The Holy See has published a new 40-page instruction on priestly ministry in the parish, titled The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community, which emphasises the "irreplaceable" sacramental role of the pastor and his need for holiness.
It was introduced to the media in October at a press conference chaired by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, and is largely devoted to the distinction between the roles of the priest and the lay faithful, while encouraging priests in their efforts to follow the example of Jesus Christ, offering their lives in service to the Church.
The Vatican document follows closely the line indicated by John Paul II in his Allocution to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Clergy in November 2001, and this is included as an introduction.
"Priestly identity" is defined as a "total commitment to Christ, aptly effected and witnessed through celibacy", placing a priest "at the service of all." His role "in promoting the Church's mission" concerns especially "the eternal salvation of all mankind."
The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood are distinguished, the former being based on its "baptismal character", the latter on "the sacramental character received in the Sacrament of Orders which configures the priest to Christ so as to enable him to act in the person of Christ, the Head, and to exercise the potestas sacra [sacred power] to offer Sacrifice and forgive sins."
The document warns of "the danger of 'clericalising' the laity and of 'secularising' the clergy" as when "the generous commitment of the laity in the areas of worship, transmission of the faith and pastoral collaboration, in the face of shortages of priests, has tempted some sacred ministers and laity to go beyond that which is permitted by the Church and by their own ontological sacramental capacities. This results in a theoretical and practical under- estimation of the specific mission of the laity to sanctify the structures of society from within."
The priest's essential role is to act in the Person of Christ as "the fount of life and vitality in the Church and in his parish by virtue of his sacrificial power to confect the Body and Blood of the Redeemer, his authority to proclaim the Gospel, and his power to conquer the evil of sin through sacramental forgiveness." His "basic identity has to be sought in the character which has been conferred on him by the Sacrament of Holy Orders and from which pastoral grace derives."
Given the centrality of the Eucharist in a priest's "ministry and in his spiritual life", the document stresses "the importance of proper preparation before offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, of its daily celebration, of thanksgiving and of the visit to the Blessed Sacrament during the course of the day."
The document next insists that priests follow "the Church's liturgical laws and dispositions, that is to say, fidelity to the norms which organise divine worship in accordance with the will of the Eternal High Priest and of his Mystical Body." Otherwise, any "arbitrariness, subjective expressions, improvisations [or] disobedience in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist patently contradict the essence of the Holy Eucharist, which is the sacrifice of Christ."
A priest therefore "should be a model of adherence to the perennial Magisterium of the Church and to its discipline" having a "profound, genuine and vital bond of communion with the See of Peter" and an "acceptance, diffusion, and conscientious application of papal documents, and of other documents published by the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia."
A priest alone should give the homily during Mass. While certain of the non-ordained faithful may be more gifted in the art of public speaking, "this does not erase the fact that [a priest] sacramentally represents Christ, Head and Shepherd, and the fact that the effectiveness of his preaching derives from this reality".
In addition, a priest, "in establishing the times for Masses and confessions in his parish, should take into consideration those times which are convenient for the majority of the faithful, while bearing in mind also the need to facilitate those who have difficulty in easily attending the celebration of the sacraments."
He should devote special attention to individual confession, "understood in the spirit and form established by the Church" and "be mindful that confession must precede first Holy Communion." Respect should be shown "for the sensibilities of the penitent concerning the manner in which he/she wishes to confess, either face to face, or from behind a grill".
A priest should zealously foster more priestly vocations (particularly through personal example), encourage visits to the Blessed Sacrament, including adoration through solemn exposition - with the Blessed Sacrament "lovingly reserved in a tabernacle" and provide "an authentic pedagogy on prayer [and] a renewed, persuasive and effective catechesis on the importance of the Sunday and daily celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist."
The document concludes that a central priority for the Church - without which a "good laity is scarcely possible" - is the formation of "truly holy priests." Hence, the "pedagogy of holiness is a goal which is as attractive as it is challenging for all those in the Church who hold responsibilities of government and formation."