A Papal View of Priestly Identity Explored Through 1 Peter 5: 1-4 and Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis

     In an era where many priests have left the priesthood, either by their own choice or as a result of grave misconduct, many in the Church are left searching for a true priestly identity. As seminaries continue to see an increase in enrollment more and more emphasis is rightly being placed on the proper formation of priests. This short reflection aims to go back to the beginning to look at the first pope’s vision of the priesthood and using the words of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis and the humble insights of a man only a year away from beginning priestly ministry. This reflection aims to set the beginnings of a foundation for priestly identity in the hopes that this return to the beginning will encourage others to consider how to properly form priests after St. Peter’s vision of the priesthood.

     The first Pope, St. Peter, lays out a very clear blueprint of priestly identity in the fifth chapter of his first letter.[1] At the beginning of his last chapter, verses 1-4, St. Peter addresses the seniores.[2] While some translations translate seniores as elders it is clear from the text that seniors should be properly translated as presbyteros, priest.[3]In only four short verses the Prince of the Apostles directly lays out the foundations of a priestly identity.

     St. Peter begins his letter referring to himself as a fellow priest, “So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter,”[4]setting himself as a model for how priesthood should be lived. Just as St. Peter was a “witness to the sufferings of Christ”[5] the priest is called to be a witness of the suffering of Christ and with St. Peter “share in the glory to be revealed.”[6]St. Peter’s vision of the role of the priest is best summarized by Pope John Paul II who said “the world looks to the priest because it looks to Jesus. No one can see Jesus but everyone sees the priest and through him they wish to catch a glimpse of the Lord.”[7]The priest is an Alter Christus, another Christ. By sharing in His passion, death and glorious resurrection and through his witness of life, the priest draws people to Christ. A priest must himself have witnessed Christ’s passion, death and resurrection in his priestly formation and strive to witness it to all people.

     St. Peter specifies the first obligation of being an Alter Christus, in the second verse, by calling his brothers to “tend the flock of God in your midst,”[8]to be a shepherd. The word used for shepherd, pascite, literally translates to feed which implies a care that is compassionate to the needs of the flock. The priest is to care for the flock “of God”, the flock that belongs to Christ which is simply entrusted into the priest’s care. Just as Christ commissioned St. Peter to shepherd His flock,[9] so now Peter reminds the priests that they too have been commissioned to shepherd Christ’s flock. Just as Peter professed his love of Christ before receiving his commission to shepherd each priest must recall that the priesthood is “the love of the heart of Jesus.”[10] Each priest, beginning in his priestly formation and continuing every day of his life must grow in love of Christ and his flock.

     Rather than continue by listing a set of particulars about how one should shepherd, St. Peter, is more concerned with the manner and the motivation of the individual priest.[11] Since it is clear from the text that priests must be chosen, for if they were not chosen it would not be possible for them to accept by constraint. St. Peter is clear, the priesthood is a vocation. One becomes a priest not by his own initiative but by respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The priest, in living out his priestly vocation, journeys this earthly pilgrimage participating in his salvation through his vocation, through his priestly ministry.

     In commanding the priest to provide oversight “not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly,” St. Peter lists three important qualities of pastoral leadership.[12]Firstly the priest must accept the call from Christ to serve as a  shepherd willingly. A priest must freely accept his vocation as a gift from God and not see his vocation as a burden which he must endure on this earth. The priesthood is the response to a call and to a call of love. I hear something within me which moves me and I answer “yes”. It is in prayer that the Lord makes us understand this love, but it is also through so many signs that we can read in our life, in the many people he sets on our path. And the joy of the encounter with him and with his call does not lead to shutting oneself in but to opening oneself; it leads to service in the Church.[13]

     Christ calls men to the priesthood and that free response will lead the priest to an interior joy and freedom. Secondly the priest should accept the call for the service of God’s flock, for the good of others. The priest lays down his life for others and completely gives up himself for the good of others. The priest in surrendering himself for others becomes like Christ and shares in His victimhood. The priest’s true identity is one of victim, the priest “is truly himself when he is for others.”[14]Thirdly the priest should be eager or ready to serve others and not himself. The prince of the apostles reminds priests that they “must never think that you are alone in deciding your future and second when deciding your future you must not decide for yourself alone.”[15] The calling to the priesthood is a call of service and each priest must realize he is called to lay down his life in service to the flock.

