The advent of a new priesthood

Few nowadays need convincing that we are running out of priests. But we do have to admit that it has taken us a long time to acknowledge this reality perhaps because the notion of a church without a priest was too hard to face and, as a result, we have be

Fr Eddie Condra

The old order changeth yielding place to the new,

And God fulfills himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

‘The Passing of Arthur’

Alfred Lord Tennyson

He, too, has changed in turn,

Transformed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


William Butler Yeats

Few nowadays need convincing that we are running out of priests. But we do have to admit that it has taken us a long time to acknowledge this reality perhaps because the notion of a church without a priest was too hard to face and, as a result, we have been in denial.

When, in the mid-1970s, the pastorally alert noted the fact that the clerical world was under threat and we might have to look at new possibilities, we ridiculed them or dismissed them as prophets of doom. So much of the church’s life depended on the presence of the priest that a church without a priest was unthinkable.

When we were no longer in a position to ignore the fall in the numbers of clerics and clerical vocations, we minimised the situation. We talked in terms of ‘a passing phase’, of ‘going through a rough patch’ in the wake of Vatican II. We consoled ourselves by saying it would be only a matter of time before we’d come right and we’d be back to where we were before the council. As it dawned on us that the coming right did not mean getting back to where we were, we began to blame – secularism and materialism for their seductive influences on our youth;- the youth for their lack of generosity in responding to God’s call; – even parents for not fostering or encouraging vocations in their sons.

The next strategy was to fudge the issue. Pointing to South America – where the ratio of people to priests is much higher than in New Zealand, or to the parts of Africa where there is an increase in clerical vocations, we concluded with the logic of a desperate people, that there really was no shortage of clerics. After all, if the South Americans can get by with fewer priests, so can we, so where’s the problem? And if young men are flocking to the seminaries in Africa there is no reason whatsoever to speak of a shortage of vocations!

By ridiculing, minimising, blaming and fudging we enabled ourselves to remain cocooned in our denial. We succeeded in rolling the pastoral challenge ahead of us like a great snowball which was bound to crumble around our ears. The snowball is now collapsing round us and we are being forced to face the challenge.


Most dioceses take a kind of managerial approach to the declining number of priests – how to carry on as usual with fewer. Some dioceses are amalgamating parishes, some are closing them down altogether while we, in the archdiocese, are clustering.

This approach suggests we see the challenge primarily as one of clerical numbers or rather, lack of numbers. Trying to carry on as usual with fewer is too short-lived an answer to be considered a real pastoral solution. In reshaping our dioceses to maintain the presence and services of the cleric we are increasing the workload of aging clerics. Surely we must wonder how much longer we can go on like this? How many parishes can one priest pastor?

On the other hand, the idea that if we could get more priests, the challenge would be overcome, is somewhat naive. Would the diocese be transformed if it were to inherit 20 new priests overnight? I doubt it. I do not believe that more priests would make any difference to the life of the archdiocese other than reduce the present clerical workload. Of course if these new priests were to take a different approach to ministry, there would be growth. However, what we are mistakenly praying for is not a new approach to priestly ministry but more priests.

What then is the solution?

When we ask this question I think we need to ask ourselves, solution to what?. The numbers response is shaped more by pre-Vatican II church thinking than by a realistic, present-day, pastoral overview. It treats the declining clerical roll in isolation from other pastoral changes.

The ecclesiastical environment has changed and continues to change. This has had an impact on the role of the cleric, the shape of his mission, his self-understanding and, as we will see, on the number of clerics.

We continue to think of the priest as essential for the life of the church while we ignore much of the pastoral evidence which suggests the cleric is becoming less and less relevant in the life of the Catholic community. And even if we do think he is essential to the life of the church, such a belief must surely be tempered by the fact that few parishes are flourishing, most parishes are struggling and some are declining in spite of the presence of a priest.

We continue to think of the sacraments as essential for the life of the church and the necessity of the priests for the celebration of the sacraments. We ignore the pastoral evidence which shows that the majority of those who call themselves Catholics do not participate in the sacramental system.

We cannot ignore all the changes taking place in our church. Nor should we isolate any one change and treat it on its own. Any serious pastoral reflection should show the interconnectedness of these changes. A change in the church’s understanding of itself will have an impact on the priesthood, a change in the laity’s understanding of their role must necessarily influence the shape of priesthood.

The solution lies not in increasing the number of clerics or working to ensure their presence or services are available, but in entering the pastoral reality in which we find ourselves today. To fully enter this changing church of ours, a church struggling to become, a church which is not what it was while not yet being what it will be, a church in which the decline in clerical numbers is but one of many changes. This church does not need more priests but is screaming for a new understanding of priesthood.

I am convinced that we are witnessing the end of the old order and the birth of the new. The challenge is to awaken this new order – the new shape of priesthood lying embryonic and dormant in our people.

