Priestly Common Life and Associations

The Second Vatican Council rediscovered and re-valued the concept of the presbyterium and the role priests have in collaborating with each other and with the bishop. This renewal is not simply theological, but needs to be implemented and realized in concrete and juridical ways. "Since all clerics are working for the same purpose, namely the building up of the body of Christ... they are to seek to cooperate with one another, in accordance with the provisions of particular law." (Can. 275 §1)

In this article I want to examine two juridical institutions by which "the provisions of particular law" can build up the presbyterium and contribute to the exercise of the presbyteral co-responsibility: the common life of priests and associations of priests.

History of Common Life

The church commends the common life because it has a long experience of the advantages it can bring to the life of clergy. Common life often began as a desire to imitate the life earliest Christian communities, where "those who believed were of one heart and soul" (Act 4:32). Although not the first bishop to practice a common life among his clergy, the most influential to do so was St. Augustine.

Upon becoming Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine transformed his episcopal residence into a clerical house. He believed, along with his clergy, that the common life would assist in correcting abuses and promoting the apostolate. In effect, common life with a sharing of possessions became the general rule for the clergy of his diocese.

This became a forerunner of the later Chapter of Canons. Priests who lived in common at a Cathedral or other collegiate church were called canons because they followed a definite rule, and were members of a corporate body called a chapter. Yet this movement toward a common life quickly approached that of religious life, envisioning an almost monastic rule for priests.

A second juridical manifestation of common life developed from the need for greater priestly stability. Each priest to be ordained had a "title" or benefice, his assignment to some church, chapel, or monastery. Thus, when two or more clerics were assigned to the same church, the custom of living together in a house attached to or nearby the church had its beginning. However, as the chapters of canons [regulars] developed and flourished, the community life of the other [secular] clergy waned, and by the end of the twelfth century, common life all but disappeared.

The Council of Trent did not mention the common life of priests, but it did call for a general restoration of the life, conduct and learning of clerics by returning to the teaching of earlier popes and councils. After Trent many were inspired to speak, write and develop common life among the clergy.

First among these in creating priestly communities was St. Charles Borromeo. He created a community of priests in his episcopal household, living according to a rule and performing spiritual exercises in common. He also founded the Oblates of St. Ambrose, an institute of diocesan priests.

Among the many others animated by a spirit and zeal for the priesthood and common life were: St. Philip Neri (Oratorians), St. Vincent de Paul (Priests of the Mission and Lazarists), Cardinal Berulle (French Oratorians), Jean Jacques Olier (Society of St. Sulpice), St. John Eudes (the Eudists), and St. Louis Montfort (Company of Mary). While these organizations of common life originally grouped diocesan priests together into permanent unions, in time most became religious congregations of priests.

Therefore, in search of a new form specifically for the diocesan clergy, one encounters a less familiar priest, Bartholomew Holzhauser. In 1640, in the diocese of Salzburg in Austria, he formed an institute of common life for diocesan priests, hoping to offer priests involved in parish ministry the benefits and spiritual perfections that common life offers, without, at the same time, forming an order or religious congregation.

An important point in his Constitutions was the importance of sharing property in common as a help for common life and effective ministry. This was not a renunciation made under a solemn vow of poverty, but rather the revenue earned from ministry became part of a common fund. A second emphasis was Holzhauser's insistence upon obedience to the local bishop, maintaining complete dependence on the Ordinary without any exception.

Lastly, while Holzhauser included the norm of common living within his Constitutions, his other innovation was not to exclude the possibility of common life without actual cohabitation, since this was often impossible for parish clergy. Thus Holzhauser's Institute, which spread rapidly throughout almost all of Europe, is also a model for the first associations of priests.

Recalling this rich history, Pope St. Pius X, in his 1908 Apostolic Exhortation to clergy, Haerent Animo, expressed hope and joy that priests might decide to live in common, that such an institution would again produce good results as it had in the past.

The 1917 Code of Canon Law urged the clergy to live a common life by sharing the same house and table. It called for this praiseworthy custom to be favored and preserved, especially for the priest cooperators of the same parish.In many of the newer countries, e.g. Canada and the United States, where this was the custom, it was often incorporated in diocesan statutes.

Pope Pius XII also recommended the common life, particularly for younger priests, priests of the same parish, and even priests of nearby parishes. He saw many great advantages, such as nourishing charity, zeal, detachment and safeguarding priestly chastity (Menti Nostrae, 110). Vatican II, in Presbyterorum Ordinis, lists the advantages of common life as promoting intellectual and spiritual life, aiding ministry and fighting loneliness; and it expects that priests will share their goods and help other priests in need (8).

