Priestly Identity: Crisis and Renewal

Author: ZENIT


Priestly Identity: Crisis and Renewal

Part 1

Interview With Father David Toups

By Annamarie Adkins


A general crisis of authentic masculinity in society has also affected the priesthood as only "real men" can adequately fulfill the role of priest and pastor, says Father David Toups.

Father Toups, the associate director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the U.S. episcopal conference, is the author of "Reclaiming Our Priestly Character."

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Toups comments on the identity and character of the priesthood, and the various challenges it faces today.

Q: Your book focuses on recovering what you call the “doctrine of the priestly character.” Can you describe this “doctrine” in a nutshell?

Father Toups: The “doctrine of the priestly character” is about the permanent relationship the priest enters into with Christ the High Priest on the day of his ordination.

The priest is always a priest; he is not a simple functionary who performs ritual actions, but rather he is configured to Christ in the depths of his being by what is called an ontological change.

Christ is working through him at the altar, “This is my Body,” and in the confessional, “I absolve you of your sins,” but also in his daily actions outside the sanctuary.

The character that the priest receives is a comfort to the faithful inasmuch as they realize that their faith is not based in the personality of the priest, but rather the Person of Christ working through the priest.

On the other hand, the priest is called, like all of the faithful, to a life of holiness. The character received at ordination is actually a dynamism for priestly holiness. The more he can assimilate his life to Christ and submit to the gift he received at ordination, the more he will be a credible witness to the faithful and edify the Body of Christ.

Q: Is it your view that the nature of the priesthood is unknown or misunderstood by many priests? Is mandatory “continuing priestly education” the answer?

Father Toups: Studies show that there has been confusion regarding the exact nature of the priesthood among priests themselves depending on the timing of their seminary training.

Immediately following the Second Vatican Council, there was confusion among priests and laity alike about the difference between the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood.

Vatican II’s intention was not to suppress one in order to highlight the other, but rather to recognize the universal call to holiness and the dignity of both.

The ministerial priesthood is a specific vocation within the Church in which a man is called by Christ in the apostolic line to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Priests are different by virtue of ordination, as confirmed by the council itself in paragraph 10 of “Lumen Gentium,” which emphasized that the baptized and the ordained share in the one and the same priesthood of Christ, but in a way that differs “in essence and not only in degree.”

This difference certainly does not mean better or even holier — that would be a major error — but it does mean that there is a distinction.

Cardinal Avery Dulles points out that, if anything, the priesthood of the faithful is more exalted because the ministerial priesthood is ordered to its service. Hence, a recovery from the confusion lies in the need to understand the balance a priest is to find; he is both a servant and one who has been set aside by Christ and the Church to stand "in persona Christi" — not as a personal honor, but as “one who has come to serve and not be served.”

The priest need not be embarrassed about this high calling, but should boldly live it out in the midst of the world. Pope John Paul the Great regularly reminded priests: “Do not be afraid to be who you are!”

This brings us to the second part of your question, namely, is mandatory “continuing priestly education” the answer?

In the book, I use the term “formation,” not education — though learning is an important, component part.

Ongoing formation is essential for every Christian vocation. In the midst of full liturgical schedules, parish councils, leaking roofs and hospital visits, the priest must continually open his heart and mind to Christ in prayer and study, annual retreats and seminars, as well as times of recreation and vacation, if he is to thrive as an individual and as a man of faith.

Ongoing formation is about deepening one’s interiority and fostering a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is about an ongoing conversion that reminds the priest who he is as a minister of the Gospel and whose he is as a son of God.

So is ongoing formation the answer? It is certainly a part of the solution to a happier, healthier presbyterate. Pope John Paul II wrote, “Ongoing formation helps the priest to be and act as a priest in the spirit and style of Jesus the Good Shepherd” ("Pastores Dabo Vobis," 73).

