Remarks by Marc Cardinal Ouellet: Towards a Renewal of the Priesthood for Our Time,

Towards a Renewal of the Priesthood for Our Time

I am honored and deeply grateful to receive a doctorate in Divinity honoris causa from Saint Mary’s Seminary and University of Baltimore. In return, I offer this theological meditation as a tribute to the 225 years of service to priestly formation in United States rendered by the Society of Saint-Sulpice. My sincere Congratulations!

The organizers have kindly allowed me to choose the topic of my remarks. I had initially considered speaking to you about the Church’s reflection on the family during the last few years and about the need–which is acutely felt in our present cultural circumstance–for a nuptial outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But since this latter point is already extensively treated in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, my next idea was to talk about its proper pastoral implementation. As I thought about this, I was struck by the notion that such an implementation requires a nuptial outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the other states of life as well–an outpouring needed to guarantee the convergence and coherence of the Church’s witness.

I have accordingly chosen to talk about the priesthood, given the central role it plays in any reform of the Church. Instead of approaching my topic in isolation, however, I would like to discuss it in the framework of the Trinitarian, Eucharistic, and nuptial ecclesiology whose development was launched by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. As the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium teaches, “[t]hough they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: Each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ.” [1]

For over 25 years, I have been reflecting on this essential difference between, and mutual ordering of, the two modes of sharing in Christ’s one and only priesthood. As I see it, conciliar and post-conciliar ecclesiology has not yet fully integrated this teaching. Note, in fact, that the sentence I just cited now occurs at the end of Lumen Gentium’s section on the common priesthood, which the document treats first, in Chapter II on the People of God, in order, it seems, to safeguard the specificity of the ministerial priesthood. The sentence itself is laden with theological, pastoral, and ecumenical implications, implications that theologians have by no means exhausted, the post-conciliar boom in ecclesiology notwithstanding.

The claim of a difference in kind, and not merely in degree, [between the two modes of priesthood] has caused much ink to flow on the part of both defenders and challengers alike. The difference in question is intimately bound up with the Catholic understanding of the priesthood, which, since the Council of Trent, has been particularly concerned to refute the Protestant denial of the ordained ministry, sometimes, it must be admitted, to the detriment of the common priesthood. The Second Vatican Council re-established a certain balance in that it restored the dignity of the common priesthood while also safeguarding the irreducibility of the ministerial. This recalibration is of a piece with the dynamic development of the apostolate of the laity, the universal call to holiness, and the new awareness of mission on the part of the Church. At the same time, it also harmonizes with the Council’s ample vision of the Church as the sacrament of salvation, a vision that, as the first lines of the Constitution already make plain, connects two themes: participation in Trinitarian communion and the unity of the human race. It seems to me, however, that this comprehensive renewal in ecclesiology calls for a systematic effort to approach the priesthood in the Church in light of a renewed pneumatology and Trinitarian theology. It is just this approach that is the subject-matter of the following remarks.

I propose to begin, then, by discussing the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the priesthood of Christ in the Trinitarian economy of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery. I will then go on to speak about the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the priesthood in the Church in terms of nuptiality. Finally, I will say something about the ultimate foundation of the essential difference and the correlation between the two modes of participating in the one and only priesthood of Christ in the Church.[2]

I admit from the outset that my subject is not obviously in the forefront of the burning ecclesial issues of our time, and that it might seem a bit abstract, not to mention remote from the political dramas of the moment (!). I am convinced, however, that a deeper understanding of the priesthood, in its two-fold form, remains vitally important for the Church’s testimony of communion, for the nurturing of vocations, for the initial and continuing formation of priests, as well as for ecumenism and the pastoral and missionary conversion so vigorously promoted by Pope Francis for the reform of the Church.


An important first step in our reflection is to recall the Trinitarian pattern structuring the opening of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, which describes both the Protagonists of, and the stages in, God’s design. The description begins thus: “The eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world. His plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life” (LG, 2). To this end, he sent his Son, “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature” (Col 1:15), in whom we are predestined to reflect his image (Rom 8:29). And we are to do so in the communion of the Church, which has already been made manifest “by the outpouring of the Spirit” and “at the end of time . . . will gloriously achieve [its] completion” (ibid.).