Since the Council, there is a wealth of magisterial statements encouraging, emphasizing and motivating the common life of priests. The 1973 "Directory for Bishops" suggests common life to combat isolation and loneliness, especially for younger priests (112); and it sees advantages for a parish to have a pastor and at least one other priest that live in common (179). Pastores Dabo Vobis highly commends common life, not only as an advantage for the apostolate, but as an example of charity and unity (81, cf. Christus Dominus, 30 §1).

It is clear why the 1994 "Directory for Priests" states: "A manifestation of communion is also the common life always supported by the Church, recently emphasized by the documents of Vatican Council II and of the successive Magisterium, and applied in many Dioceses with positive results." (29)

Common Life Today

The 1983 Code of Canon Law, almost identical to that of 1917, inserts this encouragement of priestly common life among the rights and duties of clerics. "Some manner of common life is highly recommended to clerics; where it exists, it is as far as possible to be maintained." (Can. 280) The Eastern law also calls for "praiseworthy common life" to be fostered, and adds some motivations: "so that they may be mutually helped in cultivating the spiritual and intellectual life and may be able to cooperate more effectively in the ministry." (CCEO Can. 376)

Priests are to live within their parish boundaries, but one exception is explicitly mentioned in the law, living "in a house common to several priests" with the bishop's consent (Cann. 533, 550 §1).Thus, it is also useful to form communities of priests who work in different but neighboring parishes.In fact, even those not assigned to parishes might profit from communal living (e.g. seminary and curia officials). If possible, no priest - especially if he is young - should remain for a long time on his own.However, since necessity often obliges priests to live alone in their parish, the bishop should try to help them develop a community spirit and organize regular meetings, in small groups or at the diocesan level.

These recommendations mean seminaries should form priests in ways that prepare them to live and work as part of the presbyterium. Such formation must include the necessary virtues and proper understanding so that not only are they prepared to integrate into the clerical community, but even to live a common life, after leaving the seminary. This is a reason why seminaries include common life in the training of diocesan priests: "they are to be prepared for the fraternal unity of the diocesan presbyterium, in whose service of the Church they will share." (Can. 245 §2)

The Council and Code allow freedom in the implementation of this eminently recommended discipline of common life, which they have not imposed as required. In practice, particular circumstances may sometimes prevent living together under the same roof, yet there is still a broad flexibility in the different ways that priest can achieve "some manner of common life" (Can. 280). Presbyterorum Ordinis suggests three possibilities: living together, sharing a common table, or at least frequent meetings (8). Common liturgical prayer such as the Liturgy of the Hours should also be added.

The realization of common life is not, however, the sole initiative of the presbyterium, as bishops have a role in helping priests form a community spirit, promoting community life, and foreseeing it within the diocesan structure. If he cannot mandate it (in places where it has not been customary), he can encourage and suggest common life to his priests, trying to overcome understandable organizational difficulties and possible psychological reticence.

In summary, the Church strongly recommends community life, based on the presbyterium and as an expression of fraternity, for diocesan priests. Whether priests reside together - especially recommended for priests of the same parish - or they simply share together in prayer, meals and community, it has many advantages. The benefits that common life affords for priests indicate that it should never be rejected out of hand, and should be encouraged, even if some sacrifice is required.

History of Priestly Associations

As has been seen, the common life of priests is often connected with priestly associations. The phenomenon of priestly associations is not new in the Church. The many priestly movements since Trent, mentioned above, clearly demonstrate this. Yet in the nineteenth century, a new trend emerged: diocesan communities or associations for the renewal of priestly holiness and effectiveness in the apostolate, but without the obligation of cohabitation.

Two French Bishops, Felix Dupanloup and V. M. Lebeurier, were instrumental in forming an association of diocesan priests, following the spirit and norms of Holzhauser's Institute. The difference, however, was opening it to priests who could not join in the traditional common life; instead of physical cohabitation, it would be a spiritual or moral union. This would be entitled the Apostolic Union of Diocesan Priests of the Sacred Heart, constituted in 1862. Its main principles include a common rule of life, regular (monthly) meetings and spiritual conferences, and accountability to a "superior" regarding the rule and one's finances. While never negating the importance of traditional common life, the spiritual and practical value of the Apostolic Union to combat the loneliness of isolation and the dangers of individualism was soon realized, as it spread quickly throughout Christendom.

