mystery, and then out of this communion evangelize the culture in all its facets.

These two vocations, priest and lay, are never to be separated or made rivals in any way. Like any husband and wife, having one without the other simply makes the vocation incomprehensible. The bridegroom brings out and supports what the bride is meant to become and the bride brings out and supports what the groom is meant to become. Though the lay vocation and the priestly vocation are held in equal esteem at the level of the human dignity of each individual who receives these callings (Canon 208), a difference that must be celebrated and maintained between both vocations remains. Vocations are incommutable. The laity have an independence from the clergy in many areas of Church life by virtue of their baptism (Canons 204-231), but it is clear that the laity receive their identity from the sacraments, whose ordinary ministers are priests. (note 542, The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church)

These words cited by John Paul II make it clear that the priest is to initiate the laity into the Mysteries of Christ:

Spiritual formation…should be conducted in such a way that the students may learn to live in intimate and unceasing union with God the Father through his Son Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. Those who are to take on the likeness of Christ the priest by sacred ordination should form the habit of drawing close to him as friends in every detail of their lives. They should live his paschal mystery in such a way that they will know how to initiate into it the people committed to their charge. (PDV, 45)

An objective reality – specifically the sacramental life – is present in the ministry of the priest, the salvific presence of the Christ that is not encountered and received in any other form of spiritual regimen. This sacramental life, ministered by priests, founds all Christian reality, prayer, and service. The laity is initiated into these mysteries through the priesthood. This initiation occurs objectively when sacraments are validly celebrated by any priest, but the priest’s own love for the mystery and his ongoing conversion carry a charism, a grace, to the people who receive the sacraments. Analogically, a man can simply fulfill a debt to another, or he can give more than what is owed by sharing a personal presence with the payee, making the exchange human. Rather than encountering a simply minimalist just act, there is a difference in this kind of exchange, even though justice is served by both.

The spirituality of the priesthood beckons the man to come to the depths of the mystery he is: “How do I more fully embody the presence of Christ in His ministry – not only for my parishioners but for the sake of my own happiness?” Christ does not simply want His people to receive salvation and holiness but to receive it at the hands of a holy priest. Here it is clear that the priest goes deep so he can go broad. The priest longs to share the mysteries of Christ with His people: a people living a life marked by a secular character, a life of witnessing to culture the transforming power of being defined by the paschal mystery. This holy lay life is made available by Christ’s own words and actions through a sacramental priesthood.

The relationship between this priest who sacramentally mediates Christ and desires interior communion with Him and the laity’s mission to go and transform culture is necessarily linked by Christ in the Eucharist. For the adult lay person, the dismissal at the conclusion of the Eucharist is truly a sending by Christ to the fields of harvest found in the secular world. Upon their return to the Eucharist the following week the laity offer the fruit of their public lives in and for Christ as an oblation to the Father. Witnessing this fruit at the Liturgy is key to the celibate priest’s subjective motivation to keep welcoming the mystery of Christ at ever deepening mystical levels. As a spouse contemplates the spiritual and moral growth of his or her beloved since marriage, finding there a place to invest the meaning and purpose of nuptial self-giving, so the priest looks to the converted lives of the laity, and even deeper to the effects these lives have had upon the transformation of culture, to invest his life’s purpose. In contemplating such a transformation of the Bride of Christ the priest finds the meaning of his life’s self-offering.

For married clergy (Eastern Rite and others) these analogies can be relevant by sublating their own marriages into the marriage of Christ to the Church. In so doing the married priest, who at times may feel that he has the burden of two full time vocations can gain wisdom from the normative teaching on celibacy in the church, but also lend his voice of support to celibate priests in assisting them to see where a theology and spiritually of sacramental marriage helpfully informs the spiritual marriage of the priest and Christ’s church.

This communion between priestly vocation and lay vocation may not always be self evident. If such a rift is ever to be bridged, seminary formation must dedicate itself to facilitating the spiritual life of the diocesan priest in ways that will enable him to unleash within his congregation a love for lay life, a life that can only be sustained by an impassioned and intentional love for the Eucharistic mystery. After decades of listening to many voices in the Church flatten the distinction between priest and laity, the Church may be no closer to healing the separation bemoaned by the Council Fathers forty years ago. “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives” (Gaudium et Spes, 43).

The flattening of the distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane” was suppose to speed the arrival of a just world and Church. Christ’s mission was not to be served by hierarchical division but by the universal triumph of baptismal identity; the egalitarian approach to lay-clergy relations was supposed to open up many possibilities for ecclesial and social renewal. In the end, however, the Church only has a spiritual or religious mission (GS, 42). Emphasizing the politicized mission weakened this foundation. For the spiritual mission to go forward, the distinct yet mutually interpenetrating relationships of the priestly life and the lay mission to the secular world must be maintained not crushed. As John Paul II noted in Christifideles Laici:

The ordained ministries…express and realize a participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ that is different, not just in degree but in essence, from the participation given to all the lay faithful through Baptism and Confirmation. On the other hand, the ministerial priesthood… is ordered toward the priesthood of all the faithful. (22)

In this relationship the priestly vocation stands as a gift to the laity who feed on the mystery of Christ at the Eucharist for their “sustenance” (CL, 14). The priesthood, without which no Eucharist can be celebrated, is given to the Church by Christ so that His salvation and grace can continue in time and space. Lay persons offer their lives to Christ by way of the Eucharist and bring the fruit of their witness in secular society to the Eucharist so that it may be given to the Lord and He might continue to bless lay efforts to transform culture in His name. In this fruitfulness the laity is a gift to the priesthood, as a priest sees in the laity’s public witness, even to the point of sacrifice, the fruit of the Spirit that flows through his own sacramental ministry while simultaneously fulfilling the laity’s participation in the priesthood of all believers.

In some parts of the world there is a dearth of priests. This crisis is brought about by a deeper vocation crisis, a dearth of laity who truly embrace their call to transform culture for Christ. As the laity takes its call with utmost seriousness, a plethora of future priests will come from their ranks because the eyes of these men will open and the sacrifice of family life will make sense. In viewing the power of the laity to transform culture according to the virtues of Christ and the teachings of His apostles, many young men will contemplate this truth and seek ordination, concluding:

If the Eucharist can transform men and women into such brave, just, and self-forgetting citizens, then I can sacrifice my desire to be husband and father in order to husband and father the Church into an even deeper appropriation of what Christ means to do for them, with them, and through them.

Truly, deep calls to deep. (Ps. 42:8)


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