Decree 23: “The Jesuit Priestly Apostolate,” General Congregation 31 (1966)

The following decree of the 31st General Congregation of the Society of Jesus responds to several postulata (or petitions) received that contained different concerns on the nature of a Jesuit’s priestly work. Many postulata, according to historian John Padberg, expressed a “fear” that “the present-day Society be too much given over to apostolic works of the temporal order,” when those works could be often done by lay people. Other postulate wished the congregation would state that works for “the good of the Church,” such as research and educating youth, could be considered priestly exercises (see the congregation’s historical preface in Jesuit Life & Mission Today (2009), pg. 25–26). In response to these conflicting opinions, the delegates issued the following the decree. It notes that “the place and role of the priest is being variously envisioned by many today” but does not attempt to enter into the theological debate o the topic. Instead, it states that God calls each priest “through his ordination to exercise his priesthood in the concrete circumstances of his life” and that through the disparate works “all Jesuits,” in fact, “share together in the one total apostolate exercised by the Society as a priestly body.”

For more from the 31st General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, please consult this page.



I. Introduction

1.     From the Society’s beginning and throughout its history, Jesuit priests have always given themselves to the ministry of God’s word and Christ’s sacraments and to other works as well for the sake of churches and nations. Today, too, as members of a single body they are at work in many different fields.

But the manifold changes that mark the present age demand that the Society reassess its works, adapting them to present and, as far as possible, to future circumstances. For relationships within the Church are being profoundly transformed: the laity is assuming its proper active role; the union of priests with each other and with their bishops is coming to the fore; all are being stirred to a sense of responsibility for the good of the Church as a whole. Relationships between the Church and the world, too, are being transformed: for while the lawful autonomy of earthly values is being more expressly recognized, at the same time the intimate connection between the Gospel and the earthly progress and service of the human family is being more vividly perceived. Finally, the proportion of priests to a growing population and its increased needs is being lessened, so that a better distribution of priests is demanded.

Due to these changes, the place and role of the priest is being variously envisioned by many today. Some think the Jesuit priest should be engaged solely in directly pastoral work; others desire that he should be more fully present in the areas where man’s secular efforts are being expended. Some hope that the early vigor of the Society will be recaptured if the priestly ministry is purified of all so-called accidental forms; others believe a more universal good will emerge if no limits are placed on the scope of priestly activity.

It is not for the General Congregation to settle theological differences on the priestly role and ministry. We intend, however, to recall some principles of the Catholic faith and of the Jesuit Institute and to draw from them several criteria which may help the Society and its members to determine, according to the talent given each by the Lord of the vineyard and according to their vocation in the Church, what works our priests ought to engage in principally, and what works ought rather to be left to others.

2.     Some principles pertinent to the matter under dispute and drawn from the teaching of Vatican II will help us resolve this problem.

All members of the People of God share in Christ’s priesthood and in the one mission of the Church; but different degrees or states bring different functions, though these are ordered to and complement each other.

Priests “by the power of the sacrament of orders, and in the image of Christ the eternal High Priest…are considered to preach the Gospel, shepherd the faithful, and celebrate divine worship…. They exercise this sacred function of Christ most of all in the Eucharistic liturgy…. For the penitent or ailing among the faithful, priests exercise fully the ministry of reconciliation and alleviation…. Exercising within the limits of their authority the function of Christ as Shepherd and Head, they gather together God’s family as a brotherhood all of one mind and lead them in the Spirit, through Christ, to God the Father.”

This priestly ministry, within the unity of the presbyteral order, embraces various functions: evangelization of non­believers, catechesis, parochial or supraparochial ministry, scientific research or teaching, participation in the life and toil of workers, and many other activities that are apostolic or ordered to the apostolate.

It is indeed characteristic of laymen, passing their lives as they do in the midst of the world and amid secular tasks, that they be led by the spirit of the Gospel to “work for the sanctification of the world from within, in the manner of leaven. In this way they can make Christ known to others especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope, and charity.” Yet such an apostolate is not theirs alone; priests, too, in their own way, share it, and must, moreover, effectively help laymen in their apostolic task in the Church and the world.

Religious, finally, are called from both the clerical and the lay state to be consecrated and entirely dedicated to loving God above all, and by their special charism within the Church’s life to bear witness that “the world cannot be transfigured and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes,” and thus each in his own way will forward the saving mission of the Church.

3.     The overall guiding norm for our own apostolate, as is clear from our holy founder’s special charism, from the Formula of the Institute and the Constitutions, and from the Society’s living tradition, is the greater service of God and the more universal good of souls, to be striven for in the greatest possible docility to God’s will as manifested to us in the Church and the circumstances of each age, but especially through the Roman Pontiff.

The Society itself is made up of various members; “according to the grace imparted to them by the Holy Spirit and the specific quality of their vocation,” some are priests, some not. Yet all with one mind strive for the single apostolic end set before the whole body of the Society.

