End Of The Priesthood Fr. Nix



Today is the feast of the 17th century Jesuit, St. Peter Claver.  He’s seen above in his untiring work in Cartegena, Columbia to the slaves who were brought there from Africa.

The “end of the priesthood” doesn’t mean that the Catholic priesthood is coming to an end.  By “end,” I mean the final-end of something.  As I wrote in the post The End of the Mass, “end” simply means telos or goal of its existence. What is the end of the priesthood? The answer: The glory of God and the salvation of souls.

What is the means to this end?

If you answer “the sacraments,” then you’re only a third correct.

The Catholic Church (even Canon Law) teaches that there are three munera (or duties) to the holy priesthood that are necessary for the salvation of souls:

1) Teach (Teaching people the Faith.)
2) Sanctify (Sacraments)
3) Govern (Leadership)

Let’s look at the bad news in the Church and then we’ll get to the remedy.

The most shocking part of my priesthood has been the misunderstanding of the purpose of the priest. Most people believe the priest to be essentially a harmless dispenser of the sacraments. Some lip service has recently been given to the idea of being a “spiritual father” but very few (besides young people) actually want to support the emotional cost of leadership and fatherhood. For example, when I was booted from campus ministry as a priest, the last reason the pastor gave me for his decision was because his campus minister said I was “gunning for his job.” The only indication I had that this were true is that the young layman wanted to have a say in what I taught my University students.  (I denied him this and—combined with the drama of denying  other lay employees access to the tabernacle—I even lost my faculties as a priest until I got a canon lawyer!)

Even the traditional world has a surprisingly-limited view of the Holy Priesthood.  I was at a wedding in the midwest this weekend.  When a mother of several children found out that I did the Latin Mass, she told me all about the wonderful wilderness mini-semesters at Wyoming Catholic College (and I do agree these wild survival outings are wonderful.) She suggested that I go be a chaplain at WCC “because the students really need the Mass in the wilderness.” As holy as this woman was, her invitation was my hundredth invitation based only on the sacraments.  You might think this sounds over-sensitive, but it’s difficult to describe what it’s like being treated as a mindless sacramental ATM with no significant thinking, fatherhood or leadership to offer.  I thanked her for the idea, but what I wanted to say to her was:  “The whole world needs the sacraments.  The discernment of a priest’s calling is where his gifts of teaching and leadership would be maximized.”

At that same wedding I saw a priest friend from my home diocese.  I wondered if I was over sensitive on the above.  I love his response: “Yeah, or maybe I should just go and be with college students on a hiking trip.” In other words, maybe the priest needs to be incarnationally present before everyone talks about the sacraments.  The priest is also a man who bleeds, who is called to exist in true human communion.  He will die of no-purpose if he is not allowed to be a father to a people, even if this be in the hermetical life of prayer for the Church.

My priest friend at this wedding caught my pain.  He wasn’t denying that the Mass be the summit and source of the entire Christian life. He wasn’t denying that the greatest thing a man can do for another is absolve his sins in the person of Christ. What he meant is that the notion of spiritual fatherhood is a key part of the priesthood. He also is a man with a vision of priests who become something more than sacramental ATMs, ATMs who mindlessly dole out the sacraments Burger King style: You can have it your way.  (e.g charismatic, Novus Ordo, Traditional, Byzantine.)

As I said earlier, the three means of the priesthood are the three munera (Latin for duties.)  These three munera are teachsanctify and govern.  Which of those three do you tend to think of when you want a priest? Most people immediately think I will leap for joy when they mention the second, the sacraments.  I need to correct them:  When a priest lives the second one solely, he is often nothing more than a magician. Why? Because the sacraments are sacraments of faith. An American can receive Holy Commmunion at any parish, coast to coast on Sunday with almost no geographical hinderance, whether he be in sanctifying grace or not. Except bad liturgy, there is no sacramental crisis. But there is a crisis of teaching, of fatherhood, of leadership.  There is a crisis of catechesis.  People speak a lot of loving Jesus Christ, but you can’t love Who you don’t know.

I am a huge fan of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) but one of the reasons they succeed is because priests since Vatican II seem to be ordained to be sacramental-distributors at mega-parishes or dying parishes, but rarely with a placement in view of friendship being an integral part of the priest’s own salvation.  The past 50 years have produced an unspoken ethos that creative thinking about the Gospel  is best left to the laity.  Thus, teaching, discipleship and even fatherhood follow suit.