Q: Some observers fear that encouraging young priests — many of who are already attempting to recover traditional liturgical and devotional practices — to rediscover their priestly character will only foster a new form of clericalism. Others believe giving prominence to the ministerial priesthood will diminish the common priesthood of the faithful — a development that many see as one of the hallmarks of Vatican II. How would you respond to critics of your proposal?

Father Toups: Highlighting both the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood should actually strengthen both; they are not mutually exclusive or in any way opposed to one another.

When our particular calls within the Church are not given their proper distinctions, the Church suffers. St. Paul rightly reminds us of this with his beautiful analogy of how the Body of Christ is made up of diverse members working together for the good of the whole.

The laity and the priest are not in competition but complement each other’s particular calling.

There is a danger of what John Paul II called the “clericalization of the laity and the laicization of the clergy” when distinctions are not made in the life of the Church — again, different does not mean better. Clericalism is not what happens when one has a clear identity of who they are, but rather when it is lived in such a way that is not in the service of the faithful.

The priest should not be embarrassed to wear the roman collar and be called “father,” for this is not clericalism, but he is to do so in charity and humility as a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

So in response to your remark about younger clergy — especially those who, in their youthful zeal, may come across too strong — let us be patient with them as they mature in the priesthood. It takes a while for the ontology to catch up with the psychology.

To young priests who may fall into this category, I would simply say, be men of prayer with the love of Christ as your guiding light, and pray for your own deepening conversion. One can have all of the right answers, but if they are presented “without love, you are a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” as St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13.

Thus we do not deny the ministerial priesthood; we live it inside and out. If the priest lives his calling with humility and service as the driving force, it is more a form of asceticism than of clericalism. He is a visible sign of the radical commitment of the priestly life.

Proper knowledge and integration of the sacramental character into the priestly life and ministry are fundamental for priests to be the men the Church needs them to be.

Q: Is there a crisis of authentic masculinity in the priesthood? Could this be a source of the vocation shortage, especially among Latinos?

Father Toups: Allow me to rephrase the first question to be more all embracing: Is there a crisis of authentic masculinity in the world? I would say yes.

There is a crisis of commitment, fidelity and fatherhood all rooted in men not living up to their call to be “real men” — men who model their lives on Christ, who lay down their lives out of love, and who learn what it is to be a father from our Father in heaven.

So in the context of the priesthood, which flows out of society, there is a particular challenge to help men grow in manly virtue. The priesthood is not for the faint of heart, but for men who are up to the challenge of living as Christ in laying down their life on a daily basis.

As the priest says the words of consecration, “This is my Body,” Christ is not only speaking through him, but the priest is offering his own life as well for the people to whom he is called to serve.

If a seminarian does not have a deep desire to get married and have children, he might need to rethink his vocation, for these are the natural and healthy manly desires of the heart. He needs to recognize that; in actuality, the priest truly is a married man and a father.

As the priest stands "in persona Christi," he is called to embrace the Bride of Christ, the Church, as his own spouse. A great danger is for the priest to fall into a “bachelor mentality,” which can become a selfish, disembodied and non-relational life.

Instead, if he sees himself in a permanent commitment to the people of God, his life of sacrifice will have great meaning as he lives the nuptial imagery of Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and laid down his life for her.”

When the notions of love, sacrifice and relationship are taken out of the vocation, it becomes sterile and unattractive to young men. For this reason the DVD "Fishers of Men," developed by the USCCB office in which I work, has been so well received; it shows the priestly vocation as heroic and manly in the best sense of the word. To paraphrase the old Marine slogan: God is looking for a few good men!

Q: What role does the concept of “fatherhood” play in the priestly life? Is there a fear of this term because of political correctness?

Father Toups: Spiritual fatherhood in the priesthood flows from the understanding of being a chaste spouse of the Church.

Just as an earthly father feeds, comforts and nurtures his family, so too do our spiritual fathers feed us in the Eucharist, comfort us in reconciliation and the anointing of the sick, and nurture us throughout our lives of faith.

