Archbishop Dolan's Address on Identity of the Priest

«Priesthood Is not … Something We Do, but Someone We Are»

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MAYNOOTH, Ireland, JUNE 1, 2010 ( Here is an excerpt of the address delivered Thursday by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York at a lecture to mark the Year for Priests in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. The theme of the talk was «God Is the Only Treasure People Desire to Find in a Priest.»

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3. Holy priests . . . humble priests . . . and, finally, priests aware of their identity.

When the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz snickered, «Who is the Polish swine,» at the prisoner who had raised his hand asking to take the place of the married man and father who had been chosen at random to be executed, the «Polish swine» did not reply, «I am Maximilian Kolbe,» nor «I am prisoner number 1408,» nor «I am a friend and would like to take his place in execution.» No. He simply replied, «I am a Catholic priest.»

In answer to a literal life-or-death question, Maximilian Kolbe identified himself as a priest.

Priesthood is not, first and foremost, something we do, but someone we are.

While ministry — what we do — is very, very critical, identity — who we are — is even more so. The professors of philosophy among us would recall the maxim, agere sequitur esse — «act flows from being» — and this applies mightily to the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The late, great John Paul II went hoarse teaching us that the priesthood is a dramatic, radical reordering of a man’s very life, his soul, his heart, his identity, and that we’re much better off looking at fathers and husbands for metaphors of priesthood than we are at professions.

Thus, the priesthood is a call, not a career; a redefinition of self, not just a ministry; a way of life, not a job; a state of being, not a function; a permanent, lifelong commitment, not a temporary style of service; an identity, not a role.

(By the way, the loss of this, what we call «ontological» appreciation of priesthood applies as well to marriage, religious life, and, for that matter, to Christian, ecclesial identity conferred in baptism, but you didn’t ask me to speak on that.)

If the very value of my priestly vocation depends on what I do, where I’m assigned, how the people affirm me, how my bishop treats me, what the newspapers report about us, what horrible sins brother priests may have committed, what negligence was shown by their bishops, how much I get out of it, or how high or low morale may be at a given time — if the very value of our priesthood depends upon those external forces, however dominant they may be; if, in a word, my value depends on what I do, sooner or later we’ll get frustrated, cynical, exhausted, crabby, bored, and tempted. Our value must come from who we are.

Pope John Paul II was onto this when he commented in «Pastores Dabo Vobis» that the towering temptation we face today is to prefer having and doing to being.

When you think about it, Jesus much preferred the being words to the do words, didn’t He?

Did He summon us to plan with Him? To organize with Him? To write strategic plans with Him? To draw up mission statements with Him? To work out with Him? To write job descriptions with Him?


He did invite us to remain with Him, to abide with Him, to rest with Him, to come away with Him, to stay with Him, to keep vigil with Him.

Jesus preferred being to having and doing. Not, to be sure, because doing, actions, ministry, service were not important, but because, unless what we do flows from who we are, we’re shallow, empty functionaries.

I do not know about Ireland, but in America, the Church might as well be speaking Ugaritic when it talks like this.

Identity, being, ontology, identity . . . press the delete key. Our rampant functionalism and utilitarianism defines our worth by what we get done, what we accomplish, what we earn, how useful we are, what we produce.

Any priest who has tried to stick his oiled thumb through a crowd of medical professionals to anoint a sick patient, trying to navigate around wires, tubes, and monitors, knows what I mean.

If our value comes from what we accomplish or how useful we might be, look out. But, when we recapture a sense of who we are, our identity, gratefully, humbly, joyfully aware that our value is within, that it comes from who we are — a child of God, created in His image, passionately and personally loved by our Father, destined for eternity with Him, redeemed by the precious blood of His own Son, reconfigured to that same Son at the «ground zero» of our being — well, to borrow a phrase from Father Michael Heher’s excellent book on the contemporary priesthood, «we can walk on water.»

As nebulous as all this sounds, our people sense it and know it intuitively. God is the only treasure people desire to find in a priest, so our theme goes, right?

After decades of scholarly research, the controversial and colorful priest sociologist Andrew Greeley — hardly some nostalgic, pious clericalist — concluded that what people most want in their priest is a «hopeful, holy man who smiles.»

Not many years ago, the London Tablet carried a reflection on the priesthood by one of you, an Irish parish priest just arrived in his new assignment. He quickly organized the village with a parish council, liturgy committee, and engaged in a strategic plan to set goals and visions . . . all good things. He kept asking his new people, «What role do I have? What do you expect from me, your parish priest? What most effective can I do?» He admitted frustration that, after months he could not pin them down.

Finally, at the conclusion of a parish council meeting, he challenged them. «We will not adjourn until you give me a job description.» One of the village elders looked at him after a long silence. «Father, we just want you to be with us.»

The sensus fidelium.


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