Enthralled by Christ, Heralds of Hope: Priestly Identity and Mission in the Theology of Pope Benedict XVI | Chris Burgwald, S.T.D. | June 11, 2010 | Ignatius Insight Enthralled by Christ, Heralds of Hope: Priestly Identity and Mission in the Theology of Pope Benedict XVI | Chris Burgwald, S.T.D. | June 11, 2010 | Ignatius Insight


As this Year for Priests draws to a close it seems appropriate to look again at the theology of the priesthood in the work of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict. In this essay I intend to examine what Pope Benedict has said and written about the identity and mission of the Catholic priest. My source material covers both papal documents and his personal, non-Magisterial remarks, as well as some of his personal theological work prior to his election as pope. In particular, I focus on his essays on the priesthood in the works Called to Communion (CC) and Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (PFF), as well as some relevant comments from the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth (JN). In terms of his official, pontifical remarks on the issue, I've naturally looked to the homilies, addresses and letters pertaining to this Year for Priests as well as his homilies from the Chrism Masses during his pontificate.

The title of this essay comes from the Holy Father's letter last June proclaiming this Year for Priests, as well as from his homily on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart which inaugurated this Year. He concluded the letter this way: "Dear priests, Christ is counting on you. In the footsteps of the Curé of Ars, let yourselves be enthralled by him. In this way you too will be, for the world in our time, heralds of hope, reconciliation and peace!" In this short passage, it seems to me that we find many of the central themes of Pope Benedict's theology of the priesthood, and it it to that theology that we will now turn.

The outline for this presentation is as follows: I'll begin with Benedict's analysis of the historical context: the post-conciliar crisis in the priesthood. Following that, we'll focus in on a central theme in his vision of priestly identity and mission: the Christological roots and foundation of both. I'll conclude by examining what Benedict calls the "spiritual applications" of these theological considerations.

Historical Context

Benedict was and is a man of the Council. He was a peritus at the Council for Cardinal Frings of Cologne, and he played an important role in the unfolding of the Council's work in general and in the development of several of the conciliar texts, particularly Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium.

But like so many others, Benedict was surprised at the events which unfolded both in the Church and in the world after the Council. Focusing in particular on the priesthood, decades later he spoke of the "profound crisis" which the Catholic priesthood entered after Vatican II. His analysis of the roots of this crisis is interesting both on its own account and also insofar as it points to his understanding of the way out of the crisis.

In short, Benedict argues that the basic framework for Vatican II's theology of the priesthood is essentially that of the Council of Trent. While the texts of Vatican II most certainly incorporated biblical motifs in a greater way than did Trent, Benedict nonetheless believes that the framework remained essentially Tridentine in nature.

One might fairly ask, "So what?" After all, the decrees of Trent on these lines are dogmatic, they belong to the deposit of faith. Benedict certainly agrees with this; he has never called the dogmatic points into question. Rather, his concern mirrors the reasons for which Pope John called the Council to begin with: to initiate a renewal within the Church which would enable her to respond more adequately to the problems and questions of the age. As with the Council in general, Benedict does not call the doctrines of the priesthood into question, but instead proposes that a new framework for those doctrines is required to more ably respond to the challenges raised with regard to our theology of the priesthood. Specifically, he argues that after the Council, Catholic theology was incapable of adequately responding to a combination of Reformation-era arguments together with findings of modern biblical exegesis. In Benedict's words, the conclusions of these challenges was as follows:

"It appeared indisputably clear that the teaching of Trent concerning the priesthood had been formulated on false assumptions and that even Vatican II had not yet found the courage to lead the exodus from this misguided history. On the other hand, the inner tendency of the Council seemingly required that we now finally do what it had not dared to do itself: to abandon the ancient conceptions of cult and priesthood and to seek a Church at once biblical and modern that would resolutely take up the challenge of the profane world and would be organized solely according to functional considerations" (CC, p. 109; emphasis mine).

"Functional" is a key term here: as Benedict sees it, these challenges to our theology of the priesthood hold that in the apostolic and post-apostolic era, ministerial offices had a purely functional character, concerned entirely with practical utility.

