04 August 2006

Priesthood: to do or to be?

St John Vianney: Ezekiel 3.17-21 and Matthew 9.35-10.1
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Serra Club

Our teacher, a twenty-something yuppie, asked me in class about my career plans. I answered, “I’m going to be a Catholic priest.” He gave me a blank stare, snickered, and then became openly hostile, grilling me aggressively about my vocation. When he insisted that I prove God’s existence by rubbing some of my Lourdes water on his tennis elbow, I ended the harassment with my own openly hostile stare.

Jesus tells his disciples to pray for more laborers for the field after he notes with pity, with compassion the sorry spiritual state of those gathered in the crowd. Looking out over them he sees diseased, abandoned, troubled souls who need the cure and healing of their Father’s mercy. They are sheep without a shepherd, a nation without a purpose. And so, Jesus provides both shepherds and a purpose.

Notice the pattern: Jesus goes around teaching and preaching, curing every disease. He sees the need of the crowd, is moved by compassion, orders his students to pray for vocations, gives them his authority over unclean spirits and then they go around teaching and preaching, curing every disease. In receiving Christ’s authority, the disciples become Christ’s priests; they minister to God’s people in persona Christi Capitis—in the person of Christ the Head of the Church. In effect, they are Christs!

We cannot forget this when we promote vocations to the priesthood nor can we ever allow those ordained to the priesthood to forget this. The temptation to reduce the ordained priesthood to an ecclesial function, a job with a skill-set is not easily resisted these days. Our American penchant for pragmatism and egalitarianism moves us very easily to the conclusion that “being a priest” is merely “acting as a priest.” In other words, “I am a priest b/c I function as a priest.” If my function is my identity, then anyone capable of functioning as a priest can be a priest. Questions of a legitimate call to service, proper spiritual disposition, gender, marital status, willingness to submit to ecclesial authority—all of these are irrelevant. The only question that matters is: can he/she do the job?

But is this the pattern we find in Matthew’s gospel? No. Jesus did not call the crowd to be laborers for the harvest. He called The Twelve. Jesus was not moved by political indignation at the treatment of marginalized groups He was moved by compassion for troubled souls. Jesus did not empower his disciples to challenge entrenched structures of social oppression and economic injustice. He gave them the authority to heal, the power to make the troubled whole again.

I am absolutely confident that no member of the Serra Club would treat a young man called to priesthood or anyone called to religious life the way my teacher treated me! But the temptation to clerical functionalism is more subtle, more seductive. It seems right to our hard-working, middle-class ears. It seems right to us when we ask one another: “What do you do?” rather than “Who are you?” It seems right to assume that the job the priest does—pastor, campus minister, professor—is who he is.

So, I will end with this question: do we truly understand what we are promoting when we promote vocations to the priesthood?


  1. Angelika9:53 AM

    Greetings, Father!

    I just discovered your blog and am so pleased with its contents. May I ask you what the Serra Club is about?

    Incidentally, my son and his fiance are leaving either tomorrow or next Saturday for Irving.

  2. Father, I'm confused by the "he/she" at the end of the 4th paragraph. Do you mean priests and religious?

  3. Beautifully put, Father, Thanks. Saw this linked from "The Cafeteria" where all are recovering from the "Altar gender scandals"...(-*

  4. NB. One of my Dominican brothers has rightly pointed out that paragraph five might be misunderstood by some to mean that I think Jesus didn't commission his disciples to fight against social injustice. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do think Jesus wanted his disicples and us to fight injustice. I just don't think this passage in Matthew says that. And nor do I think that fighting social injustice is limited to fighting poverty, political oppression, and war.


    The Serra Club is an international body of lay men and women who work to promote vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. I am chaplain for the University of Dallas chapter. Please tell your son and his fiance to come visit us at the Church of the Incarnation on the UD campus.


    In that paragraph I am offering a critique of the idea that the priesthood is merely functional. A merely functional priesthood wouldn't necessarily be limited to males. Women can put on vestments, read the missal, make the appropriate gestures, etc. So, the qualifying question for a functional priesthood is simply whether or not the man or woman applying can do the job.

    Thanks! Fr. Philip

  5. Frank Gibbons8:52 AM

    Hello Father,

    I understand this is not the right venue to ask you this, but I hope you can help me out.

    I'm trying to get information about the University of Dallas and the Admissions department has not responded to my request for information (an online form located on the UD Web site). We get inundated with unsolicitated brocures from other schools.

    The academics look great. UD's faithfulness to the church is wonderful. I hear horror stories about campus aesthetics. Is it really that bad? I understand that's not the prime reason to choose a college, but, it is a consideration.



    Seekonk, MA

  6. Frank,

    UD has been having a lot of trouble with its spam filters. I lost part of the campus ministry website back in April. May I suggest you call the admissions dept and request info. They are eager to provide info to prospective students.

    Campus aesthetics? Hmmmmm...well, I've seen much prettier campuses and I've seen much worse. But I can say that UD is greener, better planted and maintained than other grounds in the area. North Texas is hot and dry, so trees don't grow very tall and grass tends to be short and light green or tan. I do know that landscaping on campus has improved many times over in the last six years. You will just have to come see for yourself! :-)

    Fr. Philip

  7. Fr.

    I cannot tell you how happy I am that I have found your blog. I am an UD almuna and for the 4 years that I was there I LOVED all the Dominican priests on campus. They were my confessors and spiritual directors and they never turned me away when I needed a quick confession. I don't believe you were there when I was, but I have wonderful memories of Fr. Henebusch (or Honeybunch as he said).

    Frank-What I would say to you is I am also from the N.West part of the U.S. UD is one of THE best decisions of my life. The friends I made there are still my closest friends and Godparents to my baby. It was at UD that I met fabulous professors with whom I still contact. I traveled with Alternative Spring Break and had life changing experiences in Ecuador and Mississippi. The faith formation is outstanding! The education you receive is rigorous and benefits you for the REST of your life. And, the campus is UGLY, but the education, people, teachers, and priests you meet are bar none. What we did when we needed a beautiful campus to enjoy was go to SMU's campus and enjoy their fabulous library and aesthetics and return home and enjoy our intellectual discussions.