The life and ministry of the priest


[Handwritten notes of Cardijn on the original typed text]

nihil sine presbytero – Nothing without the priest [Council of Arles, 309 AD)

vae soli… –  Woe to he who is alone [Ecclesiastes 4:10]

cognosco oves meas et cognoscunt me meae! – I know my sheep and my sheep know me [John 10:14]

alias oves habeo, illas oportet me adducere  [John  10:16  : I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must  bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. ]


Schema of the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests

Experience and history shows that the whole body of the Church will either succeed by virtue of its good priests or fail as a result of its bad priests. In this era, when the human community is distracted by various sects, debates and ideologies it is necessary that all lay people, and not only the adults, must be properly and seriously formed and trained. How to achieve this? Only through the priests upon whom, and for the same reason, the success or failure of the Reign of God on Earth depends! Do not be deceived, brothers. The renewal or “aggiornamento” of the Church that Pope John of happy memory has called us to implement in practice lies in the hands of the priests of the whole world! Therefore, please allow me to make three points relating to this matter which is of such great moment.

1 °) Good training and formation for priests. We know that the Schema deals especially with the formation of priests. However, it is impossible to deal separately with the formation of priests and their life and ministry. Many difficulties that are experienced in the life of priests arise in fact from various defects in their formation. For example, not a few priests are disappointed or even sometimes fall victim to the temptation of scepticism in the exercise of their sacred ministry, when they should be passionate and open. This certainly arises from the great difficulty of the apostolic ministry; however, it also arises primarily from a lack of preparation to face difficulties.

More often than not seminarians learn the Catholic system, the theological system, the canonical system, the ascetic system, perhaps a pastoral system, but without experiencing a human way of life. Hence, when they are first sent out to be with people and need to deal with people, they start by promoting the system that they were themselves taught and they strive to impose the same forms, ideas, ways of thinking and acting, just as they learnt. Yet they need to begin to accept and love people, people just as they are, in order that they too can discover, grow and build! This was the sole method that I followed in building the YCW around the world. In my humble opinion, priests’ study does not focus enough on knowledge and understanding but is too much based on abstraction and a scholastic teaching system. It is essential that during their studies priests are practically taught a human way of life and learn to deal with people. For this difficult apprenticeship, the teachers should be chosen carefully among the most human, virile and virtuous priests…

2 °) The Encyclical Letter, “Ecclesiam Suam” raises the question: How is the mission of the Church to be carried out in this present age, in the world of today? And it offers this response: by way of mutual exchange. There are references to this kind exchange or dialogue in our Schema, but rather than formal reasoning this should be developed more fully within a framework. See for example, page 14, lines 8 to 18; page 17, lines 13 and following; page 26 lines 25 to 40. It would be necessary to insert words explaining that dialogue and discussion are appropriate to the priestly ministry.

Please understand my thinking: It is not a matter of mandating a certain way of acting, but of enabling genuine apostolic access to people. As I have already said: The starting point is listening to people and striving to understand, to love them and accept them as they are. The way in which we reach out to them is vital in order that we may eventually win them for Christ. When they come to us asking for the sacraments or other things of that nature, they will be open to us or not according to the sincerity of our humanity. If they come finally! Many of them would have never even come in contact with the church or a man of the church! The Church must leave its confines and meet the people wherever they really are. This was also the conclusion of Cardinal Suhard of happy memory. Over twenty years ago he wrote: “It is clear that, in sum, the people are no longer Christian in feeling. There is virtually a gulf between them and the Christian community so that in order to reach them, it is necessary to leave our homes and reach out to them. This is the real issue.” However, priests will not succeed in engaging with people if they are lacking in faith and fidelity. We must insist on this. This is the way in which people come to the priests and they will overcome their isolation.

Whether beginning from nothing, priests eventually succeed in bringing the faithful together in community, and whether or not there are many community leaders, efforts must be made in order to form it as a missionary community. Of course, this is not completely missing in the Schema. It is in fact mentioned very briefly at page 19, lines 22 to 26, and indeed it is emphasised as it should be. Everything calls for forming the community, namely the very character of Christianity and the need for meeting, as well as maintaining the faith in this difficult century, and the incomparable importance of the Christian community for attracting and strengthening the testimony of Christians.

In fact, without the community nothing solid can be built. However, the community must be animated by a Christian spirit. For this reason, priests must be present among the lay faithful in order to encourage them and form them for their own irreplaceable apostolate. Their own apostolate, I insist, and to which priests must pay close attention. A few words evidently allude to this, page 17, line 28, at page 18, line 8. However, this could be developed more and in stronger terms. Similarly, the following lines could be expressed better: page 40, lines 12 to 18, namely priests and faithful should know each other well, “the feelings and mind of people and their lives, not just individually and in family terms, but also economically, culturally and socially”. I insist on this point. A few priests see the faithful in the courtyard of the church but, for the most part, do not know where and how they live, or really work and spend their leisure, or speak with their friends and colleagues…

Allow me to make one last point. Not all parish priests know to look beyond the limits of their parishes notwithstanding that the Kingdom of God must be discovered and grow beyond the range of their flocks… Therefore, they must be invited to exalt the full Catholic and apostolic sense, as St Augustine said: “Open up the spaces of your love!” (“Dilata spatia caritatis tuae!”)

Cardinal Joseph CARDIJN.

Aug 20. 1965