It seems to me that such a perspective remains both dominant and ubiquitous. I'm reminded of some of the comments made by Catholics faced with the prospect of having to go to another parish for liturgies: we can run the parish, we just need Father to come on Saturday night or Sunday morning to say Mass. Both the priesthood (the office) and the priest (the man) are reduced to what they can do, to the role, the function they play. In essence, both priesthood and priest are regarded as little more than vending machines, candy dispensers for the soul.

Now, I'm certainly not saying that Catholics have been reading Martin Luther and Karl Barth. But I do think that the theology which is the subject of Benedict's analysis here is "in the air", and given that the Christian roots of our culture are basically Protestant, it's not surprising that a function vision of Christian ministry has found its way into the minds even of Catholics.

What, then, does Benedict propose by way of a solution to this post-conciliar crisis in the priesthood? His answer to this question is the same as his answer to every other question which in some way pertains to the human heart: Jesus of Nazareth.

Christological Foundations

If we look at the pontificate of Benedict XVI from a superficial public-relations perspective, it's apparent that within the first year of his election, Benedict's public image was rehabilitated, to put it mildly. Gone were monikers like "Dr. No" and "der Panzerkardinal". Instead, we saw a man who -- despite his lack of "stage presence" -- saw more people attending his Wednesday audiences than did his predecessor, John Paul the Great! We saw a man who entitled his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (DCE) and who said that we must emphasize the "Yes!" of Christianity.

Now, as those who were familiar with his personal writings knew, this rehabilitation was largely in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. The themes of Benedict's pontificate are essentially in keeping with his previous personal theological work. What is surprising, at least to me, is the emphasis of that "Yes!" which he has been making. To put it another way: because of his office, we are now seeing the evangelical dimension of Benedict's work in a clearer way, even more then in his prior work. To borrow a title of one of Fr. Robert Barron's works, in Benedict's pontificate -- as in John Paul the Great's, albeit in his own way -- we are seeing "The Priority of Christ". Again, his work was always christocentric, but this dimension has been amplified since his election as pope. Consider, for instance, the conclusion to the Forward to volume one of Jesus of Nazareth: explaining why he began his study with Jesus' public ministry and not with the infancy narratives, he writes,

"In Part Two I hope also to be able to include the chapter on the infancy narratives, which I have postponed for now, because it struck me as the most urgent priority to present the figure and the message of Jesus in his public ministry, and so to help foster the growth of a living relationship with him" (JN, p. xxiv; emphasis mine). These are not the words of sawdust theology, dry and coarse! Rather, they reveal what is at the heart of Benedict and his work: Jesus Christ.

With this preface, we now look at the Christological foundations of Benedict's theology of the priesthood.

The Priesthood as Participation in the Mission of Christ

In Benedict's vision, the foundation of the ministerial office in the New Testament is this: apostleship as participation in the mission of Jesus Christ. As Benedict notes, both the novelty and the center of the New Testament is Jesus. He says, "what is new about [the New Testament] is not, strictly speaking, ideas -- the novelty is a person: God who becomes man and draws man to himself" (CTC, p. 111).

This is a point which Benedict has been making more repeatedly and more insistently in the last couple of decades. Consider these words from the first article of DCE: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." Or consider these words from his lectio divina with the seminarians of Rome last month: "It is not we who must produce the abundant fruit; Christianity is not moralism, it is not we who must do all that God expects of the world but we must first of all enter this ontological mystery: God gives himself." Even in the context of this Year for Priests, Benedict returns to this theme, which might rightly be considered the major key of his pontificate: we cannot reduce Christianity to ideas -- ideology -- or to moralism; while ideas (truths) and morality are certainly important to our faith, they are not the center, they are not the novum: that place is held by Christ alone. Remember, this is a theologian writing these things! We make our living by reducing our living, vibrant relationship with Jesus to cures for insomniacs! But not Benedict.

