“On the Priestly Life,” Pedro Arrupe (1975)

“Do not expect a doctrinal treatise on the priesthood,” Pedro Arrupe declares to the more than 700 Italian priests gathered for a day of recollection on June 18, 1975. “We have at our disposal rich and abundant doctrine in the perennial sources of Theology, Vatican II, the 1971 Synod and the Magisterium of Paul VI, who is making this one of his favorite topics.” Instead, Arrupe provides the men assembled at Collevallenza, near Perugia, Italy, with some reflections on the priestly life. “I want to share with you this morning a few thoughts that may help us to experience and live, with joy and to the full, the gift of priesthood, more necessary today than ever,” he explains. Arrupe acknowledges that he speaks at a “difficult time for the priest, a time of hesitation, perplexity, danger, obscurity, cross, but also and perhaps for that very reason a time of opportunities and new satisfactions, that come from living up to the priestly image more faithfully than ever.” He calls the moment “the hour of the priest’s glorious Passover” and offers words of encouragement and instruction.

For more sources from Arrupe, please visit The Arrupe Collection.



I. Priestly Life

Priestly life is unique. Only a priest can understand it. Only one who is “another Christ” and in one same self “closed in by weakness” can understand how this tension constitutes the distinctive difference and essence of the priest. It is a creative, dynamizing tension for the priest himself and for the Church and the world he must serve.


The personal fulfillment of the priest can spring only from his awareness and clear vision of this tension and from its joyous and humble acceptance as part and parcel of his very human existence.


A long line of vastly differing priestly lives parades before our eyes every day. The specific priestly typology plunges its roots in the way these men consecrated by the Spirit live out the polyvalent tension, essential to the priest: separated from the world, yet immersed in the world; subject to human weakness, yet expected to enjoy divine strength; deeply committed to the realities of the present, yet straining might and main towards the eternal….


We know the perfectly happy priest in whom this tension has become a dynamic and permanently creative equilibrium; who knows and humbly acknowledges his poverty and joyously accepts God’s gift, like Mary, trusting the word that has set him up not only to celebrate the memory of the Lord’s Passover but also to re-enact it in his own flesh and in his solidarity with the cross of his brother men, a witness to the Resurrection. But in all too many cases the equilibrium in this nuclear tension of every priestly life is not achieved, and this failure takes many forms: cowardice in being and appearing a priest, in fully being or ceasing to be one; using the gift received for his own selfish advantage and damage of others; professionalization or loss of connection with, and personal awareness of, the life given him to communicate it to others, the one that must well up to eternal life.


I cannot enter into the complexity of the causes that lead to failure in achieving this equilibrium. I can only remark that, when it does occur, we should not be surprised that the final outcome is the variety of the forms of frustration that obtain in today’s priests. This is nothing new. What is new is the publicity given to the phenomenon. At times it takes dramatic forms which have provided easy subject matter, on real or imaginary bases, to critics and accusers of the Church, of course, and to men of arts and letters, making the priest the main character in films, novels and plays.


What is real in this phenomenon makes us conclude that this is a difficult time for the priest, a time of hesitation, perplexity, danger, obscurity, cross, but also and perhaps for that very reason a time of opportunities and new satisfactions, that come from living up to the priestly image more faithfully than ever. It is the hour of the priest’s glorious Passover: an hour we cannot avoid but need not fear; an hour we must live through to the end in full awareness and acceptance because it is the hour when the Father is glorified in us once again through the cross and the priest, too, is glorified just as Jesus was.


It is no doubt the hour of the priest, our hour, or rather the hour of the Lord in his priests. To live it through fully requires three fundamental attitudes on the part of the priest: “to be with Jesus,” “to work with Jesus” (live his mission), and “to work like Jesus” (to discern according to the Spirit).



II. “To Be with Jesus”

As always, it is indispensable to return once again to the Gospel. Jesus’ action with “the Twelve” retains an exemplary value for our own case and a content that is re-enacted in each and every call to the priesthood.


As in the case of the Twelve, Jesus remains the sole raison d’etre of our priestly life. Not only in the sense of an ontological participation in the one priesthood of Christ, but also on the existential plane of each priestly life about which we are now reflecting: the central nucleus of this life is .constituted by a personal relationship with Jesus.


He calls, he commands. “Come with me,” “follow me.” He is the Lord. There emerges a personal relationship wholly determined by Jesus’ initiative. One may or may not answer, resist or heed the call. But “being with Jesus” is a determinant factor.


