Acton Institute Powerblog

What Makes a Good Priest?

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Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Warsaw this morning, the start of his four-day pilgrimage in intensely Catholic Poland and the home of his predecessor, John Paul II.

Pope Benedict XVI kneels during a prayer at St John’s Cathedral in Warsaw May 25, 2006. REUTERS/Max Rossi

After his welcoming remarks at the airport, the pope traveled to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist where he gave a splendid address on the meaning of the priesthood. The entire text is worth reading but here’s an excerpt:

The faithful expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God. The priest is not asked to be an expert in economics, construction or politics. He is expected to be an expert in the spiritual life. With this end in view, when a young priest takes his first steps, he needs to be able to refer to an experienced teacher who will help him not to lose his way among the many ideas put forward by the culture of the moment. In the face of the temptations of relativism or the permissive society, there is absolutely no need for the priest to know all the latest, changing currents of thought; what the faithful expect from him is that he be a witness to the eternal wisdom contained in the revealed word. Solicitude for the quality of personal prayer and for good theological formation bear fruit in life.

Exactly one week ago, the Acton Institute held a conference at the Catholic University of Lublin, where Karol Wojtyla taught for 24 years. There were many seminarians and priests present, and it was pretty clear that they weren’t there to hear about economics as such. Rather the substance of the talks was philosophical and theological, the encounter between man and God referred to by Benedict.

So what tempts priests into speaking outside of their competencies? The need to be “relevant”? The desire to be popular? To wield political power and prestige? This is an especially great temptation when priests are expected to be authorities on everything and in places such as Poland and Italy. Pope Benedict is out to make sure they stick to fundamentals and aren’t tossed about on the waves of passing fads.

If the rest of the pope’s speeches over the weekend are this solid, we are in for a real treat.

Kishore Jayabalan Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. and then graduated with an M.A. in political science from the University of Toronto. While in Toronto, Kishore interned in the university's Newman Centre, which led to his appointment to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York. Two years later, he returned to Rome to work for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the Holy See's lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control. As director of Istituto Acton, Kishore organizes the institute's educational and outreach efforts in Rome and throughout Europe.


  • Pensans

    Communication of universals, as opposed to contemplation of them, frequently requires reference to well-known particulars. As Jesus’ parables illustrate, it is useful to draw the particular objects of reference required to teach universal spiritual wisdom from the culture and events of the day, e.g. the fall of the tower of Siloam does not register very high in the objective history of world disasters, but Jesus used it effectively to make his point.

    While we might agree with a call to focus on the universal message of the Kindgom of God, it is impossible to deliver that message without interaction with the culture of the moment.

  • Stephen Perry

    “What tempts priests into speaking outside of their competencies?” In the first place, we have to consider the possibility that they don’t know when they are doing so. Take the Social Encyclicals as an example. In the upcoming Acton University, which I wish I could attend, there will be a session about the fundamental principles of the Catholic Social Encyclical Tradition. I would suggest that the (unwitting)*fundamental* principle of all the Social Encyclicals since Leo XIII is that there is no such thing as economic science. Neither Leo’s nor any subsequent encyclical demonstrates any familiarity with even the insights of the Spanish Scholastics (which are at least a part of the Catholic tradition) regarding economic policy. Let alone the developments of the Austrian School. It is therefore with justice that Mises says in SOCIALISM, “Leo XIII’s encyclical, ‘Rerum Novarum,’ of 1891, has recognized the origin of private property in Natural Law; but simultaneously the Church laid down a series of fundamental ethical principles for the distribution of incomes, which could be put into practice only under State Socialism. On this basis stands Pius XI’s encyclical, ‘Quadragesimo Anno’ of 1931.” (Footnote on page 226 of the Liberty Classics edition.) When it comes to economic policy, Leo and his successors very often simply don’t know what they are talking about, harsh as it sounds to say this. Although they tried to focus on the spiritual and the ethical, they were outside their competence as soon as they began to pronounce on matters of policy.