In the brightness of the wintry sun as it streamed through the double-pane window over the breakfast table, I laughed aloud at my brothers’ obvious fears. We were preparing as a family to attend Saturday morning confession at the local cathedral in the city where I grew up. With the smell of toast in the air, my mom raced around the kitchen making sure all six of us had finished our breakfast, while at the same time having us repeat aloud the Act of Contrition, reminding us as she did that we each needed to review the sins we committed since our last
confession the previous Saturday. Meanwhile, my brothers, sister and I could hear the muffled sound of snow crunching beneath my dad’s feet as he struggled amidst the frigid weather to break the chunks of ice away from the doorstep so we would not slip as we exited our house.
The car ride to the church was short but it felt like we were going before a judge for sentencing. Which of the several confession lines would we join? Which would be the better choice of priest-confessors? Would it be the old monsignor who was always petulant? Would it be the young, newly-ordained priest who was joyful, always taking the time to speak in pleasant tones, interested it seemed in the drama of our young lives? Would it be the archbishop who thought of himself as a celebrity and seemed to personify everything we were told was unbecoming of a priest? Or perhaps it would be the kind and gentle elderly priest who sat with us at parish picnics and was never afraid of getting his monsignor robes soiled as he played Frisbee with us?
Then there was the matter of Sunday Mass some 24 hours later, but the repeat performance did not include breakfast. That would come after Mass so that we would all fulfill the necessary communion fast. As for the priest-celebrant, in the end it never seemed to matter. Somehow we knew it was Christ’s priesthood that we really respected. Even back then the packaging was always appreciated but never necessary.
Such was the environment in which the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, was promulgated. Less than two months before, in October 1965, the Decree on Priestly Training, Optatam Totius, was published. Two Council documents on the subject of the ordained priesthood now existed and several others would also contribute to the Vatican II theology of the priesthood.
Presbyterorum Ordinis contains 22 articles (about 43 pages). Unlike most of the other documents of Vatican II, I found that this tended to be dense and unorganized, introducing a subject, quickly abandoning it, then moving on to another topic, before circling the wagon and returning to the previous topic. On the positive side, the themes treated are appropriate and faithful to what one would expect regarding the ministerial or ordained priesthood.
In Lumen Gentium we are told that those ordained to the holy priesthood do not surrender their People of God membership but take on a new role, at the service of the People of God or common priesthood of the baptized (see LG, 10).
In Presbyterorum Ordinis, it is ambiguous in certain instances, whether the word “priest” refers to the “priest by virtue of ordination” or the “priest by virtue of baptism.” We read, for example, that “all the faithful are made a holy and royal priesthood” (PO, 2). A few sentences later we read, “God gives [priests] the grace to be ministers of Christ Jesus among the people” (PO, 2). There is no clear distinction in the text how the term “priest” is referenced here. This tendency continues throughout the decree and elsewhere in the council documents.
The best summary of Vatican II’s teaching on the priesthood comes several years later in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests, and the common priesthood of all the faithful participate, each in its own proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ … While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace — a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit —the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood” (CC. 1547).
In short, the ordained or ministerial priesthood exists within the common priesthood of the faithful and is at the service of the common priesthood for the building up of the Body of Christ.
The Second Vatican Council marks a significant development in the theology of the priesthood. While affirming the teaching of the Council of Trent that the priest is consecrator and sacrificer in the Eucharist, the Council Fathers use rich and varied resources reaching into the late fourth and early fifth centuries when the bishop-theologian St. Augustine argued that the validity of the sacraments does not depend on the worthiness of the minister. By referencing the theology of Blessed Duns Scotus (13th and early 14th century), they introduce how the Church discerned the application of the fruits of the Mass and the role the priest. What had been a pious practice of praying for the dead for centuries, as in the case of St. Monica on her deathbed asking her son St. Augustine: “Lay this body anywhere … This only I ask, that you will remember me at the Lord’s altar, wherever you be” (Confessions IX, 11), now took on the practice that the priest could offer the Mass for a specific intention.
Then there is the immense contribution of St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century), who explains that the ordained priest acts in the person of Christ (in persona Christi), especially when consecrating the bread and wine at holy Mass into the body and blood of Christ. This language has become common place with the so-called Pope John Paul II generation.
Then there is the three-fold office of Christ as prophet, priest and king that contributes to the literary mosaic of the priesthood. Again the Catechism helps expand on this as follows:
“The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation … in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are “consecrated to be . . . a holy priesthood” (CC. 1546).
Finally, the evangelical aspect of priesthood is considered, i.e. the priest as preacher, in that the Gospel is first preached before it can be celebrated sacramentally. We read in Lumen Gentium: “they are consecrated to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful and to celebrate divine worship, so that they are true priests of the New Testament” (LG, 28). Presbyterorum Ordinis likewise states: “Priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have as their primary duty the proclamation of the gospel of God to all. In this way they fulfill the Lord’s command: “Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15)” (PO, 4).
The best fruit of Presbyterorum Ordinis comes in the form of Blessed John Paul’s 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, the program for priestly formation and the ongoing formation of priests worldwide. Followed faithfully, this will continue to bear good fruit for generations to come.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit