By Annamarie Adkins
WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 19, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Prayer and a deep spiritual life are necessary elements for priests facing the challenges of being overworked, discouraged or alone, says Father David Toups.
Father Toups, the associate director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the U.S. episcopal conference, is the author of “Reclaiming Our Priestly Character.”
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Toups comments on the challenges of the priesthood, along with the six principles of priestly renewal.
Q: “Reclaiming Our Priestly Character” lays out six principles for renewing the priesthood in general, as well as the life of each priest. Can you briefly describe each principle?
Father Toups: The first principle is the permanence of the priesthood, namely the reminder that the priest has entered into a permanent relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church by virtue of ordination.
He receives, in ordination, an ontological character that cannot be removed or erased. This reality affects the way he prepares for the priesthood in the seminary, the way he understands himself as a chaste spouse of the Church and spiritual father of the faithful.
The second principle is that the priest acts “in persona Christi,” assuring both himself and the faithful that the sacraments are efficacious “ex opere operato.”
The flip side of this is that, although he has received the sacerdotal character, he is obliged to keep working on his own personal character development as a man striving for holiness in his daily life.
The third principle is a reminder that the priest is not his own, but rather he belongs to and represents the Church “in persona Ecclesiae.” Thus, he prays the Liturgy of the Hours, as he promised at ordination, for the needs of the whole Church.
Likewise, he embraces and hands on the teachings of the Church as the steward, not the master, of her truths. He is also proud — in the best sense — to be visibly recognizable as a priest, knowing he is called to courageously be a sign and symbol pointing beyond himself to Christ.
The fourth principle is priestly presence, namely that everything the priest does is priestly and has immense value, as Christ desires to work through him at all times. This happens in a particular way when preaching, shepherding, and healing God’s people as their spiritual father.
The fifth principle is the caution for priests to avoid the trap of functionalism or activism. The priest can get so busy that he can forget who he is or for whom he is doing the work.
He must be supernaturally sensitive, grounding himself by being a man of prayer who encounters God through daily, silent meditation, desiring an ever more intimate relationship with him.
Finally, the sixth principle, which has already been discussed, is ongoing formation. These principles all find their basis in the priestly character and serve as a foundation for a priestly life lived joyfully, bearing abundant fruit.
Q: Do your recommendations apply equally to diocesan priests and those priests in religious orders?
Father Toups: Absolutely. In fact, the studies done by Dean Hoge of Catholic University reveal that a larger percentage of religious have greater confusion regarding the exact nature of the ontological character of the priesthood. For all priests, diocesan or religious, a proper understanding of the character of orders grounds them in an ever more fruitful life of ministry and service.
The studies mentioned above confirm that priests who have a clear understanding of this doctrine are more likely to be content in their ministry and joyful in their vocation.
The Thomistic axiom, “agere sequitur esse” — doing follows being — is true for all priests; the more they understand their priestly identity, the more they will be able to act and serve in the manner Christ has called them. This proper understanding does not guarantee fidelity or holiness, but it certainly is a strong foundation to build upon.