Christ, then, came to fulfill the Father’s will. He came to make us the Father’s children by his obedience unto death on the Cross, an obedience that wrought our Redemption and inaugurated the Kingdom of God through his Resurrection from the dead. This Kingdom becomes manifest “[a]s often as the sacrifice of the Cross . . . is celebrated on the altar [and] the work of our redemption is carried on, [for] in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ is both expressed and brought about (cf. 1 Cor 10:17)” (LG, 3).

Lumen Gentium continues: “When the work which the Father gave the Son to do on earth (cf. Jn 17:4) was accomplished, the Holy Spirit was sent on the day of Pentecost in order that He might continually sanctify the Church, and thus, all those who believe would have access through Christ in one Spirit to the Father (cf. Eph 2:18)” (LG, 4). “The Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, as in a temple (cf. 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19). In them He prays on their behalf and bears witness to the fact that they are adopted sons (cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15-16/26). The Church . . . He both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits (Eph 4:11-12; 1 Cor 12:4; Gal 5:22)” (LG, 4). Finally, “He renews it and leads it to perfect union with its Spouse” (ibid.). “Thus, the Church has been seen as ‘a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’” (ibid.).

Lumen Gentium thus presents the divine plan in Trinitarian sequence: God the Father sends his Son, and the Son’s death and Resurrection, in their turn, inaugurate the gift of the Holy Spirit. Note how this account finds its natural conclusion in a remarkable pneumatological synthesis firmly rooted in Holy Scripture. An important point that emerges in this context is that humanity–having been created by the Father, redeemed by Christ, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit–already participates in, and is destined to rejoice fully in the communion of the divine Persons. Christ’s priesthood is an integral part of this Trinitarian plan; it is the central mediation of the divine communion that both constitutes the Church and sets her up as a “sign” and “instrument” of salvation in the sight of the nations. Before going on to examine the relationship between the two modes of ecclesial participation in Christ’s priesthood, let us first reflect on the theological depths of this priesthood itself and on its relation to the gift of the Holy Spirit. We will approach this question in light of the Trinitarian background we have just sketched.

Let us begin with a fundamental premise that may seem obvious at first but that is actually full of sometimes overlooked implications: The priesthood of Jesus Christ is nothing other than his very divine-human being, itself a mystery of Covenant (connubium), seen in its totality as a process of incarnating the Trinitarian Love to the end, that is, the end reached in the Paschal Mystery and the Eucharist. The priesthood of Jesus Christ is not simply one particular item on the list of activities exercised by the Son of God who came in the flesh. His priesthood is the redemptive mediation of his incarnate Person, whose obedience of Love to the point of death and descent into hell opens to the Resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s priesthood is not dynastic, levitical, or institutional, as is the case in other religions or even in the tradition of Ancient Israel, where priesthood is based on membership in a caste or on cultic duties of one kind or another. Jesus did not belong to the tribe of Levi, nor did he refer to himself as a priest in the Gospels–a fact, however, that does not prevent the Letter to the Hebrews from recapitulating the significance of his mission in fully priestly terms. Jesus is a layman who emerges from the prophetic tradition and suffers the lot of the prophets, though his tragic destiny, unlike theirs, ends in eschatological victory with his Resurrection from the dead.

“The Gospel of God,” to cite Saint Paul’s solemn words in the Letter to the Romans, “concerns the Son of God, sprung from David’s line according to the flesh, but established according to the Spirit as Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:4). This Lord Jesus Christ, then, is confirmed by the Holy Spirit as Son of God in power, as victor over death, and as High Priest of the New Covenant. By the same token, the Holy Spirit also confirms the value of Christ’s sacrifice as an oblation of his own blood offered “once for all,” i.e., in such a way as to bring about a definitive liberation and purification (Heb 9:12-14). By its very nature, in other words, Christ’s priesthood, crowned as it is by the Gift of the Spirit, is an existential mediation, at once human and divine, that reconciles the world with God and gives it access to the communion that is the Trinity. This gift is communicated to the Church precisely by the gift of the Spirit of Life and Truth. This is why, once the Son has completed his redemptive work, it is now time for the Spirit to enter the scene as Sanctifier, to help in appropriating the gift, to recall the gift of the Father and the Son, and to enliven the Church’s faith and life, all as the fundamental Agent of her participation in the priesthood of Christ.

