As lay people have taken on more responsibility in the Church, our sense of priesthood has matured.
Why do we have lay people doing so many jobs that used to be done only by priests, such as distributing Communion, spiritual direction and parish ministry? Has the priest’s job description changed?
This is a question that the Catholic Church has been grappling with for more than 50 years, and will continue to do so for some time. In April, the Vatican announced that early next year it will host a symposium on the priesthood, exploring the role of the ordained priesthood, especially as it relates to all baptized members of the Church.
I was ordained a priest in 1977 after graduating from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. Eighteen of us were ordained in my class and returned to our home countries. That year, there were 74,000 priests in the United States serving 45 million Catholics.
The vision and practices of the Second Vatican Council were being implemented throughout the Church, which only served to encourage our enthusiasm for priestly ministry. The training of lay ministers was beginningand opening the door for their greater participation in the ministry of the Church. Women’s expanding role in Church leadership outside of being a religious sister was taking hold. Focusing priestly ministry beyond our sacramental role to active participation in the Church’s social ministry has expanded our vision of priesthood.
In all of this, we came to see that our ordained priesthood was only one part of the entire priestly people’s vocation. This was an exciting time for young priests.
Today, there are 32,000 priests serving 63 million Catholics in the United States. As the years passed for my ordination class, our youthful enthusiasm for ministry met with the day-to-day reality of being a priest in the Church in the 20th and 21st centuries. For those of us who stayed in the priesthood, the challenge of daily renewing our enthusiasm and continuing to serve God’s people in the Church has met with mixed success depending on how we have personally lived out our vocation day to day and stayed close to Christ.
As a Church, we continue to see the vision of Vatican II realized in many wonderful ways: permanent deacons and their spouses ministering; more lay ministers in parish positions of authority; women in leadership in the Church, such as our chancellor, CFO and Marriage Tribunal director in our own diocese.
I admit, in the midst of those years, I came to realize thatI almost threw away the precious gift of priesthood for a bottle. I have been sober in AA for 17 years now, and both Bishop Gainer and Bishop Stowe have been wonderful “spiritual fathers” in my journey back to Christ.
The expansion of priests’ involvement with social ministry has been remarkable. In our diocese, many groups witness to Christ’s challenge, “If you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” This includes the Christian Appalachian Project helping people in Eastern Kentucky, Rachel’s Vineyard for families recovering from abortion, LGBT ministry and the interfaith organizing of BUILD.
As we approach the ordination of Deacon Ronald Sagum to the priesthood this month, I know he will be a priest of the 21st century. He will be called as I and countless others have been over the centuries to minister to and with God’s people for the building up of the Body of Christ. He will face the challenges, doubts and hopes that all of us priests before him have faced.
It has been an interesting and challenging journey to continue to respond to the call to priesthood with the original enthusiasm I had 43 years ago. Mass, daily prayer and meditation, a spiritual director, fellowship with brother priests and openness to the lived example of wonderful lay men and women all have kept my vocation alive.
“As a Church, we continue to see the vision of Vatican II realized in many wonderful ways: permanent deacons and their spouses ministering; more lay ministers in parish positions of authority …”