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Posted February 4, 2003

What the Church Needs the Priest to be

Msgr. Philip Murnion
Origins Oct. 3, 2002 Vol.32: No. 17

The priest needs to be one who can help the parish to be, in the words of John Paul II, a school of prayer. He is the church minister who is the primary theologian in the church, for if, as David Tracy proposes, theology is the relationship between revelation and experience, no one is more consistently called to do this than the priest as preacher and teacher, Msgr. Philip Murnion, president of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York, said Sept. 9 when he spoke in Washington to a symposium at The Catholic University of America's Life Cycle Institute. The symposium explored findings of recent national studies of priests.

Murnion said the priest is the minister whose engagement in life of the local community helps to signal the sacred character of time and space. But, said Murnion, priests often recoil from descriptions of themselves as set aside to mediate the relationship of sacred and secular, fearing, reversion to special claims of privilege and wanting to avoid the situation in which the grace of charism devolved into entitlements of clericalism.

If the priest is to be different without reverting to differences of status and privilege . . . it will be because we will foster a priesthood whose theology and spirituality, whose sense of shared priesthood with the people, and shared ministry with the women and men in parish ministry enable him to help people be aware of the presence of Jesus in sacrament and their community, in family and work.

Murnion said that to fulfill such a role, the priest needs a continually maturing and theologically grounded spirituality. Unfortunately, the life and culture of the priest do little to foster that.

Murnion reflected on priesthood under three headings: pastor, presbyter ("the relationship of priests with one another and the bishops is at stake here") and priest.

Murnion said, important as it is to enable priests to be effective pastors . . . and to be united in a presbyterate . . . the church needs the priest to be the minister of the sacred, not an employee of the organization.

Excerpts from the text:

"The diversity of parishioners; the diversity of parish ministers and the increasingly complex role of pastoring even one parish, never mind two or three, call for careful selection of pastors and much more support and training for all who will pastor parishes. It requires diocesan offices to be much more helpful in providing training, services and resources to pastors and parish leaders."

"We found that fewer than three out of five pastors reported a regular prayer life apart from their official duties of prayer . . . When it comes to study, few of the pastors in our workshops report reading books in theology. Many read periodicals. . . The National Organization for Continuing Education of Priests reports that the majority have recently attended theology lectures . . . But the culture of pastoral ministry and the demands on priests give little time or support for more serious reading."