There has been an increase in the number of ordinations to the priesthood in recent years, according to the annual report of “The Ordination Class Survey” by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). This is fantastic news for the Church in America! More priests means better management to hold up the infrastructure of the Catholic Church, right?
That’s if we were to reduce the priesthood to a sociological function.
Why are men becoming priests these days? I don’t think men are joining the priesthood to ensure a happy consensus at the parish festival or to balance power-sharing at the finance council meeting. While it is important and edifying for a parish priest to learn some of the basic principles of good parish management and have a good time entertaining parishioners in the dunk tank, a priest should always remember the grace of his ministry and life as a priest.
Consider this statistic from the CARA survey: almost half (48 percent) of this year’s ordinands were discouraged from entering the priesthood. A life of sacrifice doesn’t seem all that appealing in an age of consumerism, materialism, individualism, and other “isms.” The scandals involving the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests can make us cynical of the man in the collar. Yet, in the face of all these discouraging factors, God continues to call ordinary men to the holy priesthood, and ordinary men continue to accept this divine calling.
A common misconception of the priesthood is to see it as a function of an institution, like a CEO of a corporation. Although it takes on a social form, the Catholic priesthood is essentially not a social construct but a divine creation. It constitutes a visible sign of divine grace by which created persons are drawn into the eternal communion of the uncreated Persons of the blessed Trinity and into communion with other created persons. By the grace of sacred ordination, men are made by God to be living icons of Christ in the world. A CEO is promoted to his position by another man, but a priest receives his sacramental character by God.
The priesthood is a sacrament, not a function of the Church. It does not primarily consist of a list of duties and roles but an essential mission and life: being conformed to Christ, the Head of His Body the Church. The priesthood is a special following after Christ in which Christ Himself reaches out to His people with divine mercy. Christ does this through the ministry and life of the priest.
In his personal prayer and public ministry, the priest is therefore called to return to the Christological foundation of his ordination. The priest is first a minister of Jesus Christ. This means a life of sacrifice and forgiving sins in the name of Christ. The priest’s life and ministry should take on a Paschal character. He is entrusted with the sacred task of offering spiritual sacrifices in union with the sacrifice of Christ. The Eucharist should be the source and summit of the ministry and life of priests just as it is for the Church. As Christ’s arms were outstretched on the Cross for the world, so too should the priest be an icon of this event in Christ’s life in the daily witness of his own life.
This is a high and potentially daunting calling for men, so why are so many men entering the priesthood these days? The answer is simple: grace. Only God can draw a man to seek to be conformed to the heart of Christ and to seek union with Him. Only God can give the priest the power to make spiritual sacrifices for a world so daunted by materialism and individualism.
The priesthood is a divine gift of grace! Thank God for priests!
Image: Dominican Priesthood Ordination 2015