Monday, 20 May 2013


Candidates are required for positions of great importance within a venerable international institution. Duties include, but are not limited to:

Accountancy, Advocacy, Bereavement Counselling, Charity Work, Childcare, Community Outreach, Conflict Resolution, Elderly Care, Event Management, Expedition Management, Facilities Management, Fund Raising, Gardening, Healthcare, Public Speaking, Relationship Counselling, Teaching, Transportation, Warfare, Wedding Planning

Salary starts at £0 and is expected to rise to £0 upon death. Hours will not exceed 24 hours per day, 7 days a week and candidates are expected to be on call at all times. Training will last for 7 years and may involve international travel.

Position Title: Catholic Priest

Mission: Impossible?

A few weeks ago, it was Vocations Sunday - a day dedicated to promoting and praying for vocations to the priesthood, deaconate and religious life. It has always been the duty of parish and diocese to foster vocations, but given the apparent death of candidates in the western world, Vocations Sunday has been introduced to give higher priority to the cause. If looked at from the secular view point of an occupation, being a Catholic Priest or Religious is a thankless task, possibly beyond the bounds of human endurance. Individuals may be attracted to the position by the opportunity for study and possibility of serving their  community but the long hours, lack of pay, requirement for celibacy and spiritual focus put it at odds with the modern mindset.Though it was formerly a well respected position throughout most of Europe, Catholic priests are today often met with ridicule, misunderstanding or outright hostility outside of their own parishes (and sometimes within!).

London Rome Calling

The key to the Catholic understanding of the priesthood and the religious life can be found in the term "vocation" which derives from the latin "vocationem" which means "calling". A vocation is calling from God whereby "interior and exterior helps, the efficacious graces which have led to the taking of the resolution, and all the graces which produce meritorious perseverance". [1] The church also teaches that vocation is revealed by deliberation according to Faith and Reason (and sometimes by supernatural insight). In short, a vocation cannot be undertaken by earthly means alone - it can only be entered into and maintained by grace. "With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible". [2]

With great power comes great responsibility

Becoming a priest in the Catholic Church is an an undertaking of the utmost responsibility and gravity. Though all the faithful are called to share in the priesthood of Christ, a priest acts "in personna Christi", in the person of Christ, acting in service of the common priesthood as a means to build up and lead the church. Such is the awesomeness of this undertaking, the church teaches that following their ordination, an ontological change takes place in the candidate - they emerge as a new being, something that they were not before. "Priests are consecrated in order to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful as well as to celebrate divine worship" and  in the "sacrifice of the Mass they make present again and apply, until the coming of the Lord, the unique sacrifice of the New Testament, that namely of Christ offering himself once for all a spotless victim to the Father". [3] As St. Maximilian Kolbe said, "If angels could be jealous of men, they would be so for one reason: Holy Communion", and it is through the priest that this is made possible.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

If priests are possessed of such dignity and power, why are some of them so sinful? Recent church scandal and a long history of the worst kind of ecclesiastical abuse would seem to cause irreparable damage to the Church's claims for the priesthood. Indeed, there is little denying that like the whole of the Church, the order of priests is a melting pot of Saints, Sinners, the indifferent and the lukewarm.

That priests struggle to live the life of Christian perfection like the rest of us should not surprise us, nor cause us undo scandal. Of the men Christ personally chose to follow him, one betrayed him to death, one denied that he knew him three times and the rest abandoned him in fear of their lives. Though priests share in the priesthood of Christ, they do not have dominion over Christ nor are they afforded inalienable supernatural powers akin to a superhero. The term the Church uses to explain this is "Ex opere operato" - the sacraments confer grace not as the result of activity on the part of the priest or the recipient but by the power and promise of God. A priest might be in mortal sin but that does not affect God's ability to work through him. [4] 

Sexism and Celibacy

Two major issues immediately come to mind in the public sphere when the topic of the priesthood - that of female priests and celibacy. To understand each, one must try to understand the nature of the Church. Catholic theology divides the functions of the teaching office of the Church into two categories: the infallible sacred magisterium and the fallible ordinary magisterium. The infallible sacred magisterium includes infallible papal pronouncements like Pope Pius IX's definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, The Fourth Lateran Council's declaration on Transubstantiation and the the common teachings of the Church as understood from Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The ordinary magisterium includes potentially fallible teachings and the authority necessary for church goverance.

