Pastoral Authority and Spiritual Warfare

In sharing in the priesthood of Christ, the pastor upholds his own fatherhood (governing), receives his teaching authority, and can uphold his own ministry of healing and holiness (sanctifying).

“Draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” (Eph 6:10-12)

Christ wants to share his authority over malevolent powers with his priests. He wants to encourage and teach a man how to be with a person when that person is being tempted, struggling with faith, hope or love: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, Therefore and make disciples of all nations….And behold I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:18, 20).  This desire of Christ to share his authority is fulfilled when a man is ordained to the priesthood.  Each priest, however, has to subjectively cooperate with Christ, receiving his authority, over and over again, with each day of ministry. This receptivity can be hard to sustain as so many tasks present themselves to a priest, tasks that threaten to take from him the essential aspect of priesthood: it is a spiritual mission flowing from a heart captured by Christ’s own. A priest’s pastoral authority flows from his own being, his being after ordination.

The priest’s pastoral authority, in other words, flows from the character of ordination. This character consists of a man’s permanent availability to the priestly mission of Christ, as Christ is sharing it through ordination in the context of apostolic succession and tradition.  In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “Beloved, through ordination, you have received the same Spirit of Christ, who makes you like him, so that you can act in his name, and so that his very mind and heart might live in you. This intimate communion with the Spirit of Christ—while guaranteeing the efficacy of the sacramental actions which you perform in persona Christi—seeks to be expressed in fervent prayer, in integrity of life, in the pastoral charity of a ministry tirelessly spending itself for the salvation of the brethren. In a word, it calls for your personal sanctification.”1

The character of priestly ordination, then, is not simply something given to a man to conserve the truth and worship of the Catholic Church. The character of priestly ordination is an intimacy with Christ, an intimacy seeking expression in self-gift, in the pastoral charity of ministry.  The priest, in other words, is commissioned to receive the tradition of the Church, in her holy teaching and liturgy by virtue of ordination, and in so doing, receive the path to his own holiness as well.2 The individual will in a man to receive the tradition over and over again, his openness and vulnerability to be affected by the Paschal Mystery, is crucial to his governing and authority in the spiritual realm.

Priestly authority exercises power only when born in truth: the truth of what Christ is doing through priestly ministry (the objective part of ordination), and the truth of a man’s intimacy with the Paschal Mystery (the subjective reality) within an ecclesial context. It is the ‘work’ of a man in Holy Orders to receive the Spirit who labors to keep this beautiful calling from disintegrating into either an emotionally distant “work of God,” or an ego-ladened emphasis upon personal gifts and personality.  For the priest, to live in the Spirit, who integrates all things, who is peace itself, is to live in effective pastoral authority.

Out of such grace-filled authority, the priest assists God in the battle to save and heal people from evil. Out of both the objectivity of his ordination, and his own personal love of God, the priest resists the work of Satan’s counterfeit “authority” who attempts to disintegrate everything that is done in the realm of divine healing. Satan disintegrates the work of the Spirit by attacking hope in parishioners, and by trying to undermine what they know to be true in faith: they are of inestimable worth and dignity.  Satan assaults the people’s memory.  He tempts them to question the truth of the holy teachings of the Church, especially this one: “The dignity of man rests, above all, on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists, it is because God has created him through love, and through love, continues to hold him in existence” (CCC §27).

To build up the sacred memory within parishioners’ hearts and minds, that they are esteemed by God beyond all imagining, is one of the key weapons in “winning” spiritual warfare. The whole scripture testifies to this weapon…. “Recall”, “Remember”, “Do this in Memory of Me”, etc… (cf., Dt 8:12; 15:15; Mk 8:18). The ministry of building up sacred memory in parishioners is accomplished through a priest’s teaching, sanctifying and governing. Through this triple office of sharing in the priesthood of Christ, the pastor upholds his own fatherhood (governing) which Satan is intent on disintegrating. In this way, a priest also receives his teaching authority.  Finally, by sharing in the priesthood of Christ, a priest upholds his own ministry of healing and holiness (sanctifying). Satan has been chipping away at this priestly ministry of sanctifying for generations now, as well as tempting priests to think that the supernatural is not real, that God is not living, and that God does not intervene in time. “There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love with us that we might have life in abundance” (quoting Jn 10:10).3

Reclaiming the power of his office, which means to become affected by his intimate communion with Christ, the priest realizes that there is a Pentecost today, as there has always been since the very first one: “While it is an historical fact that the Church came forth from the upper room on the day of Pentecost, in a certain sense, one can say that she has never left it. Spiritually, the event of Pentecost does not belong only to the past: the Church is always in the upper room that she bears in her heart.”4 If the cleric would but receive the descending Spirit, over and over again, into his heart, without letting his sins fatigue this receptivity, then power would flow out of the priest (cf. Lk 8:46). “I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). A priest’s shame over being spiritual, his embarrassment over seeming too ‘religious,’ gives Satan an edge in the hearts of parishioners. Nothing pleases Satan more than keeping a priest’s devotion to Christ a “private” reality.

Hope and full silence

In the midst of such warfare, the Church calls the priest to two responses. First, he is called to receive hope, a hope that wells up to resist evil and promote resistance again and again in our parishioners. A second response is for the pastor and people to fall into a sacred silence, one full of mystery, full of divine presence. What are the meanings of these two responses to evil?