For me, spiritual fatherhood is one of the great joys of my vocation — to be invited into the hearts and homes of people is such a place of privilege and great responsibility.

Think about your own life. Priests have — hopefully — played an important role in all of the key moments of life: birth, death, triumphs, struggles, graduations and marriage.

By living out spiritual fatherhood, the priest experiences the great fruitfulness and generative fecundity of his vocation. For the priest, this should be life-giving; just as parents will make incredible sacrifices for their children, so too priests do radical things — renounce family and possessions — to be available to their family of faith.

Where there is love, sacrifice is easy.

Benedict XVI, speaking of the kind of mature manhood needed to be a spiritual father, said: “In reality, we grow in affective maturity when our hearts adhere to God. Christ needs priests who are mature, virile, and capable of cultivating an authentic spiritual paternity. For this to happen, priests need to be honest with themselves, open with their spiritual director and trusting in divine mercy.”

We need to move beyond the fear of being “politically incorrect” to being more worried about embracing the truth of who we are; hence the title of my book focuses on reclaiming our priestly character.

Part 2 Interview With Father David Toups

By Annamarie Adkins


Prayer and a deep spiritual life are necessary elements for priests facing the challenges of being overworked, discouraged or alone, says Father David Toups.

Father Toups, the associate director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the U.S. episcopal conference, is the author of "Reclaiming Our Priestly Character."

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Toups comments on the challenges of the priesthood, along with the six principles of priestly renewal.

Q: "Reclaiming Our Priestly Character" lays out six principles for renewing the priesthood in general, as well as the life of each priest. Can you briefly describe each principle?

Father Toups: The first principle is the permanence of the priesthood, namely the reminder that the priest has entered into a permanent relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church by virtue of ordination.

He receives, in ordination, an ontological character that cannot be removed or erased. This reality affects the way he prepares for the priesthood in the seminary, the way he understands himself as a chaste spouse of the Church and spiritual father of the faithful.

The second principle is that the priest acts "in persona Christi," assuring both himself and the faithful that the sacraments are efficacious "ex opere operato."

The flip side of this is that, although he has received the sacerdotal character, he is obliged to keep working on his own personal character development as a man striving for holiness in his daily life.

The third principle is a reminder that the priest is not his own, but rather he belongs to and represents the Church "in persona Ecclesiae." Thus, he prays the Liturgy of the Hours, as he promised at ordination, for the needs of the whole Church.

Likewise, he embraces and hands on the teachings of the Church as the steward, not the master, of her truths. He is also proud — in the best sense — to be visibly recognizable as a priest, knowing he is called to courageously be a sign and symbol pointing beyond himself to Christ.

The fourth principle is priestly presence, namely that everything the priest does is priestly and has immense value, as Christ desires to work through him at all times. This happens in a particular way when preaching, shepherding, and healing God’s people as their spiritual father.

The fifth principle is the caution for priests to avoid the trap of functionalism or activism. The priest can get so busy that he can forget who he is or for whom he is doing the work.

He must be supernaturally sensitive, grounding himself by being a man of prayer who encounters God through daily, silent meditation, desiring an ever more intimate relationship with him.

Finally, the sixth principle, which has already been discussed, is ongoing formation. These principles all find their basis in the priestly character and serve as a foundation for a priestly life lived joyfully, bearing abundant fruit.

Q: Do your recommendations apply equally to diocesan priests and those priests in religious orders?

Father Toups: Absolutely. In fact, the studies done by Dean Hoge of Catholic University reveal that a larger percentage of religious have greater confusion regarding the exact nature of the ontological character of the priesthood. For all priests, diocesan or religious, a proper understanding of the character of orders grounds them in an ever more fruitful life of ministry and service.

The studies mentioned above confirm that priests who have a clear understanding of this doctrine are more likely to be content in their ministry and joyful in their vocation.

The Thomistic axiom, "agere sequitur esse" — doing follows being — is true for all priests; the more they understand their priestly identity, the more they will be able to act and serve in the manner Christ has called them. This proper understanding does not guarantee fidelity or holiness, but it certainly is a strong foundation to build upon.

