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The Mystery of the Priesthood: A Post Revisited

February 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Prayer, Vocations

My original post on this topic was written when Catholic priests were especially singled out for severe and sometime even unjust criticism.  The zeal and relish with which some impugned the priesthood in general went largely unanswered. There is also the broad supposition on the part of many that the priesthood is only about social and political power in the Church, another front in the battle of the sexes. Whenever anyone attempts to draw our attention away from this contention to something more beautiful, there is so much hurt and woundedness and rash judgment, constructive conversations are very difficult. There are growing negative effects on our life of prayer that flow from such a mentality.

Today, many are robbed of the confidence with which they once regarded priests, while priests today are often villainized indiscriminately. There are even some priests who find themselves somewhat demoralized and crushed, struggling to be faithful to members of the faithful who have no faith in them. Yet they go to celebrate mass every day and hear our confessions and baptize our babies and visit us in our illness. Our prayer lacks integrity if it is not free to acknowledge this in love and compassion. Spiritual ingratitude stems from both indifference and rash judgment and this is so even when we also must deal with grave abuses of pastoral authority.

The priesthood of Christ is one – but there are different ways of participating in it: Baptism and Holy Orders.  If we want the prayers of the baptismal priesthood of all believers to come alive, the mystery of ministerial priesthood needs to be healed and restored and welcomed as a vital spiritual gift for the whole Church. There is a need to discover ways to reaffirm the mystery of the priesthood as a divine institution and supernatural gift. The greatness of every vocation in the Church can be better affirmed when we rediscover how to build up and honor the ministerial priesthood rightly. How do we affirm the uniqueness and grandeur of what God has established in holy orders and how do we honor the young men and old who have answered the invitation to receive this gift for the Church?

The right answer to this question by no means slights any other vocation in the Church. On the contrary, a healthy and thriving priesthood can be the source of spiritual health for the whole body.  If one part of the body is ill, the whole body feels sick. Bring healing to the part of the body that is sick, and the whole body becomes healthy. The right answer therefore implicates us all in the same saving mystery no matter our vocation.

Against those who regard priests with a kind of egalitarianism that reduces the priesthood to a sociological entity struggling for power against other forces in the Church, our faith must look for the deeper mystery of love, a suffering love. When we accept that what God desires to heal in the priesthood is above all a reality ordered to the heavens and from the heavens, a mediating reality not of this world but for it, a reality of love and not of earthly power, only then can we ever begin to learn how to pray for its restoration.

priesthoodThe ministerial priesthood is a unique and unrepeatable sacramental participation in the priesthood of Christ for the building up of the whole Body. The body needs a heart – and there is no way to repay those men and women who have embraced the contemplative vocation to be this heart.  The Body needs all its other members if the mystery of Christ is to be dynamically revealed to the world: the helping hands of those who have consecrated their lives to the Lord, of deacons consecrated by the Church, of lay missionaries, of moms and dads and spouses.  But the Body also needs a head — and the ministerial priesthood mediates the actions of Christ the head so that through the priest, the whole body can respond to the saving will of God at work in the world. No other order or vocation in the Church has this power or authority. Yet, as more of us fail to acknowledge with gratitude the greatness of this gift, we allow a treasure entrusted to us from above to be greatly weakened and abused.

How we treat the gift reveals our attitude toward the Giver. This is true of very personal gifts given in our life of prayer. It is also true of ecclesial gifts like all kinds of missionary work, the diaconate and religious life.  It is true in a special way today for gifts that we have not fully appreciated, gifts especially despised by the world like the ministerial priesthood and marriage. Before the mystery of a gift despised, we discover betrayal, denial, abandonment — even in our own hearts We also learn that to receive such gifts means going to the Cross and standing firm even as the whole world falls into darkness and confusion.

Only as the faithful rediscover the need to have the saving mystery of Christ's presence mediated into the Church by sacred offices established by Christ Himself, only then can we begin to pray for the priesthood.  It is a journey prayer, prayer rooted in gratitude, in thanksgiving, in Eucharist.  Here, contemplating the beatitude of rejection experienced in the priesthood is a poignant starting point for seeing this mystery as a gift from God. Priests, if they are good priests, are rejected by the world. If they are very good priests, they also experience rejection in the Church. This is the beatitude of faithful ministry that Christ promised them – a beatitude we can taste with them in every mass. When we begin to humbly acknowledge these beautiful sacrifices made by those who embraced holy orders for us, we begin to learn how to thank God that He still calls brave young men to such a noble work and we make space for love to rebuild what we have destroyed.


Art: Detail of Clerical Clothing, KF, 11 September 2005, PD-Worldwide; The baptistery in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, 30 June 2013, own work, Farragutful, CC; Ordination sacerdotale d'un prêtre (chrismation des mains), 15 August 2007, own work, English nol, CC; all Wikimedia Commons.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Saint Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Therese of Lisieux. And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at

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