The vocations video, "Fishers of Men," produced by Grassroots Films for the USCCB, first came to my attention a few weeks ago when it was shown after Masses at a Church where I had helped present a Called & Gifted workshop. I was not able to watch it at that time, but I made a mental note to look for it. Shortly after I returned to Colorado Springs I was sent a link to the eighteen-minute long video in an e-mail from a friend.
It's a well-made video, with a stirring soundtrack, good production values, and wonderful comments from priests young and old who have joyfully embraced their vocation. It depicts priests being ordained, seminarians in the classroom and the chapel, priests engaged in pastoral counseling and presiding over celebrations of the sacraments, particularly the eucharist. But there's a crucial aspect of priesthood that's missing, and not only is it missing in the vocations video, it's missing from the ministerial lives of many, many priests.
Before I discuss what's missing in "Fishers of Men," I will take a look at some of what the Code of Canon law has to say about the obligations and rights of all Christians, of the laity in particular, and of priests.
The Basic Obligation and Right of all the Christian Faithful
Whether one is lay, religious, or ordained, we all have a common basic duty and the right to pursue that duty: the spread of the Gospel in obedience to Jesus' command to "go and make disciples of all nations…" (Mt. 28:19) This basic obligation is found in Canon 211 All the Christian faithful have the duty and right to work so that the divine message of salvation more and more reaches all people in every age and in every land. I would argue that this canon captures the reason for the Church's existence, and thus is at the heart of the mission and ministry of the priest. The vocation video title, "Fishers of Men," is a powerful image in conveying the mission of the whole Church.
The Obligations and Rights of the Lay Christian Faithful
For the lay Christian, the focus is particularly on the fish who have not yet been caught! The lay faithful are also called upon to improve the general health of the sea in which the fish live. Canon 225 deals with this in two beautiful paragraphs:
§1. Since, like all the Christian faithful, lay persons are designated by God for the apostolate through baptism and confirmation, they are bound by the general obligation and possess the right as individuals, or joined in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation is made known and accepted by all persons everywhere in the world. This obligation is even more compelling in those circumstances in which only through them can people hear the gospel and know Christ.
§2. According to each one’s own condition, they are also bound by a particular duty to imbue and perfect the order of temporal affairs with the spirit of the gospel and thus to give witness to Christ, especially in carrying out these same affairs and in exercising secular function.
The lay person, whether a streetcleaner, businessperson, attorney, housewife, or rancher, is bound to help every person on the face of the earth encounter the risen Lord and help transform the temporal society so that it reflects God's purposes and the dignity given each human by the Creator.
An important question – the question that is behind this article – is, "How will this happen without a proper formation – that is, a formation that is suited to the complexity of temporal society and the tremendous variety of situations a lay person will encounter throughout their life?" The code begins to answer that in Canon 229 §1. Lay persons are bound by the obligation and possess the right to acquire knowledge of Christian doctrine appropriate to the capacity and condition of each in order for them to be able to live according to this doctrine, announce it themselves, defend it if necessary, and take their part in exercising the apostolate.
So a part of the formation of the lay person is an appropriate understanding of Christian doctrine. This ties in with the prophetic, or teaching, role of the priest in his ministry. But the understanding of Christian doctrine is also gained through the participation of the rituals that surround the sacraments. An appreciation for, and experiential knowledge of Christ is gained when we encounter his healing in the anointing of the sick and his power to forgive in reconciliation, for example. In the sacraments of vocation (Matrimony and Holy Orders), we experience his self-giving love and the call to lay down our life for others (cf. John 15:13) But knowledge of Christian doctrine, whether through experience or proclamation and catechesis is crucial if the lay person is to engage in the apostolate described in Canon 225 above.
This is where "Fishers of Men", and each vocation website I examined in preparation for this post, is lacking. The priestly, and, sometimes, the prophetic aspects of a cleric's life are considered, but without any real acknowledgment of that mission to the world in which the laity play such a crucial part. In other words, the royal ministry of the priest, which has to do primarily with equipping the laity for their mission to the world, is absent. Yet the successful engagement of that mission by the laity is a sign of the fruitfulness of the priest's sacramental and teaching ministries!
Tomorrow: The Obligations and Rights of Clerics