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Saint John of Avila and the Reform of the Priesthood | Sr. Joan Gormley | Ignatius Insight | Part Two | Part One

What then are the reforming bishops to do? Before they immerse themselves in the work of reforming priests, Avila, in effect, calls the bishops to examine themselves and their fundamental attitudes toward the exercise of their office and towards their priests. They must make certain that their attitudes correspond to those of Christ whom they represent. For reform to take place, the first requirement is that the bishops be with their priests and treat them with fatherly charity. This may, Avila states with some irony, be burdensome to the bishops and may disrupt their own settled ways of life,[15] but it is absolutely necessary if the ecclesiastical state is to be transformed according to the pattern of Christ. In dealing with their priests, the bishops are servants, not masters dealing with slaves. If they begin from this attitude, the way ahead will become clear, and it will be the way of Christ who, though he was the greatest, became as the least.

Since the prelates are to be with their clergy as fathers with their sons, not as slave owners with their slaves, let the Pope and the bishops provide for the formation of clerics as sons. Let them exercise the care required by the high dignity these clerics are to receive. Then the bishops will have great glory in having wise sons and much joy and rest in having good sons. The whole Church will rejoice greatly in having good ministers. [16]

Actions for reform of the priesthood

To bring about reform of the clergy, Avila wanted the bishops to remedy the two root causes he saw for the ruin of the priesthood: the acceptance of men unsuited for the priestly vocation and the poor formation given to candidates.

The cause of the ruin of the clergy has been the entrance of worldly people who have no knowledge of the grandeur of the state they are undertaking and whose hearts are on fire with earthly ambitions. Once they enter, they are formed in an atmosphere of false liberty without discipline of study or virtue. [17]

The first step that Father Avila recommended to the bishops was that they take great care in the choice and acceptance of men to be prepared for ordination. He stressed that no unsuitable candidate should be accepted for the priesthood under any condition, no matter who supported his entrance. In fact, entrance into the ecclesiastical life should be made difficult so that those unsuited for such a lofty vocation would not want to enter. Avila compares the situation in his own day to that at the time of Jeroboam in the Northern Kingdom of Israel when anyone who wanted could become a priest (1 Kgs. 13:33). In the same way, many bishops and superiors accepted and ordained men who had no sound understanding of the priestly state or who desired it for worldly reasons. Avila complains that some candidates conceive of the priestly life as compatible with the concupiscence of the flesh and the eyes and the pride of life. "Because of this, we are as we are," he says. And because of this, reform requires that the entrance to the ecclesiastical state be guarded and that only those qualified to live it well be accepted into it. To take any other is to cause great harm to the Church. The Body of the Lord in the Eucharist will be unworthily treated by such priests and the holy Mystical Body will be greatly harmed as "those who were supposed to be shepherds turn themselves into wolves and make carnage in the souls of those they were supposed to bring to life." [19]

The most important qualification for candidates is the intellectual and spiritual capacity required to profit from the formation and education for which the Council was to provide. If bishops are going to accept men without this capacity, then Avila comments that they should change the topic of their discussion from formation to that of "the cultivation of fields in barren lands." He is not saying that all candidates must be capable of the highest academic achievement, but that all should see the importance of study and be willing to engage in it according to their capacity. The lack of spiritual capacity is a far greater hindrance. At all costs, men who enter "to have something to eat without having to work for it," must be refused. The Christian people pay dearly when such men enter in response not to God's call, but to "the call of money and an easy life."

Jeremiah weeps for the evils of his time that have come for the sins of the prophets and the priests who shed blood in the midst of Jerusalem (cf Lam 4:13). We can weep for the same thing in our own time, understanding that the slaughter of souls that we see die, is through the wickedness and negligence of ecclesiastics, and the scourges God is sending us are the effects of their evil. The reason that this evil exists is that there are unworthy men in the Church who have entered the wrong door. Block up this wrong entrance and its bad effects will cease. [20]

The next task that John of Avila recommended for the bishops in their attempts to reform the priesthood was the establishment of a rigorous program of formation and education to be carried out in a place apart, the school we have come to know as the seminary. No one with any sense, Avila says, would entrust a wounded animal to an untrained veterinarian. How then entrust one for whom Christ died to someone who has no training in the "art of arts," the care of souls? Common sense operating in various areas of life, "from human beings to plants," dictates otherwise.

For a tree to grow straight, it is necessary to guide and straighten it from the time it is small. For a horse or a mule to be driven, they have to first be under the hand of a trainer. In all human occupations, the skilled person is not born ready-made but must become good at what he does. Becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a carpenter, a shoemaker, or anything else, requires its year or years of initiation and apprenticeship so that the person can learn little by little the skill that afterwards he can exercise without danger. Well, being a priest and becoming a good one is a thing of great perfection and difficulty. [21]

Avila's program for the formation of priests, which had profound influence on the Council's decisions on priestly formation, had three major components: a community life; intensive study of theology and doctrine; and further study for those capable of it.

First of all, Avila considered a fraternal life in community and under authority to be essential so that the young men might learn goodness as well as the Arts and might without risk become directors and builders of souls. Avila's own experience taught him the value of living the Christian life in a communal setting. During his early priesthood in Seville, he had lived with other priests in a loosely structured community, and for many years after, disciples gathered around him to live a kind of fraternal life. He also cited the example of St. Jerome who founded a monastery for the training of clerics and said to one wanting to be a priest: Live in a monastery in such a way that you may deserve to become a cleric. [22] Another example was St. Ambrose who had a monastery outside the walls of Milan for the training of clerics. [23] "If we acted as they did, within a few years, there would be a different kind of priest and people than there are now." It is noteworthy that Avila sees the establishment of seminaries for the training of priests as a return to the practice found in the early Church.

The second element in the future priest's program was an intensive and challenging program of studies. Avila considered it a scheme of the devil himself to cause ignorance of doctrine in the Church, and throughout his ministry, he combated such ignorance at every level of education and in every area of the Church's life. In view of the priest's work in parishes, all were to study grammar, cases of conscience and Sacred Scripture and this, for a long period of time since they are learning what St. Gregory called the "art of arts," the care of souls. "There should be at least four or five years of grammar so that, growing with age, goodness, and learning, the priest may speak with authority and, without danger, may exercise his high office."



Finally, Avila was convinced that every local Church needed some priests who were dedicated to higher learning in the Sacred Sciences and who could help the bishop and other priests as was necessary. They could be a tremendous help in avoiding the errors that can easily creep in when there is a little knowledge and in dealing with difficult cases which are sure to arise. The time candidates for the priesthood spend in study can be considered time well spent "because it will bring forth men who can be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and the glory of Christ. [26]

For John of Avila, renewal of the priesthood demanded that the reality of the mystery of the priest's conformity to Christ as the Good Shepherd and the High Priest had to be acknowledged and acted upon in the choice and formation of men for such an exalted office. The Pope and the Bishops responsible for choosing and preparing men for the priesthood had to make certain that they ordained only men worthy of handling the Eucharistic Body of the Lord and his Mystical Body, the Church. The holiness of the Church depended on the holiness of priests and without the latter the renewal of the Church could not be accomplished, even if here and there, saints would rise up.

Master Avila was utterly persuaded of the importance of careful formation and education in an atmosphere where prayer, virtue, and study are held in high esteem. He saw the value of fraternity with others preparing for ordination, both for the atmosphere such unity of purpose gave to the seminary and for the training it gave in living and dealing with other people. He wanted candidates for the priesthood to cultivate the intellectual life, not just as a means to ordination, but as a necessary part of their vocation, which they engaged in for the sake of the Church and would continue throughout life. He considered the ideal to be that each man would have "his vessel" filled to its capacity.

