The Promises of the Priesthood

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

At the end of June, the Diocese of Providence will have the great joy of ordaining two outstanding young men as priests of the Lord Jesus.

The welcoming of our new priests provides an occasion for us to reflect upon the life they’ll lead and the commitments they’ll make. And while it’s true that diocesan priests don’t profess solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as members of religious communities, they do make public promises of celibacy and obedience and they’re expected to embrace a lifestyle of simplicity and detachment consistent with the imitation of Christ.

Let’s start with celibacy.

When a man is ordained a deacon on the road to the priesthood, he commits himself to a life of celibacy and chastity. The Rite of Ordination instructs the ordinand: “Compelled by the sincere love of Christ the Lord, and embracing this state with total dedication, you will cling to Christ more easily with an undivided heart. You will free yourself more completely for the service of God and man.”

Without a doubt, celibacy is a sacrificial and life-changing commitment. But it’s a promise freely made after years of discernment and lots of discussion and prayer. The spiritual motivation of celibacy is critical; it’s best seen not as a denial of something negative, but rather, an embrace of something positive: an intense relationship with Jesus Christ and through Him, with our Heavenly Father.

Nor should celibacy lead to a life of selfishness, isolation or loneliness. To be fully human, priests need friends – young and old, male and female, clerical and lay. And while celibacy appropriately limits the nature of relationships, priestly ministry often affords wonderful, lifelong friendships that truly enrich the life of the priest.

Obedience to “the bishop and his successors” is another commitment a priest makes to strengthen his union with Christ and provide freedom for service.

I think it’s interesting that on the road to the priesthood a man pledges his commitment to celibacy only once, but to obedience, twice – in both diaconate and priesthood ordinations. That’s not because obedience is more important than celibacy, but because it can actually be more challenging. Once a priest pledges celibacy, that commitment sets him on a determined, focused path that results in a particular lifestyle. Obedience, on the other hand, is tested multiple times, in very practical ways – for example, every time a priest is asked to move to another assignment, or live with a priest he may not know or like, or is denied a personal request, or is required to follow a particular policy or law of the Church.

Again, it’s important to underline the spiritual motive for obedience. In one of his audiences, Blessed Pope John Paul spoke of the practical challenges and rewards of obedience: “Obedience can sometimes be difficult, particularly when different opinions clash. However, obedience was Jesus’ fundamental attitude to sacrificing himself and it bore fruit in the salvation the whole world has received.” Similarly, in his obedience, the priest shares in the humility of the cross and lays down his life for others.

And what of poverty? Unlike celibacy and obedience, there’s no formal liturgical promise of poverty required of priests at their ordination, but perhaps there should be. After all, the virtue of poverty in the life of the priest has the same motives as celibacy and obedience: imitation of Christ and freedom to serve God’s people.

Priests are not expected to live in abject material poverty. But the “spirit of poverty” is a Gospel value for all Christians, and it has particular consequences for priests. It speaks of priorities, detachment and proper use of material goods.

The Second Vatican Council was rather clear on this point: “Priests are invited to embrace voluntary poverty ... [Priests] are to use money acquired in the exercise of their ecclesiastical office primarily for their own decent support and the fulfillment of the duties of their state. They should be willing to devote whatever is left over to the good of the Church or to works of charity. So they are not to regard an ecclesiastical office as a source of profit and are not to spend their income for increasing their own private fortunes.” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, #17)

The concept of “voluntary poverty” raises interesting questions. On occasion I’ve heard members of the laity complain about the very comfortable, secular lifestyle of priests today. They note that priests receive reasonable salaries, and unlike the laity who often have to struggle to meet daily expenses, are somewhat pampered, having most of their needs provided for them – housing, housekeeping, food and beverage expenses, health insurance and pension funding. The laity sometimes point to the “freebies” priests often receive – use of vacation homes, meals in restaurants, and tickets to sporting and cultural events, for example.

It’s true, I think, that priests need to examine themselves very closely on this point, lest they fall into the quicksand of materialism or unhealthy priorities. Priests have to be careful that they don’t feel sorry for themselves, abuse their privileges, or use their ministry for personal gain.

On the other hand, the laity should recognize that priests receive these material benefits precisely because they’ve handed their lives over to the Church. Priests aren’t free to seek secular employment, change employers or negotiate their salaries; they don’t own their own rectories; they can’t freely choose where they’ll live, with whom they’ll live, or when they’ll move. In return for these personal sacrifices, the Church is obliged to take care of her priests for life, providing a decent standard of living and suitable material benefits. And if grateful parishioners want to thank their priests with personal gifts, so be it.

Oh well, these are all interesting practical questions for the Church today. And to be sure the life of the priest and the commitments they make deserve much fuller discussion than I’ve provided here.

But, pray for your priests, love them and support them, personally and prayerfully. And, dear brother priests, as we celebrate the ordination of new priests for our diocese, use the occasion to thank God for your vocation and to renew your commitment to serve Christ and His people with generosity, love and joy.