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Why does the Church require a permanent commitment to the priesthood? Contrary to popular belief, such a demand is not unrealistic. Rather it exists for everyone´s good.
Can Anyone Say Forever?
by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
June 20, 2001 / The title of this article is the name of a very popular book in the late 60s and 70s, at a time when many people would have presumed a negative answer to that probing and critical question. Marriages were breaking up at an unprecedented rate in a country where 15 years earlier divorce among friends or family was discussed only in hushed and embarrassed tones. I discovered that within two years after graduating from high school in 1968, two of the four priests and seven of the 11 nuns who had taught me had turned in their collars and veils. This shocking phenomenon is comprehensible when viewed in light of the overall milieu of confusion and disorientation of that generation.
In the ancient world, slaves were branded; they were literally "marked men," which was a cause for shame and resentment. We are told that Cain was "marked" after he murdered his brother Abel. This "sign of Cain" was somewhat ambivalent in that it set him off from the rest of humanity for his crime, but also served as a divine protection for him (cf. Gen. 4:9-15). Far more appealing is the sphragis of soldiers in antiquity. This "sign" or "seal" was a symbol of great pride in belonging to a particular military unit.
The Church speaks of three sacraments —Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders — as conferring a seal, character, or indelible mark. These sacraments bring a person into a relationship with Almighty God that is irrevocable. St. Paul affirms that God’s gifts and His call are "irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29). Hence, God has marked us as His own in a most dramatic way. This identification is a kind of divine or spiritual genetic code which is impressed on our souls when we receive one of these three sacraments, highlighting both our origin in God and our destiny with Him.
Baptism inserts one into the Lord’s Paschal Mystery, Confirmation seals that process, and Holy Orders configures a man to Christ as priest, prophet, and king. So, it is quite correct to say, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic." No one can ever "revoke" someone’s baptismal certificate! The Church can excommunicate a person for various reasons, but that does not alter his absolute and permanent relationship with the Lord, which occurred through the power of God’s call, grace, and word.
In the same way, once a man has been ordained a priest, he can never again really be a layman. He has been "ontologically" changed, that is, changed at the very core of his being, just as in Baptism and Confirmation. The priest, therefore, is not simply a "marked man" because he wears a Roman collar; he is "marked" in a profoundly spiritual way — touching his very soul. The Church can remove a man’s priestly faculties for the good of the Church, so that he is inhibited from serving in that capacity, or a man can ask the Church to release him from his priestly obligations either for his own welfare or for that of the Church. However, the permanent mark remains — "Once a priest, always a priest" — which is why such a priest can still fulfill priestly tasks if the salvation of souls demands it.
Over the centuries, the Church has come to her firm teaching on the matter for three basic reasons: (a) the example of Christ; (b) the needs of the Church; and (c) the good of the man himself.
For Christ, Church, and Man
The Epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes that Jesus is a priest as no other man is or ever will be. One of the unique dimensions of His priesthood is that it is "forever" (e.g., 5:6; 6:20; 7:3). His intercession is eternal, which is why His priesthood must be the same. Not with exaggeration does St. Paul remind us that Christ was never alternately "yes" and "no" to His Heavenly Father. He asserts unequivocally that He was never anything but "yes" (2 Cor. 1:18). Note that Paul does not even suggest that the Lord always "said yes" to the Father — no, He always "was yes." In other words, His entire Person constituted a unified response of His being to the will of His Father.
The needs of Christ’s Church must be a concern. Christ’s priesthood, in which a man shares through sacramental Ordination, is not a job, function, or personal "hobby horse" for one’s own amusement. It is a gift given by the Lord for the good of the Church. And because it is a gift, as Pope John Paul II never seems to tire of saying, it should not and cannot be returned to the Giver without disastrous consequences. The Church can never cease to be the Bride of Christ, nor He her Bridegroom.