To expose the new priesthood I suggest we do three things: explore the popular understanding of the word ‘priest’; examine the changing world of the priest and how this has impacted on his understanding of himself; and finally look at how the changing laity has influenced the nature of clerical ministry.


Most Catholics see priesthood primarily in terms of ministry. The priest is the ordained man who administers the sacraments and runs a parish. This impoverished view of priesthood is not only widely held but deeply embedded in our Catholic psyche.

Because it is so ingrained, it will not be easy for many to differentiate between the clerical service, the ordained ministry and the wider notion of priesthood. To help us let’s focus on the idea that all clerics are priests but not all priests are clerics. While we let this idea brew, let us explore how we might have confused the notion of priesthood with the idea of cleric.

For years we have spoken of the importance of the priesthood against a clerical backdrop. The call to priesthood was a call to the clerical order. Each year on Vocations Sunday, we left our congregations in no doubt that we were talking about clerics.

Even though in recent times, on Vocations Sunday, you are also likely to hear about the call to religious life, married life or the single life, there are still many who see such inclusions as denigrating the real call.



Since the second Vatican council the role of the cleric has undergone a massive cultural revolution. He was the meat in the ecclesiastical sandwich attempting to implement directives, which he often didn’t fully understand, for people who, for the most part, were ill-prepared. The emphasis on the man set apart began to dissolve with Vatican II and the priest had to learn to be a man among men. The sacred language with which he administered the sacraments was taken away. His altar was toppled and he was given a table. The removal of the altar rails exposed his sanctuary further blurring the differences between the cleric and the people. It would be only a matter of time before the laity would invade his sacred space and when they did they were able to tell him that they too were called, chosen to share in the priesthood.

To complicate matters, not every parish, diocese or individual would change at the same speed. Some parishioners were clinging fast to what was, while others could not have enough change. And the ‘new’ and emerging Catholic was ready at every turn to tell the priest what they thought. Diversity in response became the order of the day. For a man prepared for Holy Orders this was a daunting reality and one for which he was ill-equipped. Often the cleric found himself dealing with people whose expectations of him varied greatly from his own self-understanding.

Among the clerics themselves the cracks of differences began to appear. Radical and conservative became more common in the clerical vocabulary and were often euphemisms for good or bad, right or wrong depending on the cleric’s standpoint. The common ground of the clerical world began to dissolve and we did not have the skill to recognise what was happening, or to negotiate our differences.

Many clerics found little or no meaning is their ministry. They left. David Rice in his book Shattered Vows [Triumph Books, 1992] tells us that since 1968 over 100,000 priests throughout the world have left.

When speaking about the changing world of the cleric we need to remember that his job is public. The laity have seen the symptoms of turmoil over the past 30 years. So we should not be too surprised that young people hesitate to join the clerical world, or that their parents shrink from encouraging them if they express interest.

What deserves special attention is the question of how we dealt with our so-called ex-clerics. By and large they were treated as pariahs by the community and by the institution. The attitude of the community has indeed softened but I can’t say the same for the institution. One wonders if our attitude to so-called ‘ex-priests’ might have influenced the decision of those considering the clerical call. We gain a further insight into the radical impact the post-conciliar church has had on the clerics’ world when we remember that the church is a living organism. As with all living organisms, change in one area (irrespective of how small) will impact on all areas.

For instance changes in the liturgy, theology, our understanding of ourselves as church, our relationship to the world and other churches, would all impact on the cleric and his understanding of himself and his mission.

When we speak of the impact of the post-conciliar church on the cleric’s world we often tend to overlook changes in the laity. A changed laity must necessarily mean an altered way of ministering, yet many of us priests seem to speak of our people as though they were the same as their pre-Vatican counterparts.


The image of the shepherd and his flock has lost its significance. Whatever is intended by the notion of shepherd, today’s Catholic laity do not see themselves as sheep – as being ‘led’ as their parents or grandparents might have been. They wish to feel the reins of responsibility in their hands.

The church is one of many influences on their decision-making. The church’s stand on an issue no longer automatically dictates the shape of people’s decisions. Because of an innate need to make sense of the church’s stand, they take responsibility for questioning authority and tradition not, as is so often suggested, as a lack of respect.

They resist being told what to do but will respond generously to any mission once they feel connected to, or part of, the process. This is their church and they want, and rightly so, to have a greater part in shaping it. Unless they can shape the church by taking a more realistic part in its decision-making, the church will never shape them.


With these changes there has been a gradual corrosion of the boundaries that once clearly separated the clerical from the lay spheres. Now the world of the laity and that of the cleric are merging. As with all confluences there is a great deal of turbulence.

Those of us in the Catholic church find that this confluence is not always an easy place to be. Living in a time of conversion, of becoming, a time when things are not what they were while not yet being what they will be, is hard work. In the face of such unease many yearn for the clarity and security of the past – a church in which there was a place for everything and everything had its place, where we all knew where we stood, where priests were priests and laity were laity.

