As part of the vocation leaflet project, I was asked to write about the meaning of the Catholic priesthood in 1100 words. When you have so little space, it really forces you to think, and work out what seems most important!
This is what I came up with:
The Catholic priesthood is an extraordinary vocation. Every Christian is called to bring the love of Christ to others. The ministerial priest, through the sacrament of ordination, is called to show that love in a special way.
His vocation is to preach the Gospel and teach the Catholic faith; to lead God’s people in love, as a shepherd, as a spiritual father; and to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, ‘for the glory of God and the sanctification of Christ’s people’ (Rite of Ordination). His whole being is transformed, so that he can be an icon of Christ for others, filled with the Holy Spirit, and a minister of grace.
Catholic priests are ordinary men who never lose their humanity. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They have different backgrounds and personalities, different strengths and weaknesses. Yet they have all been called like the first disciples: ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ (Mt 4).
This is not just an ‘external’ call to do something for Jesus, but an invitation to draw closer to him and share his life more intimately; just as the Apostles, before they were sent out to preach and heal, spent time with the Lord in friendship.
Many priests belong to religious congregations. As monks, friars or missionaries they take the three evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Their ministry is defined by the particular work of the congregation.
The diocesan priest, however, commits his life to serving the Church in his local diocese. It’s a ‘geographical’ commitment to work with his bishop and serve the people of this local area, usually where he has grown up or come to work or study. He is a ‘secular’ priest, which means he lives ‘in the world’ rather than in a monastery, sharing closely in the lives and experiences of others.
Some of the great priests of recent centuries have been diocesan priests: for example, St Francis de Sales, St John Vianney, Blessed John Paul II.
In practice, most diocesan priests live and work in parishes. This is their ‘default’ ministry, where their heart lies. They work in collaboration with their brother priests, with laypeople, and consecrated men and women; caring for the parish together, supporting each other.
Parish ministry is incredibly varied. In a single day a priest might visit children in the school, bring Holy Communion to the sick, support a bereaved family, help a couple prepare for their wedding, hear someone’s confession, prepare sandwiches for the homeless, and lead a sacramental programme in the evening. And so much of priesthood is simply being with others – sitting, listening, talking, praying.
The heart of each day is the celebration of Mass, when all these concerns are offered to the Father in the Holy Sacrifice, and the priest leads his people in worship, repentance, thanksgiving and intercession.
Some diocesan priests work full-time in more specialised ministries, for example, as chaplains in prisons, hospitals, universities or the armed forces. Some even work abroad as missionaries – a reminder that every priest is called to evangelise.
All diocesan priests make three promises. They promise obedience to their bishop, to take up whatever ministry he asks. This helps them to be open to the pastoral needs within the diocese, and it stops them getting attached to their personal preferences. It keeps them humble, open and generous-hearted in the service of the Lord.
They promise consecrated celibacy – to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives. This allows a priest to give himself to Christ with an undivided heart, and to love others with an inner freedom and an extra generosity. Even though many Eastern Catholic Churches have a different practice, for Catholics in the Latin (Western) Church celibacy is central to the vision of priesthood as a life of total self-giving.
Finally, they promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours faithfully each day. By praying this ‘Prayer of the Church’ at the appointed times, they sanctify every moment of each day. They centre their lives on prayer, praying for the Church and for the whole world.
With these three promises the diocesan priest is rooted in Christ. He is free to follow the Lord, wherever he is sent; free to give his life in love and service. His priestly heart, like the heart of the Good Shepherd, is completely dedicated to God’s people.
The priesthood brings incredible joys, especially in seeing God’s grace transform people’s lives, and in the special bonds that are formed with laypeople and brother priests.
There are also real difficulties and challenges. These can be in the spiritual life, in ministry, or in the ordinary human struggles that afflict everyone at different moments: tiredness, loneliness, stress, failure, sin. Like every Christian, the priest tries to live through his difficulties with faith and hope, staying close to the Lord, trusting in him.
How do you know if God is calling you to be a diocesan priest? First, the basics: only baptised men can become Catholic priests. This is not a form of prejudice or sexism, it is the Church being faithful to Christ and to the Christian Tradition, where only men are appointed to stand ‘in the person of Christ the Head’ as Catholic priests. Women with a genuine call to ministry and service in the Church will find that fulfilled in other ways instead.
Second, you need to have an open heart as you discern your vocation. Any Catholic man who is single and unsure about his future should be able to say, ‘Lord, what is your will for my life? What are you calling me to do?’ What matters is to be open to God’s will, and to pray for his help and guidance.
Third, there are some common signs of a priestly vocation. These include: a simple desire to be a priest or to do the things that priests do (celebrate Mass, preach, pray with people, serve others, etc.); an admiration for priests you know; a sense of being pulled or pushed into the priesthood; suggestions from other people that you might make a good priest; and a desire to pray more and to take your faith more seriously. A feeling of unworthiness can be a sign of humility before such an awe-inspiring vocation; and even a desire to marry, sometimes, can point to a fatherly heart that may be fulfilled in the celibate priesthood – if these other signs are there too.
Finally, you need to talk to someone. There is only so much thinking and praying you can do on your own. This might be a trusted friend or relation, or a priest you know, and ultimately the Vocations Director in your Diocese. Don’t be afraid. The Lord will guide you.
[You can buy bulk copies of this leaflet here at the CTS website.]