IV. The Catholic Priesthood



PRIESTS were the poor relations of the Council. The Council Fathers, concerned on the one hand with claiming for themselves the fullness of the Priesthood, as a supreme Order, inherited from the Apostles, and on the other hand with the promotion of the laity by exorbitantly ascribing responsibilities to them in virtue of a supposed “common priesthood”, made no provision for their priests until the day when it became obvious to them that the Reform that they longed for could not be accomplished without those who are referred to as the “infantry of the Church”. The Decree on Priestly Training let this be understood: « Animated by the spirit of Christ, this sacred synod is fully aware that the desired renewal of the whole Church depends to a great extent on the ministry of its priests... »

Two texts were then elaborated rather hastily and in a spirit of rejection of the past most detrimental to a sound and solid theology: the first one dealt with the “Ministry and the Life of Priests”, Presbyterorum Ordinis, the second one with their training in seminaries, Optatam totius. The image of the priest and the nature of his ministry had to be renovated so as to adapt it to the needs of modern times! The result, forty years later: he has entirely lost the sacred character that derives from his role in the worship of God.

The Council of Trent had made him into the man of the Mass and the Sacraments, the minister of worship sacrificing at the altar and forgiving sins in the confessional, the “person in charge” of the salvation of souls and the praise of God. The Church of the Counter-Reformation, triumphing over Protestant negations, presented itself as « the Church of the Eucharist », our Father explained.

But, apparently, priests could no longer bear seeing their ministry confined solely to the execution of the functions of worship. They felt more like pastors and apostles, “ministers of the Gospel” sent into the world, involved in it, for a more authentic service of their brothers. « The Decree on the Ministry and the Life of Priests tells us what the true object of pastoral activity is, Cardinal Marty was pleased to say, its orientation is essentially missionary. It has a twofold theocentric and anthropocentric dimension [!]; as a result, it requires being present among men. The decree tells us how the priest must nourish and unify his entire priestly life. » (Unam Sanctam, p. 11)


The parish priest having responsibility and care of a parish has the duty of being a master, a leader, and a pastor. The needs of souls must not make him forget his wider responsibilities, and he must participate, with his parish, in the great defence of the Church, of civilisation and of the country, against the armies of Satan. He must pursue the false brethren who maintain error, division, and crime among his flock. He must not only love and console, but reprimand, threaten, instruct, exhort all flock and especially the best of them… A word summarises his function, it measures his greatness, it explains his affections, it is the worship of God. The priest is the man of God, he who raises eyes towards God, he who fills the intelligences, the hearts, and the entire life of men with Him. His cassock (Oh, how we love it!) bears witness to this superior concern; his simple and frugal life, his ceaseless ministry, continually recalls to his faithful and to others that God exists, loves them and calls them. His word adds a clear definition to the will of God; finally liturgical worship and prayer carries souls towards God in a foreshadowing of eternal life.

(Fr. Georges de Nantes, parish priest of Villemaur,
sermon of September 15, 1963, Pour l’Église,
t. I, p. 410)

Priority is therefore given to “mission” over the Mass and the Sacraments; anteriority of the common priesthood of the faithful in relation to the “ministerial” priesthood of those responsible for worship. Primacy belongs to a life involved in the world so that the priest not be an “isolated man”, but living among men, his brothers, helping them to “consecrate” their secular and profane lives. And finally primacy belongs to the word over prayer and the pursuit of holiness; a spirituality entirely of action and “witnessing”: these are the new characteristics of the priest according to Vatican II.

The training of seminarians immediately felt the effects of this, favouring learning about ministry, with all that this presupposes, according to the terms of modern pedagogy and human formation, learning about responsibility, discerning the signs of the times… to the detriment of acquiring the sacred sciences, the discipline and traditional devotions of the priest « according to the Heart of God »

Seven years after the Council, Fr. de Nantes’ diagnostic was overwhelming: « When priests will have distanced themselves in this way from what is divine and lost themselves in what is human, even what is human in the circle of bishops, they will realise that they have been “had”. But it will be too late […]. The priesthood was great, solid and prosperous, as long as it defined itself by its intimate relation to God in worship and in the apostolate relates to it. And I add: priests were happy. It deteriorated, weakened, diminished, starting from the day that it tried to be missionary above all, turned towards men so as to occupy them with the things of the earth and no longer with those of Heaven. This is the crime committed against the Priesthood. » (CCR no 25, p. 9)


Now the damage has been done: the priesthood is in ruins, in the midst of an entirely secularised society, we must not moan, but hope for a Council to restore the ancient discipline.