As is often the case in a time of change many try to reverse the process, in this case trying to separate the two streams in the hope of reducing the turbulence. But to consider returning to a time when there was clear differentiation between clerics and laity is as absurd as believing we can change the weather by getting the announcer to read a different script.

Despite this absurdity there is evidence which suggests people believe it can be done. For instance much of the effort expended in trying to establish how immensely different the vocation to the ministerial priesthood is from that of the vocation of the priesthood of the laity is at heart an attempt to return to the old order, to separate the two rivers and reduce the turbulence. Or again, priests who happily wore open-necked shirts in the 1970s and 1980s are now returning to the practice of wearing a roman collar … albeit with blue or even pink shirts.

The blurring of the cleric and lay roles in the church will continue and bring with it the usual holy confusion of a people in conversion. Attempting to avert this process is foolish.

What we really need to do is embrace the present situation wholeheartedly and seek the common ground. And this common ground will be found in a new understanding of priesthood.


‘In what way can we speak of Jesus as a priest?’

In attempting to answer this question we quickly discover, irrespective of how we understand priesthood, that Jesus does not fit the clerical/ministerial model. For instance he was not ordained and he did not run a parish.

The New Testament makes no reference to his baptising or marrying anyone – he didn’t hear confessions or anoint the sick. Of course there are numerous references to his having forgiven sins and healed the sick, but there is no evidence to say Jesus ‘did’ sacraments as we presently understand them. And while traditionally we speak of the Last Supper being the first mass and in that sense one might argue Jesus did preside over a sacrament, how many Catholics today would claim they’d been to mass if the priest wrapped the towel round his waist and washed the feet of his congregation?

If Jesus was not a cleric, in what way can we claim he was a priest?

Most cultures had their druids, shamans, medicine men and women or witch doctors. These holy men and women connected and reconnected the community with their deity. They were seen as the people who could enter the holy of holies on the community’s behalf and there place their hopes, requests and apologies before God. This process of revealing the deity to the people took many forms, for instance through instruction and teaching √¢ÀÜ≈°√¢‚Ä∞¬• the imparting of divine wisdom or moral codes. Many of the priests and priestesses had special powers and these were usually seen, by the community, as proof of their connection to the deity. Because of this closeness to God the people consulted them on individual and communal matters of concern.

Irrespective of the titles or names given to these holy men and women by their various communities, they were all seen to have two things in common. They could bridge the gap between the natural and the supernatural worlds and they exposed the presence of the deity to the people and vice versa.

Those of us who grew up in the pre-Vatican II church will be familiar with this Old Testament kind of priesthood.

It is in this sense then that we can speak of Jesus as priest. Jesus was The Presence and therefore the presence revealed.

However, the Jesus story takes us much further. The traditional view of the priest was based on a spirituality or worldview which saw the supernatural and the temporal worlds as separate. This overview is shattered with the birth of Jesus.

In the Jesus story God enters our world. As John’s gospel says ‘…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ [Jn 1:14]. The scripture scholars tell us this text literally means the tent of God is pitched among us. God becomes our neighbour – accessible to all.

This is indeed an explosive belief. Its stark simplicity is an affront to those of us who create complex theological systems or wish to build religious empires. The whole idea of a God who is accessible to all, a God who, as the Irish proverb says, is closer than the door, is all too simple to be true for theological sophisticates. Yet this belief in the abiding and all pervading presence of God is at the heart of the Christian gospel, and it is this presence that makes priests of us all.

Because God is present in our world and in others, we can meet God in our daily living. Because God lives in us we reveal God in our daily lives. When these encounters take place, when the sacred is revealed, we can speak of priesthood in action, or the exercise of priesthood.


The great dream of Judaism

is not to raise priests,

but a people of priests,

to consecrate all men [and women]

not only some.

Search for God [God In Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism 1997]

Abraham Heschel [1907-1972]

There is something very practical about the pastoral approach. It always wants to know how. So I would like to end with a suggestion about how we can reclaim this priesthood, or, in the words of Abraham Heschel how we ‘consecrate all men and women.

In a sense this is not something we, as a church or individuals, must do. It has already been done, as we will see. What we do have to do, however, is to awaken this realisation in our people.

To do so, I suggest we immerse ourselves in the opening chapter of John’s gospel. Here we find the core of our spirituality. God comes and dwells among. In accepting this amazing reality we see all creation as holy, as made sacred, consecrated and ordained. All creation is capable of revealing the presence of God.

Secondly, we need to begin to talk of priesthood in this way – the priesthood of creation, of parenthood, of committed relationships, of music, of art, prose and poetry. In rediscovering the priesthood of creation we will awaken the awareness of our own priesthood and, in turn, increase our awareness of the priesthood of all creation.