Q: What are some of the biggest difficulties priests face today?

Father Toups: The greatest challenges today lie in the amount of work required of the parish priest, as well as a sense of discouragement and, at times, loneliness. If these are the challenges, the answer rests in learning how to bring these concerns and frustrations before the Lord in deep, relational prayer.

A lack of interiority allows the burdens of the office to take hold of the heart and obscure the truth of his identity which serves to keep him grounded. The new Fifth Edition of the Program of Priestly Formation — 115 — states that spirituality is the necessary core and governing principle of the whole priestly life. The other aspects of his life remain focused in as much as the priest is grounded in prayer.

Also, with fewer priests, it is all the more important for him to stay connected with his brother priests. Fraternal groups, such as the Jesus Caritas movement, allow him to express himself and be gently challenged to greater holiness by his brothers who truly understand what is happening in his life; the need for spiritual direction and frequent confession must also be attended to.

Further, healthy relationships with family and friends are a genuine joy for the priest; it is a grave danger to be a “lone-ranger” in the world today.

Q: What are, or have been, some of the major impediments to fostering the “doctrine of the priestly character”? How can seminaries and bishops remove these impediments and help priests foster happy and healthy lives?

Father Toups: The greatest impediment has been “bad” theology.

In the wake of the Council, there were a number of well-known theologians who taught that this doctrine was simply a medieval invention. Because of this, many priests, unwittingly, were simply not given the tools to properly understand the theology of the priesthood.

This has adversely affected a generation in the Church, both priest and laity alike. This is precisely why I go to such pains to show the foundation of this teaching from the sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, and the Magisterium.

Correcting this misperception was a priority during the pontificate of John Paul II. The priest is not a mere functionary who represents the community but a man called by Christ and consecrated in order to consecrate on behalf of the whole Church. Role clarity has proven to be crucial for the happiness of priests.

Bishops and seminary rectors can foster this by ensuring the teachings of the Church are being faithfully handed on to their men in formation. Likewise, dioceses should foster ongoing formation of the presbyterate so priests are being fed spiritually and intellectually with the mind of the Church.

Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, said that orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy; well-grounded men are more likely to lead happy and healthy lives.

Q: How might existing priests cope with the stresses of the priest shortage? Do you see the trend of diocesan priests living in community and sharing responsibilities as a positive development?

Father Toups: As previously mentioned, the spiritual life is of the utmost importance, as well as fostering a balanced lifestyle in which the priest gets the proper amount of sleep, healthy diet, exercise, and recreation.

Priests actually foster their own vocation as they promote vocations in general. There is nothing more life-giving than to pass on one’s own vocation to another. Every priest is called to be a “fisher of men” with regards to vocations.

Eighty percent of the newly ordained said it was a priest’s direct contact that fostered their vocation, but unfortunately only thirty percent of our priests are actively promoting vocations.

Jesus told the apostles, his first priests, “I will make you fishers of men;” the Church Fathers confirm that this apostolic gift was given to those men that stand in persona Christi in order to revitalize and regenerate the priesthood.

If every priest took a little time to foster vocations, we would be well on our way to greater numbers in the seminaries, and the priests themselves would find greater satisfaction and contentment, decreasing their stress and frustration as they see the presbyterate being renewed.

To answer your final question, let me begin by stating that whether priests live together in rectories, the presbyterate as a whole must grow in cooperation, love, and respect for one another. Again, the priesthood is attractive only if lived in communion with others.

I do believe that there are future opportunities for priests to work together in a more communal setting, where multiple parishes might need to be clustered and a number of priests could cooperate in the ministries of these communities. This kind of arrangement cannot be forced, but many priests yearn for a more fraternal life of prayer and communion with their brothers.

It will be interesting to see how this develops in the years to come. Jesus sent the disciples out in twos; there is greater support and effectiveness “when brothers live in unity.”

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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