PRIESTHOOD AND IDENTITY
Pope John Paul II writes in his 1992 apostolic exhortation, I
Will Give You Shepherds (Pastores Dabo Vobis; PDV), the vocation
of priesthood is literally embedded in the life of the Church. In
fact, the "priesthood cannot be defined except through [the] multiple
and rich interconnection of relationships which arise from the Blessed
Trinity and are prolonged in the communion of the Church" (12).
In similar manner, the relationship between St. John Vianney Theological
Seminary and Our Lady of the New Advent Theological Institute represents
the communion of the various calls or states of life within the
the same document, John Paul notes, "The seminary can be seen as
a place and a period in life. But it is above all an educational
community in progress: It is a community established by the bishop
to offer to those called by the Lord to serve as apostles, the possibility
of re-living the experience of formation which our Lord provided
for the Twelve" (60). The Holy Father identifies four components
of that experience: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral
formation. It is to these four aspects of formation that our
present and future seminarians will need to apply themselves.
primary goal of the total seminary formation program, however, is
to provide a strong and healthy sense of identity to those who will
serve the Church as priests. One source of that identity is found
in the Scripture passage where St. Paul speaks to husbands and fathers
of their responsibility to serve their families in love: "Husbands,
love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up
for her" (Eph 5:25). Paul could be speaking just as directly to
priests as to husbands and fathers. And, in fact, in Christ the
High Priest we see the vocations of husband and priest combined.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) pairs the Sacraments
of Matrimony and Ordination, referring to them both as "directed
towards the salvation of others" (1534), and goes on to say: "Esteem
of virginity for the sake of the kingdom and the Christian understanding
of marriage are inseparable, and they reinforce each other" (1620).
John Paul II likewise pairs the two vocations in saying, "The priest
is called to be the living image of Jesus Christ, the Spouse of
the Church" (PDV, 22).
live in age which defines a person's worth by profession and income.
But the identity of the priest is not the sum of his professional
or functional competence. As the Second Vatican Council pointed
out in its Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum
Ordinis; PO), a priest acts in persona Christi capitis
that is, in the place of Christ, the Head in his three-fold
role as sanctifier (priest), teacher (prophet) and shepherd (king)
(PO, 2). But he does so always in a spousal relationship of love.
The priest is called not merely to do things in and for the Church,
but to be the lover of the Church. He must love her as Christ loves
her, and Christ gave His life for her.
lies a compelling, but often overlooked, reason for the celibacy
of the priesthood. As a child of the God of abundant life, every
human person desires to procreate new life. For the priest, celibacy
is neither a rejection nor a repression of his sexuality, but a
positive choice to be spiritually life-giving for the larger family
of faith. A celibate priest is "unmarried," only in that he is not
married to a particular, individual woman in that wonderful union
created in the Sacrament of Matrimony. But he is through
the indelible mark conferred by the Sacrament of Orders, which leaves
him forever configured to the celibate Christ married to
His Bride, the Church. As such, he becomes a sign to those in the
married state of the radical love God asks of them. It is in recognition
of his vocation as a husband to the believing community he serves
that we traditionally call priests "father." In this way, we who
are born into the Church through Baptism express our love for those
who are wedded to our Mother the Church.
FORMING TOMORROW'S PRIESTS
How best can we prepare men for this marriage to the Church? The
great Eastern Father, Gregory Nazianzus, wrote that, "We must begin
by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed
to be able to instruct, become light to illuminate, draw close to
God to bring him close to others, be sanctified to sanctify, lead
by the hand and counsel prudently." John Paul II has echoed Nazianzus's
insight in his division of priestly formation into four main areas
of focus mentioned above. (PDV, Chapter 5).
". . . purifying ourselves before purifying others."
Every priest is called to be the "living image" of Jesus, and therefore
"should seek to reflect in himself, as far as possible, the human
perfection which shines forth in the incarnate Son of God . . .
the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that
it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting
with Jesus Christ" (43).
The human perfection of Christ does not make Him less fully human
but precisely more so. He is what God wills all of us to become.
The priest becomes more human, not less, by striving for the full
human maturity which shows itself in the natural virtues. Thus the
Holy Father writes that, "Future priests should therefore cultivate
a series of human qualities, not only out of proper and due growth
and realization of self, but also with a view to the ministry. These
qualities are needed for them to be balanced people, strong and
free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibilities.
They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect
every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word,
to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially,
to be balanced in judgment and behavior" (43).
As is the case for any believer, priests should not simply excuse
or underestimate the common human failings against which they struggle,
in the way some modern psychologies suggest. Especially when such
weaknesses may give scandal, real humility requires that we not
merely recognize our failings but call on the grace of God to strengthen
us where we are humanly weak. This is what St. Paul means when he
declares, "I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that
the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor 12:9).
