Vatican II’s Documents on the Priesthood
Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests
Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965
Decree on Priestly Training
Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965
It was on Dec. 7, 1965, the day before the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary — the solemnity on which the conclusion of the entire Second Vatican Ecumenical Council was celebrated — that the long journey through the conciliar procedures of the Council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, known by its Latin title Presbyterorum Ordinis, was finally completed.
Its final draft was overwhelmingly passed on that day by the Council Fathers, and it was immediately accepted and approved by Blessed Paul VI. It is a noble document of 22 numbered and lengthy paragraphs — a document that is both theologically and historically significant, embracing, extensively but not exhaustively, the perennial teaching and discipline of the Catholic Church, as well as providing a secure pastoral foothold for some important subsequent developments. As Cardinal Jose Sanchez (prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, 1991-1996) has observed: “It is the kind of magisterial document which, with the passing of time, should not lose its validity, but take on an expanded meaning in the light of new questions and challenges.”
Among some later ecclesiastical documents linked directly or indirectly to that decree were the synod documents from the international synods of bishops in 1971 and 1990, the apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds) in 1992 and the “Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests” in 1994. Also, almost immediately and clearly linked to the conciliar decree, was Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, the fine and farseeing encyclical letter on priestly celibacy of Pope Paul VI, issued on June 24, 1967.
Of course, Pope St. John Paul II made no secret of the fact that his famous Holy Thursday “Letters to All the Priests of the World,” which he published annually in the course of his pontificate, were very much constructed on the foundation of Presbyterorum Ordinis. As the young Bishop Karol Wojtyla, he took an active part as a Council Father in the formulation of that decree, which he later greatly praised, saying that it showed forth “the priesthood as the nerve center of the Church’s whole life and mission.”
Loud agitation among the Council Fathers for a separate and distinct conciliar decree on the priesthood began in the second session of the Council (1963), in the course of the discussions about the drafts concerning the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), when there was widespread criticism about the meager and inadequate treatment of the priesthood and priests in those drafts. To appease the clamor, the Council’s secretariat at first presented a draft for a Council “Message to All Priests of the World,” but this was decisively voted down by the fathers.
In the third session (1964), another secretariat draft document was presented, but this too was strongly voted down as too skeletal and sketchy. It was becoming more and more apparent to many of the more thoughtful Council Fathers that, since most of the implementation of the Council’s work would be dependent on the Church’s Catholic priests, the Council needed to proclaim an adequate document about and for them. Then, in the fourth session (1965) — although by that time both patience and money was fast running out, both for the bishops and for the Holy See — another draft was placed on the agenda. This one was found suitable, discussed and then sent out to be edited, taking into account the amendments and modifications proposed from the floor by the Council Fathers. This became the final decree.
Among the many causes for some of the lengthy delays in the conciliar procedures for that decree were some seemingly interminable arguments about such issues as whether to use the word sacerdos (priests and bishops) or presbyter (priest only) for “priest” in the Latin document. Then there was much discussion about priestly celibacy in the Latin rite, with some more liberal bishops wanting to be able to ordain what they called viri probati (older married men) as priests, who, although not permitted to preach or hear confessions, could nevertheless at least offer Mass where there were severe shortages of priestly vocations. It was Blessed Pope Paul VI himself who, in the last days of the Council, took the issue of celibacy out of the Council’s consideration, promising, however, to treat the matter in a forthcoming encyclical letter. He told the Council that the decree itself should give the issue of celibacy only the usual consideration that derived from the long-standing tradition of the Western Church. The then-Bishop of Rome himself, as Cardinal Giovanni Montini, the archbishop of Milan, personally had taken an active part in the early undertakings of the Council before his election to the papacy. As a result, he enjoyed the respect and obedience of most of the Council Fathers, who gladly conceded to his wishes.
When he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination (1996), St. John Paul II recalled the importance for himself and for all ordained priests of the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests. He noted how, when collated with other references to the priesthood found in the various documents of the Second Vatican Council — especially the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office and the Decree on Priestly Formation — it discloses a glorious summary of what the deposit of faith (both sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition) tells us about God’s revelation concerning Jesus Christ’s institution of the sacrament of holy orders.
John Paul II said the Presbyterorum Ordinis answers two questions: “What is a priest?” and “What is the priesthood?” It shows the priesthood as a vocation, a gift and a mystery. And it shows the priest to be a man above all of the Eucharist, as well as a man of the Word, a man of prayer and an icon of the Good Shepherd.
Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz is
the bishop emeritus of