It is, first of all, a presence of persons, a continual and unconditional following. “The Twelve” will have to free themselves from every other duty to place themselves fully at the Lord’s disposal.


This presence essentially involves a life experience. “Come and see.” An experience, therefore, of seeing, listening, living together, sharing the bread and the work, doctrine and trust, praise and criticism, the Hosanna and the Cross, and progressively the power to proclaim, to heal, to cast out devils….


And this experience is a form of invading, possessive presence by Jesus, “my Lord,” who catches us, reaches us, conquers us, wins us…. This presence is to effect in the disciples a deep and vital transformation, a “new creature,” a new person born from this experience: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”


This “being with Jesus” is essential for the Twelve to understand the identity of Jesus and the secrets of the kingdom. They will be especially instructed by Jesus. Jesus shows a patient effort to be understood by them. But their difficulty to understand is very great. Both the facts, the insistence of Jesus and the resistance of the Twelve, are an evident proof that “understanding Jesus” belongs essentially, as its main goal, to “being with Jesus.”


Naturally what is sought is not an intellectual kind of understanding or an exterior knowledge. “Being with Jesus” is aimed definitively and finally at a personal attachment, at staking all for him, in a way that affects one’s entire life. The life of the Twelve was indeed marked by this attachment to Jesus and cannot be explained without it. Something like a new nature, a “new creature” emerged from the depths of those men as a result of “being with Jesus.”


This attachment is marked by a triple radicality:

—That it is exclusive of any other option or choice: this attachment cannot be shared with any other beneficiary. God’s exclusivity in the Old Testament reveals itself again in Jesus and acts in him. The priest’s choice of him is full and entire. This will oblige us to free ourselves from any other attachment to any other good or value, however legitimate in itself, if it cannot be assumed by or integrated in this primary value, Jesus, and his most holy will.

—“Being with Jesus” brings another radicality: that everything must be surrendered. No part of our life can escape from his following. This attitude of total surrender alone can actually guarantee perseverance in the choice once made and the coherence of our life with the same. If our following does not tend to this radicality, if we cut up and divide in any way the self that must follow the Lord, the door is left wide open to temptations of compromise, accommodation, settlement, minor or major treason.

—Thirdly, “being with Jesus” is to adopt, like him, the radicality of his dedication to and solidarity with one’s fellowmen. “The other certainty that must support our priestly awareness is that of the relationship binding us totally and irrevocably to the service of our brethren. The priest belongs to himself no longer. The object of the priesthood is “diakonia,” service, the giving of oneself, without reservations or conditions, to the Mystical Body of Christ, to the Church, to the People of God, to men. This awareness that one has given up dominion over himself and dedicated himself to love forever, this condition of servant of others can provide an enormous sense of security to the priest, who knows his own limitations and needs, and can find himself continually tempted to “remake his own life,” seek his own prestige, his self-interest, and hence place obstacles to the goal that characterizes his priestly life.”


The transformation that takes place in the new man “created in Christ Jesus” and “set aside to preach the Gospel” is such that all the other men, all of them I say, become his “brothers,” each of them becomes an “alter ego,” another self, with all the consequences. So much so that this will be the most concrete, precise and palpable measure of the truth of our “being with Jesus:” “In this they will know that you are my disciples.”


This “being with Jesus” will be tested when accompanying Jesus means, as mean it must, to enter with him into the cloud of Calvary and share with him the heaviest moments of his program to live for the will of the Father.


In this sense the first test of “the Twelve” was thoroughly humiliating and disappointing even though they had been given fair notice of the coming test. The treason was not limited to just one: “All of you will leave me.” Even though they had ratified their promise to remain with Jesus. They succumbed to this fundamental crisis. Peter would deny that he “was with him” and finally all of them “left him and ran away.” This lesson teaches us that “being with Jesus” engages the entire life of the disciple in a universal and absolute kind of attachment (in as much as man is capable of any absolute) of the whole man to the person of Jesus wherever he “be” and to the mission of Jesus wherever he “go.”


This “being with Jesus” of the Twelve will certainly be restored after the Resurrection as they had already been told beforehand: “After I am raised to life, I will go to Galilee ahead of you,” a clear invitation to continue following him. The invitation of one who is Lord and friend to a new form of partnership, of “being with” the Risen One, invisible, rediscovered, known in a new way through faith, remembered (“Do this in memory of me”).


The final result of this “being with Jesus” will be to “personify” him continually in human history, proclaiming the same message, dispensing the same salvation, his salvation the only one, running the risk of being accepted or rejected together with him: “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me.”


“… Catholic priesthood does not replace but personifies Christ…. it does not bring in a new mediation between God and man but puts into practice the one mediation of Christ….”


Today priestly life continues to be marked essentially by this “being with Jesus” with all it entails—presence, experience, knowledge, choice. It cannot be otherwise. The question, then, bursts from every side: how is it possible to “be with Jesus” today? How is this process possible: to see him, listen to him, follow and accompany him, experience him, understand him, remember him …?


This process has a familiar, classical name, though all too forgotten perhaps in our world: contemplation. This contemplation reaches a climax in the priest: the Eucharist, when the Word, the presence and the memory are activated for the People of God through the ministry of the priest. It is the time of “being with Jesus” in the climactic moment of the sacrifice.


If genuine, this process of contemplation results necessarily in a personal challenge, a knocking at the door of our own self, whose transforming and creative power we cannot even imagine, which would take us infinitely far if we were able not to repress it. Ignatius of Loyola formulated it in his triple question: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What shall I do for Christ?


This process of contemplation, this our “being with Jesus” is subjected to a hard and multiple trial today: the trial of the senses, of the sensitive experience, of the need to touch, which threatens to stifle or reduce to a superficial experience, our capacity of spiritual experience; the trial of massification which makes solitude difficult or fearful; the trial of action for the sake of action; the type of dedication that squanders the person, subtly and insatiably seeking oneself; the trial of the criticism coming from innumerable types of men who seem to own the world, the technical man, the man of pleasure and the man of power, manmade absolute ruler….


We have to overcome these trials vigorously because the world can be transformed only through an action that consists in “working with Jesus” and springs from “being with Jesus.”



III. To Work with Jesus

To be with Jesus is also to be with man, like him, to live for man, “for us men and for our salvation;” it is to enroll totally in the mission of Jesus.


His is also the initiative of this enrollment. He it is who sends us: “Go and preach the Gospel through all the earth, even to the end of the world,” thus mysteriously transmitting us his own identity as the One sent, living exclusively for the Father’s will.


Heeding this initiative we realize experientially, from within, our identity as “alter Christus,” another Christ, and our life in its human as well as in its divine aspect takes on its deepest sense.


To enter into the mission of Jesus is to enter, in some way, into the continuation of the intimate dialogue that begins within the Trinity between the Father and the Word: “Here I am, O God, to do your will;” this dialogue was the expression of the Father’s love for fallen mankind—“when we were sinners”—a love that Christ shows by offering himself up to death on a cross. This very same dialogue is continued in the depths of our souls after we hear the voice of the Word incarnate inviting us to follow him: “It is not you who have chosen me; I have chosen you,” and we have responded generously.


This dialogue must be continued between us and our fellow-men, who are the beneficiaries. Our mission is to prolong it. Precisely at a time when, for various and complex reasons, ours and others’, this dialogue appears to have become more difficult, we do not perhaps live up to the Gospel; our following of Jesus, our discipleship, does not hold enough credibility on many an occasion; our deeds are not the deeds of the Father, which alone reveal him, the only way the Son, the One sent, reveals.


On the other hand it is true that our world has grown and become self-conceited. Is it perhaps going through a period of adolescence, of youth? It would seem normal that having reached a greater technical and human development, it should also get closer to God and seek him with a full heart. Facts say just the contrary. Proud of its development, jealously clinging to its autonomies, our world lapses time and again into self-sufficiency, self-idolatry, which constitutes the basis of every form of atheism. Man is affirmed, but it is assumed (and this is the monstrous mistake that plagues our society) that to affirm man we have necessarily to deny God; as though God’s “death” were required to ensure man’s “life.”


It is from such attitudes as these that our world has become critical, contemptuous, indifferent (a subtle form of criticism) vis-a-vis the mission of Jesus; it has altered values, confused its language.


All this makes especially difficult our mission to the world of today, the continuation of this dialogue that begins in God and we have to translate.


But this has also made this dialogue all the more imperative, all the more urgent. Moreover, it gives sense and meaning to the life of one who, like the priest, lives fully for this dialogue. One of its features will be “to complete what still remains of Christ’s sufferings,” for which we must feel especially sent.


