Summary of Priestly Spirituality by Hans Urs von Balthasar

Priestly Spirituality by Hans Urs von Balthasar. Translated by Frank Davidson, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2013.


On Priestly Spirituality

“The fundamental basis of all priestly spirituality – whether it concerns the religious or the secular clergy – must lie in that radical and “literal” discipleship which was later characterized as the “evangelical counsels” but also known in the Middle Ages as the vita apostolica (27).

The scene between the risen Lord and Peter (Jn 21:15-19) captures priestly spirituality: entrusted by Christ with the office of pastor, demanding the highest degree of love, and the promise of conformity with Christ in the crucifixion.

“The point to which everything comes down is this: the total self-giving to Christ (leaving everything, every wife and child: Luke 18:30) is now wedded to the task of committing this totality to the service of the flock of Christ and finds in this its practical application. Also, this entire service, in the Catholic understanding, is not likely any worldly “job” but is a special kind of participation in the redemptive work of the Son – who was obedient unto death – and is thus itself marked by this work” (30).

Mary and the Office of the Priest

“The priest, as a man, stands initially in the region of Peter; he participates in his mission of representing the Lord with regard to the “feminine” Church and community. Yet Peter’s role in the Gospel becomes effective only long after that of Mary; the origin of the Church lies, not in the calling of the apostles, but in the private room in Nazareth, when the Yes of the Son to the Father became communion with the Yes of the Mother to the Incarnation. And again, the origin of the Church lies beneath the Cross, where the female Ecclesia – as she is depicted in the Middle Ages – fills her chalice from the wound in the side of Christ in order then to pass it on to the male officials” (58).

“The male priesthood is, as it were, crystallized divine love – for the sake of the female community, which, through this form of love, is able to come into direct contact with the Lord and with the triune God” (61).

The Priest I Seek

“The priest I seek” has:

  1. Authority: The priest I seek must be commissioned and authorized by Christ so that the full power and demands of God’s Word is presented with ecclesial authority.
  2. Experience: The priest I seek must also have a personal experience of God so that he can credibly proclaim God’s Word and accompany others “in the existential confrontation with the Word of God and of holding him within it” (68). “He must also help me to persevere and not to run away by staying alongside me with an unwavering love. With a terrifying love that says to me again and again: “This is after all what you actually want.” A love that deserves our profound gratitude, for it is simply irreplaceable” (67). “Were he lacking in experience, then he could not even credibly proclaim the Word of God from the pulpit; he could at best be a lifeless echo of what others (like Paul, for example) have proclaimed of the Word of God in their existence. Still less would he be capable of existentially accompanying the believer in the existential confrontation with the Word of God and of holding him within it” (68).
  3. Humility: The priest I seek is a man who has renounced his self-understanding, he does not stand but rather hangs, being carried by Christ all the way through his impossible existence, thus guaranteeing the essential humility that allows God to take over. “The fire that burns in the humble man is the fire of love for God and his incarnate Word” (70). “The humble priest will not be tempted to hold up to me as an example anything other than God’s Word for me” (71)… “who in God has become so insignificant to himself that for him only God now matters” (71).
  4. Zeal: The priest I seek is zealous, he “will not permit me to run away because of this Word. He makes me stick to it, and I can accuse him of being too demanding, in reality, it is only the Word of God itself that is demanding and forceful. When I find the one I seek, I cannot reproach him for behaving toward me with a confident assurance that does not befit a man” (71).

“And so, for the man who assumes the task within the Church of officially proclaiming the Word of God that is Christ and presenting it to each and every individual, there can be no other way of doing so consistently and of persevering in this task than by totally committing his existence to this mission. He must identify himself with it… he has given up interpreting himself in order to be interpreted by God alone” (69, 70).

“But if the transparency, the devotion, of his prayer in union with God, of his humility in transmitting it, is truly achieved, then too the miracle can happen whereby, within the ecclesial Holy Spirit, genuine instruction from God is imparted, which I – however uncomfortable it may be – cannot ignore. To the simple and self-effacing alone is entrusted the grace of certainty” (71).

“Even in the hopeless emptiness of another human heart, I find the sacred mystery of divine poverty only if I have already sought it, already bring it with me, if it has already been opened up to me. Otherwise, one empty void merely encounters another, and the Word does not sustain but collapses, lifeless and helpless” (75).

Office and Existence

“Jesus Christ is purely and simply the identity of office and existence, the mission personified: the Word of the Father as Son, and the Son of the Father as his Word… both Priest and Victim – the officially authorized executor and the existential sufferer of the ultimate (of abandonment by God). If, after him, there is once again to be official authority in his Church – and he himself has expressly conferred such authority (Mk 3:15; 6:7; Mt 10:1; Lk 9:19; Mt 16:19; Jn 21:15ff) – then this can occur only in the closest connection with a form of existence that must, on the one hand, demand total availability for the mission (Mt 8:18ff., and so on), yet, on the other hand, be still more a promise. For the very highest representative of ecclesial office is the one to whom death on the Cross is promised (Jn 21:19). And in the high-priestly prayer of Christ, the apostles with him are “consecrated in the truth” in the same consecration of life and sacrifice as that of Jesus (Jn 17:17; 19). From the perspective of the official priest of the New Covenant, Jesus, such a participation in his priest-victim identity by the officeholders who will follow him is nothing optional, accidental, or inordinate, but is, rather, the mark (stigma) of New Testament office” (81).

“No important office is bestowed by God in the biblical context without its bearer having placed his entire existence at God’s disposal” (83).

On the Priestly Ministry

“To be a Christian in the first place – and hence also to be a priest – is to imitate the Redeemer who came to serve, the Servant of Yahweh who in washing the disciples’ feet gave us the example of what we also are to do for one another… Being serious about the washing of the feet, which is taking upon oneself, in humiliation, the dirt of one’s brethren. The is the priesthood of the New Testament” (99-100).

“It is precisely here, in the night of the Cross, that the New Testament priestly office originates” (103).

“It is clear that anyone in the Church chosen for the humiliation of having to command officially must die to himself in a particularly radical manner. For how else could he, as a sinner, escape the dangers of confusing spiritual with temporal power, of reinforcing the former with the latter, of “representing”, of abusing this authority?” (105)

St. Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians remains the Magna Carta of New Testament priestly ministry in its unbroken, undiluted paradox of the Cross. In the priestly office, human helplessness and ecclesial authority interact together in the most paradoxical way, which can only be accepted by a living faith, hence, the “foolishness” Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians (107).

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