First, a priest is called to live in hope; a hope that derives its power to sustain faith through memory. In pastoral authority, the priest is called to remember that salvation is God’s initiative. This does not mean a pastor becomes complacent. Rather, knowing his own finitude, a priest commits himself to zealously directing people toward the holy, knowing full well that either healing will follow, or a deep intimacy with Christ will be found, when faith and hope accompany one into suffering that does not end.  A key aspect of priestly formation should be the imparting of virtues that assist a man to live in mystery: his letting pride go, control go, calculating rationality go, and being taken up into a firm hope, based upon the promise of Christ’s resurrection. A priestly formation that instills within the seminarian an expectation that the promises of God will be fulfilled, even though darkness surrounds us in any particular situation, is one that will yield the most benefit to his future parishioners. Salvation is God’s initiative. He helps us live in hope and resist evil.

Our second response to the apparent “victory” of evil, is to respond to such “failures” by what Benedict XVI has called a “mortal silence”.5 In such silence, a pastor is at the cross with his people; no cure, no healing is theirs, only a participation in the complete, and exhaustive, self-donation to the Father that is the cross. The cross is silent not because it is impotent, but because it carries the awe of the One who has given all. In this awe-full silence, the cleric uses his authority to invite people into intimacy with Christ, the One who has gone before them into this place of silence.  In this silence, hope prepares the one who is suffering for union with God. Where is God in failed efforts to revive a marriage, reconcile with a child, and overcome a resistant disease? He is there; he is to be received in the silence, in the crucified quiet of no answers, in the waiting for light, for new life, resurrection. He is coming; but first comes the divine hiddenness, the powerful silence. A priest waiting in the silence with his people is one of the key ministries of clergy. One can only learn to wait in patience if the meaning, the truth, and the reality of the Paschal Mystery has been our food. Nourishing our minds and hearts on such food, gives us the capacity to wait with the suffering people in the hope of new light arriving.

Of course Satan attacks in the silence: “He is not coming, your people will lose faith, and their suffering will breed a loss of faith. Go ahead, mindlessly trust this myth of resurrection, but I am telling you, there is nothing but empty silence, divine absence.”  Pope Benedict XVI has confronted such temptations and ideologies head on, stating recently in Light of the World: “Why shouldn’t Christ be able to rise from the dead? When I myself determine what is allowed to exist, and what isn’t, I define the boundaries of possibility….It is an act of intellectual arrogance for us to declare that [resurrection] is absurd….It is not our business to declare how many possibilities are latent in the cosmos….God wanted to enter this world. God didn’t want us to have only a distant inkling of him through physics and mathematics. He wanted to show himself…so he created a new dimension of existence in the resurrection” (p. 38).

In faith, hope and love, we live in this new dimension. It is from within this new dimension, that a priest wields pastoral authority in spiritual warfare. Clerical “power exists only to the extent that there is conviction, that people realize that [the priest and people] belong together and the [priest] has a task that he has not given himself.”  It is knowing and loving the source of this “task,” and surrendering one’s priestly life to him, that facilitates a cleric becoming an instrument for authoritative “power” in spiritual combat. And what is the “conviction” that bonds the priest and his people in this struggle to receive and love holiness? St. John of the Cross says it best:  “First of all one must know that if the soul is seeking God, its Beloved is seeking the soul much more” (Living Flame of Love, stanza 3).  With this conviction, we see how the “successes” of the priest and his people in spiritual warfare are connected to the new evangelization.

What is a priest’s pastoral authority?

We believe that God has spoken all he is, all he has to say, in his Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ.  A priest will have authority if everything that the Father has said is alive in him. If this is not true, a priest will be tempted by fear to seek control and have power apart from him.  As a result of this, the priest will disintegrate into a man who mourns the loss of his pride(false grief), and thus finds consolation only in distraction. If a man does not live out of the power of Christ, he will be fooled into thinking his ministry is “his,” and when failure comes, he will ascribe it to himself, being vulnerable to this lie: “You should have never become a priest.”  Christ heals this pride, this false grief, by staying in deep intimacy with him…as a priest says silently at Mass: “Never let me be parted from You.”  If a priest lets pride, and then false grief, define him, he will become useless to his own people, so: “Be sober and alert”.  Contemplate the mysteries of Christ and let them live in you, because “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith….” (1 Pet 5:8).

Fighting evil, a priest will want to become simple, he will want to yield his mind and heart and will over to Christ, day after day. Then, Christ will be able to share his authority over demonic powers with such a priest. He will encourage and teach such a man how to be with a person when that person is being tempted, struggling with faith, hope or love. He will, in other words, heal people through priesthood, the priesthood of a man transfigured by divine intimacy.

Prayerful meditation

  • Where is your greatest point of resistance, testifying to the fact that the spiritual life is as real as earthly material, or even more real?
  • Do you see yourself as a spiritual master, a teacher of spiritual truths, as a man who knows how to battle evil?
  • In what way can you make the reality of spiritual warfare more alive in the imaginations of your people?  How can you draw them out of our culture of distraction and into life and life abundant?
  1. Benedict XVI, Homily to Priests (Oct. 9, 1984), §2, as in Insegnamenti VII/2 (1984), 839.
  2. Cf., Robert Sokolowski, Christian Faith and Understanding (Catholic University of America Press, 2006), 119.
  3. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini §2.
  4. John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem §66.
  5. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini §2.
Deacon James Keating About Deacon James Keating

Deacon James Keating, PhD, is the Director of Theological Formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University, Omaha, NE.