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Priestly identity and the priestly way of life


Prof. Stuart C. Bate OMI, Johannesburg


Rooted in the mystery of the Trinity


In Pastores Dabo Vobis John Paul II teaches that "‘The priest's identity,’ as the synod fathers wrote, ‘like every Christian identity, has its source in the Blessed Trinity,’ which is revealed and is communicated to people in Christ, establishing, in him and through the Spirit, the Church as ‘the seed and the beginning of the kingdom." (PDV 12). Priestly identity, then, must be understood within the reality of God himself. In the Christian faith, God does not remain within the confines of the afterlife or in the heavens above but dwells amongst us here in this world. This is the good news revealed in Jesus Christ. It is communicated to us both by who Jesus is, the word made flesh (Jn1:14), and by what he says and does. What he says is: "The kingdom of God is at hand" (Mk 1:14). And his word is effective when he says: "my son your sins are forgiven" (Mk 2:5) and "rise, take up your bed and walk" (Mk 2:9). The Godliness that Jesus brings into the world is experienced in the confluence of being and doing. Priestly identity and the priestly way of life are also rooted in this confluence.


Rooted in the identity of the Church

The identity and way of life of the priest is also fundamentally linked to the identity and life of the Church as "universal sacrament of salvation" (LG 48). The Church continues the mission of Christ, sent to save the world because of the deep love the Father has for us. (Jn 3:16, AG2). This mission now continues under the power of the Holy Spirit who is its principal agent (RM 21). For this reason, the priest as a minister in the Church is a man of the Spirit. In the sacrament of Holy Orders he receives a "spiritual gift" to prepare him "not for a sort of limited and narrow mission but for the widest possible and universal mission of salvation ‘even to the ends of the earth’" (PO 10). In this way the priest acquires a special identity not for himself but for his mission to "help the People of God to exercise faithfully and fully the common priesthood which it has received’ (PDV 17).


Rooted in Holiness

Priestly life is a participation in God’s holiness. All who share the common priesthood of the People of God share in holiness. But a priest receives a special call in ordination "which configures him to Christ the head and shepherd of the Church" (PDV 20). This ‘configuration’ allows the priest to think and act in a way that is proper to Christ. For the special mission of the ministerial priesthood is a participation in the office of "Christ the Teacher, Priest and King" (PO1) within the community of the faithful. It is a "summed up in his pastoral charity" (PDV 21). Priests are called to promote the holiness of each and every member so that the each local community may be a sign and means of salvation within its own context, letting its own holiness penetrate into a world in need of faith, hope and love.


Personal commitment to holiness is then central to priestly identity and lifestyle. Through it the priest becomes as true sign of Emmanuel, God amongst us. This sign is given more clarity in the way a priest exercises his ministry. As minister of the sacraments which render Jesus present amongst us he is called to manifest the risen lord in his own lifestyle. As prophet and teacher of God’s word he is called to live by God’s word in his own life. And as shepherd of the community he is called to be the servant of all.


Finally one should not downplay the importance of witnessing to this commitment within our increasingly secular society. Today people are in more need of signs of the sacral as counter witness to conventional wisdom. Whilst this witness is primarily given in words and deeds it can also be communicated in appearance. This is why John Paul II has focussed in particular on the importance of clerical garb which "gives evidence within the ecclesiastical community of the public witness which each priest is held to give of his own identity and special belonging to God" (Poletti).


AG Ad Gentes Divinitus. Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity. Vatican II.


      CL Christifideles Laici. Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the vocation and the mission of the lay faithful in the church and in the world. John Paul II March 25 1992.


      LG Lumen Gentium. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Vatican II.


      PDV Pastores Dabo Vobis. Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation to the bishops, clergy and faithful on the formation of priests in the circumstances of the present day. John Paul II December 30 1988.


      PO Presbyterorum Ordinis Decree on the ministry and life of priests, Vatican II December 7, 1965

      Poletti Letter of Pope John Paul II to Cardinal Ugo Poletti, Papal Vicar for Rome, September 8, 1982




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved