Priestly Identity: Crisis and Renewal (Part 1)
Interview With Father David Toups
By Annamarie Adkins
WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 19, 2008 (Zenit.org).- 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
In this interview with ZENIT, 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
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
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
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
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.
So is ongoing formation the answer? It is certainly a part of the solution to a happier,
healthier presbyterate. Pope John Paul II wrote, "Ongoing formation helps the priest
to be and act as a priest in the spirit and style of Jesus the Good Shepherd"
("Pastores Dabo Vobis," 73).
Q: Some observers fear that encouraging young priests -- many of who are already
attempting to recover traditional liturgical and devotional practices -- to rediscover
their priestly character will only foster a new form of clericalism. Others believe
giving prominence to the ministerial priesthood will diminish the common priesthood of
the faithful -- a development that many see as one of the hallmarks of Vatican II. How
would you respond to critics of your proposal?
Father Toups: Highlighting both the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial
priesthood should actually strengthen both; they are not mutually exclusive or in any way
opposed to one another.
When our particular calls within the Church are not given their proper distinctions, the
Church suffers. St. Paul rightly reminds us of this with his beautiful analogy of how the
Body of Christ is made up of diverse members working together for the good of the whole.
The laity and the priest are not in competition but complement each other's particular
There is a danger of what John Paul II called the "clericalization of the laity and
the laicization of the clergy" when distinctions are not made in the life of the
Church -- again, different does not mean better. Clericalism is not what happens when one
has a clear identity of who they are, but rather when it is lived in such a way that is
not in the service of the faithful.
The priest should not be embarrassed to wear the roman collar and be called
"father," for this is not clericalism, but he is to do so in charity and
humility as a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
So in response to your remark about younger clergy -- especially those who, in their
youthful zeal, may come across too strong -- let us be patient with them as they mature
in the priesthood. It takes a while for the ontology to catch up with the psychology.
To young priests who may fall into this category, I would simply say, be men of prayer
with the love of Christ as your guiding light, and pray for your own deepening
conversion. One can have all of the right answers, but if they are presented
"without love, you are a noisy gong or a clanging symbol" as St. Paul reminds
us in 1 Corinthians 13.
Thus we do not deny the ministerial priesthood; we live it inside and out. If the priest
lives his calling with humility and service as the driving force, it is more a form of
asceticism than of clericalism. He is a visible sign of the radical commitment of the
Proper knowledge and integration of the sacramental character into the priestly life and
ministry are fundamental for priests to be the men the Church needs them to be.
Q: Is there a crisis of authentic masculinity in the priesthood? Could this be a source
of the vocation shortage, especially among Latinos?
Father Toups: Allow me to rephrase the first question to be more all embracing: Is there
a crisis of authentic masculinity in the world? I would say yes.
There is a crisis of commitment, fidelity and fatherhood all rooted in men not living up
to their call to be "real men" -- men who model their lives on Christ, who lay
down their lives out of love, and who learn what it is to be a father from our Father in
So in the context of the priesthood, which flows out of society, there is a particular
challenge to help men grow in manly virtue. The priesthood is not for the faint of heart,
but for men who are up to the challenge of living as Christ in laying down their life on
a daily basis.
As the priest says the words of consecration, "This is my Body," Christ is not
only speaking through him, but the priest is offering his own life as well for the people
to whom he is called to serve.
If a seminarian does not have a deep desire to get married and have children, he might
need to rethink his vocation, for these are the natural and healthy manly desires of the
heart. He needs to recognize that; in actuality, the priest truly is a married man and a
As the priest stands "in persona Christi," he is called to embrace the Bride of
Christ, the Church, as his own spouse. A great danger is for the priest to fall into a
"bachelor mentality," which can become a selfish, disembodied and
Instead, if he sees himself in a permanent commitment to the people of God, his life of
sacrifice will have great meaning as he lives the nuptial imagery of Ephesians 5:25,
"Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and laid down his life for
When the notions of love, sacrifice and relationship are taken out of the vocation, it
becomes sterile and unattractive to young men. For this reason the DVD "Fishers of
Men," developed by the USCCB office in which I work, has been so well received; it
shows the priestly vocation as heroic and manly in the best sense of the word. To
paraphrase the old Marine slogan: God is looking for a few good men!
Q: What role does the concept of "fatherhood" play in the priestly life? Is
there a fear of this term because of political correctness?
Father Toups: Spiritual fatherhood in the priesthood flows from the understanding of
being a chaste spouse of the Church.
Just as an earthly father feeds, comforts and nurtures his family, so too do our
spiritual fathers feed us in the Eucharist, comfort us in reconciliation and the
anointing of the sick, and nurture us throughout our lives of faith.
For me, spiritual fatherhood is one of the great joys of my vocation -- to be invited
into the hearts and homes of people is such a place of privilege and great
Think about your own life. Priests have -- hopefully -- played an important role in all
of the key moments of life: birth, death, triumphs, struggles, graduations and marriage.
By living out spiritual fatherhood, the priest experiences the great fruitfulness and
generative fecundity of his vocation. For the priest, this should be life-giving; just as
parents will make incredible sacrifices for their children, so too priests do radical
things -- renounce family and possessions -- to be available to their family of faith.
Where there is love, sacrifice is easy.
Benedict XVI, speaking of the kind of mature manhood needed to be a spiritual father,
said: "In reality, we grow in affective maturity when our hearts adhere to God.
Christ needs priests who are mature, virile, and capable of cultivating an authentic
spiritual paternity. For this to happen, priests need to be honest with themselves, open
with their spiritual director and trusting in divine mercy."
We need to move beyond the fear of being "politically incorrect" to being more
worried about embracing the truth of who we are; hence the title of my book focuses on
reclaiming our priestly character.