At this point, however, we must note a particular feature of the relationship between Christ and the Spirit. During the successively unfolding course of Jesus’ life, this relation, this intimate, active-passive connubium and collaboration, undergoes an inversion. The first phase of Jesus’ existence gives evidence of a more active role for the Spirit, to whom Jesus freely submits in obedience to the Father as he follows out the path leading to his Hour. The Gospels, in fact, bear witness that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit”; that he was driven into the desert by the Spirit; that he was guided and inspired by the same Spirit in his preaching and miracles; and that he was subjected by this Spirit’s help to the supreme test of redemptive obedience culminating in death on the Cross. “When he had taken the vinegar, Jesus said ‘it is accomplished,’ and, bowing his head, he handed over his Spirit” (Jn 19:30).

At the end of his earthly journey, the incarnate Word’s passivity–or active receptivity–vis-à-vis the Spirit inverts again into an active possession of and freedom to send, the Spirit that is grounded in his, Christ’s, Resurrection from the dead. Standing in the midst of his disciples gathered in the Upper Room on the evening of the first Easter, “he breathed upon them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ Whose sins you forgive will be forgiven them. Whose sins you bind will be bound” (Jn 20:22-23). Having been receptive to the Spirit during his earthly life, Christ now becomes an active Subject who sends the Spirit at will, inasmuch as the event of the Resurrection has filled his humanity with the plenitude of the same Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 7:37-38; 16:7; 15:15).

The difference in the ordering of Christ’s relation to the Spirit before and after Easter, then, is not without importance for his priesthood, the very purpose of which, after all, is to glorify the Father by pouring out the Spirit of eternal life upon all flesh (Jn 17:1-2). This is why Christ lets himself be incarnated by the Spirit and remains open to receive him throughout his earthly journey; it is why he lets himself be shaped by the Spirit and filled by the Spirit’s fullness, so that, as Lord of the Church and of human history, he might communicate this plenitude without measure. We see, then, a coincidence between Christ’s priesthood and the self-opening of the Trinitarian mystery in his historical and paschal existence: sustained by the Spirit, the Son incarnates his eternal generation in his temporal obedience, which culminates in the supreme Trinitarian moment of his death. Here, the Father glorifies Christ’s obedience by the Spirit, who raises him from the dead and establishes him at the same time as Lord of the universe, as Bridegroom of the Church, and as Savior of the human race.[3]


Christ’s priesthood, we have said, culminates in the Gift of the Holy Spirit, whom he receives from his Father and pours out upon all flesh by virtue of his Paschal Mystery. But how does this Spirit manifest his own mission and his own mediation in relation to the Church and her participation in Christ’s priesthood? The answer depends on grasping the following: Having intimately accompanied the incarnation of Trinitarian love in the flesh of the Word, the Spirit continues this incarnation in the Church, though now in his own proper, ecclesial mode. This mode, moreover, is distinct from the singular mode of the incarnate Word; it reflects the Spirit’s being, his procession from the communion of the Father and the Son. The Spirit is Communion-in-Person[4]; it is he who unites Father and Son, while distinguishing and confirming them in the Trinity of Love. As Communion-in-Person, then, the Spirit incarnates Trinitarian Love in the economy in line with his own properly ecclesial and sacramental mode. He universalizes Christ’s Incarnation in the Eucharist while giving Christ an extended body, the Church, which is both Christ’s Body and Bride.

We could say, then, that the Spirit “buries” himself afresh in the womb of the Church, from the moment that Christ’s body is given up and his blood shed for our sake. This body and blood is the “seed” placed in the Church’s womb; it is the ultimate incarnation of the Word, which the Virgin of Sorrows receives into her faith at the foot of the Cross, just as she once received the angel’s word at the Annunciation. Here, where the Incarnation is received wholly and unreservedly by the Immaculate Virgin, the Holy Spirit presides over, and guarantees, the entire action. He sustains from within Mary’s total consent to crucified Love, the painful fecundation that bears fruit in an expansion of her motherhood: the Mother of Jesus becomes the Mother of the Church. Throughout the entire process of Trinitarian Love’s total incarnation, Mary, the New Eve, gives her limitless, unreserved assent, so that in her the High Priest of the New Covenant unites the Church with the priestly and nuptial outpouring of the Spirit. In so doing, he manifests to the world his Church’s identity as the Bride of the Lamb and the Temple of the Spirit, as a priestly people and a royal priesthood, and as the sacrament of salvation.

