During this January academic term (“J-Term”) at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, I am teaching a course on the theology and spirituality of religious priesthood, a required course for all seminarians on an ordination track. One of the great gifts of teaching courses such as this one is that I am required to go back regularly, again and again, to the sources of the tradition including the great documents of the Second Vatican Council. While many people are familiar with the big constitutions like Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, few are so familiar with the lesser-known decrees such as Presbyterorum Ordinis (“Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests”).
The third chapter of the decree, titled “The Life of Priests,” opens with a reiteration of the central truth of all Christian ministry and discipleship—that everything is founded in our shared Baptism. “Like all other Christians they have received in the sacrament of Baptism the symbol and gift of such a calling and such grace that even in human weakness they can and must seek for perfection, according to the exhortation of Christ: ‘Be you therefore perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48)” (PO 12).
It is important to recognize that the church acknowledges human weakness from the outset, a truth that is commonsensical but far too often forgotten by a culture of clericalism. Nevertheless, the grace of God is what enables any ministry and sacramentality. This has been long affirmed by the ancient and medieval theologians who talk about the effects of ministerial priesthood working Ex Opere Operato. Furthermore, St. Francis of Assisi, who always had a particular reverence for ordained ministers despite the fact he was never one himself, often wrote about how our good works are always those of God’s grace and that we can only ever take credit for our weakness and sin.
Along these lines, I have always been struck by the exhortation to the church’s ministers to recall that their ministry only exists in communion with the “union of the whole body” of Christ, that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the imperfect instrument of God’s love, mercy, and grace, and that all priests should strive to keep this in mind each day.
“God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). Aware of his own weakness, the true minister of Christ works in humility trying to do what is pleasing to God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he is guided by him who desires the salvation of all men and women. He understands this desire of God and follows it in the ordinary circumstances of his everyday life. With humble disposition he waits upon all whom God has sent him to serve in the work assigned to him and in the multiple experiences of his life (PO 15).
The ministry of priests does not only take place in the ordinary circumstances of parish life or planned sacraments, but in the everyday encounters with other women and men—at the store, on an airplane, on the street. Sometimes this takes place when people seek you out because of an identifiable sign of your ministry—such as a roman collar or religious habit—but often it happens simply because, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, it is the Holy Spirit at work and God who sends such people into your life.
May we continually recall that it is God’s work that ministerial priests are called to do and that it occurs at times and places not always of our choosing. May the humility of being weak instruments of God’s grace allow us to combat the sin of clericalism, which misleads otherwise good people down the dangerous path of pride and entitlement.