The universal theme of the Year for Priests, launched by Pope Benedict XVI on 19 June 2009 was: Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests. That entire year was a wonderful occasion for the whole Church to reflect on the identity and ministry of priests, which is none other than the identity and ministry of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ himself. Allow me to recall at the outset what is specific in the sacramental character received in Holy Orders: not only a participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ (which is proper to the universal or royal priesthood of all Christ’s faithful), but rather a configuration in persona Christi capitis, which therefore constitutes the priest in a sacred minister—alter Christus, ipse Christus—in the midst of the community of believers, at the service of and in order to nourish the universal priesthood of all the faithful. As Bl.John Paul II explained in Pastores dabo vobis, n.14: “ For the sake of this universal priesthood of the new covenant Jesus gathered disciples during his earthly mission (cf. Lk. 10:1-12), and with a specific and authoritative mandate he called and appointed the Twelve ‘to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons’ (Mk. 3:14-15).”
However, that entire year’s reflection might very well be an exercise in futility, were it to be left precisely at the level of speculative thought. In effect, there is abundant literature on the life and ministry of priests—from charming biographies like those of the Curé d’Ars himself to treatises like those of Alphonsus Ligouri; from Papal Exhortations like Pastores dabo vobis to veritable Instructions like the Directory on the Life and Ministry of Priests. Despite all these, however, there continues to be glaring manifestations of lack of priestly holiness, not just in the past but even in the very year that was supposedly dedicated to foster priestly sanctity and fidelity.
Hence, the importance of Canon Law. Because Canon Law begins where theology ends—i.e., in the level of due if not enforceable human conduct. Whereas moral, sacramental and even pastoral theology can only indicate what is fitting and proper conduct, leaving it to each faithful to make responsible use of his freedom to act accordingly, Canon Law stipulates what is juridically binding and hence owed if not outright enforceable. In short, Canon Law adds the note of exigency to the desideratum of priestly holiness.
The Code of Canon Law expresses this in a general way in c.276:
Can.276, — §1. In leading their lives clerics are especially bound to pursue holiness because they are consecrated to God by a new title in the reception of orders as dispensers of God’s mysteries in the service of His people.
One observes that by itself, c.276, §1 may be doomed to go the way of many well-meaning but ineffective pastoral initiatives and guidelines. Staying within that section, one remains in the level of a desideratum, or in more juridical terms a pretension. Such pretension needs to be articulated into enforceable norms. Put another way, the pretension of priestly holiness needs to be spelled out into a set of normative conduct.
This is what c.276, §2 sets out to do, clearly stating: In order for them to pursue this perfection—followed by five numbers outlining a set of vital duties for clerics. In other words, what follows is not just a set of desiderata, but rather a set of norms which clerics must follow if they are to fulfill the juridical obligation to pursue holiness set by c.276, §1.
In this issue and succeeding two issues of the CBCP Monitor, I propose to tackles these five paragraphs of c.276, §2, which I refer to as the Canonical Imperatives of Priestly Sanctity.
Can.276, §2 — 1º First of all, they are faithfully and untiringly to fulfill the duties of pastoral ministry.
Before going any further, I think it is important to clarify the concept of pastoral ministry. In effect, under the guise of pastoral ministry, almost every conceivable initiative has been taken up by ordained ministers—ranging from works of purely material beneficence (e.g., relief of calamity victims) to socio-political and economic initiatives (e.g., education for the upcoming elections, parish-based mechanisms for the protection of the electoral process, organization of cooperatives, education in NFP).
Properly speaking, the pastoral function consists in exercising the tria munera Christi, which can be summed up principally in delivering the salvific means entrusted by Christ to the Church—i.e., the Word of God and the Sacraments. In other words, it would imply a serious impoverishment of the person and mission of the priest, not to say of the Church herself, to reduce their spiritual mission to merely material tasks.
With this I do not in any way deny either the timeliness or utility of many works aimed at alleviating the socio-economic, political or even medical conditions of the people, carried out by ecclesiastical organizations with the help of the Hierarchy. What I want to do is to point out the danger of substituting the genuine pastoral function of the clerics with other charitable works, thereby confusing the priestly mission of the Pastors with that of the faithful in general.
The Code of Canon Law spells out this particular imperative abundantly, both in general provisions and as regards the administration of each of the Sacraments. Following is just a summary.
A. General Provisions:
1) General availability for pastoral assignments: Unless they are excused by a legitimate impediment, clerics are bound to undertake and faithfully fulfill a duty which has been entrusted to them by their Ordinary (c.274, §2). More than specifying any task, this norm binds the cleric to undertake and faithfully fulfill—i.e., carry out and faithfully execute to completion—any and all pastoral assignments entrusted to him by his bishop.
In effect, one cannot help but wonder if the aforementioned cases of wayward initiatives of individual priests could have prospered had they been totally consumed by assignments of a genuinely pastoral nature from their legitimate hierarchical superiors.
2) Duty of residence: Even if they do not have a residential office, clerics nevertheless are not to leave their diocese for a notable period of time, to be determined by particular law, without at least the presumed permission of their proper Ordinary (c.283, §1). This provision specifies further the availability of clerics for pastoral assignments by limiting their absence from the diocese.
Indeed, it would be much more difficult for clerics to fall into unhealthy activism—with initiatives that are not strictly pastoral—were their presence in their own ecclesiastical circumscriptions more strictly enforced.
3) Prohibition from assuming public office: Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power (c.285, §3). The relevance of this norm to the canonical imperative in question is quite clear: The cleric cannot give his 100% dedication to the pastoral ministry, were he to also participate in the exercise of civil government.
For the priest, the Lord’s mandate to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s takes on an absolute value: The priest simply owes 100% of his potencies to God and his Church. Aside from strictly pastoral duties, the priest simply has no other time or energy for much else.
4) Prohibition from engaging in business: Clerics are forbidden personally or through others to conduct business or trade either for their own benefit or that of others, without the permission of legitimate ecclesiastical authority (c.286). It is interesting to note that the prohibition is quite all-encompassing: neither personally nor through others, neither for their own benefit nor for other (i.e., not even for their flock).
The logic again is quite simple: a priest is ordained for pastoral tasks—the tria munera Christi—and not for other activities, unless legitimate authority permits (obviously for special reasons). (To be continued.)