For this reason, too, our mission must spring from a deep spirit of faith, supernatural life, hope, courage and growth, all of which are attitudes that re-activate and rejuvenate in us the true face of the Church.


How to resume or continue today, how to clear the way for, this dialogue that cannot be closed? How to realize our mission, that of Jesus, today?


In the last analysis what is at stake is God’s image. Many men today labor under a mistaken idea of God, not to be found in Scripture, not the one revealed in Jesus, not the God who is Love, the fullness of man, whose glory is in the living man. A God who wants man to be great, free, creator of his own destiny, builder of his own physical, cultural, spiritual and moral world, capable of carrying out and completing God’s work and of perfecting himself by perfecting the world. A God who wants man to be mature, adult, responsible. A God who shares his very happiness with man, who makes him his son and heir.


How to make our world see this face of God? This challenging task constitutes the greatness and the risk of every priestly life. Perhaps we have to begin by correcting in ourselves our own image of God in order to purify it later in others. We shall have to erase certain images of God, connected in greater or lesser degree with signs and forms of human power or which legitimize or declare sacred the continuance of structures contrary to the Gospel, or certain kind of ambiguous images of God which foster man’s passivity or deny him responsibilities he ought to shoulder. We have to discover Him who, in Jesus Christ, has chosen to take part in the human adventure and irrevocably bind himself to his destiny.


It is evident, however, that this world of ours needs witnessing more than teaching, visual evidence more than argument, deeds more than words. “Give credit to my deeds.” It needs, very specially in us, priests of the one God, a fundamental attitude of solidarity with man, God’s solidarity with man, made a reality in Jesus. Our world needs to see today in us the incarnation, the cross, the joy of Easter. This was, and this it continues to be, the dialogue, the Word of God loving man to the very end.


Is not the Eucharist we serve as ministers the eloquent and permanent sign of this solidarity of God with man? “The priesthood is properly the vehicle, the instrument of the multiplication of the Lord’s bread.” Jesus has instituted the priesthood to give himself to all, to identify himself with all, with each and every one of us, to be the only bread made available to all.


Solidarity with man, who is the center of creation, still to be saved, to be redeemed. If he is saved, the rest of creation will be saved with him. Solidarity with all of man and with all men. In this way our mission, or dialogue, deepens and stretches out to the outmost limits. It grows deep so as to transform the whole of man for it has to reach the very bottom of the human conscience, the conversion of the heart, which is what is most personal in man. It stretches out to reach all men because there is “no longer any distinction between Gentiles and Jews, circumcised and uncircumcised, foreigners, savages, slaves and free men; no, Christ is all, he is in all.”


This solidarity with man does not consist in sharing his often misguided ideologies or his behavior patterns when not conformed to the Gospel. It means that we seek him, that we seek the person, like Jesus, that we speak to him and be among men “as one who serves.” This is the magic formula to achieve the difficult paradox of our priestly existence, which obliges us to be in the world without belonging to the world.


Like that of Jesus, our mission, our dialogue, takes on the language of service to man. A difficult language indeed and very demanding on ourselves, but the only intelligible and convincing language because it alone identifies us with Jesus, who “taking the form of a servant” begins the mission the priest is to continue and conclude. This attitude sums up, fully and in depth, all that the priestly life must be if it is to reveal to the men of today the true face of God and, in so doing, show the face of the Church also, “without spot or wrinkle,” of which we, are responsible, too.


Thus “being with Jesus” becomes “working with him,” staking all our existence in proclaiming, witnessing and activating the Good News of God, his true face, to the whole of man so that man may believe, that is, see and recognize himself in his primary value as son of God, and recognize it effectively in all the other men.



IV. To Work Like Jesus

This mission, which transcends the concrete of our existence, needs to be permanently discerned, that is, tested, checked, as God’s will. Also in this sense “being with Jesus” necessarily leads us to working like him, realizing in the here and now of our existence his fundamental attitude of living to do the will of God, a will that has to be taught by the Holy Spirit each “today.” To work like Jesus, then, will mean to listen to and heed the Spirit operating in the here and now of human history, making himself God’s gift and salvation through this history. Because it is in the flux of this history that our mission, our dialogue with the world according to the Spirit, has to be carried out. “This question makes itself present each morning; how in the present situation, here and now, I shall remain with God and with Jesus Christ in this new life.”


The plurality and fluidity of situations in which we have to carry out our priestly mission makes this test, this discernment, more and more necessary.