So even in the case of the priesthood, he tells us that the point of departure must lie in Christology, in our understanding of who Jesus is. In this context, Benedict's emphasis is on Jesus' mission, on the fact that He is sent by the Father, that He represents God's authority concretely in His person. Benedict hones in on following formula from John's Gospel, and on the interpretation of this formula given by Benedict's personal favorite theologian, St. Augustine: "My doctrine is not my own but his who sent me" (7:16). Benedict makes this point: Jesus both has and is nothing of his own aside from the Father... nothing. As Benedict sees it, in this Johannine formula Jesus "is saying that precisely what is most intimately his own -- his self -- is that which is altogether not his own. What is his is what is not his" (CTC, p. 113). And it is by this very expropriation of himself that Jesus is totally one with the Father.

What does this have to do with the priesthood? This: Jesus prolongs His own mission, His own sending from the Father by the creation of the office of "those who have been sent": the office of the apostles. According to Benedict, "Jesus confers His power upon the apostles and thereby makes their office strictly parallel to his own mission" (ibid.). As Jesus tells the Twelve on numerous occasions, "he who receives you receives me" (Matthew 10:40). Or even more clearly: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 13:20).

Recalling that Jesus' entire being is mission and relationship, Benedict sees this statement of Jesus' as having enormous weight for the proper understanding of the priesthood of the New Covenant, particularly when we look to the following parallelism:

The Son can do nothing of himself (John 5:19, 30)
Without me you can do nothing (John 15:5)

Benedict argues that the power and the impotency (the potency and impotency) of the apostolic office -- and hence the priesthood in general -- derives precisely from this "nothing" that the disciples share with Jesus. It's worth quoting Benedict at length here:

"Nothing that makes up the activity of the apostles is the product of their own capabilities. But it is precisely in having 'nothing' to call their own that their communion with Jesus consists, since Jesus is also entirely from the Father, has being only through him and in him and would not exist at all if he were not a continual coming forth from and self-return to the Father. Having 'nothing' of their own draws the apostles into communion of mission with Christ." So somewhat counter-intuitively, what brings the apostles into union with Christ's mission, what makes their own mission the extension of his, is the nothingness of their own activity.

From this point, Benedict elaborates at length on the nature of the sacrament of ordination. It is because the apostle's (and by extension, the priest's) communion with Christ derives from having nothing of his own that ordination is not about the development of one's own abilities and talents. Jesus receives everything from the Father -- He has nothing which is His own -- and He brings salvation to the world. The priest receives everything from Jesus -- he has nothing which is his own -- and he brings salvation to the world. Just as self-expropriation, self-dispossession and selflessness were necessary for the High Priest to be one with the Father and to accomplish that for which He was sent, so too are these things necessary for those who act in his person.

In this we see the beginnings of a "Benedictine" response to a denuded, functional conception of ministerial office: the priesthood is not about developing one's personal powers and gifts, but rather it is about sharing our very nothingness with Christ, and in so doing being united with Him to the Father in the Spirit, and thereby bringing the life of the Father -- His grace -- to the Church and to the world.

An Ontological Union

A second aspect of the Christological foundations of Benedict's theology of the priesthood flows from the first: the priest's union with Christ is an ontological one.

This is by no means a new insight; the Church has always been very clear that the union which the sacrament of holy orders effects is ontological in nature; it is not a superficial union, but one which goes to the depths of human nature, to the depths of our being. Nor is this union unique to orders: it occurs for all of us in baptism, and is deepened in the other sacraments as well. We are joined to Christ, conformed to Him, and this is true as well of ordination.

At the same time, Benedict indicates that this truth -- an ontological union -- has been somewhat obscured in our time, to the detriment of a proper understanding -- and therefore a proper exercise -- of the New Testament priesthood.

Benedict addresses this topic in a number of places. I've already referred to his lectio divina with the Roman seminarians from earlier this year. In that lectio, Benedict is commenting on John 15:1-17. As you know, in this passage Jesus speaks of Himself as the true vine and of the twelve (and ultimately, all his disciples) as the branches of the vine. In his lectio, Benedict keys in on Jesus' imperative, "Abide in me," affirming that the idea of abiding in the Lord is fundamental as the first topic of this passage. In order to be laborers in the vineyard, in order to be priests of Christ's mystery, Benedict emphasizes that the union between Jesus and the priest is an ontological one, for it is only by being deeply rooted in Christ, it is only by being joined to Christ at the deepest level of his being that the priest is capable of exercising his ministry. As Jesus says in this passage, "as the branches cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me." For the priest -- as for every Christian -- this abiding in Jesus, this ontological intimacy is foundational and primary.