The Holy Spirit’s proper mode of incarnating Love in the communion of persons manifests Love in the Church as an “exchange of gifts” shaped in each case by his personhood and the distinctive nature of the different Sacraments. This also holds for the Sacrament we are concerned with here, namely, the Sacrament of Orders that constitutes the hierarchical structure of the Church. In so doing, it guarantees that ecclesial communio, far from reducing to a mere fraternal association of otherwise indistinguishable members, is first and foremost a sacramental participation in Trinitarian communion. For the Holy Spirit does not become present in the Church as a detached and autonomous figure; since he proceeds from the Father and the Son as Communion-in-Person, his action reproduces the order and distinction – that is, the communion – of the Trinitarian processions in the Church. Pastors and faithful therefore find themselves united not only by a basic fraternity resting on the foundation of Baptism, but also by specific relations founded on the “gifts” and “charisms” structuring ecclesial communion for the sake of its Trinitarian witness and the incarnation of this witness in concrete persons. The Spirit’s presence and action in the Church, then, prolong the incarnation of Trinitarian Love in the ecclesial mode proper to him, glorifying God and God’s created partner in the communion of Love.

The foregoing requires that the Church’s members generously welcome the Spirit of communion in all its forms–filial, fraternal, nuptial, and paternal–so as to bear witness to Christ by participating in his priesthood after the manner indicated by the Apostle Paul in Romans and Ephesians: “I therefore exhort you, brethren, in the name of God’s mercy, to offer yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your reasonable worship” (Rom 12:1). “Be imitators of God, since you are his beloved children. Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up to us as an oblation and a victim, as a sweet-smelling fragrance” (Eph 5:1). “Be submissive to one another out of consideration for Christ,” and “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25).

In a word, the incarnation of Trinitarian Love is prolonged in the Church, where it continues to be what it was in Christ: a covenantal and nuptial mystery. The priesthood of Christ the Bridegroom unfolds ecclesially in a new mode that is simultaneously pneumatological and sacramental–the mode, namely, of fruitful communion. This commits the Church to live according to the Spirit, so that, by offering herself to be cleansed, purified, transformed, and made all beautiful by Christ (Eph 5:24-27), she may share in his priesthood as the Spouse of the victorious Lamb who was slain: as Sacramentum Trinitatis, the Sacrament of the Trinity.


We are now ready to return to the precise question concerning the relation between the common priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood exercised by the Church’s hierarchy. What we have said thus far has illumined and clarified the Holy Spirit’s role in the Trinitarian plan for incarnating Love in the singular mode proper to the Word made flesh and in the ecclesial-sacramental mode proper to the Spirit acting in the Church, all according to the content of Christ’s own High-priestly prayer: “That all may be one, Father, as we are one, Thou in me and I in Thee. That they may be one in us so that the world might believe that Thou has sent me” (Jn 17:21).

A Trinitarian ecclesiology serious about shedding light on the two-fold gift of baptismal and ministerial participation in Christ’s priesthood begins with the conviction that God gives himself as what he is: Three distinct Persons in one nature. Now, according to the Revelation of Holy Scripture (1 Jn 4:16), the divine nature is nothing other than the divine Love subsisting in three absolutely correlative Persons. Three Persons who distinguish themselves in Love by their manner of relating to one another according to their respective origin: the Lover, the Beloved, and Love, that is: the Father, Love’s Source and Principle; the Son, who comes forth from him as the One uniquely begotten of Love; and the Spirit who proceeds from the Father (Jn 15:26) as the substantial fruit of his Love in response to the Love of the Son. The mode proper to the Spirit in Trinitarian Love is to unite in distinguishing: He seals the unity of Love in God by himself proceeding from the Father and the Son as Love. In this way, he confirms the distinction and consubstantial unity of the three divine Persons. This is why the Spirit is called “the Spirit of Truth” in Saint John. It is he who crowns the consubstantiality of the Three as Love. For the same reason, he is also called the Spirit of Love, or the Holy Spirit, terms that can be applied to him as proper names inasmuch as he personally seals and crowns the holiness of God, which is to say, God’s essence as Love.