Even organizations like “40 days for life” are actually doing the “duties” of the priesthood, but when priests exercise similar leadership, they are often told to stop rocking the boat. Why? Because people have seen little priestly leadership the past fifty years.  When faced with a Church bleeding priests, FOCUS and 40 Days for Life have become wound control—a great wound control—but a wound control nonetheless, taking responsibility to end Satan’s decent success in reducing priestly discipleship, teaching and inter-personal communion that could have effected the salvation of millions of souls in a better way, possibly even ending abortion if every priest and bishop had come together like 40 days for Life did.

These attacks began in the seminaries. Even Dr. Brandt Pitre (my favorite theologian teaching at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans who is a husband and a father) admits that most of the great Catholic apologists today are lay precisely because the seminaries eradicated the apologetics departments in the 1970s (in favor of “ecumenism” being taught to the Church’s ordinandi.)  The New Evangelization talks a lot about spiritual fatherhood, but in practice it is in the hands of lay groups.  I don’t have proof, but I have my suspicion why:  Strong lay-leadership costs a diocese less investment than priestly communion, discipleship and leadership—a leadership that Jesus promised would bring some persecution.  Standing by a priest in persecution may reduce one’s personal advance—ecclesiastically or financially.

But it wasn’t always like this:  The priestly model of discipleship and leadership was effecting an unprecedented level of conversions in the missions of Africa and Asia for the hundred years leading up to Vatican II.  In the Index of Leading Catholic Indicators, Dr. Kenneth Jones reveals that even in the United States, the teaching office of priesthood was taken seriously, but then trailed off.  Priests who primarily fulfilled the teaching office in high schools and universities are seen in the below graph of Index of Leading Catholic Indicators.  Notice the years:


What did the three munera (teach, sanctify and govern) of the priesthood look like through the centuries?

15th Century:  St. Bernadine of Siena would have tent-revivals with up to 30,000 people in attendance.  Known as the “Apostle of Italy,” this saint would preach for hours with scores of confessing-priests on hand.  Notice that in his case, the Mass was not the means of evangelization but the end.

17th Century: St. Peter Claver preaches the Gospel to slaves collapsing off of slave ships before baptizing them if he finds a shred of faith.  In the decades of his monotonous work and outrageous miracles, he baptized over 300,000 slaves.  See picture at the top of this post.   Notice that in his case also, the Mass was not the means of evangelization but the end.

20th century:  Fr. Mateo Crawley of the Sacred Heart Fathers preaches the family enthronement of the Sacred Heart on 6 continents to possibly hundreds of thousands of people.  He disciples priests all over Asia, teaching them about the Sacred Heart.  As dozens of languages were spoken among them, he taught them in Latin, as it was the first half of the 20th century.  Because they had all learned Latin in seminary, all of these priests understood him, and these priests took this discipleship and lit huge areas of Asia on fire with the love of Jesus Christ.  Notice that in his case too, the Mass was not the means of evangelization but the end.

American lay groups like Family Mission Company (FMC) have reached Asia recently.  They are excellent too, but they are few in number and have taken the place of thousands of priests in the foreign missions that used to be there 100 years ago.  In the United States, groups like FOCUS and Augustine Institute have taken the place of priests teaching. Why? Because the Holy Spirit can’t be stopped. That’s why I love these lay groups.  If priests don’t step up to the altar for leadership-based teaching, then the Holy Spirit will still raise up heroic young families who will demonstrate leadership (governance) and teaching (a duty of the priesthood in the Catholic) among the lay.  Thus we have the concessionary but powerful work of FOCUS, FMC, Endow, Totus Tuus, 40 days for life and the Augustine Institute.  Also consider the high-influence lay jobs at the USCCB:  Some are well-formed folks.  Some are not.

Does this just leave the Mass to the priests?  Jesus established the Mass when He said “Do this in memory of me.” To be sure, this is the most important work of the priest, but this is not the sum total of a priest’s day.

In fact, the sacraments do little to nothing without faith. This is why it must be a trick of Satan to make people think of the priest as a magician who simply transforms things. This error misses the truth that the sacraments are sacraments of faith, and we will not see the Catholic Church rejuvenate until priests are ordained to do all three munera of the priesthood, not to mention the other things that Jesus asked His priests to do:

  • “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)
  • “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” (Matthew 10:8)
  • “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20)

Notice those verbs include a lot more words than confect and absolve.  Notice that a hypersacramental view has no place in the Gospel.  Even the Council of Trent explains that faith must be demonstrated before the sacraments are administered.  If we don’t return to teaching and exorcising, it could be the end of the priesthood!

