The Identity Crisis in the Priesthood: Diminution by Design?


Let us begin with this certitude of Catholic Faith: anything—and I do mean anything at all—that harms the priesthood or the path of priestly formation in any way most definitely comes straight from the Evil One. Of this we can be quite sure. Why? Because the Catholic Priesthood is the sublime, sacramental participation of those men who are called to this vocation in the eternal High Priesthood of Our Lord, Jesus Christ – by which we are redeemed of our sins. It is precisely through the faithful exercise of the priesthood, that Our Lord makes Himself present in His Holy Catholic Church, particularly in His mysteries, that is, His sacraments, which He himself instituted for us and for our salvation. So, it should not be surprising that anything that serves as a stumbling block to the priesthood smacks of a malignant nature because it thus attacks the means of our redemption. In the traditional Divine Office, each night at the prayer of Compline, the Apostle St. Peter (1 Peter 5: 8-9) warns us:

Fratres: Sóbrii estóte, et vigiláte: quia adversárius vester diábolus tamquam leo rúgiens círcuit, quærens quem dévoret: cui resístite fortes in fide / Brethren: Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. Whom resist ye, strong in faith.

So yes indeed, we must be wary and vigilant. This means therefore, that we must be alert when we witness, hear, or read something that seems to somehow go against the traditional conception of the priesthood.

In Father James McLucas’ magnificent 1998 article (recently re-published here on OnePeterFive), The Emasculation of the Priesthood, Father goes into great depth in his description of the multiple dangers of the all-too-typical liturgical upheaval that has beset the Church since the Second Vatican Council. Let us not be ingenuous: obviously, we are not talking here about mere changes in the rubrics, but rather profound changes in the Church’s sacred liturgy, under the clever guise of “liturgical reform.” This “reform” was allegedly mandated by the Council’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (04-XII-1963), which exerts a correspondingly profound change in the exercise of the Catholic priesthood. As a Catholic priest, I would argue that this latter has been directly—and negatively—affected.

In his article, Father puts the accent on this one issue, which seemingly serves as a background for one of the underlying problems of our largest post-conciliar woes:

One aspect of the current crisis has escaped scrutiny: the present status of the celibate priesthood following the expansive absorption of many sacred functions by the laity that were formerly reserved to the ordained.

Father then goes on to describe the derived consequences of a “reformed” post-conciliar liturgy, usurping the sacred functions by the laity that were traditionally reserved to ordained men – and still are reserved to the ordained in the Traditional Roman Rite. In the traditional conception, these sacred functions are not conceived as clerical “privileges”, in detriment to the “unworthy laity.” This is the case first and foremost because the clerical state is not a privilege at all—it’s a vocation, that is, it’s a call from God, not a personal decision that originates from within—and secondly, though certainly not less important, because all clerics are just as unworthy as any laity. Furthermore, the continual and intense disaccord between the Traditional Roman liturgy and the so-called “reformed” post-conciliar liturgy serves as conclusive proof—for those who are open-minded enough and willing to see it—that something is rather seriously amiss. For how can there possibly be such a heated fight between proponents of what are, essentially, two rites of the same Church? Or, if you will, in Pope Benedict XVI’s expression, between two forms of the same Roman Rite?

In principle, there should be no opposition. But we all know well enough that a most staunch opposition exists.

Father McLucas affirms:

Catholics who view tradition as their rightful heritage are often mystified as to the reason for such opposition to the ancient Mass. The most vociferous enemies of traditional Mass, however, have never been reticent about stating the reasons for their reaction. They have made it clear that what is at stake is the liturgical and ecclesiastical revolution of the post-Vatican II era. The late Cardinal Giovanni Benelli said it best. When asked if the traditional Mass would ever return (this was long before the indult was granted by Pope John Paul II), he answered negatively in rather emphatic tones. The reason: ‘the traditional Mass represented an ecclesiology at variance with the one articulated at Vatican II.

And so, there we have it! The logical conclusion is readily apparent, as Father goes on to point out:

That is the heart of the matter. A steadily increasing number of Catholics have arrived at the conclusion that the Church is in the midst of a crisis that will only worsen unless Rome is willing to examine the possibility that for the past thirty years there has been a consistent violation of the norm which governs Catholic tradition: authentic reform must be grounded in organic development.