This is also seen, according to Benedict, in that the second imperative of the passage -- "observe my commandments" -- only comes after the imperative to abide in the Lord and in his love. Benedict observes, "'Abide' comes first, at the ontological level, namely that we are united with him, he has given himself to us beforehand and has already given us his love, the fruit." Benedict affirms that Christ's being, Christ's loving comes first, and that it is only because we abide in His being and love that we are able to act: we are only able to act in Christ because we have first been rooted in Christ. The priest, then, is only able to act in the person of Christ precisely because he is first in the person of Christ.

Benedict also notes that it is in this context of abiding in Christ and His love that Jesus speaks of the twelve as His friends: "I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." Again the previous theme: Christ has nothing of his own, but rather, everything He has has been given to Him by His Father, and He in turn shares everything He has received from the Father -- His teachings, but also His life, His love, His very being -- with these men. Friends are those who share with one another, and here Jesus affirms that the twelve are not merely servants, but are also His friends, because He has shared everything He has received from His Father with them.

So for Benedict, it is because of this ontological union which begins at baptism and is given a new configuration at ordination that the priest truly becomes a friend of Christ and is able to act in His name.

The same theme is also present in another lectio from this year, this one with the parish priests of Rome. Commenting here on passages from the Letter to the Hebrews, Benedict notes that it was the author of this letter who first introduced a second way of understanding Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament; the first saw Him above all as the fulfillment of the Davidic promises: Jesus as the true King of Israel and in fact of all of creation. The author of Hebrews, however, finds in Psalm 110:4 ("You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek") an indication that Jesus also fulfills the expectation of the true Priest. It is this author who realized that Jesus fulfilled both the promise of a true King as well as the promise of a true Priest.

Beginning with this introduction, Benedict unfolds the theme of Christ's priesthood as Hebrews presents it, in three levels: the priesthood of Aaron, of Melchizedek, and of Christ Himself. For the purposes of our present theme I'd like to look briefly at Benedict's remarks regarding the first level: Christ's priesthood -- and thereby the New Testament priesthood -- as a fulfillment of the Aaronic priesthood as presented in Hebrews.

According to Benedict, the author of Hebrews indicates that the Law tells us two things about the priesthood: first, that if the priest is to be a mediator between God and man, the priest must be a man; and it was for this reason that Christ became man. Second, though, is this: the man who would be a priest is intrinsically unable to make himself a mediator for God; man lacks the power, the ability to become a priestly mediator of his own accord. He needs to receive divine authorization, he needs to be divinely instituted in order to be the bridge that a mediator is called to be.

Benedict is not content, however, to make the simple point that the priest must be "picked for God's team" in order to truly become a priest. He goes farther, or rather, deeper: for a man to truly be on God's team, for a man to truly become a bridge, a mediator, a priest, his being must be introduced into Christ's divine being. Benedict affirms that the priest can accomplish his mission only by means of the sacrament of ordination which brings him into communion with Christ, which introduces him into participation in Christ's mystery, His being. Again: the New Testament priesthood requires, demands an ontological bond, a communion with Christ at the deepest level of one's being. Anything else is incapable of enabling a man to be the bridge that brings God and man together which the priesthood requires. Benedict also gives some practical thoughts on this, but we'll save those for the final portion of this presentation.

Augustinian Synthesis

For the final block in the Christological foundation of Benedict's theology of the priesthood I'd like to focus on one of his discussions of Augustine's treatment of the New Testament priesthood, particularly two series of images which the Doctor of Grace employed in his theological exegesis. As we will see, it is in Benedict's analysis of these images that the points we've been considering here come together.

