Dr Eugene Stockton...

"Priest" by Eugene Stockton Part 3

Can the priesthood be revived in the First World? Fr Eugene Stockton was perhaps prescient in 1982 when he wrote this essay suggesting that there needed to be a greater sharing of roles with lay people — and that has certainly happened — but the situation remains critical on the statistical evidence as to whether the priesthood can be revived in countries like Australia. Readers may also be interested in Pope Francis' comments to the priests of Rome in recent days which we have published on our forum [LINK] and drew attention to in yesterday's email [LINK].

Towards a continuing renewal of the priesthood: Part 3

by Dr Eugene Stockton

Series Navigation: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


The institutional priesthood, however it became established in the Church, has drawn to itself many of the functions, both institutional and charismatic, which were distinct in the New Testament Church, much as the Old Testament priesthood had tended to do in late Judaism. The process was possibly one of default and involved the institutionalising of much that had originally been charismatic. At the same time the priesthood had developed a pronounced pluralism. Its nature can be expressed as a combination of two elements.

  1. Institutional Core: Once emerged from its New Testament cocoon, the Christian priesthood appears as a clearly defined class of men, designated by a recognised ritual, equipped with definite sacramental powers transmitted through time by a chain of ordination, which also ensured the perpetuation of the priestly caste. Institutionally, too, it is closely associated with the cultic and sacramental life of the Church, and often with various forms of teaching and pastoral administration. As in the Old Testament it is a stable contact between God and his people, a distinctive self-perpetuating priestly class within a priestly people, the holiness core of a holy people. In the Christian dispensation this core of holiness takes the specific form of witness to Jesus, who is the Yes of God's promises to men and our Amen response to God [2 Cor. 1:19-20].
  2. Charismatic Potential: The institutional core of the priesthood, whether of the individual or of the whole presbyterate, can be in potency to, or the natural focus of, any ministerial charism. This is true even for charismatic activity of which the institutional counterpart is already possessed and exercised in the priesthood. The nature of charism suggests that those appropriate to the priesthood are not automatic to office, are not present (at least in realisation) simply by ordination; further, charisms will differ in kind, number and degree between individual priests, according to the particular vocation of each, local needs and spiritual state of the priest. A charism is a pure gift from God, but it could be said that priestly office, particular vocation and local need establish a radical entitlement to certain charisms — of this more will be said below.


It would seem that the possibilities for the renewal of the priesthood in our times would lie in the better understanding of the identity of the priest in relation to the whole People of God, and in the rekindling of priestly charisms, both for the full realisation of the powers of the priesthood and for the further appreciation of the identity of priest as he ministers. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal, both in communal sharing of grace experience and in popular and theological discussion, has much light to throw on the whole area of charisms.

Julius Caesar

A pdf copy of the Malines Document – full title: "Theological & Pastoral Orientations on the Catholic Charismatic Renewal" (Prepared by a small group of international team of theologians and lay leaders coordinated by Léon Joseph Cardinal Suenens at Malines, Belgium, May 24-26, 1974) – can be found HERE or by clicking the image of Cardinal Suenens above.

Charisms are experienced as a very real power to minister. Even where ministry is already carried out in virtue of institutional office, the subsequent backing of charismatic grace infuses that ministry with a fullness, conviction, decisiveness and joy which causes the priest to acknowledge that a divine action is working in and through him.

A charism is also experienced as a freedom, since the awareness of channelling God's activity removes the fear of one's own limitations, natural timidity arising from human respect, anxiety as to ways and means and concern for results. So the Malines Document defines a charism as "a gift or aptitude which is liberated and empowered by the Spirit of God and is taken into the ministry of building up the Body of Christ, which is the Church" [Malines Document, p. 5].

It has been suggested above that priestly charisms are not automatic to priestly office but that there may be a claim or entitlement to certain charisms, which therefore needs specific actualisation. Another point of view may be that charismatic grace is indeed given at ordination but may lie dormant until released: this is by analogy with what most Catholic theologians teach about "Baptism in the Spirit", that it is a release of graces given in the sacraments of initiation; so one can speak of a similar release of the graces of Holy Orders. Both points of view need not be mutually exclusive and the practical effect is the same, viz. there is need of an additional grace for such actualisation or release. Such a grace may be unsolicited, a sort of "Road to Damascus" experience, but this is not normal: ordinarily one does not wait passively for something to happen.

The approach to receiving priestly charisms is the same as for anyone else, except that the claim of office gives rise to a greater expectation. The approach can be summarised thus:

  1. seeking the particular grace(s)
  2. expectant faith
  3. insistent petition
  4. assent to receive and use the charism
  5. removal of any sense of self-appropriation in its use
  6. intelligent and generous working with the grace. [cf. Lk. 11:1-13; Jn. 7:37-39]

The question of what are the charisms appropriate to the priesthood involves the question of the position of priests in relation to the charismatic renewal and to other contemporary movements, which, among other similarities, have in common the development of lay leadership, and indeed of the position of priests in relation to manifold ministries arising in the Church today.

Since the priesthood is seen as an institutional core ensuring the holiness of the Church and its witness to Jesus, it should see no threat or difficulty in allowing to develop among lay people functions which have accrued to the priesthood by default in the past, even that kind of leadership ministry which is coming to be called "headship". Nor should there be any limitation on what ministerial charisms may be exercised by the individual priest. The charisms which the individual priest may seek will be ordinarily determined by local need, particular vocation, temperament, talent, etc. In a general way, theological training, sacramental activity and teaching office would suggest that charisms particularly appropriate to the priesthood include prophecy, discernment of spirits (in spiritual guidance), inner healing, physical healing, intercessory faith, word of wisdom and knowledge, community leadership.

Such may sound mysterious and other-worldly, but in practice they show themselves as quite ordinary and functional (without ceasing to manifest divine activity). A key element in personal growth is to identify one's own charisms, or potential charisms (i.e. natural aptitudes, local needs, etc., which suggest we seek the Spirit's liberating and empowering of what we have or aspire to), and then to go after them with expectant faith and insistent prayer. We can help one another in a beautiful way by recognising and affirming each other's charisms, and by goading each other to expectant faith. Nothing serves better the interdependence on which true community is founded, than such mutual affirmation and faith-provocation. It is one of the most profound insights of the charismatic renewal that no limitation be put on our awareness, expectation and openness to what the Holy Spirit may do through us, whether as to the range or to the degree of charismatic activity [Malines Document, pp. 17-19]. Our present need is not simply for more priests, but for priests alive to their charisms and ready to co-operate with other charisms of leadership/service within the community.

Series Navigation: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Eugene Stockton. Submitted to Catholica 06 Sep 2013.
This essay was originally published in 1982 as a chapter in his book,
"Out of Our Treasures, New Things & Old: Biblical Reflections for Catholics Today",
Chevalier Press. (Now out of print.)

“Our present need is not simply for more priests, but for priests alive to their charisms and ready to co-operate with other charisms of leadership/service within the community.” ...Eugene Stockton

Eugene StocktonFather Eugene Stockton has served as a parish priest and priest assistant to the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (Parramatta Diocese). He has gained doctorates in theology and philosophy (Sydney) and a licentiate in sacred scripture (Rome). Lecturing for many years in the Catholic seminaries at Springwood and Manly, he has written widely on theology, spirituality, scripture, archaeology, anthropology and social issues.

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©2013Eugene Stockton

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