Exactly! We cannot speak about authentic “liturgical reform,” precisely because there are more than sufficient reasons to question and reject that it has been undertaken with organic development. When the ordained priesthood is deprived of many of its sacred functions, supposedly in favour of more participation by the laity, we are affecting—make no mistake—not just what the priest does, but also what a priest is, and who he is. A genuine Catholic conception of the nature of the Church is not just a functional one; it is instead a matter of being. It is therefore an essentially sacramental comprehension. That is to say, persons and things are before they do; or to put it another way: before doing we are. In the Catholic Church, one does not merely do things, one is, first and foremost. In the Catholic Church, we do not do in order to become; we are and therefore we do according to who we are. Thus, the laity cannot do certain things a priest does, because one would need to be a priest in order to do them. This makes clear that we are speaking of something beyond liturgical reform. We are talking about liturgical change, with certain alterations in the Traditional conception of the liturgy and the priesthood that can reasonably be deemed to be major and substantial, not secondary or minor.

Take, for instance, the Catholic ordained priesthood, and the common priesthood of the lay faithful. I purposefully have said Traditional conception—yes, with a capital “T”—because I am not referring here now to mere human traditional conventions throughout the centuries, which are legitimately subject to change, but rather the conception of the Church’s sacred liturgy, ordained priesthood, and common priesthood of the laity through Baptism, founded in Catholic Tradition. That is, founded on divine Revelation and Apostolic Tradition, which pertains to the immutable sacred deposit of faith, and thus is of perennial value, not subject to change at the whim of the passing age.

This is absolutely crucial to grasp and understand.

And so, when everyone and anyone gets the chance to do everything, the immediate loss of sacred exclusiveness sets in, whereby nothing is sacred anymore, not even the Catholic priesthood.

On one occasion, one of the faithful — a woman — told me how she believed that things were much better now in the Church’s liturgy. Before Vatican II, she said, they had been taught never to touch the Lord with their hands nor even to touch the sacred vessels, because they were to understand how unworthy they were to have done so. Well, I said, do you think that Vatican II—which mentions nothing regarding this, like so many other things we have been misled into believing—has actually made anybody more worthy now to handle the Lord with his or her hands, and the sacred vessels, than before? Really? Can a Council of the Church, by some “letter” or “spirit” really change our sinful being — just like that! — and make us more worthy of the sacred mysteries of our redemption? Does that not sound a bit presumptuous and even Pelagian? My dear woman, all of us—and yes, including us priests—are still as unworthy of the Lord as ever before. For this reason, in the traditional Roman Rite, the priest says the Confíteor before the faithful do, and later on says for himself at receiving the Lord in Communion, and before distributing Holy Communion to the faithful (each saying no less than three times):

Dómine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanábitur ánima mea / Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.


During my seminary days in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain, there was, thankfully, a more reverent Mass celebration according to the Novus Ordo liturgy in the main chapel. This took place when celebrating the Rite of Admission of seminarians, when conferring the Ministries of Lector and Acolyte (formerly called the Minor Orders) and the Ordination of Deacons, and in the Cathedral, during the Ordination of Priests. But, alas, the daily celebration of Mass in the seminary, quite frankly, left a bit to be desired. It is not my purpose here to discuss the reasons why. But I will discuss a way of thinking that was always repeated to us seminarians; a custom that I personally never understood. It was and is something I sincerely believe to be seriously inaccurate, and thus not at all helpful in the pastoral care of vocations and conducive to seminary life. I’m referring specifically to the suppression of what were formerly known as Minor Orders, which seminarians gradually received on their way to the priesthood.

Pope Paul VI substantially changed the discipline regarding the Minor Orders (Ordines Minores) with his Motu Proprio, Ministeria Quædam (15-VIII-1972). Only God knows how the Pope had envisioned this change in liturgical discipline, which he certainly undertook with legitimate apostolic authority. In hindsight, though, one cannot but respectfully wonder at the imprudence of having done so, given the enormous confusion these changes have wrought, in addition to having contributed in no small way to the disastrous results in vocations to the priesthood after Vatican II. In his Motu Proprio, Paul VI abolished the ancient rite of Tonsure, which was conferred to first or second-year seminarians, thereby admitting them to the clerical state – though of course, these were not yet properly “clerics” until the ordination of the Diaconate. Still, it was a distinction with a difference, and after the reception of Tonsure, seminarians were to wear the cassock as a visible sign of their priestly vocation. They had been admitted by the bishop, successor of the apostles, and set apart for their sublimely sacred vocation. In the place of Tonsure place there came into being the very simple Rite of Admission, whereby the local bishop would publicly admit seminarians as candidates for Holy Orders, typically near the end of the fourth academic year in a six-year formation plan. Also abolished was the former Minor Order of the Subdiaconate. (In the time of Pope Innocent III [1160-1216], the Subdiaconate had actually been raised to one of the Major Orders, though not pertaining to the substance of the sacrament of Holy Orders itself.) This change was perhaps the most surprising made by Paul VI—along with abolishing the Minor Orders of Ostiary, Exorcist, Lector, and Acolyte.

The last two minor orders —Lector and Acolyte—were retained. But these were no longer to be considered—nor referred to —as Minor Orders. Instead, they were labeled “Ministries.” Ministries, furthermore, that were no longer exclusively reserved for seminarians on their vocational path to sacred Holy Orders of Deacon and Priest, but eligible to also be conferred to idoneous male laity, excluding women. To my knowledge, however, nowhere in his Motu Proprio does the Pope actually mention that these Ministries of Lector and Acolyte are to be considered and referred to as Lay Ministries. Whatever the case, this has become the norm, in practice, since 1972. And this is not merely seriously inaccurate; it wreaks utter havoc in the conception of the Catholic priesthood and in the heart and mind of seminarians.

Here is one perfect example of similar things that Father McLucas mentions in his article, as being damaging to the priesthood. Throughout all of my seminary days, it was insisted that we “students” were not properly “seminarians” until the celebration of the Rite of Admission, which in my home diocese didn’t take place until the Thursday of the third week of Eastertide—late April or early May—near the end of the fourth year. We entered the seminary because we thought we had a calling, a vocation, to the priesthood. But we were continually told that we were not really seminarians until the end of the fourth year. How could this possibly be? Who or what were we supposed to be up until then? Merely young university students, just like the rest of our lay friends in the world? Except that they studied other subjects while we studied philosophy and theology? Was that the only difference? This was the impression we were given. The one notable difference was that the regular male students could have girlfriends and a certain secular social life that we couldn’t have…or could we?  We dressed like normal young people, that is, no clerical shirt, no collar, no cassock—lest we think we weren’t ordinary laymen, just like our friends in the world. Though all Catholics are called to chastity, were we seminarians, inasmuch as we were encouraged to act like laymen, considered to be under any of the restrictions of celibacy proper to the priesthood itself?

I have often wondered if this delaying of our status as true seminarians was an unspoken invitation to go out and meet girls, just like the rest of any normal lay university students. After all, we were only “students.” Was this perhaps a subtle attempt to foment an implicit dislike of celibacy? Wasn’t the progressive cry for “optional celibacy” at its height after Vatican II? (Ironically, celibacy was already “optional.” That is, nobody forces one to be a celibate! Many who clamor for “optional celibacy” for priests confuse the fact that celibacy is never imposed on anyone. The Church’s preference, however, is to choose among those men that God has given the gift of celibacy for her priests.)

At the Rite of Admission, one of seminary rectors at the time had the custom of handing out — to those who were now, at long last, considered seminarians — a jacket pin of the icthus, that is, the symbol of the fish. This emblem, in the early centuries during the Roman persecutions, was a secret identification of Christians. He said that this was now a symbol of the “catechist,” as a token for the seminarians who now were—finally!—candidates for Holy Orders. And yet the title of catechist is usually bestowed upon the laity. Why now, after four years of study where we were kept from living differently than any other lay student? Why now, after formal entry into the seminary, were those who remained committed to being ordained to the priesthood being given this title which seemed almost a demotion from the accomplishment we had just achieved? It seemed as though we were always being reminded of the concept that we were no different than laymen, even as we grew closer to the priesthood than ever before.

Then in the Advent of the fifth year and in the Lent of the sixth year of ecclesiastical studies, we had the so-called “Lay Ministries” of Lector and Acolyte conferred upon us. But, how could these formerly Minor Orders now be called “Lay Ministries,” when even Pope Paul VI did not designate them as such in Ministeria Quædam, and when only seminarians received them? And yet we were constantly reminded in the seminary that these “Lay Ministries” were not steps on our way to Holy Orders—like the Minor Orders were traditionally—but rather “ministries” for “laymen.” If so, it is hard to understand what they have to do with seminarians, then. Why aren’t ordinary laymen normally conferred such “Lay Ministries,” if indeed these ministries are for them? Why confer these “Lay Ministries” to seminarians at all? It seems that this was yet another reminder that we seminarians — now candidates for the deaconate and the priesthood — were actually laymen all along. It is a mentality that, for many, carried over even after ordination.

Make no mistake: this obsession with the elevation of the laity, instilled in the daily lives of seminarians, has done untold harm to countless young men who entered the seminary, thinking that they had a calling to the priesthood. Seminarians were being trained to think differently about the priesthood, and were constantly reminded that they were really only laymen enrolled in ecclesiastical academics. They were to dress as laymen. They were encouraged lead the life of a secular university student, insofar as possible. (Of course, this was possible but obviously not always, thank goodness!) And then after ordination, they were to realize that the laity would again practically invade all areas of pastoral care, from female and male lectors and acolytes (the latter, ironically, without being conferred the alleged “Lay Ministries”), female and male Extraordinary Ministers of Communion, and so on.

The newly ordained would also discover that a priest was considered no more than a “presider“ over the Eucharist – not a “celebrant” who was unique since only he, a priest, could offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Is it any wonder how this has caused an unprecedented identity crisis in the priesthood after Vatican II? Is it any wonder that this sad state of affairs has contributed to a great loss of vocations to the priesthood? And yet for many, somehow this priestly identity crisis and shortage of priestly vocations are actually viewed as “blessings,” since it has enabled the promotion of the laity, apparently so long overdue. It has been repeated time and again: it is “the hour of the laity.” It is seen as the finest hour of those who exist outside the clerical state.

But is it really? What will the laity do without priests?

In the Traditional Roman Rite, seminarians were treated like candidates for the priesthood from day one, and upon receiving the Tonsure at some time during the first or second year, began to dress the cassock, and were considered to have entered into the clerical state. From a strictly theological point of view, a baptized male is (sacramentally speaking) a layman until he is ordained deacon, by which he properly enters the clerical state.

Why do we begrudge these young men this distinction? Is it not also just as true that the laity have their own particular vocations? Vocations that the seminarian simply does not have? Is this not what even Vatican II teaches about the laity, their singular role in the Church, distinct from the clergy, and we may add, distinct from those who in principle are destined to be members of the clergy? For young men who, after some time of discernment, finally decide to enter a seminary, is it not reasonable to presume that there exists a calling from God, a vocation—not to the lay state, but rather to the unique intimacy with Christ and his Church that is found only in the ordained priesthood?

If we wish for an increase in vocations, we must fortify the priesthood itself. The role of the priest is uniquely essential in the economy of salvation. He is not merely a confector and dispenser of sacraments, used for the calling down of graces and then shoved aside so that all may participate in some facet of his ministry. If the priesthood is seen by our young boys as noble, honorable, and something special — a transformation of the man who is ordained by a power given by God that can only be wielded by the ordained — they will be drawn to it once more. Yes, the priesthood is a calling, but to make it possible for those called to answer, their intellects and wills must be given every opportunity to see the beauty of such a sacrifice and joyfully embrace it. And to complete their journey, seminarians must be allowed to act the part. They should be reminded that they are in training for something that transcends the lay state, and exhorted to act accordingly. Only then can they truly begin to entertain the sublime idea that they may, if God wills it, someday become Christ’s priests – and forever, sacerdos in æternum, be able to live the part!

We must pray not only for vocations, but for good and holy priests to form and guide them. We must pray also for good seminaries, so that their vocations, delicate as they often are, will be nourished and allowed to grow, blossoming into the extraordinary state in life that is the Catholic Priesthood. And finally, we must pray for strong, holy, and courageous bishops, who will support their priests as the faithful are recatechized, with the aim of ending the identity crisis of the priesthood and once again carving out the essential distinctions between the roles of the laity and the ordained.

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