Ten Principles of Priestly Life
How a priest’s perspective can help the faithful in challenging times
St. John Vianney (1786-1859) once said: “Were we to realize fully what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love. … Without the priest, the passion and death of Our Lord would be of no avail. … What use would be a house filled with gold, were there no one to open its door?”
The priesthood offers both ministry and life challenges, but the following are some principles to priestly life that open the doors to the “house filled with gold” for themselves and the faithful.
Principle One: Trust Your Story
Life is a movement from birth to death, from where we have been, through where we are at the moment, to where we are being led by God.
Father Adrian van Kaam, CSSp, Ph.D., (1920-2007) identified this movement as a “formative action pattern.” He related this concept to the fact that our life is an ongoing story of moving from, through, to our final destiny in eternity.
An example of this movement in a priest’s life might be: moving from ego-centeredness — characterized by disobedience and failure to listen to God’s call; moving through ego-desperation — due to failed expectations, inner and outer conflicts, and hungering for life’s deeper meaning; moving to God-centeredness — characterized by conversion of heart, a renewed sense of instrumentality, and a longing to serve God and neighbor, with an abandoned and liberated heart.
Principle Two: Listen to Life
To be and become “other Christ’s,” priests need to listen to their life, and that of others, in all of its myriad details. Priests teach us how to hear God’s voice addressing us in the context of our everyday life, witnessing by virtue of their vocation that God is the loving source and center of all that we are now and will be in the years allotted to us.
As priests reflect on the mystery of God’s love, it is natural for them to listen to the richness and complexity of their own inner life, to what they feel, think, imagine, remember and anticipate.
To be taken into account is the fact that their ministry is inseparable from the providential circumstances in which they find themselves. By the same token, priests are influenced as much as we are by happenings and forces that are beyond their direct powers of observation and control. That is why listening to them in faith, hope and love is so essential.
Finally, being driven by time-urgency and over-scheduling can serve as a reminder to priests to take time for reflection, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, and to radiate to others the peace and joy of Jesus.
Principle Three: See Every Limit as a Blessing
Instead of inflating a “control-center me” mentality, rooted in functional performance, priests need to see limits as revelations of their divinely directed calling in the Lord.
The myth that “I am in charge of everything” is an obstacle that can only be overcome by making the best of what is in response to God’s grace.
Focusing on one’s limits, accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, has to be reformed by moving away from either willfulness or willessness. Both stances hinder the practice of authentic willing, oriented first and foremost to implementing God’s will.
Principle Four: Match the Dispositions of Your Heart to the Heart of Jesus
In her masterpiece, “The Way of Perfection,” St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) writes extensively regarding three interior dispositions of the heart that enable us to match our character to the Lord’s: humility, detachment and charity. This trinity of virtues, modeled on the Triune mystery and embodied fully in Jesus, is a secret source of a successful priestly ministry.
Teresa insists that humility goes hand in hand with charity, or love of others, and detachment, or the diminished seeking of self-satisfaction. Inspirational to every listener are her words: “Reflect that true humility consists to a great extent in being ready for what the Lord desires to do with you and happy that he should do it, and in always considering yourselves unworthy to be called his servants.”
Detachment is a condition for the possibility of our being united with God while not making any person, event or thing ultimate.
Regarding the practice of charity, St. Teresa says that we are in error when we love too much or too little, too possessively or too indifferently. Yet she is adamant about the elevation of love from sensual gratification to spiritual self-giving in conformity to the way of love we witness in Jesus.
Principle Five: Let Your Existence Mirror Your Essence in God
Essence refers to the mystery that, before we came to be, we were already known in the mind and heart of God (cf. Ps 139:1-18). Existence refers to how we implement our essence in tune with our divinely guided life direction as called, committed and consecrated to God.
Priests live the truth that humanity’s deepest identity is hidden in Christ. The Holy Spirit appeals to our human spirit to disclose and implement over a lifetime the transforming generosity of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit.
Knowing that their essence in God is the key to a happy existence, priests are able day by day to serve all those entrusted to their care with compassion and competence.
Principle Six: Give to Others What You Have Received from God
“What do you possess that you have not received?” (1 Cor 4:7). Scripture reminds us that the free gift of God is eternal life (cf. Rom 6:23) and that it is “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Priests are living reminders not to forget that all we are and all we have has been given to us by God. Grace heals, elevates and corrects the results of our disobedience since the Fall by enabling us to incarnate and express the gifts of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:38) that reveal what is the best course of action for us to take as individuals and as a faith community.
Principle Seven: Abandon Yourself to the Mystery
The term “abandonment” has two connotations: one is depreciative, the other appreciative.
Depreciative abandonment is the disposition or act of experiencing, in reality, or in our imagination, that we have been abandoned by God. It feels as if we have been thrown into a cold, indifferent cosmos and left to fend for ourselves. The loneliness we feel may tempt us to despondency and despair. The crushing experience of self-depreciation strangles any semblance of appreciation. Like a weed choking a flower, we begin to notice only what is disappointing and depressing. Negativity invades our heart; it kills any tendency to detect, however slightly, the formation opportunity in every obstacle. A depreciative climate envelops us like poisoned air and makes a joyful priestly life almost impossible.
Appreciative abandonment disposes us to abandon ourselves to the mystery of God’s blessedly benevolent love for us. The more we cultivate this disposition, the more hopeful we feel. Instead of living in distrust of others, we learn to appreciate any epiphany of the mystery we encounter and to behold in every burden a blessing disguise.
By abandoning themselves to their loving Redeemer, priests rise above the paralysis caused by their own and others’ bent toward depreciation. While they cannot predict where life will lead them, they believe in Christ’s triumph over death, and they teach us how to live life as a portal to heaven.
Principle Eight: Remember that God Alone Can Fulfill the Hunger in Your Heart
Characteristic of a mature faith is the priestly experience of intimacy with the Trinity. What follows is their serving others more generously in prayer and practice. Such acts of love aid their realization of and witness to the universal call to holiness.
This call explains why no substitute for the transcendent can satisfy our hunger and thirst for God. In the words of the psalmist: “Why are you downcast, my soul; / why do you groan within me? / Wait for God, for I shall again praise him, / my savior and my God” (Ps 42:6).
Principle Nine: Being Faithful to God in Your Everyday Formation Tradition
The faith tradition represents how the world at large. The formation tradition is the distinctive, overall pattern of living that describes how priests receive, express and give form to their life and world in dialogue with Gospel truths and teachings.
Due to what tradition identifies as the Fall, they show us just why it is impossible to attain freedom from sin without the grace of Redemption that is ours through the cross of Christ.
The power of faith in the Revelation leads to their prayerful surrender to the will of the Father in the course of their everyday formation. Priests prove that trust in the Holy Spirit ought to guide each of our decisions, guard our hearts and grant us a deeper sense of peace at every juncture of our faith journey.
Principle Ten: Be Contemplatives in Action and Active Contemplatives
Their loving abandonment to God draws priests to encounter in contemplative prayer both God’s immanence and God’s transcendence.
From the disposition of awe comes their awareness of the Divine Presence at the center of everyday life. They begin to apprehend certain aspects of what had previously been unknown to them. Rather than fearing the unknown, they are calmed by the blessed assurance to keep courage and live in God’s love. Amid the challenges and changes they experience, they turn to God’s care. They move in a regular rhythm from contemplation to action and from action to contemplation.
To be contemplatives in action and active contemplatives, priests commit themselves to preach and practice what the apostle Paul reveals: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:1-5).
In the unforgettable words of St. John of Capistrano (c. 1456): “A light does not illumine itself, but instead it diffuses its rays and shines all around upon everything that comes into view. So it must be with the glowing lives of upright and holy clerics. By the brightness of their holiness they must bring light and serenity to all who gaze upon them.”
SUSAN MUTO, Ph.D., is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh and author of “Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95).
A Prayer for Priests
Lamb of God, / When I grow weary with strain of work, high stress, / Guide me to sweet meadows of presence, / Lovely oases in wastelands of inhumane worlds.
Gentle Master, / When I feel wounded, lonely, forlorn, / Call me home to fields of grass green, pristine, / Symbols of hope amid despair, lack of care.
Staff of Life, / When I push against the pace of grace, / Comfort me with warm embrace, calming as cool breezes, / Waves of welcome peace soft as night air.
Good Shepherd, / When I cannot find words to preach, guide, teach, / Draw forth from my heart truths to console abandoned souls / With blessings flowing like water down slopes of melted snow, / Giving comfort to the lowly, / Courage to the faint of heart, / Peace to the afflicted, / Light to people groping / in dark thickets / of doubt and despair, / Good news for young and old, / lean and spare, / all those entrusted to my care.
May I be your minister in friendly homes and foreign lands, / Laying hands on those sick in body and in soul, / Making whole the broken, humble-hearted, / Leaving behind the ninety-nine / To seek the lost and tempest-tossed, / Those being born and those at heaven’s door, / All this I pray, in your name, O Lord!