The Church’s participation in this Gift of God–and it is the whole God who gives himself in his entirety–takes visible form in an exchange of gifts bringing divine and human persons into intimate communion thanks to the gifts and implications of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Orders (without forgetting, of course, the other sacraments that build up the Church as Christ’s Body and Bride). While the Church’s pastors and faithful rejoice in the unity given by their common Baptism, they also meet face-to-face through the outpouring of the nuptial Spirit who makes them capable of other relations of communion as well. The Church’s pastors represent, in fact, Christ as Head and Bridegroom of the Church and can act in Persona Christi,[5] especially through the forgiveness of sins and the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. By means of tokens such as these, the ecclesial community recognizes in the presence and ministry of its pastors a sign of God’s initiative in his nuptial relation with redeemed humanity. This profoundly biblical dimension of nuptiality, which is anything but merely metaphorical, completes and corrects what might otherwise look like authoritarianism in an exclusive reliance on the concept of in Persona Christi Capitis. But let us continue to clarify further the theological foundation and pneumatological structuring of the Church’s share in the Trinitarian relations.

On the one hand, the common priesthood of the baptized expresses their participation in Christ’s divine sonship, which as such includes his mediation of the Spirit: “By baptism into his death, then, we have been buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we, too, might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:4; 12:1). This participation in Christ’s priesthood as children of the Father and as brothers and sisters, implies a new life according to Christ’s Spirit, since the baptized are indwelt by the same radiant glory that raised up Christ, namely, the Holy Spirit (Rom 8). As the Spirit fills them with his power, he equips them as Christ’s witnesses.

On the other hand, the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood expresses Christ’s mediation insofar as he represents the Father–insofar, then, as he is the Father’s minister and Word who has no desire or food other than to fulfill the Father’s will. In virtue of this representation of the Father, Christ pours out the Spirit whom he receives from the Father in response to his, Christ’s, own sacrificial and Eucharistic offering. This is why he institutes the ministerial priesthood and the Eucharist simultaneously at the Last Supper.

A few moments ago we mentioned Christ’s relation to the Spirit in his pre- and post-paschal existence. At this point, we need to take a further step and draw out the Trinitarian foundation of the essential difference between the two modes of priesthood in the Church.  Christ’s priesthood consists in revealing the Father, in reconciling the sinful world with God, and in giving the Spirit for the sanctification of humanity. He does all of this in a two-fold manner: on the one hand, as the incarnate Son who obeys the Father to the point of breathing forth the Holy Spirit with his own last breath; on the other hand, as the representative of the Father in virtue of the exousia of and over the Spirit that he receives from the Father in rising from the dead. Hence the difference between the two modes: The baptismal priesthood is filial in nature; it bears the fruit of the Spirit through the obedience of love. The ministerial priesthood, on the other hand, is paternal in nature; it communicates the Spirit of the Father, which is to say, his merciful and jealous Love as the Bridegroom of humanity who desires to save all men in Christ. This latter aspect is, to repeat, important for countering the all-too common perception of authority as a “clerical power” rather than as a tender and merciful “paternity” in deep communion with the maternity of the Church, serving the growth of the children of God.

In my opinion, the fact that the mediation of the Spirit comes in two forms, the paternal and the filial, constitutes the Trinitarian foundation both of the essential difference and of the existential correlation between the two modes of participation. The one mode, namely the baptismal, is directly tied to the life of sonship, while the other mode, namely, the ministerial, proceeds from the paternal origin of Christ’s one and only priesthood.

