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What Does It Mean to Be a Priest Today?

Interview with Gerhard Ruis on the occasion of Karl Rahner's fiftieth jubilee as a priest for Landesstudio Salzburg of Radio Austria, Salzburg (April 7, 1982)


For the past few years one has spoken of a crisis in the Catholic priesthood, at least in the Western industrialized nations. This is certainly not a crisis caused simply by talking much about it, even if opinions expressed in public completely overlook the fact that a broad spectrum of priests remain who attempt to perform their service in peace and with the conviction of their vocation. These remain in spite of all the identity problems, difficulties, and threatening breaks within the Church. How do you see this, Father Rahner? Is there a crisis in the Catholic priesthood?

One can certainly speak in many ways of a crisis in the Catholic priesthood without falsifying reality or creating a crisis through much discussion. If for no other reason than the undeniable fact that the number of priestly callings, the number of those who allow themselves to be ordained, has fallen greatly. There are a few weak tendencies toward a reversal, but, for the most part and even in those dioceses where the number of seminarians has risen, it is a major problem in contrast to earlier times. There are fewer priests.

On the one hand, we live in modern society, under certain conditions which are simply detrimental to faith, to preaching faith, and therefore to the service of the Church. On the other hand, we come from a society in which faith, Christianity, baptism, church attendance, a church burial, Easter communion, and similar things were all taken for granted. Today it is different. The number of practicing Catholics has declined considerably. Hence, it is very understandable that a young man will have different problems in studying for the priesthood today than in past years.

Earlier, a young priest had a career to look forward to --- even if he didn't strive for this in an immoral or profane sense --- first as a chaplain, then as a pastor. He was a respected man in his community .He belonged to those people in a normal society who were looked up to, even if no one called upon his services very often.

In other words, one can speak of a complication of the will to become a priest and therefore of a crisis in the Catholic priesthood. One must be careful here, however, because this refers only to our environs. It can certainly be very different in India or Indonesia, if only because of the different spiritual and socio-political conditions. It could well be that the lack of priestly callings from the native populations in South America was much greater thirty years ago than it is now. In any case, this remains: There are complicating circumstances regarding the priestly calling so that one can, in a way, speak of a crisis. How one is to judge such a crisis when one is a practicing Christian or even a priest is a whole other question.

You said that a main reason for the lack of priests which we experience could be that becoming a priest no longer means a career. But is not the situation more propitious the other way around, as seen from the Bible. I read recently a new translation of a letter of Paul: publicly we have become dirt --- pushed to the edge by everyone. " One can think of this translation what one will; however, if this is now the situation, wouldn't it be a more believable decision to become a priest?

When I said earlier that the priestly calling no longer means a career, I did not want to suggest that the priests of centuries past had bad or earthly motives for their priesthood. The possibility of being a respected person in an open society was, we hope, not the reason for their priestly lives. However, this created an atmosphere, a dimension, within which something like the priestly call with its absolute religious motivations offered itself much more understandably.

Earlier, there were many pious and hardworking brothers in the Society of Jesus who worked with their hands. They entered our ranks and were truly holy, selfless men. One must say they had a career inside the Society. In the order they had a low-level, yet respected position which gave an ambiance in which the true religious motivation could more easily grow when compared with today's situation. It is also similar in the priestly calling.

Now you can rightfully say that the priestly calling in its true religious meaning is something which fits into today's secularized and profane situation. The priest should not be one who lives as a respected pastor in a lovely rectory and who is counted among those most truly honored in the community. Rather, he should proclaim the implausible message of Jesus Christ, the one crucified and risen. Then, contradicting the world, the folly of the cross, as well as other specifically Christian motivations will play their respective roles in the priestly calling.

The question still remains: How many people today and tomorrow would hear such a radical and confrontational calling with the concomitant folly of the cross and God's inconceivability? This is again a totally different question. One could very easily say that today's spiritual situation is very similar to that at the time of Paul. The question is: How many can hear such a calling? Naturally, that will depend in large part upon how well the people of today can hear the message of Jesus Christ and how well they will implement it. I do not believe that the number of priestly callings proportional to the number of practicing Catholics has declined. ...The real question is how the Church should efficiently proclaim her message to all humanity.

The profile of the priest within the Church has become somewhat hazy. For example, the inclination of the Church to turn to the cultic-sacral area, which bas been connected with the service of the Catholic priesthood for a few centuries now, has also faded to the background. In my opinion, however, the priestly-sacral work and the form of life so foreign to the world, celibacy, have lost much of their meaning as you have already said.

Yes, there are other reasons in addition to those just given by me which have contributed to the so-called crisis in the priesthood. There are changes in the ways of thinking of everyday Christians (some justified and some unfortunately not) and, consequently, in the mentality of the Church and those who represent her concerns. It follows then that this will affect, in time, the offices of the Church. It is completely justified nowadays to take socio-political duties in the Church more seriously than before.

Earlier, when it took centuries for things to change within society, social structures were of unquestionable importance; there were kings and officeholders, wars and the corresponding rituals of the adjutants. There were the poor (who were accepted matter-of-factly) and the rich who were of the opinion that God's providence saw to it that they could never lose their money, could pass it on to their children, and the like. We live today in a society with different duties with many more rash tendencies to change and also to real possibilities. It is understandable, then, that Christians --- and these include, to be sure, the Church's officeholders and their official pronouncement ---must also take part in these changes.

The duties of the Church, which were earlier under the auspices of officialdom, were more or less identical with those of the priest. In this way, perhaps we can shed a different light on the problem of priests.

There were naturally women who cleaned the Church; there was a sacristan who lit the candles and brought water for the baptism. For the most part, all the important and high-ranking duties of the Church were also, as a matter of fact, the duties of the priests. For example, let us look at the Catholic schools of Belgium. Until a decade ago, the clerics working there taught math, writing, Latin, and Greek. But now we have the following situation: On the one hand, the duties of the Church have grown, to a degree shifted; on the other hand, however, these cannot all be fulfilled by priests. This hides the danger, as you already mentioned, that today's young priest has the impression that what he has to do as a priest is foreign to this world: a ceremonial concern which does not necessarily interest him nor the people. He does not have the impression that he is being hemmed in by the power of the state or by those persecuting the Church. Rather, he feels pushed by social developments into the sacristy or choir loft. These additional duties, which a priest understandably accepted and which somehow fulfilled him, can no longer be executed by him. There are nowadays an enormous number of religion teachers who are not priests. There are also social workers in the service of the Church who are not priests. This raises the question whether the priesthood is attractive as it is. May or should a young man say (we do not address here the problematic question of celibacy): I will enter the service of the Church which will fulfill my whole life, but I don't want to be a priest. You see, when I was young I came to know an Italian youth who lived with us. His father was an Italian diplomat in Berlin at the time. This young man, an engineer by training, died of polio which he contracted from the poor of Turin. Perhaps he will be canonized later. By the way, on John Paul's trip to Turin, he celebrated Mass in honor of Don Bosco and my young friend. My mother even asked him why he did not become a priest, to which he replied that one can do more for the salvation of souls in Italy if one is not a priest. Naturally, this example is a bit extreme and one sided, but it shows the reason for the identity crisis in which young men thinking of priesthood can get caught up.

Let me interrupt here. A while back, a pastor in Vienna, respected by parishioners and colleagues alike, said to me concerning his understanding of his office: "I do not want to be a representative of Christ. I do not want to be an intercessor between God and man. I am simply one of the community and I serve this community. " It seems to me that a new aspect is being introduced. One speaks today of a horizontal and vertical understanding of the priestly office. In a large poll, many priests preferred the word service and do not want to hear anything further about the office. Conversely, others, mostly older priests, still hold tight to the preconciliar understanding of the office.

I would also say that there are many misunderstandings on both sides. Perhaps we can leave the word office aside and speak of a mission in the service of the Church for the accomplishment of her duties; a mission which one cannot make exclusively one's own. It would be one which imparts certain obligations as well as certain possibilities, but these are not shared by everyone, not even in the Church. Such a lasting mission, however, can be called an office. Now the pastor from Vienna may say of himself that he serves his community. He is baptized and so are the others; all are truly children of God with an eternal destiny.

It is a matter of how he serves the community. Is he only a social worker who cares for the poor of his parish and who cares fraternally for the down and-outs? Is he only a good marriage counselor? Is he only the one who tries to teach morals to those who have none? Is he only the representative of an inner worldly, horizontal humanity or is he something completely different? I am of the opinion that where there is a critical attitude toward the priesthood, despite true Catholic belief, be it among priests or seminarians, one is missing what the priest, in the true sense of the word, can and should be.

