In line with the discussion on exercising ecclesiastical authority, it is opportune to re-examine our response to our vocation to the priesthood and religious life. Two questions come to mind: Who called us to the priesthood and the religious life, and who are we working for as priests and religious? Today’s post examines these questions.
The first question about the origin of our vocation has a simple and straight answer: God called us. The Bible provides evidence through notable vocation stories – Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Peter, James, John, Bartholomew, Matthew, and Paul.
Two scriptural passages are essential to understanding this vocation. God told Prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:4). Jesus said to his disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (John 15:16). These two passages confirm that we did not choose ourselves to be priests and religious. The Church continues in this direction as the Body of Christ.
The priest receives his authority from the bishop and the bishop from the pope, who “appoints bishops or confirms those lawfully elected” (Canon 377 §1). Canon 332 §1 says:
“The Roman Pontiff acquires full and supreme power in the Church when, together with episcopal consecration, he has been lawfully elected and has accepted the election. Accordingly, if he already has the episcopal character, he receives this power from the moment he accepts election to the supreme pontificate. If he does not have the episcopal character, he is immediately to be ordained bishop.”
Therefore, although the pope has full and supreme power in the Church, he gets his canonical mission from cardinals “whose prerogative it is to elect the Roman Pontiff in accordance with the norms of a special law” (Canon 349). Regarding the religious, canon 618 states: “The authority which Superiors receive from God through the ministry of the Church is to be exercised by them in a spirit of service”. Indeed, “no one takes this honour on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was” (Heb 5:4).
Having clarified who called us, the inevitable questions are: If God called us, who should we work for? Are we currently working for the pope, the bishop, the parish priest, the assistant priest, the superior, the major superior, the supreme moderator, or Christ, the founder of our faith? These seemingly simple questions may not be easy as we can misconstrue them because of who we really (in our hearts and through our actions) work for as priests and religious.
If we say we are working for Christ, how do we reconcile it with working for our direct superior? Jesus does not instruct who says the 8 a.m. mass on Sunday in Parish A. The parish priest, alone or with his assistant, decides. If the assistant says the mass, he helps the parish priest, so one can argue that he works for the parish priest.
One way to reconcile this is to examine who decides the essence or fundamentals of what we do and how we do them. Jesus, through his life and teachings, set the ball rolling on what is expected of priests, religious, and those who exercise authority in the Church. The Church, through laws and customs, confirms and regulates these expectations. This is why canon law clearly stipulates the rights and obligations of the faithful and those who exercise authority over the faithful.
Canon 545 §1 states: “Whenever it is necessary or opportune for the due pastoral care of the parish, one or more assistant priests can be joined with the parish priest. As cooperators with the parish priest and sharers in his concern, they are, by common counsel and effort with the parish priest and under his authority, to labour in the pastoral ministry.”
The above canon uses the phrase “cooperators with the parish priest and sharers in his concern” regarding the assistant parish priest, which shows that the parish priest does not own the ministry. Though the assistant is under the parish priest’s authority, he is only a cooperator and sharer, not his employee. Is the priest the employee of the bishop, then?
The Second Vatican Council says:
“Priests, prudent cooperators with the Episcopal order, its aid and instrument, called to serve the people of God, constitute one priesthood with their bishop although bound by a diversity of duties…On account of this sharing in their priesthood and mission, let priests sincerely look upon the bishop as their father and reverently obey him. And let the bishop regard his priests as his co-workers and as sons and friends, just as Christ called His disciples now not servants but friends. All priests, both diocesan and religious, by reason of Orders and ministry, fit into this body of bishops and priests, and serve the good of the whole Church according to their vocation and the grace given to them” (Lumen Gentium, 28).
Another Vatican II document reiterates this when it affirms that priests are called to be “co-workers of the episcopal order” in fulfilling the mission of Christ (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 2). These show that theologically, the bishop is not the priest’s employer, and the priest is not the bishop’s employee. Both were called to serve the faithful.
The superior of a religious institute took the same vows as every other member. The superior is not an employer because all religious are called to the same service. As earlier stated, “Superiors receive from God through the ministry of the Church is to be exercised by them in a spirit of service” (Canon 618).
The above shows an interplay between Christ and the superior regarding who we work for. Nevertheless, ultimately, we work for Christ because the pope, bishop, parish priest or superior and those under them received their ministry and mission from Christ. Therefore, all of us are working for Christ and not for the pope, bishop, parish priest or superior. Obedience remains a fundamental principle in these relationships.
However, it is highly unlikely that those who seek to please Christ and obey the Church’s law will displease, disrespect or disobey superiors. If it happens, the superiors themselves need to revisit the laws governing the office they occupy or their intention as they serve in that office.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