The foregoing Trinitarian approach confirms and reinforces the difference and correlation between the two forms of priesthood, while also offering a fundamental clarification of the meaning of priesthood as such: it is a mediation of the Holy Spirit. We see this on the side of the common priesthood, in that the baptized enjoy the gift of divine life through sanctifying grace and their various charisms; they walk towards the Father upheld by Christ, even carried by him, as he returns to the same Father in the Spirit. They, too, are priests, first of all simply by being sons and daughters of God who, in the Spirit, offer the world to the Father in a sacrifice of praise. According to Vatican Council II, their filial priesthood commits them to bear witness to this same Spirit and to communicate him through the exercise of their priesthood in “receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity” (LG, 10). In so doing, they “penetrat[e] . . . the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel . . . like leaven.”[6]

As for the ministerial priesthood, Christ’s ministers represent the paternal authority of the divine Bridegroom, the Father from whom the nuptial Spirit of the Risen One proceeds. As such, they are ordained for the service of the common priesthood of the baptized through the proclamation of the Word, the gift of the sacraments, and the pastoral ministry of unity in the community of the Church. They sacramentally communicate the Spirit of Trinitarian life as a Love that pardons, heals, blesses, enlivens, and sanctifies, thus building up the Church as the Body and Bride of Christ through the daily Pentecost of Eucharistic communion. In both modes, whether through the ascending mediation of the common priesthood whereby the baptized glorify God and intercede for the world, or through the descending mediation of the hierarchical ministry, the fruit is the same: an outpouring of the Spirit who confirms and augments the harmonious convergence of the two ways of participating in Christ’s priesthood in the Church, so that, as the conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy explains, “Christ. . . . always associates the Church with Himself in this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is His beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father.”[7]

Thus far, we have been approaching the priesthood in terms of a Trinitarian ecclesiology presented in a pneumatological key. We now need to complete this approach by reflecting on the Church’s charismatic dimension, which is co-essential with, and complementary to, the relation between ordained ministers and the lay faithful. Lumen Gentium introduces the theme in number 4, where we read that the Spirit who gathers the Church “in communion and in works of ministry . . . both equips and directs [it] with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns [it] with His fruits (cf. Eph 4:11-12; 1 Cor 12:4; Gal 5:22).” (LG, 4). Number 12 of the document goes on to treat the topic of charisms precisely in the context of the exercise of the priesthood: “It is not only through the sacraments and the ministries of the Church that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but, ‘allotting his gifts to everyone according as He wills’ (1 Cor 12:11), He distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts He makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church, according to the words of the Apostle: ‘The manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit (1 Cor 12:7).’”

Experience confirms, in fact, that where the filial priesthood of the baptized and the paternal priesthood of the ordained are lived out in profound, mutually respectful communion, the Holy Spirit is pleased to manifest himself in all the gratuitous freedom characterizing his mode of personhood in Love, which he does precisely by communicating an abundance of charisms “for the common good.” Prominent among such charisms are vocations to the consecrated life, which embody and adorn the Church-Bride and, in so doing, intensify her missionary dynamism. The Spirit, then, does not merely inspire cordial, merciful, and fruitful relations of paternity and filiation between pastors and the lay faithful. In addition, he pours himself freely into his multiple and various gifts, so as to manifest in his own way the Trinitarian glory of absolute, reciprocal, and fruitful Self-gift. In all its forms, the consecrated life is an essential testimony in the Church to this gratuity and fecundity of Trinitarian Love, which reawakens the Spirit of holiness among pastors and faithful while stimulating the missionary conversion of communities. In this sense, there is nothing surprising in the phenomenon of a charismatic Pope who promotes the evangelical counsels, “a poor Church for the poor,” two synods on the family, a Jubilee of mercy, and so a new evangelization–all in continuity with his predecessors, even as he uses “new methods, a new ardor, and a new language.” Blessed be God for having accompanied the Pentecost of the Second Vatican Council with such exceptional Pontiffs–true fathers who have given the papacy a moral and spiritual authority unique in the world today.

I think we may safely say, then, that the Trinitarian, Eucharistic, and nuptial ecclesiology initiated by the Second Vatican Council, which saw the Church as a “mystery of communion,” is open to the pneumatological development sketched in the previous pages. As the foregoing account shows, the Church participates in the Trinitarian relations, not only in the intimacy of believers’ souls, but also in her own sacramental, hierarchical, and charismatic structures. The relation between the different states of life thus becomes a place in which the Church manifests the reciprocal and fruitful Love of the divine Persons who have involved themselves in our history.

