Father Anthony Cummins talks to parishioner Agnes Leopold after morning Mass at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Boerne, Texas. (CNS photo from Reuters)

The Charism of Diocesan Priesthood

How to live our ministry robustly and generously

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Msgr. Michael HeintzThere are a number of ways to be a priest. There are religious orders, congregations, monastic communities, societies of apostolic life (the list goes on), and each of them has its own distinctive character or charism, a particular emphasis either in relation to its self-understanding or its apostolate; it is quite often the case that a community’s self-understanding and mission are mutually mediating realities. These communities adorn the Body of Christ and contribute to its building up and to its vitality. The majority of us priests in the world, however, are not members of a particular religious community, but rather are diocesan.

Is it possible that there is charism or character distinctive of diocesan priesthood? I offer a tentative proposal here, of what I think might be a distinctive charism, making no claim that it is distinctive, or the charism exclusively, of the diocesan priest. This is food for thought and perhaps a tool for examen. I would like to suggest that the charism particular to the diocesan priest is radical availability.

In describing the appointment of the Twelve, the Gospel of Mark records the following: “He appointed twelve … that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach” (3:14). An element of their vocation we might easily miss are the words “that they might be with him.” Those called to the apostolic priesthood are called first and foremost to “be with” Jesus.

The foundation of the Church’s apostolate is the commitment to abide with Jesus (the preferred language of the Fourth Gospel). The temporal mission of the Son is to reveal the Father in an utterly new and unheard-of way.

St. Irenaeus says that by his coming the Incarnate Son introduces a radical newness in the created order. “God-with-us” reveals himself precisely as “God-for-us” and now available to us in an unparalleled way. Jesus’ earthly ministry is itself marked by radical availability. How many times do the Evangelists report that the people kept coming to him and that crowds, especially the marginalized, sought him out? As the crowning act of the Paschal Mystery, by his ascension, the Lord Jesus is now even more present to believers than during his earthly life and ministry. As Ignatius of Antioch told the Romans, “Now that he is with the Father, our God Jesus Christ is even more manifest to us.”

Those of us privileged to share in the ordained priesthood of Jesus are called to act in persona Christi capitis. This is especially true when we exercise sacramental ministry. But in an analogous way, it is also true when we exhibit the same kind of radical availability we see in the ministry of the Lord Jesus. The demands on us in parish ministry are such that we often have people contacting us by email or phone call, arriving unannounced at the parish office, bending our ear after a Sunday Mass, coming up to chat with us as we are trying to pray in church, and in many other ways making demands of our time and our attention.

Boundaries, personal and professional, are indeed absolutely necessary, as are time for prayer, rest and recollection. But we must be wary of using the language of boundaries or of “self-care” to protect ourselves from the genuine demands of our ministry. Otherwise, we can easily become pious bachelors or ecclesiastical bureaucrats, generous in giving our lives to the Church but within parameters we establish for that ministry. Interposing layers of insulation between us (perhaps the secretary who’s been instructed to keep the people at bay) and the people we serve, or being unavailable after 5 p.m., can make our vocation a mere day job, one we are happy to do, but one from which we check out late in the afternoon for a quiet evening of “Jeopardy” and “Downton Abbey.” We may indeed have evenings like that (if you enjoy such a thing), and there is no evil in that. But if that becomes the telos toward which our day is directed, it seems to me that we have lost our genuine orientation.

Rather, if we find ourselves stretched, a bit worn out at the end of the day not only from planned pastoral activities but also from those we had no idea were coming, it is likely an indicator that we are living our ministry robustly and generously. 

MSGR. MICHAEL HEINTZ, a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, serves as academic dean and director of intellectual formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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