On Priesthood

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2009 »Volume 46 2009 Number 3 »On Priesthood

By Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ

Michael Paul GALLAGHER, SJ is an Irish Jesuit writer, emeritus professor of fundamental theology at the Gregorian University, Rome, where from 2005 to 2008 he was dean of the theology faculty. He is in his first year as Rector of the Collegio Bellarmino in Rome, a large Jesuit community for post-graduate students.


Trying to understand priesthood – both in theology and in life – I find myself coming back to the four questions asked during the rite of ordination. I think that in these four areas we have all the richness and also the variety of priestly ministry.

The first three questions ask about different aspects of active ministry, and then the last question is quite different: it asks about discipleship. Without repeating the whole text, the first question focuses on being a co-worker with the bishop in caring for the "Lord's flock." In other words, I am called to be a source of unity and to build up the community in whatever situation I find myself (parish, school, religious house and so on).

The second question is more sacramental. The candidate is asked if he is ready to "celebrate the mysteries of Christ" as a representative of the Church "for the glory of God and the sanctification of Christ's people." Here we have a more spiritual ministry that involves prayerfulness and not just routine ritual. Perhaps it is this dimension that most diocesan priests have in mind as the dominant note in the chord of their calling.

The third question has to do with evangelisation or making God’s revelation real for people. It asks the priest-to-be to undertake "the ministry of the Word worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel" and communicating the meaning of faith. For some priests, this becomes a main focus. I suppose I would say looking back on 38 years of my own priesthood that this has taken most of my energies. I teach theology. I try to write for different kinds of people, conscious of the changing culture around us and of the difficulties of faith for many of my friends. I enjoy preaching (even in Italian these last 19 years). And much retreat work would also come under this third heading.

And then comes the fourth question, and the answer is significantly different. To the first three, the answer is "I am" or "I am willing." To the last question, the reply is "I am, with the help of God." The question asks us to consecrate our lives to God, uniting ourselves "more closely every day to Christ the High Priest." This is not about pastoral activity but about a life-long adventure of belonging to the Lord. Yes, I try to pray every day, to learn over the years something of the heart of Christ. In fact one reason for praying is to be more present to and less unworthy of the struggles that people bring to us.

All four rivers flow into the great ocean of priesthood. For any individual priest, one of the first three can be stronger than the other two aspects. There is a healthy and necessary diversity of ministries. For that deeper and more personal fourth dimension each one tries to find a quality of presence with God as best he can. Nearly everyone has times of emptiness on that inner road. In my experience, they can be signposts that I need to move on to another wavelength, perhaps a simpler way of prayer, or some injection of imagination into what I call the spiritual journey.

A final thought. Many priests suffer an excessive sense of inadequacy about how they are living out their call. On this I was helped years ago by the reflection of Michael J. Buckley who put a surprising question. It could nearly be suggested as a fifth question for the ordination ceremony. Are you weak enough to be a priest? He was not thinking of sinfulness, but of the description of Christ himself in the Letter to the Hebrews as able to sympathize with our weakness because he too was "beset with weakness" (5: 2). It puts another fruitful light on the many hidden personal struggles that priests experience. It is not a question of laxity but of humble realism. If from our own encounters with fragility, we learn compassion for others, we are on the right road, and the Spirit is at work.

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