Questions Answered – March 2022

Qualifications for the Priesthood

Question: What are the qualities a person needs to be a Catholic priest?

Answer: The best way to answer this question is to follow the address given by Pope Benedict XVI a number of years ago to the Congregation of the Clergy. In that address Pope Emeritus Benedict points out that Catholic doctrine founds the theology of the priesthood on the indelible mark introduced into the soul of the priest by the rite of ordination. This is known as the character and confers on the recipient such a close conformity to Christ that he is able to forgive sins in His name and change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

This character leads the sacrificial priests in a new way of life in four ways. “The ecclesial, communal, hierarchical and doctrinal dimension is absolutely indispensable to very authentic mission and also guarantees its spiritual effectiveness. The four aspects mentioned must be recognized as intimately connected.” They are expressed in the threefold conformity to Christ as priest, prophet and king. These roles form the background of the qualities needed for the priesthood.

The priest of the New Testament receive a further conformity to Christ as priest, prophet and king. The priestly aspect is seen in the ability to offer sacrifice and change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the name of Christ for the people. The prophetic action is seen in his responsibility to teach doctrine, especially in the homily during the Mass. Priests must develop some zeal to know the faith and communicate it to others.

The kingly role is demonstrated in the role the priest assumes as the spiritual head of the community. Insofar as he has the ability, this includes assuming responsibility as a good pastor also for the temporal needs of the parish insofar as these serve the spiritual needs. Though others may be more adept at these things than the individual priest, his service requires him not only to be present for the sacramental ministry, but also to at least be ultimately responsible for the temporal means needed to promote the actions of the sacraments. This is because he always acts in and for others.

Finally, the priest lives all these offices as service under responsibility to others in service. He must therefore be obedient and trustful of those in authority over him, especially the bishop and the Holy See. How sad it is to find a priest who demands absolute obedience on the part of the faithful to some practice in which he is disobeying higher authority!

In discerning and living this vocation, the following qualities are indicated. First, a love for Christ. This means that the priest cannot look on his life as merely a profession. Someone contemplating this vocation must realize he is not giving up responsibility and fatherhood, but embracing it with Christ, by dying for his people. As this is a vocation, his self-surrender must affect everything he is and does.

Second, a love and interest in people. Some think they are called to the priesthood to escape from life and responsibility for others. Just the opposite is true. One who could not exercise the responsibility of fatherhood in an earthly family or who is sexually or socially immature cannot accept the burden of the priesthood. Christ made himself available for all. He went in search of the sheep and did not expect them to obey office hours. Priests are called to act for the community. If they are not really interested in the good of the community as a whole, then they are lost from the beginning.

Third, a taste for prayer. If one finds both community and personal prayer stifling, one does not belong in the priesthood. Assiduous prayer is necessary for every vocation, but especially for such a sublime one. At the very least, a priest should love to say Mass, say it daily and develop a taste for the Liturgy of the Hours.

Fourth, the ability to obey authority and exercise authority prudently. One who cannot obey has no ability live according to the objective order of the world at large, much less the Church. One who sees the priesthood as others serving him, including his own superiors will never identify himself personally with the sacrifice of Christ the High Priest.

So, a priest must embrace two actions in his ordination and the prospective vocation must consider his suitability for both. First, the priest must dedicate all that he has and is to this service. Obviously in a very real way, he is identifying himself with the Christ when he says, “This is my Body.” One of the arguments for the male priesthood is this complete identification of the individual with the man Christ. Though the ability to give oneself completely in this way is not presumed when someone enters, one must at least discern with others that he has the moral and emotional maturity with formation to make such a commitment. Temporary priesthood is out then.

The divine response to dedication of the person is their consecration. This consecration involves a true interior change and the person must have the human qualities necessary to live such a change. One of these is the recognition in the Roman Church that celibacy is a sign of the total dedication and consecration of the priesthood. One must remember in surrendering marriage that one is not surrendering spousal or betrothed love. Instead one is giving all one has and is to God.

