Priestly Identity: Crisis and Renewal (Part 2)

Interview With Father David Toups

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By Annamarie Adkins

WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 19, 2008 (Zenit.org).- 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.”