     St. Peter exhorts his brother priests to imitate Christ’s example and not abuse the power they possess. Since the flock belongs, not to them, but to the Lord, priests must not rule as a dictator but rather as a shepherd, after the manner of the Good Shepherd. While priests, in virtue of their office have power, they must us that power to serve their flock with all humility, imitating the great High Priest himself, Jesus Christ. When a priest lives a Christ centered life, he will exercise power in a Christ like way and the people will flock to him and thus to Christ. “When the faithful know that their pastor is a man who prays and who dedicates his life to serving them, they resound with warmth and affection which nourishes and sustains the life of the whole community.”[16] The priest, by living a true priestly life after the Heart of Christ will lead his sheep to Christ without needing to wield dictatorial power over them.

     St. Peter concludes his short direct address to priests with a reminder of the eschaton. He reminds the priests that the chief Shepherd will be revealed and when he does the priest will be accountable for how he shepherded the flock entrusted to him. Faithful leadership by the priest, ministering after the Sacred Heart, will be rewarded at the end of times with “an unfading crown of glory.” By remaining faithful to his true vocation, the priest will be welcomed into eternal life. St. Peter concludes his exhortation to priests with a simple reminder “the principle concern of every priest must be fidelity and loyalty to his own vocation.”[17]

     St. Peter makes it clear that the priesthood is a vocation; it is who the man is. Each man called by Christ to the sacred priesthood is called to be an Alter Christus. In living out his vocation as a shepherd after the Heart of the Good Shepherd the priest is faithful to his call of joyful service and will receive the crown of glory at the end of times.

[1]While the authorship of the First Letter of Peter has recently been called into question, I still hold with the tradition that St. Peter is the author. For a strong argument for the authorship and authority of First Peter please see Daniel Keating, First and Second Peter, Jude, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 18-19.

[2]Biblia sacra Vulgata, ed. Bonifatio Fischer O.S.B., Iohanne Gribomont O.S.B. et al., 3rd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1969). 1869.

[3]For a demonstration that Peter is addressing the letter to priests and not simply elders please see Donald P. Senior, C.P., 1 Peter, Sacra Pagina Series Vol. 15 (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 137.

[4]1 Peter 5:1 NAB

[5]1 Peter 5:1 NAB

[6]1 Peter 5:1 NAB

[7]Karol Wojtyla, The Meaning of Vocation. United States: Scepter Publishers, 1997. 30-31.

[8]1 Peter 5:1 NAB

[9]Jn 21:15-19 (NAB)

[10]“Le Sacerdoce, c’estl’amour du cœur de Jésus” (in Le curéd’Ars.Sapensée – Son cœur. Présentésparl’Abbé Bernard Nodet, éd. Xavier Mappus, FoiVivante, 1966, p. 98). As cited by Pope Benedict XVI in his Letter Proclaiming the Year for Priests. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/letters/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20090616_anno-sacerdotale_en.html#_ftn2

[11]M. Eugene Boring1 Peter, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdom Press, 1999), 170.

[12]Senior, 1 Peter, 139.

[13]Pope Francis, Meeting with Seminarians and Novices (6 July 2013), at The Holy See, http://www.vatican.va.

[14]Pope John Paul II, Letters to my Brother Priests (Princeton: Scepter Publishers, 2000), 157.

[15]Wojtyla, The Meaning of Vocation, 10.

[16]Benedict XVI, Celebration of Vespers and Meeting with the Bishops of the United States of America (16 April 2008), Origins 37, no. 46 (2008), 734.

[17]Wojtyla, The Meaning of Vocation, 25.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s