This gift of self is right at the heart of what is involved in the gift of self to another in marriage. One shows the consecration of the priesthood by the same means. Celibacy allows a person to be love to the whole human race. The German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing recognized the spiritual and emotional value of celibacy in 1886 when he wrote in Psychopathia Sexualis: “It shows a masterly psychological knowledge of human nature that the Roman Catholic Church enjoins celibacy upon its priests in order to emancipate them from sensuality, and to concentrate their entire activity in the pursuit of their calling.”1

In order to embrace this call well, the person must be generally free from all sort of sexual addiction. One must have emotional maturity regarding this power in his soul to be able to surrender it for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. This is not because sexuality is evil or to be held in suspicion, but in order that one might be more free to live as a person consecrated to preaching and the sacraments and might truly identify his personality completely with Christ. Many men in middle age become more interested and absorbed in spiritual matters. The celibate does this from youth.

As a result, if one has any sexual addiction, for example, to sexually explicit material on the internet or masturbation, or if one has not resolved the issues regarding the same or the opposite sex so that they can distinguish friendship and ordinary affection from sexual relationships, or cannot control themselves in regard to the latter, this is a grave reason for not pursuing a vocation to the priesthood. When assessing this, freedom to live the priestly life with joy coupled with other indications which might favor seeking ordination should be evaluated according to the present requirements of the bishop’s conference.

“Ranking” the Trinity?

Question: How can the Father and the Son in the Trinity be equal if the Father and the Son are in a hierarchical relationship?

Answer: The definition of what the Apostles believed about the Holy Trinity caused a long and complicated history of an attempt at clarification. That clarification had two extremes which the Church avoided, both of which were based on truths which if taken to an extreme would deny the other truth.

The first, of course, is the cornerstone of not only an authentic philosophy of God of the Judeo-Christian religion, namely, that God is infinite, absolute, perfect being and so is only one. Monotheism must be affirmed. As a result, no explanation the Trinity can suggest that God is not the being in whom essence and existence are one.

The second opposite difficulty is presuming the absolute unity of one God to affirm three distinct persons. There were heresies in the early Church which taught that the three persons were just three names given to the different aspects of God but they were not three distinct persons. The distinctions in God were thus only found in the human mind but not in the reality of God Himself. This was known as modalism. The three persons were just modes of attributing characteristics to God which were described in Scripture such as creation, redemption and sanctification. This is the reason why recent attempts to baptize in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier are invalid. All three of the persons create. All three of the persons redeem. All three of the person sanctify.

The problem then was to develop an understanding of the Trinity which would preserve the unity of God and the real distinction within God of the persons without introducing any real distinction in being which would compromise the perfect unity of God. The Church sought the answer in a category which was taken from Greek philosophy: relation. This term is a fluid term which does not imply any movement, change or division and yet allows one to maintain a real distinction in an infinite being without absurdity. This is, of course, not a proof because the Trinity is a mystery most sublime which ultimately eludes being captured or completely explained in human terms. Yet the Church affirms that it must also not imply radical distinction.

This is coupled with the problem you explain of hierarchy in the persons, which would suggest one is less God than another. This, in turn, is coupled with the difficulty of explaining the order of processions among the persons, which might easily seem to indicate a relationship of inequality. This error is called subordinationism, whereby the persons are each subordinate to each other in terms of being. This is implied in certain statements of Christ such as “the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28) This could be taken to refer only to the human nature of Christ, but Jesus makes no such distinction. Even in the Trinity the Father is greater than the Son.

But this hierarchy is not one of being but of relation of origin. Within the infinite God there are two processions which involve real distinctions of origin but not of nature. One is the fact that the Son receives his infinite divinity from the Father and so is called Filiation and the other is that of the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son or the Father through the Son depending on whether one uses the terminology of the Eastern or Western Church. These two processions give rise to three persons who in turn are the origin of four relations: Father to Son, Son from Father, Father and Son to Spirit, Spirit to Father and Son. It is by these we understand the real distinction between the Persons, and so these relations are also the origin of five ways of knowing the Person though one is not real as it is simply a negation of procession. The Father begets, but he is not begotten.

So one could summarize the Trinity in this device: one nature, two processions, three persons, four relations, five notions. This doctrine is fully proclaimed in the Athanasian Creed which is too long to produce here but is very well expressed in the famous summary of the Council of Chalcedon in 451:

“Following the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; ‘like us in all things but sin.’ He was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 467)

  1. Quoted in Jordan Aumann and Conrad Baars, The Unquiet Heart (Alba House: New York, 1991), 156.
Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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