Many of the points made by Avila in his Memoranda to the Council of Trent and other writings on the priesthood have become part and parcel of the Church's ongoing life. We owe the establishment and existence of seminaries to the foresight of men like Avila who were intent upon renewal of the Church in the period of the Council of Trent. But Master Avila continues to have much to say to the Church today as it works to renew the priesthood in the post-Vatican II era. He insisted that holiness of life is inherently necessary for the holy state of the priesthood and that anyone who does not possess the spiritual and intellectual capacity for this exalted state should be excluded from entering. He insisted that, before ordination, candidates undergo a rigorous program of spiritual and intellectual formation in accord with the Gospel and the Church's teaching, and that they continue to grow in these areas after ordination. Any review of the formation and education of priests today can only profit from being so strongly reminded of the nature of the priesthood and the indispensable role of the priest in the sanctification and salvation of the members of the Church.

ENDNOTES:

[1] Juan de Avila was the son of Alfonso de Avila and Catherine Xixon, both of whom were from families of converted Jews. Avila is the surname of Juan de Avila, not as in the case of St. Teresa of Avila, the name of her place of origin.

[2] Some authors place his birth in 1500, but the latest critical edition of Avila's works argues convincingly for 1499. See Obras coinpletas de San Juan deAvila, I (Madrid: BAC, 2000), pp. 17-18.

[3] Avila wrote other documents on related topics for use in Provincial Councils that met in Spain with a view to putting the Tridentine decisions into practice.

[4] These two Memorials, Reforma del estado ecclesiastico and Causas y remedios de las herejias, are found in Obras completas,II (2001), 485-619. They will be referred to in the text as Mem I and Mem II.

[5] Tratado sobre el sacerdocio in Obras coinpletas I, 907-46. Subsequent references will be to the paragraphs of Treatise.

[6] Treatise, 2.

[7] Treatise, 5-6.

[8] Treatise, 12.

[9] Treatise, 37.

[10]Avila insists that the desire of the candidate is not sufficient to indicate a call to the priesthood. Neither is a desire of parents or prelates. Mem 1, 6.

[11] Erwin Iserloh et al, Reformation and Counter Reformation, History of the Church V, edited by Hubert Jedin and John Dolan, 7. In Mem II, Avila expressed the view that the evils which had come upon the Church, especially that of the rise of heresies, were due to the sins of Christians and, above all, to those of priests and prelates.

[12] Audi, filia, ch. 50.

[13] Mem I, 11.

[14] Mem 1,3.

[15] Avila implies that some bishops resisted reform because of the change it would demand in their own way of life.

[16] Mem.1, 5.

[17] Mem. I, 6.

[18] Mem I, 16-18. In Treatise, 42, Avila supposes that the bishops are asked why they ordain as priests men who are unqualified and places this response on their lips: "You give us better ones and we will take them: we do not have others; we take the least bad ones of those we find." Avila laments this response and adds to it the failure on the part of prelates to provide formation and education to those accepted.

[19] Treatise, 42.

[20] Mem I. 16.

[21] Mem I, 9.

[22] Mem I. 12. Avila says this quotation is from Augustine, but it is actually from Jerome, Epist. 125, 17.

[23] St. Augustine, Conf 1.8 c.6,15. Et eratmonasteriunt Mediolani plenum bonis fratribus, extra urbis moenia, sub Ambrosio nutritore.

[24] Mem. I, 12.

[25] Mem. I, 13.

[26] Mem. I, 14-15. Avila attempted to explain Scripture in accord with the decrees of the Council of Trent and became convinced that priests had to be formed for this work by education beyond the Seminary program.



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Sister Joan Gormley taught Scripture at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. She studied at Harvard University, Fordham University and the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem; she translated St. John of Avila's Audi Filia (2006) for the Classics of Western Spirituality Series published by Paulist Press. Sister Gormley died on October 19, 2007.



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