In Haerent Animo, Pope Pius X gave strong praise to priestly associations, recalling his own membership in the Apostolic Union. He cites their good results in history and sees them as not only a help in times of difficulty, but also an aid to learning and ministry. While the 1917 Code did not directly address priestly associations, it does not question the right and desirability of associations, including for clerics, as their advantages are obvious. Pope John XXIII also commended approved priestly associations as a means of perfection (Sacerdotii nostri primordia, 12).

Vatican II views the right of association as a fundamental right of all the faithful. Recognizing the right of association for clerics in Presbyterorum Ordinis, the Council expresses the usefulness of associations for priests, which are "to be highly esteemed and diligently promoted" (8). It establishes, however, that associations always be fostered in a spirit of communion which requires that the statutes be recognized by the competent authority (who grants a nihil obstat, not a juridical erection).

The 1989 Pastoral Guide for mission churches encourages associations as a means to promote fraternity and unity in the presbyterium, foster spiritual, human and cultural development, and aid pastoral ministry. The Congregation for Clergy recognizes the importance of associations and approved movements, appreciating what they do for priests. Yet, it especially esteems those associations with a "diocesan" character. "The help which must be given to priests in this field can find support in the different priestly associations which tend to form a truly diocesan spirituality." (1994 "Directory for Priests", 88)

Priestly Associations Today

The fact that priestly associations are so highly esteemed is directly related to their purpose and finality. In essence, associations should promote priestly life, holiness, communion and ministry, helping priests to realize their proper identity, maintain their spiritual life and direct their activity in conformity with the sacramental consecration and divine mission of priestly life.

Canon law recognizes for secular clergy a full right to associate for ends suitable to the clerical state (Can. 278).There is a preference for associations with four characteristics: those which "promote holiness in the exercise of their ministry", "foster the unity of the clergy with one another and with their Bishop", whose "statutes are recognized by the competent authority", and have a "suitable and well tried rule of life" for clerics. Because it specifically favors associations that encourage unity of diocesan clerics, the Code gives a privileged position to forming associations within the diocesan presbyterium.

Clerics must therefore avoid associations incompatible with their clerical state or office. Care is also needed that priests do not establish associations like "unions" or adversarial groups, representing their needs and wants to the bishop. Associations need to safeguard and favor communion with the Bishop and will normally augment the communion among priests, thus reinforcing the diocesan presbyterium whenever priests join such a clerical association, even a national or international one.

Pope John Paul II, in Pastores Dabo Vobis sees associations as spiritually enriching for both individuals and the whole presbyterium.He also recognizes the role of new ecclesial movements that welcome priests into their associations such as societies of apostolic life, and especially priestly secular institutes.Those "which have as their characteristic feature their being diocesan - through which priests are more closely united to their Bishop." (81) He sees all such forms of priestly associations as useful for both the spiritual life and the apostolic and pastoral ministry.

As with common life, bishops can have an active role, especially by supporting and approving private priestly associations, and founding public ones. Besides the types of priestly fraternities and associations already discussed for spiritual, intellectual and pastoral ends; a typical diocesan association could also be one by which the priests provide material assistance to one another, such as assistance for the sick or retired. Also common is an association for keeping the deceased members in the prayers of their brother priests.

While the Apostolic Union is one of the older and more widespread examples of an ecclesiastically approved priestly association, it is far from unique. Mention can be made of the Association of Priestly Perseverance (Vienna, 1868), the Pontifical Missionary Union of the Clergy (Blessed Paulo Manna, 1916), and the Priest Fraternity Jesus-Caritas (France, 1952).

Many recent ecclesial realities also promote association, as priests share a common bond through their involvement in their mission. These include the secular Institute of Jesus-Priest (Blessed James Alberione), the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross (St. Josemaria Escrivá), and Regnum Christi (Fr. Marcial Maciel). Other new movements also incorporate diocesan priests, such as the Focolare Movement, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, and Communion and Liberation.

In conclusion, priestly associations and the common life among clerics are juridical institutions that concretize and reinforce the presbyterium. It is important to recall that these are manifestations of priestly fraternity, ministry and collaboration, and therefore cannot be artificial or simply external. Yet where priests forge a life in common and in association, these can become great weapons against individualism and loneliness, assets for an effective apostolate, and means for growth in holiness and charity. In the words of Pope John Paul II, "Today, it is impossible not to recommend them" (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 81).