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

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Editor's Note: On August 20, 2011, at a Mass for seminarians in the cathedral of Santa Marķa la Real de La Almudena in Madrid, Pope Benedict XVI announced he will soon proclaim St. John of Avila Doctor of the Universal church. "I invite everyone to look to Saint John of Avila and I commend to his intercession the Bishops of Spain and those of the whole world, as well as all priests and seminarians", he said, "As they persevere in the same faith which he taught, may they model their hearts on that of Jesus Christ the good shepherd, to whom be glory and honor for ever." The following essay by Sister Joan Gormley, which originally appeared in the April 2004 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, provides an introduction to the life of St. John of Avila and to his effort to reform priestly formation.



St. John of Avila was a parish priest and theologian in 16th century Spain who exercised some influence over ideas concerning the reform of priestly reformation at the Council of Trent. Avila linked the priesthood closely to the Eucharist and regarded holiness as the preeminent quality of a priest, who must serve as a mediator between God and man. To this end, he recommended painstaking selection of candidates followed by rigorous spiritual and intellectual formation within a community. For Avila, renewal of the priesthood demanded the priest's conformity to Christ as both Good Shepherd and High Priest.

Sixteenth century Spain was a golden age of sanctity during which a veritable procession of saints appeared on the scene before and after the Council of Trent and contributed in a multitude of ways to the reform and renewal of the Church. We might mention, for example, such saints as Ignatius of Loyola, Peter of Alcantara, Teresa of Avila, Francis Borgia, and John of God. All of these saints were religious who renewed the life of the Church by founding or reforming communities that became renowned for holiness of life and apostolic zeal. Less often noticed, but definitely a participant in the procession of sixteenth century Spanish saints is St. John of Avila,[1] a diocesan priest who labored as a preacher, confessor, spiritual director, catechist, evangelizer, educator, and theologian and knew and helped each and all of the saints mentioned above.

Venerated in Spain as the patron of diocesan priests, John Avila was a major figure in the reform of the life and ministry of parish priests who, as shepherds of Christ's faithful, have direct influence on the holiness of the Church. His teaching on the priesthood and its renewal continues to be illuminating for the Church, especially in the contemporary situation in which profound questions have been raised about priestly life and ministry. Avila was profoundly convinced of the holiness of the priestly state and of the holiness of life required of each and every priest. He considered the very holiness of the Church and its members to depend on the careful selection and formation of candidates for the priesthood so that they might be holy and exercise their office of sanctifying others.

Introduction to St. John of Avila

John of Avila was born on the feast of the Epiphany in 1499 in Extremadura in the ecclesiastical province of Toledo, the only child of his parents. [2] He spent four years at the University of Salamanca studying law (1513-1517), and then returned to his parents' home where he lived in seclusion for several years. On the advice of a Franciscan priest, the young man left his solitude and matriculated at the University of Alcala, an important center for humanistic studies in Spain, where he studied from 1520-1526. After ordination to the priesthood in 1526, Avila went to Seville to prepare for departure as a missionary to the new world. While waiting to set sail, the newly ordained priest engaged in catechesis and preaching, so impressing the priest with whom he lived and worked, Father Fernando Contreras, that he urged the Archbishop of Seville to keep Avila in Spain, where an enormous mission field had opened up with the end of Muslim domination. Thus, John Avila began the missionary work in Southern Spain that would earn him the title, "Apostle of Andalusia."

During this early period of his priestly ministry, Avila lived in a loosely structured fraternity with Father Contreras and some other priests engaged in preaching, evangelizing, and catechizing. As Avila continued to work in Seville and its surrounding areas, other priests, desiring a similar mode of ministry, became his disciples and lived a simple fraternal life under his direction. By the time sickness forced his retirement, there were about one hundred priests who regarded Master Avila as their director, many of who helped in founding and staffing the schools that Avila established.

In 1531, Avila was denounced to the Inquisition and spent a year in prison (1532-33), a time during which he claimed to have learned more than in all his other studies. In prison, he began his major work, Audi, filia, a guide to the spiritual life, written for a young woman who was living a consecrated life under his direction. He also continued his study of the letters of St. Paul, becoming so immersed in them that later, a religious priest who heard him preaching said: "I have heard St. Paul interpreting St. Paul." In July of 1533, the Inquisition absolved Avila of all charges against his orthodoxy and he resumed his priestly ministry. He was incardinated in the diocese of Cordoba in 1535 and preached there and in Granada during the next several years, making many converts, including John of God and Francis Borgia. It is thought that in Granada, around 1538, Avila received the title of "Master in Sacred Theology." It became the custom to call him "the Master," a title with an academic connotation, but used in a more general sense for Avila, to capture the central aspect of his priestly vocation as a preacher, teacher, and director of souls.

Avila's outstanding work during the middle years of his ministry was the establishment of schools at every level: schools of doctrine for children and adults; colleges--the equivalent of our high schools--and universities, the most notable of which was that of Baeza. His disciples played an important part in this enterprise since they taught in these schools. When the time came for Avila to give up this phase of his life's work, he desired that the Jesuits would take it over, especially the University of Baeza. His desire did not come to fruition as he wished, but about thirty of Avila's disciples did go, with the Master's encouragement, to the Society of Jesus.

Beginning in 1551, Avila was increasingly burdened by ill health, and, within a few years, was forced to give up his missionary endeavors. For a brief period, there was discussion with the Jesuits, including Ignatius of Loyola, of his possible entry into the Society. However, Avila's failing health prevented this move, and he spent the last years of his life in semi-retirement in Montilla in the diocese of Cordoba. He continued to engage in ministry as his health permitted and wrote a vast number of letters to people in various states of life. John of Avila died on May 10, 1569, and, in accord with his wishes, was buried in the Jesuit Church in Montilla. Beatified on September 15, 1894, he was declared patron of diocesan priests in Spain on July 2, 1946, and was canonized on May 31, 1970 by Pope Paul VI.

Avila's theology of priesthood

Throughout his life and ministry, John Avila maintained an abiding interest in all that concerned the priesthood. He was spiritual director to many priests and wrote at length to them about their life and ministry. He often preached sermons and gave conferences to priests on the subject of their vocation, convinced that reform of the clergy at all levels was the key to the reform of the Church. Father Avila also wrote two systematic documents for his friends in the hierarchy who were participating in the Council of Trent. [3] The first of these is the "Memorial" or "Memorandum" (1551) entitled "Reform of the Ecclesiastical State." The Archbishop of Granada, Pedro Guerrero, had invited Avila to attend a session of the Council of Trent as a peritus. Unable to accept because of failing health, Avila wrote a document for Guerrero's use, both to prepare the Spanish delegation to Trent and as a guide for statements made within the Council. Much of this material found its way into the Council's documents on reform of the clergy. In 1561, he wrote a second "Memorial" for the same Council with the title, "Causes and Remedies of Heresies" in which he advocated reform at every level of the Church's life, including the Papacy and Episcopacy. [4] A third document, "Treatise on the Priesthood," was written about 1563, apparently as preparation for some conferences on the priesthood he was to give. [5] Together, these three works provide an overview of Avila's theology of the priesthood and his vision for its reform.



St. John of Avila defined the priesthood first of all in terms of its relationship to the Eucharist. By it "bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, our Lord," and the Lord Jesus Christ is thus present by a real presence. Avila insists that there is no greater power on the earth than that of priests, for "they have power over God himself." Moses' power turned the sea into dry land and Joshua's voice was obeyed by creatures (Jos. 10:13-14). But the priest's power in celebrating the Eucharist is far greater than theirs, for by his word and action, the priest gives sacramental being to God made man. The power of his word is similar to that of Mary in the Incarnation. At her word, the Son of God was made flesh in her womb; at the priest's word, the Son of God is sacramentally present under the forms of bread and wine and offers himself to the Father.

The Blessed Virgin Mary gave the Word of God his being as a man, begetting him from her most pure blood and becoming his true natural mother. In this no one was, is, or will be her equal. But the sacramental being which the priest gives to God made man, through so exalted a means is similar to what Mary gave. It is a being that at first the Word did not have. [6]

Since by the power he exercises, the priest has the supreme dignity of acting as mediator between God and man, he must be holy. The Old Testament required holiness for priests who would instruct and offer sacrifice but would not have the sublime dignity of the New Testament priest: "The priests of the Lord offer incense and bread to God; therefore they shall be holy to their God" (Lev. 21:6). Avila interprets the "offering of incense to God" as a reference to the priest's role as mediator. Christ is the only true Mediator and the great High Priest, but the priest shares in Christ's priesthood and thus, at the altar, represents Christ as he offers himself to the Father. [7] For this, the priest must live in loving intimacy with the Lord, and be conformed to his image. The other side of his role as mediator is to care in Christ's name for those committed to his care. These he must love more than earthly fathers love their children.

As the one who "offers bread to God," that is, as the one who celebrates the Eucharist, the priest must participate in the holiness of the Lord: "If sanctity is not required to touch the most pure body of Christ our Lord, the holiest thing of all, I do not know for what it is needed on earth." [8] Following the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, Avila links the Eucharistic and pastoral tasks of the priest, insisting that holiness is also essential for the priest's office of caring for and sanctifying the Mystical Body of Christ. In short, Avila holds with St. Gregory and St. John Chrysostom that the same holiness is required of the priest for touching the Mystical Body of Christ as is demanded for offering the Sacrifice of the Mass and touching the Eucharistic Body of the Lord. [9]

The priesthood is God's gift to the Church, and no one, Avila emphasizes, should dare to take the office on himself but must receive it as a call from God, verified by the Church through the bishop. The same pertains to seeking higher ecclesiastical offices. It is a great deception on the part of men to desire for themselves the exterior splendor of the ecclesiastical state and the honor given to the priest or bishop as Christ's representative. But if they enter this exalted state by their own will, they will find themselves with obligations beyond their means and will end up causing no little harm to themselves and to the Church. [10] Avila will insist on this point in his vision of the way to reform of the priesthood.

The shape of reform and renewal

St. John Avila was not alone in his conviction that reform of the Church as a whole required reform of the ecclesiastical state, especially the priesthood. One purpose for the foundation of the University of Alcala, which Avila attended, was precisely to provide good priests and bishops for the dioceses of Spain. The first years of Avila's studies in Alcala coincided with the brief reign of Adrian VI (1522-1523), who, at his first consistory, summarized the situation of the Church in graphic words: "Depravity has become so taken for granted that those soiled by it no longer notice the stench of sin." [11]

Contemplating the massive task of ecclesial and ecclesiastical reform, especially with the Protestant "reformation" in full swing, Father Avila called first of all for each individual to reform his own life. He knew the dangers lurking for the zealous who are outraged at the sight of the failures of others. In his guide for the spiritual life, Audi, filia, he warns that eagerness for the reform of the Church is no guarantee of a divine call to bring it about. On the other hand, each person is called by God to the reform of his own life.

There have not been lacking in our time persons who have held it as certain that they were to reform the Christian Church and bring it to the perfection it had in its beginning, or to another greater. Those who have died without doing this have been enough proof of their deceived hearts. It would have been better for them to have dedicated themselves to their own reform. That is a thing that, with God's grace, would have turned out to be easy, rather than, forgetting their own consciences, turning the eyes of their vanity on a thing that God did not want done through them. [12]

But there were those in the Church through whom God did want to accomplish the work of ecclesiastical reform of the Church, namely, the bishops, who were obligated to it by their office. Reform of the priesthood and of the Church had to begin with them. In the first "Memorial," Avila advocated that the bishops should move from discussion to action. Already, there had been plenty of discussion and sharing of opinions. Consequently, we can "excuse ourselves from deliberation and take up the task of putting into practice something that fell into disuse because of the sins and calamities of the Church." [13] The bishops should also refrain from issuing more statements, regulations, and penalties, for there was an abundance of these already, and they were not being put into effect by the very bishops who formulated them, nor were they observed by the clergy to whom they were addressed. Statements and regulations are comparatively easy to make, and indeed, Avila adds, they can be formulated without charity. Master Avila exclaims at the marvelous laws that already exist for every area of life and with marvelous penalties attached. "Yet, with all of this, everyone knows how wicked, how ignorant, and how disordered we ecclesiastics can become." [14]



Read Part Two of "Saint John of Avila and the Reform of the Priesthood" | Part One



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