But we know this won’t happen because Christ’s promise will come true again:  The Church will have priests of fatherhood and orders with leadership, perhaps looking something like the old orders of ransom. I’d encourage any young man reading this to obediently ask his superior (bishop or religious order superior) if, upon ordination, he will be allowed to exercise all three munera of Canon Law (teach, sanctify and govern.)  The young man should then respectfully ask his superior or bishop if he’ll stick behind him when he is persecuted for hard teachings.  If not, then know, young man, that you may possibly do more for Christ’s kingdom as a celibate contemplative or even as a husband and father who—at least—is allowed to teach his own children.

6 Replies to “End Of The Priesthood Fr. Nix”

  1. I hope you will be encouraged to know that the ladies’ group forming at our Latin Mass community asked a priest to be our spiritual director. Because there are so many demands on a priest’s time, we left it up to him how involved he would be. However, we made it clear that we welcomed him as our teacher and leader. We also asked for his judgment on a Bible study that we are considering doing.

    Some of us understand that there is more to priesthood than Sacraments.

  2. Dear Father,
    Thank you for your vocation.
    This article has helped me a lot. I will share it. Living in Louvain, I always had a problem with lay theologians. They sometimes wear rainbow pins to mass.
    They purported to teach but I thought they lacked the credibility and sense of purpose that went with holy orders. Now you have helped me understand better what was missing.
    Every priest like you enables 100 mothers to imitate Mary.

  3. Hi Father,
    I love your blog, and this is a great example of why!
    Now, you seem to blame the laity for forcing priests into a purely sacramental role. Do you not think that it is also the fault of the priests themselves. It’s much easier to be a “sacramental dispenser” than to invest your whole self in fatherhood, friendship and teaching, by word and example. It’s easier to step in and out of someone’s life than to invest.
    The “sacramental dispenser”, once he has dispensed, is free to walk away. It is less demanding.
    The ‘father’ has no day off away from the children, the ‘friend’ has no day off but is always there. True priesthood is, therefore, totally consuming and sanctifying.
    Thanks for your posts.

    1. Excellent point. Father writes from his own perspective and that of other devoted priests. Unfortunately, not every priest in the “New” Church is willing to give what his vocation would truly cost.

      I have often marveled at how much truly devoted priests must immolate themselves for their sheep. It’s a spiritual holocaust and martyrdom – but one offered with love!

      Thank you, Father, for that – and the same thanks to all good priests like yourself. Life in this world would be insupportable without the priesthood.

  4. Absolutely fantastic article; one of the best I have ever read on sacred Priesthood.

    As a Traditional Catholic for 40 years now, I see and treasure in the priesthood everything you have mentioned here, Father – because the Traditional priests I know are capable of fulfilling the three ends you develop here.

    Not so, Novus Ordo priests. In fact, you can’t trust most of them with your soul: they teach error, give bad example, etc.

    With Traditional priests, even though many of the newly ordained ones are now much younger than I am, I have noticed it’s as though they seem “ageless” and venerable to me – that I am a child who needs their “leading” and they are a spiritual father to whom I look up for the supernatural, God-given wisdom and “grace of state” for “teaching, governing and sanctifying” with which they are endowed.

    Thank you for a superb article that articulates this reality so well.

    I think the comparison to a sacramental ATM is a very apt one for describing the distorted image many have of the priesthood today…..and it’s really the Church’s fault, for having abandoned its exalted mission in fulfilling these 3 ends – for, to teach, to govern and to sanctify is the Church’s end as well.

    “An enemy has done this….”

  5. This was excellent; I plead guilty to having often falling into that trap — and say so to my shame — of regarding a priest as “sacramental ATM machine”. The pain and sorrow of that post is well communicated. I would like to offer that this may be more common among those raised in single parent families without fathers present; as our earthly father was not a part of our life, so often the spiritual Father we really do not know what to make of or how to relate to him appropriately. Yet another casualty of modern times. But perhaps not….it would be interesting to compare notes with those from intact families.

    Please know that you are never far from our thoughts in your present trials, Father, and that we are praying for you each day.

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