John Paul II particularly stresses the importance of an affective
maturity which lays the foundation for the priest's whole gift of
himself in all the relationships to which his ministry calls him.
Without the capacity to express and receive a mature, brotherly
love which embraces all the "physical, psychic and spiritual" aspects
of the human person, the obligations of the priesthood become a
burden. This is particularly true of the charism of celibacy, which
must be built upon an "affective maturity which is prudent, able
to renounce anything that is a threat to it, vigilant over both
body and spirit, and capable of esteem and respect in interpersonal
relationships between men and women" (44).
For the celibate priest, the "nuptial meaning of the body" is expressed
by reserving physical sexual expression in the same way that Jesus
did. Just as Christ offered Himself on the cross as a consummation
of the marriage between Himself and the Church, it is by making
of their bodies a spiritual sacrifice (Rm 12:1) that priests wed
themselves to the Bride of Christ. "The Church, as the Spouse of
Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and
exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her head and Spouse loved
While grace can overcome any weakness, seminarians should strive
for an understanding of self which neither discounts the importance
of their God-given sexuality nor naively underestimates the demands
of a celibate life. In a very real way, the seminary is a period
of prenuptial preparation in which a man seeks, by the grace of
God, to make himself the sort of man the Church wants and needs
as her Spouse. Again, as John Paul II notes, "the priest's life
ought to radiate this spousal character, which demands that he be
a witness to Christ's spousal love and thus be capable of loving
people with a heart which is new, generous and pure with
genuine self-detachment, with full, constant and faithful dedication
and at the same time with a kind of 'divine jealousy' (cf. 2 Cor
11:2) and even with a kind of maternal tenderness, capable
of bearing 'the pangs of birth' until 'Christ be formed' in the
faithful (cf. Gal. 4:19)" (22).
Just as marriage requires free and willing consent, the gift of
celibacy can only be received if it is freely and willingly embraced
by the priest. Unfortunately, some people in recent decades resent
it, hope it will be changed, or internalize it in a purely legalistic
way. Yet without consent to the bride, the priestly life will never
be as fruitful as it can be. This consent to the Church is expressed
and consummated in each priest's loving and generous availability
to God's people. As the Catechism so beautifully says, "Accepted
with a joyous heart, celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God"
formation: "Be sanctified to sanctify."
A proper human formation leads to an openness to the possibility
of sanctity. That possibility is realized through intimacy with
God in the Trinity. "Spiritual formation," declares John Paul, "should
be conducted in such a way that the students may learn to live in
intimate and unceasing union with God the Father through His Son
Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit." (PDV, 45, quoting the Second
Vatican Council's Decree on the Training of Priests [Optatam
Totius; OT], 8.)
As the Holy Father teaches, Christ is the key to entry into that
divine communion of love. "Those who take on the likeness of Christ
the priest by sacred ordination should form the habit of drawing
close to him as friends in every detail of their lives" (ibid.,
emphasis added). In his apostolic letter As the Third Millennium
Draws Near (Tertio Millennio Adveniente; TMA) John Paul II adds,
"It is therefore necessary to inspire in all the faithful a true
longing for holiness, a deep desire for conversion and personal
renewal in a context of ever more intense prayer and of solidarity
with one's neighbor" (42). Without daily prayer a priest cannot
meet the responsibilities of his vocation. This is true for Christians
in every vocation but how much more so for the priest, who
must serve as a kind of scout, guide and agent of hope for those
who choose to tread the spiritual path cut by Christ, the pioneer
and perfector of our faith (Heb 12:2).
The obligations of the priestly state in fact include daily recitation
of the Liturgy of the Hours, with and for the whole Church. Priests
should above all seek to offer the Eucharist daily, since it is
"[from] this unique sacrifice their whole priestly ministry draws
its strength" (CCC, 1566). A regular recourse to the Sacrament of
Reconciliation is also a requisite to any advancement in the spiritual
Seminarians should never think of these anchors of the priestly
life as burdens from which one might need a break or respite. They
are not just things that a priest does, but integral to who the
priest is. The priest cannot be just a man who prays; he must be
a man of prayer, a man transformed by constant prayer. The life
of prayer must also include daily reading of and reflection on the
Sacred Scriptures, the Word of God. Without a deep familiarity with
the "plan of the mystery" revealed in Christ (Eph 3:9), a priest
cannot disclose that mystery to others.
Of course, celebration of the Eucharist, recitation of the Liturgy
of the Hours and the reading of Sacred Scripture form the solid
foundation for meditative prayer. This, too, needs to be a daily
part of the life of a priest. Many use the Rosary as a springboard
for deeper meditation. This staple of Catholic piety deserves a
place in the daily regime of priests. One great advantage to the
Rosary is that it generates in us a Marian, and, therefore, maternal
outlook which can bring the priest to a deeper sense of the complementarity
and ultimate unity of the masculine and feminine dimensions in the
plan of God. Our modern schedules can make time for prayer a scarcity
but a priest must schedule God first and other duties second.
Without the first, he won't have much to offer those which follow.
A few words should also be said about what used to be called "mortification."
Fasting and other forms of self-discipline are essentially a form
of practice in self-giving. If we are constantly allowing ourselves
the many luxuries which the modern world places before us, we will
not be ready to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of those we ought
to love: God and neighbor. This is particularly difficult for young
men today who have been raised in a culture new to human
history in which news, food and all forms of entertainment
are constantly available. These things can rob us of the time, space
and silence we need to grow in the spiritual life. They can also
subtly distance us from the suffering of the poor at home and abroad.
Little, quiet gifts of self to God in the form of small sacrifices
go a very long way toward reorienting us away from an addictive
concern with the consumption of things toward a loving availability
to God and neighbor.
Prayer and fasting, along with constant dedication to the service
of God's people, teach priests to draw close to Christ as a friend
in every detail of their lives. In every detail, because through
the disciplines of prayer and the self-offering, whether formal
or spontaneous, Christ is explicitly invited into every circumstance
of the priestly apostolate, into every circumstance of a priest's
life. "Through this identification with Christ crucified, as a slave,
the world can rediscover the value of austerity, of suffering and
also of martyrdom within the present culture, which is imbued with
secularism, greed and hedonism." (PDV, 48).
The "Spirituality Year" which we have established in the Archdiocese
of Denver as the first year of vocational discernment builds on
the success of similar efforts elsewhere, especially in the Archdiocese
of Paris. Our first two years of experience with this program have
been uniquely fruitful in acquainting men with the joys and challenges
of priestly commitment before they begin formal philosophical and
theological studies on their road to ordination. The Spirituality
Year has captured the hearts and minds of the men who have experienced
it, leading them to a deeper intimacy with Jesus, the Church and
particularly with Christ's presence in the Eucharist. It is therefore
a program we will gladly and gratefully continue.
formation: "We must be instructed to be able to instruct, become
light to illuminate."
One of the greatest challenges faced in opening any new seminary
is the design of a sufficiently strong academic program. As an archdiocese,
our sincere gratitude goes to Regis University for generously enabling
us to complete the college education of some of our undergraduate
seminarians through its programs. Moreover, by the good graces of
the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, we have been extended
affiliate status as a theological institute. This is a marvelous
honor, and it means that the Lateran itself will grant all degrees
conferred at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. That status
is based upon what the Lateran's theology faculty perceives to be
the quality of the program of studies we will be offering. The Church,
of course, supplies specific guidelines for seminary studies. These
stress that intellectual formation is not a thing apart from human,
spiritual or pastoral formation. The desire to know is, after all,
a central part of being human. Seminary study aims at an ever deeper
understanding of the mysteries expressed in the spiritual life;
and it prepares the seminarian to offer the pastoral guidance to
those who need to find in those same mysteries the meaning of their
joys and sorrows.
The particular social problems of our day, the high level of educational
achievement among many Catholics in America, and the demands of
prudent leadership in the Church all require that seminarians receive
"an extremely vigorous intellectual formation" (PDV, 51). That kind
of a formation is especially needed for those who will serve as
future agents in the Church's diakonia [service] of the truth
(see Pope John Paul II's encyclical Faith and Reason [Fides et
Ratio], 2). Therefore, for most of those who come to our vocation
program with a bachelor's degree in some area other than philosophy,
their intellectual formation will include two years of philosophy
study and four of theology.
Like good stewards of the Kingdom, we intend to draw out both the
old and the new to present to our seminarians. They will be exposed
to the masters of intellectual history in the areas of philosophy
and theology, from the ancient Greeks and Apostolic Fathers to the
most contemporary authors. We will aim at a combination of philosophical,
theological and practical pastoral training that will result in
the "unified, internally coherent curriculum" that the Church calls
for in seminaries (see the U.S. bishops' Program of Priestly
Formation [PPF], 351; see also Pope John Paul II's apostolic
exhortation, Christian Wisdom [Sapientia Christiana; SC],
Art 67.2). Of course, that must include an approach to theology
which is "comprehensive and extensive, covering the range of Christian
doctrine" (PPF, 339). And, in keeping with the declaration of the
Second Vatican Council that "the 'study of the sacred page' should
be the very soul of theology" (see the Second Vatican Council's
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation [Dei Verbum],
24, and SC, Art 67.1.), we seek to make the Scriptures the
very foundation of the curriculum.