An approach to the priesthood in terms of Trinitarian ecclesiology can help meet the need for a “spirituality of communion” that is relevant to all the states of life and is therefore fully rooted in the Church and her mission. Nothing, in fact, does more to strengthen differentiated, well-ordered communion among the Church’s various communities than the humble and grateful awareness that we all participate in the communion of the divine Persons, that we all share in the Love of the Father for the Son and the Love of the Son for the Father, as well as in the joy of the Spirit who glorifies Father and Son in and through the mutual love of creatures. It is this ultimate horizon, it seems to me, that finally justifies the difference in kind, and not merely in degree, between the two modes of participation in the one and only priesthood of Christ. For this difference is not a way of protecting the prerogatives of the clergy, but of ensuring that everyone, pastors and faithful of every charismatic stripe, vie in reciprocal love to advance the common pursuit of a Spirit-led service for the hope of the world.

In my humble opinion, Catholic theology of priesthood should continue this line of inquiry, which is a valuable resource for the pastoral and missionary conversion called for by Pope Francis.[8] The Church’s renewed awareness of her priestly character, in fact, would broaden horizons, reconcile differences, strengthen communion and, in consequence, motivate the far-ranging priestly renewal needed in a critical and ecumenical time like ours. On the account sketched here, we can retrieve and promote the full value of the common priesthood, without needing to fear any undue exaltation of one priesthood at the expense of the other. The whole point, after all, is just the opposite: The two modes of participation appear conjoined at the highest point and the highest level. Indeed, the two are correlative, and both are indispensable, just as both are ordered towards the Church’s evangelizing and sacramental mission.


The foregoing, dear friends, is an exploratory essay that, inspired by the Second Vatican Council, draws on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit for deeper insight into priesthood in the Church. This pneumatological enrichment, it seems to me, has many implications for priestly spirituality, both lay and ministerial, for the relations between pastors and faithful, for the joint pastoral and missionary responsibility of all the Church’s members, for the communion of the states of life, the service of the poor, and the nurturing of vocations, and, above all, for the Church herself as a mystery of communion at the service of the world’s joy and hope.

In these remarks, I have shared with you convictions matured during twenty years’ experience of priestly formation as a Sulpician. These convictions also represent the fruit both of my teaching and research as a professor of sacramental theology in Rome and of my responsibility for helping choose and accompany bishops at the service of the last two Popes, Benedict XVI and Francis. The present reflections make no claim to do anything more than offer testimony of theological insight conditioned by the ministries that I have exercised. Their sole aim is to contribute to the reform of the Church by means of a broad-ranging “priestly renewal for our time.” This expression brings me back to my title, which I have chosen in honor of acknowledgment offered me with such grace and generosity today in this excellent institution of priestly formation. My thanks to you all.

Marc Cardinal Ouellet,
Prefect of the Roman Congregation for Bishops
Baltimore, 15 November, 2016


[1] Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, n. 10. Hereafter: LG.

[2] My reflection here will be of a systematic and synthetic character. For a fuller development of the topic, I refer to some of my own publications: Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006, 242p.; Mystery and Sacrament of Love. A Theology of Marriage and the Family for the New Evangelization, Wm Eerdmans Publishing, 2015, 352p.; The Relevance and Future of the Second Vatican Council, Ignatius Press, 2013, 187p.  


[3] I am indebted for this and other points to Hans Urs von Balthasar, especially to his Johannine-inspired pneumatological Christology. Cf. Theo-Drama III. The Dramatis Personae : The Person in Christ. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1998; Theo-Logic. III. The Spirit of Truth, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2005.

[4]Cf. Saint John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Dominum et Vivificantem, 10.

[5] Cf. Vatican Council II, Decree on Priestly Life and Ministry, Presbyterorum Ordinis, 2; Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 33; idem, Pastores Gregis, 7: “Christ is the primordial icon of the Father and the manifestation of his merciful presence among men and women. The Bishop, who acts in the person and in the name of Christ himself, becomes in the Church entrusted to him a living sign of the Lord Jesus, Shepherd and Spouse, Teacher and High Priest of the Church.”

[6] Vatican Council II, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2.

[7] Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7; cf. LG, 10-11.

[8] The missionary conversion promoted by the Pope involves a rediscovery of the value of the parish as “the presence of the Church in a given territory,” as a “community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach.” Evangelii Gaudium, 28.