As for priestly functions, both the Formula of the Institute and the Constitutions clearly state that the Society’s priests are destined “above all…for every form of ministry of the word” and for the administration of the sacraments. Yet other works are not only not excluded but expressly commended to priests, “as shall be judged best for God’s glory and the common good.”

In defining more accurately the supreme norm of our apostolate, Ignatius says: “Those of the Society may devote their energies to spiritual objectives and also to corporal ones, in which, too, mercy and charity are practiced…; if both cannot be achieved simultaneously, then, other things being equal, the former are always to be preferred to the latter.” With the words “other things being equal,” St. Ignatius instructs us that the principle of the preeminence of spiritual works is itself subordinate to his supreme and fundamental norm.

4.     If criteria for our activity are to be derived correctly from the principles given, the following distinctions must be kept in mind.

In dealing with the priesthood, careful distinction must be made between its essential nature as grounded in Christ’s institution, and the concrete historical forms in which that nature is, as it were, variously incarnated in divergent cultures, social structures, and patterns of custom. The nature of Christian priesthood is a matter of dogma and thus unchangeable; concrete forms, on the other hand, are to be adapted to the specific contemporary situation, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the guidance of the hierarchy, and according to the standards of prudence.

All Jesuits, scholastics and brothers included (in schools, for instance, and in other communal works), share together in the one total apostolate exercised by the Society as a priestly body. Each priest, however, is called by God through his ordination to exercise his priesthood in the concrete circumstances of his life.

To grasp this priestly vocation more fully, other distinctions must be made. A priest of the Society is a man created by God and placed amid a certain people. He is a man baptized and confirmed and therefore, as a “brother among brothers,” he shares in the priesthood common to all the faithful. Furthermore, he is a religious, and a religious of the Society: as a religious he has by vow consecrated himself to God in the Church to be “an admirable sign of the heavenly kingdom”; as a member of the Society, he lives his religious consecration in an apostolic body. He is, in addition, a priest, taken into the presbyteral order, which is in hierarchical communion with the episcopal order at whose head is Peter’s successor.

Each priest must integrate all these aspects of his life into a unified, personal, concrete spirituality; he must, with the interior help of the Holy Spirit and under the guidance of superiors, bring them to fulfillment in an organic and vital unity. In priestly activity and spirituality, then, we need to avoid all one-sided solutions and tendencies; for then some single aspect, be it humanistic, religious, or priestly, is so stressed that the others fade into the background because of this stress.

The 31st General Congregation, with the foregoing exposition of principles in mind, establishes the following.


II. Decree

5.     The manifold activity of priests in the Society flows from the nature and mission of the priesthood and from the distinctive grace and overall guiding norm of our Institute.

6.     Since priests by their ordination as assistants, of subordinate rank, to the episcopal order, are consecrated for the manifold ministry of the word, for the administration of the sacraments, and for the pastoral rule of the family of God, these forms of ministerial apostolate are deservedly to be held in special esteem.

7.     Since, however, Christ, Head of the Church, is integrating the whole world into a kingdom for the Father, it is for the priest, as sign and minister of the Lord’s active presence, to be present in or to collaborate with all human efforts which help in establishing the kingdom.

8.     Since today such collaboration is urgently needed in preparing the way for the Gospel and in establishing or extending the Church’s presence by scholarly research and teaching, especially in the sacred sciences, by social work and work in communications media, this type of collaboration ought to be regarded as a genuine apostolate for the Society’s priests. Especially indeed ought we be concerned with areas critical for the human person as a whole, such as the sciences of man and the education of youth.

9.     Although the General Congregation intends to offer brothers greater opportunity for all such apostolic works and responsibilities as suit their state, and while, on the other hand, it also desires a greater collaboration with laymen in the apostolate, this does not at all imply—as is clear from what has already been said—that the Society’s priests are to be diverted from fields more proper to laymen or the brothers.

10.     The choice of one or other apostolate is to be made according to the criteria set down in the Decree on the Better Choice and Promotion of Ministries, where the Ignatian guiding norm is applied to the contemporary situation with a view to reaching the best possible balance in our ministries.

11.     In assigning priests to various ministries, superiors should look, as our founder did, not only to existing apostolic needs, but also to the call and particular gifts of those to be assigned. All, however, should cultivate the greatest possible docility to the divine will and thus be ready to meet the more pressing and universal needs of the Church, expressed to them through superiors.

12.     Priests of the Society whose apostolate lies primarily in areas of temporal concern, united with all other priests in one total priestly ministry for the sake of men, should bring their priesthood to bear upon all their activity, especially through prayer, though the witness of their lives, and through the Holy Eucharist, which “contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth, that is, Christ Himself,” and through which men and all created reality are brought to the Father.



Original Source (English translation):

Jesuit Life & Mission Today: The Decrees & Accompanying Documents of the 31st35th General Congregations of the Society of Jesus, ed. John W. Padberg. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2009, General Congregation 31, Decree 23, “The Jesuit Priestly Apostolate,” pg. 147–152 [386–413].

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