It is vital that the various components of seminary life, classes,
liturgies, service in parishes and to the poor, as well as the time
set aside for personal prayer, all contribute to a unified vision
of the Gospel message in all its beauty. By this means "a purely
abstract approach to knowledge is overcome in favor of that intelligence
of heart which knows how 'to look beyond,' and then is in a position
to communicate the mystery of God to the people" (PDV, 51).
formation: "Draw close to God to bring Him close to others . . .
lead by the hand and counsel prudently."
As John Paul II writes, "The whole training of [seminary] students
should have as its object to make them shepherds of souls after
the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, teacher, priest and shepherd."
(PDV, 57, quoting the Second Vatican Council in PO, 4). The formation
of the candidate for ordination must aim at inculcating a pastoral
charity which will enable the priest to be the "living image of
Christ" he is called to be. To image Christ the Good Shepherd
and Spouse of the Church the seminarian's formation must
have a specifically pastoral orientation. It is not enough that
one be emotionally, spiritually and intellectually mature. All these
attributes have to be placed at the service of others in the priesthood.
Thus, add-on "ministry" courses are not enough in the pastoral formation
of young men for the priesthood. Pastoral formation requires that
the seminarian be able to integrate what he has learned by study,
with what he has learned by experience. Every moment of the process
of growth in the seminary should make reference to the pastoral
setting. In addition to specific classes in areas like pastoral
counseling, parish management and homiletics, we will rely heavily
on our pastors and people in this process of introducing and preparing
men for work in parochial ministry. It is my sincere hope that summer
placement with the pastors of the Archdiocese of Denver and with
the people in the parishes of northern Colorado will be real occasions
for growth for our seminarians. In these places above all, they
will learn how to love the Bride of Christ as she needs to be loved:
as Christ Himself loves her.
CONCLUSION: THE ROLE OF OUR FAMILY OF FAITH
It is particularly appropriate that our new seminary is named in
honor of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests. He had
a tremendous esteem for the priesthood while, in his great humility,
he always seemed to distance himself from the dignity he recognized
in the office he had received. Whenever others offered him compliments
or praised his holiness, he always deflected those toward the office
of the priest. We can do no better in our reflections on priestly
formation than to pray over his own words as they appear in the
Catechism of the Catholic Church: "If we really understood
the priest on earth, we would die not of fright but of love . .
. The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus."
Inviting, fostering and encouraging this love in young men is the
work of the whole Catholic community. We live at a unique moment
in the life of our local Church. The Institute and Seminary we inaugurate
this fall offer us the opportunity to bring the "new evangelization"
alive in a fresh and dramatic way. But this cannot be achieved in
I ask every Catholic young man of the archdiocese to listen deeply
for God's will in his life, and to consider the priesthood honestly
and sincerely. I have spoken here of the sacrifices required of
priests, and rightly so. As with married life, priesthood is a serious
choice in response to God's call. It has life-changing consequences.
But also as with married life it is not merely life-changing,
but life-giving. When genuinely given over to Christ, priesthood
is a life of joy, courage, freedom and fraternity; a life of fruitfulness
and meaning. And these things far outweigh its challenges. This
is not merely my own experience of priesthood. I have seen the same
witness again and again in dozens of brother priests. To give in
to fear is to give in to the biggest lie of our age. Do not be afraid
to answer to God's call.
I ask the priests of northern Colorado men who serve the
Lord and His Church so well to encourage our young men in
their discernment, to enthusiastically support the new opportunities
this Seminary provides for our Church, and to communicate the happiness
and fulfillment they have experienced in their priestly ministry.
Finally, I ask the Catholic people of northern Colorado to open
their hearts in support of this effort. To pray daily for vocations
to the priesthood is essential. But God answers our prayers when
we actively seek to cooperate with His will. I ask parents to cultivate
a love for the Church and her sacraments in their children. I especially
urge them to model a love for the priesthood to their children by
supporting our priests in daily parish life. Nothing wounds the
priesthood more than uncharitable and unthinking criticism of the
priest by his people. And nothing so wonderfully energizes our priests
as the sincere respect, gratitude and love of the parish family.
Above all, I ask our Catholic people to create an environment in
their homes where vocations to the priesthood are stimulated, discussed,
and received by children as a worthy and holy personal choice.
I began this pastoral letter by observing that every Christian life
is lived on mission and in communion. I close on the same note.
The Church is an ecology of love. She is most fruitful when her
members love well. This fall, God brings to fruition a hope for
our Church first voiced by my predecessor, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford,
and built on the foundation of his good stewardship and the zeal
of the many priests, deacons, lay and consecrated persons who collaborated
in bringing this project so far, so fast. With the opening of Our
Lady of the New Advent Theological Institute and St. John Vianney
Theological Seminary, we have a unique invitation to listen and
respond to God's call. We need priests. God will surely send them.
May He inspire those he sends, and each of us to whom they are sent,
to love with the kind of love which makes all things new; to love
one another and the Lord ."as Christ loved the Church."
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
September 8, 1999
Chaput can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.