He has, of course, thousands of duties. He has to care for the poor in his community; he must work for peace; he is to awaken a critical spirit toward society in his community. Now I would like to say something about the real heart of the priesthood, even if I have to use seemingly odd terminology A priest is one sent by Christ, an apostle of the eternal God with one message that far surpasses any and all earthly duties and possibilities. This message is: There is a God and he, in his inexplicable way, wants to be a part of our lives. Even if he caused a cosmos to explode which may be ten thousand light years away, he is still with me, still loves me, still surrounds me. He wants to make my existence eternal and wants to reward me with his presence and his eternal life. The word in which God commits himself to us must be spread. It must be witnessed to: It is eternal through the crucified and risen Jesus. And there must be people who do this.

Naturally, God works in the freedom of his unending love, in the depths of people, and in the atheist who stands by the banality of his or her earthly existence. But God's grace and irrevocable promise of fuller self-disclosure to us has corporeally, definitely, and irreversibly appeared in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This message must be spread. The word carries a stated reality which one should receive as challenging, redeeming, and satisfying. This word is the reality. That is why we call it a sacramental word of grace. If because of this the priest is also the dispenser of sacraments, the administrator of Christ's Last Supper in which the crucified Jesus and his power are present, then he is not a performer of various antiquated magical rituals about which a modern person knows nothing. He is much more the one who proclaims the incomprehensible, eternal, and sanctifying mystery of God to us. If a priest cannot understand this, then perhaps he should have become a social worker instead.

I freely admit that today's priest does not have it easy proclaiming the message of the New Testament and that of the Church. It is difficult for him to understand what an incredibly blessed message he has to proclaim. It is difficult for him to announce this in a way that others understand it. If he knows only to repeat boring catechism formulations or if he takes refuge in homilies that contain only social and political critique, then it is difficult for him to comprehend that he is the guru of the loving God. He is not this by his own doing; he is one, rather, who has been graced and empowered by God. Many people feel a need to aim for more on earth than just making money and being able to take trips.

There are people who yearn for the incomprehensibility and eternity of God. To these people the priest says that the most inconceivable optimism, which you cannot even comprehend, is actually your possibility , yes, even your most holy duty .You are a person of eternity , of absolute yearning, of unlimited hoping. You can be this because we have experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ.

I do not see why a priest of this vision could not overcome the crisis in today's priesthood. Naturally, all these things have been overshadowed by the triviality and the habitual nature of our life from which the priest also suffers. He is necessarily also the one who must constantly pray: I believe, Father, help my unbelief. He too must accomplish a breakthrough in hope-out of the banality of the mundane and into God's eternity. He cannot be a priest and be happy if he is not a spiritual person, if he does not always begin again he need not do more than try .He must be a man of God, a man of experience with the Holy Spirit and a man of eternity .If he is not this, then the priesthood will be a terrible burden for him. But even if he is such a spiritually oriented person, it is also clear that he will experience disappointment in himself and in those to whom he preaches the word of God.

But this burden is not taken from lay people and from those who think they would be freer and happier if they were to leave the priesthood. Disappointment, death, hardship, and the like are part of human life. It would indeed be sad if a priest were not to experience these as well. However, he should not be quick to blame all the above on the priesthood as such. He should rather ask: Where is there one who does not experience disappointments in our time here on earth, ultimately at death?

It seems to me correct that today's priest no longer has certain functions which earlier perhaps made his life a bit easier and cheaper to live. Many of a priest's earlier duties have now disappeared, be it because others have taken them over, or be it because the priest no longer has the time and energy. He should not be disappointed in his priesthood because of this. He should reflect much more upon the real heart of the priesthood. There certainly must be men in our dreadfully banal and brutal society who nurse the fire of praise and love of God and who initiate others in the experience of God's mystery. Each one will be successful in his own way. Of course, a priest's religious potential and dynamic force is going to depend upon his talents and personal history. One should not turn up one's nose or look down upon even the smallest servant in God's kingdom who, true and faithful, proclaims the message of the New Testament through his priestly calling, even if this is done in a common, banal, traditional, and somewhat "burnt-out" manner. Every priest should always say to himself: Within the limits given you by God, you should be truly a prophet, a man of God, one moved by the fire of God. You should love God and your fellow man. You should proclaim the message of Jesus Christ inour time, as Paul said, be it convenient or inconvenient.

Translated by Jeffrey Seeger, S.J.

Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles