During John of Avila's Canonization Mass, Pope Paul VI called him a model for modern priests suffering from an identity crisis. The Holy Father said:
"San Juan de Avila is a priest, who in many respects we call modern, especially by the plurality of the nuances that life offers for our consideration and, therefore, our imitation. Not surprisingly he has already been proposed to the Spanish clergy as their role model and mentor in heaven. We think he may be honored as a versatile model of all priests of our time, which says that the priesthood itself is in deep crisis, an 'identity crisis' and that both the nature and mission of the priest are not now sufficient grounds to justify their presence in a society like ours, desecrated and secularized. Every priest who feels doubt about his own vocation can...get a reassuring answer. And every scholar, bent on reducing the figure of the priest in a profane and utilitarian sociology, looking at the Juan de Avila, must change their narrow and negative judgments about the role of priest in the modern world." (Original Spanish text here).
Several years ago, in a piece entitled "Priestly Identity: Crisis and Renewal," Annamarie Adkins interviewed Father David Toups, Associate Director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the U.S. episcopal conference. Annamarie Adkins wrote, "A general crisis of authentic masculinity in society has also affected the priesthood as only 'real men' can adequately fulfill the role of priest and pastor, 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...Father Toups comments on the identity and character of the priesthood, and the various challenges it faces today.
Q: Your book focuses on recovering what you call the 'doctrine of the priestly character.' Can you describe this 'doctrine' in a nutshell?
Father Toups: The 'doctrine of the priestly character' is about the permanent relationship the priest enters into with Christ the High Priest on the day of his ordination. The priest is always a priest; he is not a simple functionary who performs ritual actions, but rather he is configured to Christ in the depths of his being by what is called an ontological change.
Christ is working through him at the altar, 'This is my Body,' and in the confessional, 'I absolve you of your sins,' but also in his daily actions outside the sanctuary.
The character that the priest receives is a comfort to the faithful inasmuch as they realize that their faith is not based in the personality of the priest, but rather the Person of Christ working through the priest. On the other hand, the priest is called, like all of the faithful, to a life of holiness. The character received at ordination is actually a dynamism for priestly holiness. The more he can assimilate his life to Christ and submit to the gift he received at ordination, the more he will be a credible witness to the faithful and edify the Body of Christ.
Q: Is it your view that the nature of the priesthood is unknown or misunderstood by many priests? Is mandatory 'continuing priestly education' the answer?
Father Toups: Studies show that there has been confusion regarding the exact nature of the priesthood among priests themselves depending on the timing of their seminary training.
Immediately following the Second Vatican Council, there was confusion among priests and laity alike about the difference between the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood.
Vatican II’s intention was not to suppress one in order to highlight the other, but rather to recognize the universal call to holiness and the dignity of both.
The ministerial priesthood is a specific vocation within the Church in which a man is called by Christ in the apostolic line to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Priests are different by virtue of ordination, as confirmed by the council itself in paragraph 10 of 'Lumen Gentium,' which emphasized that the baptized and the ordained share in the one and the same priesthood of Christ, but in a way that differs 'in essence and not only in degree.'
This difference certainly does not mean better or even holier -- that would be a major error -- but it does mean that there is a distinction.
Cardinal Avery Dulles points out that, if anything, the priesthood of the faithful is more exalted because the ministerial priesthood is ordered to its service. Hence, a recovery from the confusion lies in the need to understand the balance a priest is to find; he is both a servant and one who has been set aside by Christ and the Church to stand 'in persona Christi' -- not as a personal honor, but as 'one who has come to serve and not be served.'
The priest need not be embarrassed about this high calling, but should boldly live it out in the midst of the world. Pope John Paul the Great regularly reminded priests: 'Do not be afraid to be who you are!'
This brings us to the second part of your question, namely, is mandatory 'continuing priestly education' the answer?
In the book, I use the term 'formation,' not education -- though learning is an important, component part.
Ongoing formation is essential for every Christian vocation. In the midst of full liturgical schedules, parish councils, leaking roofs and hospital visits, the priest must continually open his heart and mind to Christ in prayer and study, annual retreats and seminars, as well as times of recreation and vacation, if he is to thrive as an individual and as a man of faith.
Ongoing formation is about deepening one’s interiority and fostering a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is about an ongoing conversion that reminds the priest who he is as a minister of the Gospel and whose he is as a son of God."