The first scriptural image is of the priest as servus Dei or servus Christi: the priest as the servant of Christ. The Scriptural background and context for this image is found in the great Christological hymn found in Philippians 2:5-11: "Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men..."

Benedict focuses on the fact that the term "servant" implies a relationship: to be a servant means to serve someone, to serve another. So if we understand the priest to be a servant of Christ, we are saying that the life of a priest is oriented towards and determined in a substantial way by Jesus; to be a priest means, fundamentally, to be in relationship with Jesus. Benedict affirms that the essence of the office of priesthood -- even the essence of the priest himself, of his being -- is to be oriented towards Christ as a servant.

Benedict goes on to note that it is only by and because of his orientation towards Christ that the priest is able to serve the Church; the priest cannot be servus Ecclesiae unless he is first servus Christi. As Benedict puts it, it is precisely because the priest belongs to Christ that he is able to belong to others, and in a radical manner. For Benedict, the ontological truly enables the functional: understanding that to be a priest is to be in relationship with Jesus Christ & to share His being is in fact the only solid basis by which the priest is able to fulfill his priestly duties and responsibilities in the radical way necessary.

Benedict sees the concept of servant as deeply connected with the image of the indelible character, the notion of a ineradicable mark on the soul of the man who is ordained. The connection is seen in that in late antiquity, "character" referred to the seal or stamp of possession which was placed on a thing, even on a person, a seal which could no longer be removed or erased. By virtue of this stamp, the recipient of the stamp was forever and irrevocably marked as belonging to its master. Continuing the line of thought just seen, "character" thus indicates a belonging which becomes a part of the recipient's very existence: character thus implies being in relationship with another. And of course, in the case of ordination, the owner is Christ. With the imposition of hands, Christ says to the man being ordained: “You belong to me”: He has taken possession of him.

And again, as we've seen previously in other contexts, the initiative for this character comes from the master, the proprietor: it comes from Christ. As Benedict puts it, to be ordained thus means that I am only the recipient of the action of Christ: I cannot ordain myself, I cannot declare that I am on God's side in this radical way, but rather He must first act, He must first declare me and make me his own, and only then can I enter into this acceptance and make it my own. I am only able, then, to actively receive, and nothing more.

The second series of images of priestly service which Benedict explores comes from Augustine's contemplation of the figure and role of John the Baptist. In the Gospels, John is presented as the voice which prepares the way for the coming of the Word: vox (voice) and verbum (word): the relationship between the two characterizes the relationship between the priest and Jesus. The word is prior to the voice: the word is present in my mind, in my heart before it is uttered by my voice. But it is through the mediation of the voice that the word becomes perceptible to the other and is thereby able to become present in the heart of the other, while remaining present in the heart of the one who spoke the word. So: the voice is the transitory mediator; the word remains present in the heart of the speaker and then of the hearer, but the voice passes away. The application thus becomes clear: the task of the priest, Benedict notes, is simply to be a voice for the word. Referring to John the Baptist's affirmation of his own transitory role ("He must increase, but I must decrease"), Benedict affirms that the voice has no other purpose than to pass on the word, after which it passes away. The priest is, in the entirety of his existence, vox, and in this light we can see his radical and complete dependence upon and orientation towards the Verbum, Jesus Christ.

Spiritual Applications

What application, then, does Benedict see these theological observations having on the life and ministry of the Catholic priest today? To begin with, it's helpful to consider Benedict's grasp of the difficulties which being a priest in our age entail. In an essay in PFF written just over ten years ago, he wrote the following:

“A parish priest who may today be in charge of three or four parishes is forever traveling from one place to another; this situation, well known to missionaries, is becoming more and more the rule in the heartlands of Christianity. The priest has to try to guarantee the availability of the sacraments to the communities; he is oppressed by administrative work; problems of all kinds make their demands on him in addition to the personal troubles of so many people, for whom he can often—because of the rest—hardly find any time. Torn to and fro between such activities, he feels empty, and it becomes more and more difficult for him to find time for recollection, from which he can draw new strength and inspiration. Outwardly torn and inwardly emptied, he loses all joy in his calling, which ends by seeming nothing but a burden and scarcely bearable any longer. Escape increasingly seems the obvious course” (PFF, p. 169).

What, then can be done to address and prevent such a situation? Benedict turns to the conciliar decree on the life and ministry of the priest -- Presbyterium Ordinis -- as the starting point from which he elaborates his proposed solutions.

First, Benedict notes that the reality of the ontological unity which the priest has with Christ might be present and alive in the priest's consciousness and therefore in his actions. The priest, in other words, must have a clear and conscious understanding that everything he does, he does with Christ. It's important to note that the ontological is prior to the epistemological: Benedict and the Council Fathers are not saying that it is by the power and force of my awareness that I am in union with Christ, but rather that the already-real ontological fact must pervade my consciousness. The intimacy of being which the priest has with Christ must rise to the level of intentionality, of awareness, of consciousness, and it must usher forth in every aspect of his life and ministry. For Benedict, "the priest must be a man who knows Jesus intimately, who has encountered him and has learned to love him" (CC, p. 128).

In order for this to happen, in order for the priest to be vitally aware of his union and fellowship with Christ in all of his activities, Benedict makes his second proposal: ascetic discipline must not be allowed to become an additional burden, an extra program that you must fit into your schedule alongside all of your various pastoral activities. Rather, the work itself must be recognized and lived as asceticism, in that it is in one's priestly work that he learns to overcome himself, that he learns to let his life go and give it up to others; it is in the disappointments and failures of priestly work, Benedict proposes, that the priest learns renunciation and the acceptance of pain, of letting go of himself; it is in the joy of succeeding that the priest learns gratitude, and so on. For Benedict, the ascetic discipline that enables the priest to be aware of his fellowship with Christ is found in the very life and work of ministry itself.

But Benedict is clear with his third theme: for these things to happen, "I still need moments in which to catch my breath" (PFF, p. 170). Again drawing upon the Council, Benedict affirms that this conscious fellowship with Christ and ministry-as-asceticism can only occur if priests "penetrate ever more profoundly into the mystery of Christ" (ibid.). Benedict affirms that attention to the interior life is absolutely necessary and essential for the priest, in his life and in his work, noting that without an inner dimension, ministry degenerates into activism. Therefore, Benedict states that making time for God must be a pastoral priority for priests, even above all other priorities. As he puts it, "this is not an additional burden but space for the soul to draw breath, without which we necessarily become breathless -- we lose that spiritual breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit within us" (ibid.). He argues that inwardly seeking God's face is the only rest which enables the priest to love his work, the only rest which restores the priest's joy in God.

I conclude this section with a text from Saint Gregory the Great which Pope Benedict cites in this context:

“What else are holy men but rivers that… water the parched earth? Yet they would… dry up… if they… did not return to the place where they began their course. That is, if they do not abide in the interiority of the heart and do not bind themselves fast with chains of longing in love for the Creator…, their tongue withers up. But out of love they constantly return to this inner sanctuary, and what they… pour put… in public they draw from the well… of love. By loving they learn what they proclaim in teaching” (In Ezechielem 1, hom. 5, 16, cited in CC, p. 131).


Drawing these insights from the Holy Father together, we can draw the following conclusions: in order to overcome a flattened vision of the priesthood which reduces the priest to little more than a machine and which in fact flattens the man himself, we must recover the vision of the priest as a man united to Christ in the deepest levels of his being, a man who brings nothing of his own, but precisely in that nothingness brings Christ's love and life into a parched world, dying of thirst for Christ. The priest exists completely and totally for Christ; he is in a sense determined, ordered by his relationship with Christ, and it is this radical structuring for Christ which enables and empowers him to serve others. But for this ontological reality to bear fruit, it must rise to the level of awareness, and the priest must recognize and embrace his work as his own ascetic discipline. Finally, the priest must catch his breath, and make every effort to find time for that rest which brings him life: seeking after the face of Christ.

Chris Burgwald holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and has been the Director of Evangelization & Adult Catechesis for the Diocese of Sioux Falls in South Dakota for the past eight years. He and his wife have four children.