The future of the priesthood

Priesthood Today: Ministry in a Changing Church ed. by Eamon Conway (Veritas, €19.99 / £16.99)

There is a general feeling which nearly everyone shares that with changing attitudes in society and falling vocations (at least as compared with say 1952) the priesthood of the Catholic Church is facing a crisis of some kind.

It was perhaps significant that in its response to the clerical child abuse crimes, the Vatican strategy was to try and restore a more pristine training for priests, identifying the crimes with the ‘trendy’ end of the Church. But the truth was the reverse. The abusers, far from being trendy, took full advantage of the all the inherited traditional resect and privilege that had been granted over the generations to the priesthood in Ireland.

These criminals, aside from ruinously affecting the lives of those they abused, also deeply affected the lives of their colleagues, so much so that some priests now prefer to go round the streets in mufti. The priesthood today seeks to restore and to revitalize an essential role not just in the church, but in society at large.

So the editor of this volume, Prof. Eamon Conway, who is head of the theological and religious studies in Mary Immaculate College in the University of Limerick, has brought together essays by some 35 contributors, both clerical and lay, to respond in a sense to this crisis. The declared aim of the book is to take a considered look at the needs and skills of the individual in ministry, to consider the spiritual and theological foundations of the vocation, and to review the openings and the challenges which face a changing Church.

The intended audience seems to be the priests themselves, but inevitably those they care for will also read the book for insights into the current crisis and its resolution.

Rich insights

The book is divided into four sections. The first part deals with ministry in a time of change, the second with the spiritual and theological foundations, the third section with the person of the priest and his role, and the fourth part with the priest as sign and sacrament. It will be seen then that nearly every aspect of the priesthood is dealt with. These essays in their often different ways are filled with rich insights into what is relevant and vital for today. There is room even for the important issue of priestly mental health.


There is an emphasis throughout on change, which many fear, from a wish to preserve some kind of fondly recalled past. But we should all recall that change is a sign of life. Moreover, in the wise words of the Prince in Il gattopardo: “If things are to stay the same they have to change.”

The book’s focus is very much on the priesthood today. There is little or nothing about the priesthood in a long historical perspective. Readers will recall that a recent second reading at mass came from St Peter himself (Peter I: 2, 5) addressing himself to “the strangers” of Asia Minor, among them the Celts of Galatia.

He  remarks that “be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual home, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices”. But his words are addressed not to a selected few, but to all the community,

This mission to ‘strangers’ as well as the faithful comes  out in many of the essays, but in particular in a piece by Donal Murray on ‘The Priesthood of all the faithful’ and another by Tom Whelan on the role of the priest in presiding over the Eucharist. In this sense the laity have a role in the fulfilment of priesthood today. Perhaps then this volume should be followed by one on the laity today. The perhaps then full nature of the People of God will be laid before us.