Similarly, her ministers who stand in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) must be as faithful as the One they represent. God’s people must have unfailing, consistent witnesses to the truth and to the transforming power of God’s grace. Therein lies the beauty of the priesthood: No man on his own can generate souls for the Father.
No man on his own can change bread and wine into the Lord’s body and blood. No man on his own can absolve another from his sins. And no man on his own can say and be a perpetual "yes" to the Lord. This is all the work of grace, bringing to mind every day —for the priest and the whole community of Christ’s faithful — that "apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5). The total and unswerving commitment of the priest as alter Christus (the other Christ) gives to the lay faithful the powerful example of saying and meaning "yes," and of relying on God’s grace to do the seemingly impossible.
In this way, young people learn how to say "no" to fornication. Married couples learn how to say "yes" to their vows and to new life. The elderly learn how to say "yes" to loneliness and misunderstanding.
The priest himself "needs" to make a definitive commitment for his own good. God has made us in His own image. If we are to be true images of the God who is fidelity itself — faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to Him — then we need to reflect His never-failing constancy. We must understand that actions have consequences, and that some actions have eternal consequences — such as decisions we make under the impulse of His grace and for the good of His Church. Remaining faithful to commitments, then, is not just a matter of grit and determination; it is inextricably bound to our human dignity. To be really and fully human demands the willingness and the ability to say "yes" forever. Anything less falls far short of who God wants us to be as persons made in His image and likeness.
What about our priests who do give up on their ordination commitment? What have we learned about them over the past three decades? One thing we have learned is that very few men left the priesthood "in order to marry," contrary to the conventional wisdom. Anecdotal and hard-core data tell us that most priests initially left the active ministry for various other reasons.
What are the most commonly cited reasons for priestly departures? The first, and what should be the most obvious, is that all too many never had genuine priestly vocations. In "the old days," a frequent joke made its way around the clerical world: "Mrs. Smith had the vocation, but her son became the priest!" Beneath the biting sarcasm of the quip lay an unfortunate fact for many former priests who felt pressured into the priesthood by good and holy but misguided persons.
Other priests have indicated a certain "lacking" or deficiency within themselves or within the Catholic community that contributed to their decision to leave the priesthood. Still others say they experienced a lack of priestly identity because of changes in expectations radically different — in the wake of post-conciliar confusion — from those to which they committed themselves on the day of their ordination. Some bewail the lack of priestly fraternity, while yet others contend that they experienced a lack of support for their vocation from either their bishop or the people in their care and, all too often, felt as though they were caught in a vise between the two.
While no one can deny their perceived rationale for leaving, my own experience with such men leads me to conclude that most of them departed because of problems related to faith and/or personality. This may help explain the inordinately high divorce rate for men who marry after leaving the active ministry, as they often learn — painfully —that the difficulty was neither the Church nor the priesthood, but something within themselves.
This should also help us understand the equally high percentage of such men who have sought to be readmitted to priestly ministry, sometimes after years and, at times, decades of absence.
Therefore, the Church’s insistence on a permanent commitment to priesthood is not simply reducible to what some may deem the unrealistic or even inhuman demands of an overbearing mother. No, the law exists for everyone’s good. Fidelity does not come easily to anyone, not even to the Son of God. The Scriptures inform us that Jesus was fiercely tempted at least twice during His earthly sojourn: at the outset of His public ministry in the desert and at its end during His agony in the Garden. If the High Priest Himself was so tempted, those who share in His priesthood should not presume exemption from similar temptations.
However, if the community of the Church expects a resounding "forever" from her priests — and rightly so — then the People of God also have an obligation toward their priests: to let them know they are loved and needed, and to support them with daily prayer. In this way, shepherd and flock are committed to one another for the sake of Christ, ensuring that both arrive at the harbor of salvation.
(c) 2001, Lay Witness. All Rights Reserved. Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas is the editor of The Catholic Answer, the founder of the Scranton Diocesan Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Mount Pocono, PA, and a member of CUF’s advisory council.
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