The issue of Female Priests falls under the providence of the infallible sacred magisterium and as such, the Church has no authority to change it's position. This position was confirmed by Pope John Paul II's encyclical Ordinatio Sacerdotalis which summarises the reasons for the Church's position as follows:

"The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles attest that this call was made in accordance with God's eternal plan; Christ chose those whom he willed (cf. Mk 3:13-14; Jn 6:70), and he did so in union with the Father, "through the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:2), after having spent the night in prayer (cf. Lk 6:12). Therefore, in granting admission to the ministerial priesthood, the Church has always acknowledged as a perennial norm her Lord's way of acting in choosing the twelve men whom he made the foundation of his Church (cf. Rv 21:14). These men did not in fact receive only a function which could thereafter be exercised by any member of the Church; rather they were specifically and intimately associated in the mission of the Incarnate Word himself (cf. Mt 10:1, 7-8; 28:16-20; Mk 3:13-16; 16:14-15). The Apostles did the same when they chose fellow workers who would succeed them in their ministry. Also included in this choice were those who, throughout the time of the Church, would carry on the Apostles' mission of representing Christ the Lord and Redeemer.

Furthermore, the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe."[5]

By contrast, priestly celibacy is a law or discipline of the church, enacted with the aim of enabling the Church to better fulfil it's mission. As such, the law of celibacy is subject to change and, in extenuating circumstances, for example for converts from traditions which accept married clergy, can be relaxed. Indeed, for most of the Church's early history, priests, like the apostles and disciples could and did marry. Celibacy only gradually became a universal requirement of the priesthood with a definite movement toward the practice emerging during the eleventh century as papal authority became more effective. 

Some of the arguments for priestly celibacy are historical in nature - it curbed certain ecclesiastical abuses associated with the distribution of Church funds and ensured that the patrimony of a parish was not subject to inheritance. For the most part however, the rule of celibacy is enacted in recognition of incredible demands of the priesthood which is ultimately concerned with the salvation of souls through the imitation of Christ and celebration of the sacraments.

In a society seemingly obsessed with sex and saturated with sexual imagery, the concept of celibacy and chastity is met with incredulity, consternation and ridicule. Some, paradoxically, claim it is at the root of the clerical abuse scandal, repugnantly suggesting that should men with paedophile tendencies be allowed to marry, they would have a legitimate outlet to their "frustrations" or "impulses". Opinions such of these betray a complete lack of understanding of the nature of consecrated celibacy and afford a penurious view of reason's ability to rise above inclination and disordered desire.

Like the priesthood and religious life, celibacy can only be understood in terms of vocation, service and sacrifice. Practically, it would be exceedingly difficult to fulfil the role of priest and husband and father, perhaps to the detriment of both. By focusing on the imitation of Christ, priests are "called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to 'the affairs of the Lord,'... they give themselves entirely to God and to men". [6] In making the sacrifices required to live a life of celibacy, priests are strengthened in their vocation, recognising that as Christ the Bridegroom is wed to his Church, so they, by sharing in Christ's priesthood, are willing to give themselves up for the Church. [7]

The Incredibles

When you live in a Catholic household, in addition to stories about Superheroes, you also get stories about the Saints, many of whom happen to be priests or religious. Two of my favourite stories concern two priestly saints, St Dom Bosco and St Padre Pio. St Dom Bosco had a great concern for poor and orphaned children, setting up schools to keep them off the streets and out of the hands of organised crime. For this, his personal safety was often threatened but he never worried because his guardian angel turned into a huge black dog and chased nefarious characters away. St Padre Pio of Pietrelcina was an incredible man to whom hundreds of miracles including bilocation and stigmata are attributed. What interested me most however was his ability to read souls. Confessors would often conclude their confession only to be interrupted by Padre Pio who would coax them into remember some sin they had long forgotten.

Like every other Catholic, my experience of the priesthood and religious is as varied as the Universal Church. I have met some truly inspirational priests and religious, some saintly men and women, some who seemed indifferent or totally unsuited to their vocation but were otherwise nice people and others whom I had little time for. I have friends that have become priests and priests that have become friends. Though tasked with a divine vocation, they are all human beings, capable of greatness and ignominy. 

Prayer for Vocations

Make me a better person,
more considerate towards others, more honest with myself, more faithful to You.
Make me generous enough to want sincerely to do your will whatever it may be.
Help me to find my future vocation in life and grant that through it I bring happiness to others and find happiness myself.
Grant, Lord, that those whom You call to enter the Priesthood or Consecrated Life may have the generosity to answer Your call, so that those who need Your help may always find it.
I ask this through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

[2] Matthew 19:26
[7] Ephesians 5:22-33