It would be appropriate to rediscover the wise lessons of human order and supernatural holiness handed down to us by past centuries, in the times of the Counter-Reformation and the Catholic Renaissance. Fr. de Nantes has worked for this simultaneously with his criticism of Vatican II


« One possible means that would cost little would be the reactionary way of a pure and simple return to the theology of the Council of Trent. All that is essential would be saved and four centuries testify to its fruitfulness… A different way, a better one, would be to come to terms, in the very spirit of the Tridentine Tradition, with all genuine theological progress, and to conserve as well, the soundest part of the effort agreed to at Vatican II, unfortunately ruined by the general orientations and the demagogical excesses of this fatal Council. The experts point out four novelties in this theology. Some of them appear just and fruitful. Others are false and exorbitant. Their discernment by Vatican III will be of the greatest interest! » (CCR no 25, p. 10)

1. The “ministerial” priesthood as a product of the common priesthood: no! This constitutes a monstrous inversion, marked by the modern democratic spirit. The fullness of the priesthood, and therefore its source and model, is not to be found in the people, but in Jesus Christ, Sovereign Priest of the new and eternal Covenant. He transmits it to his Vicar on earth, the Pope, as well as to the bishops in communion with him, through the Apostolic succession. It is therefore at Rome that unity of the priesthood is accomplished according to the inscription written in gold letters on the band of the dome of Saint Peter’s: Inde oritur unitas sacerdotii. The priestly ministry is effective “ ex opere operato”, theology says, by virtue of the power itself which has been conferred and whatever the value of the man who exercises it, while the value of the worship of the faithful depends on their state of grace and on the measure of their moral virtues that keep them united to Christ.

2. The ministry of the priest must be more missionary than centered on worship: once again, what a deplorable inversion, a cause of countless defections! It is in this manner that priests and seminarians were turned away from their primary vocation, which made them “men of God”, consecrated to His unique Service. Through their consecration, they continue the action of Christ Sovereign Priest, Who makes them mediators of His essential grace for the salvation of the entire Body. To be other Christs, as it were, for the souls who are entrusted to them, to give them Jesus and to give them to Jesus, what a magnificent vocation, capable of filling these “sons of God” with enthusiasm and to sustain unlimited sacrifice and devotion by them during their entire life!

3. The Council recalled and theologically justified the sacramentality of the episcopate, and the subordination of priests to their bishops, which is the necessary corollary. This is true, in each diocese, only the bishop is Father and possesses the fullness of the priesthood. But the bishops united in a College must not rebel against Rome, nor the laity against the priests! In the disorder that reigns in the Holy Church, in which each order has emancipated itself from the control of its legitimate superiors, Vatican III must re-establish a wise equilibrium.

4. Finally, the powers of the priest must not be limited to the celebration of the Eucharist and the distribution of the Sacraments, but must include also preaching and governing, very well! These are three services of the Mystical Body of Christ that it is advisable not to set into opposition, but to reconcile. However, Vatican III will recall that the Mass is the centre of all, preceded by the teaching of the faith and followed by the governing of souls: « Every priestly action must be viewed in relation to the essential one, which is the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the physical Body of Christ, the Source of life and holiness. »


In concrete terms, the very forms of priestly life do not have to be invented, they have existed for centuries. If they appear dead today, they are ready to be reborn from the ruins of the Council.

« A bishop has only to announce, wrote Fr. de Nantes in 1977, that he would give each new priest a church in a parish of which he would be the pastor with the promise that the priest would be left in peace to teach the catechism, distribute the Sacraments and govern the people according to the age-old custom and vocations would flourish. There would be no more searching for the priest’s identity, no more celibacy crisis, no problem of socialist commitment; candidates would pour in...

« It would seem that this is contrary to Vatican II; if this is so, then that is another solid and adequate reason for being against Vatican II. For this system was born of the Apostles and springs up in their footsteps, at Corinth, Laodicea, Antioch, Rome… At every time and place this system has always been the most efficacious way of implanting and conserving the Church. Sent by his bishop, the man of God arrives at a place, builds his cabin or his igloo, then right beside it the cabin or the igloo that will serve as a chapel, where he calls the pygmies or the Eskimos, his new parishioners for instruction and prayer… The Church thus finds herself implanted as soon as the parish is established. » (CCR no 103, p. 21)

When the Church will have come back to her ancient structures, and restored to her children Catholic pride, the joy and the taste for all that constitutes her own life, her rites, her hymns, her architecture, all the surroundings of her daily existence that make her live with fervour from the grace of the Lord intra muros, she will hasten to become missionary, extra muros, so as to « restore all things in Christ ». But it is necessary, first of all, for her to deny her cult of Man, together with her adulation of secular democracy, in order to become once again a Church of Christendom, whose cult is in continual exchange and symbiosis with family, educative, corporative and political life. Religious and the laity will then participate in the grace of priesthood, by means of subordinate, precise, useful and meritorious ministries.


When the true faith returns, beginning with the Head, then the good Spirit will re-awaken everywhere among the best. They will want to be Catholic in name and in deed, Catholic through and through in private and in public. Then Christian glory will pour forth from our churches, not only on feast days and in processions, religious signs and emblems, but in public homage being rendered to Jesus Christ through proclaiming His Law as the law of the civil institution and in recognising His sovereignty over all things. Then the town hall, the law courts, the school and the hospital will no longer pretend to ignore God, which is the supreme insult – but they will all be bathed in His adorable light. The Church will become the radiant centre of communal life; the cathedral will be the high place of the town; the nation will know Christ for its King and the blessed Virgin Mary for its Queen. The people thus protected by God will recover their soul and their joy.

In my utopia, all that will come about by itself. All that is necessary is to liberate the energies stifled today or as the Sage says “hinder not the music” (Eccl 32.5). When the Pope has faith enough to see that all respect and profess it; when freedom of opinion and fraternal charity will have recovered their age-old practice, then I am sure that the Holy Spirit will give both conservatives and progressivists, reunited in the same profound sentiments a taste and a love for all the treasures of Holy Mother Church, new as well as old.

A Church Utopia, Nova et Vetera, CCR no 103, p. 19.