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  • The Other Ministerial Priesthood:The Prophetic Ministries of Religious Clergy
  • Paul J. Philibert O.P.

Slightly less than one-third of the priests in the United States are members of religious orders committed to everything from contemplative monastic life to active ministries of preaching and teaching.1 The role of clerical religious in the twenty-first century poses an interesting problem. Like other ministerial cadres of the church, institutes of religious priests since Vatican II have experienced decline in numbers, the shrinking of institutional commitments, and the shock of scandal that has touched other elements of the church's leadership. Their recruits are fewer in number, older than in decades past, and less connected to the web of Catholic tradition than previously—a now familiar profile for vocations to priesthood and religious life across the board. Many universities, colleges, and schools founded by religious decades ago sometimes retain merely a vestigial presence of the religious group that founded them, and a critical question for these institutions is how to maintain the spirit and charism of their founders in the absence of controlling numbers of their members.2

On the other hand, certain characteristic qualities still set clerical religious apart from diocesan clergy. On Sunday many Catholics seek out churches staffed by religious for good preaching, solemn liturgy, a spirit of fraternity and hospitality, or an aura of the sacred. These are subtle qualities, and religious do not always provide such ministries better than diocesan clergy. Not all religious priests work hard at preaching well, but often better preaching is found in a parish or chapel where religious serve than in the average parish church. If religious priests are less harried and [End Page 67] more recollected than their diocesan counterparts, their distinctive formation and community life may be the reason.

The real question for the church's well-being, however, is whether clerical religious actually apply themselves to the mission for which they were founded. Are they proving true to their charism? Is their distinctiveness governed by the mission and purpose for which they were brought into existence? Religious priests have a built-in agenda to follow flowing from their history, and the church is best served when they live and minister according to that heritage.

In general bishops today tend to be interested in priests of religious institutes principally for their capacity to supply for a lack of diocesan priests at a time of grave shortage. Consequently, a tension between bishops and religious clergy develops in many places reflecting differing perspectives on the role of religious priests in the church.

The Year for Priests

An example of how this relationship plays out was the Year for Priests from June 2009 to June 2010 proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI—a time to pray for priests, for vocations to priestly ministry, and for the sanctification of priests. During this year, public prayers for priests were offered regularly in parishes. Most bishops chose a prayer for priests to be added at the end of Mass. Yet the hierarchy rarely mentioned clerical ministries other than parochial service. Pope Benedict named the French nineteenth-century St. Jean-Marie Vianney as patron and model for the Year for Priests, though this saint's most appreciative biographers acknowledge his difficulties in learning.3 Acclaimed for sanctity even during his lifetime and beloved in his native France, he seems a curious model for twenty-first century priests to emulate, beset as they are by endless conflicts with the culture of modernity. Nonetheless, the choice fits with the prevailing anti-intellectualism that marks many younger clergy throughout the world.4

Most dioceses used the Year for Priests to highlight the ministry of parish clergy, to draw attention to new recruits in diocesan seminary programs, and, in the diocese where I lived then, to celebrate seminarians' lives. Not once did I hear a bishop or a diocesan priest mention the common priesthood that grafts the faithful onto the Body of Christ in virtue of their baptism. Nor did I hear the word charism spoken regarding the spirit and mission of religious clergy. It seemed that parochial ministry was all that priests do for the church and its faithful, or...


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