Our world, even the one around us in the traditionally Christian countries, shows at one and the same time a disconcerting plurality, at least on the level of faith: plurality in forms of expression as well as in the tasks set to be accomplished, in attachments and critical attitudes, trying to deepen foundations already laid or experimenting in new ventures, maturity and fragility…. This plurality and fluidity of situations becomes practically unlimited when we come to cultures, ideologies, economic, social and political structures and bases of our society, a constantly changing plurality, with changes of such brusqueness and magnitude as to shake in a moment, in a kind of planetary quake, not only man’s life situation but also the deeper foundations on which human life rests. Think for example, to take an example of our own days, of what the oil crisis has caused, or the most recent discoveries in the field of genetics, psychology and other sciences. And we cannot ignore the fact that we are only in the beginnings.


What to do? Running risks, opening out to new cultures. St Paul sheds a little light on the road from his own experience of God: “Try,” discern, examine, probe, the will of the Father. This means we have to live in a listening attitude, trying to catch the eternal word spoken in Jesus, lived in the faith of God’s people, explained in the Church’s Magisterium, actualized and concretized in the Spirit’s action in his Church, teaching us the whole truth.


To grasp this is not always easy, but is certainly comforting and renovating. It is always enriching to get near the Spirit’s amazing activity in our world today. It is simply wonderful and cannot be plumbed. St Paul re-iterates our obligation to try and penetrate it: “Do not restrain the Holy Spirit; do not despise inspired messages. Put all things to the test; keep what is good and avoid every kind of evil.”


What is actually this “test” (dokimazete) so insistently recommended by St Paul?


It is certainly a complex act of discernment of God’s will with many factors at play: the heart of man, his affinity to the things of God, his sensitivity to the inspirations of the Spirit and the intuitions of charity; man’s reason, his capacity to reflect on the action of God and the actions of men; his experience, privileged medium of our knowing; his praxis, ground of his confrontation with life, a luminous confrontation even in its mistakes. It is what St Paul wishes and prays for the Philippians: “May your love keep on growing more and more, together with true knowledge and perfect judgement, so that you will be able to choose (dokimazein) the best.”


This action is human and divine, that is an action of the “new man,” the man regenerated by faith, baptism and the gift of the Spirit acting with his human intelligence, his capacity of choice and self-giving, his responsibility.


It is the act of an adult person, grown through faith towards the perfect man, realizing in himself the image of the Son and, like him, totally free to live exclusively for the will of the Father. Hence this discernment is the Son’s favorite activity and like a fundamental attitude in him. It has even been said that it is the technical expression of Christian freedom.


This is why it is something personal and inalienable; at the same time, while developing all the dignity of man as a Christian, it places him in the one plan of salvation that embraces all men: “the discernment and knowledge of God’s will has its proper place only in the community and in union with the other members of Christ’s Body. The community constitutes a communion of destiny and life, enlightening everything and bearing the seal of faith and of love. Therefore, just as a member of the body is assured of safety, in faith and in suffering, through the communion and solidarity of the others, so too he remains a member of Christ’s Body in his thoughts, his discernment and his understanding.”


It is therefore a discernment in the community of the Church, universal, diocesan, local, in the presbyterium around the Bishop; its definite criteria are the apostolic magisterium and the building up (“ad aedificationem”) of the Body of Christ.


The discernment is also a daily act, to be repeated every moment, since God’s will becomes an event, human history, and shows itself with it and in it. Our priestly life will achieve its fullness if it unfolds discerning the will of God, living each concrete situation as “a religious reality in which God and man are present the one in the other as You and I, in a unique moment never to be repeated, each time being a word of love God himself addresses us, expecting our response of love.”


It is also an act, indeed a permanent state, of glorifying God and serving man. It could not be otherwise, since it conforms us to the image of the Son. The discernment that comes from the community gathered to celebrate the Lord is ordained to thanksgiving. Love’s engagement becomes the glory of God.


Finally discernment, by binding human liberty to the absolute of divine will, confers to each one of the actions realized in time the value of eternity. Then it is not simply the backdrop lending perspective to our historical acts, but the “inauguration of the last times” and the realization now of the eschatological judgment.


But I do know that a question springs up from our poverty, from our abiding surprise at the mystery we carry with ourselves. Mary also asked, “How can this be?” How can we recover today this dynamic and dynamizing contemplation that may make us “be with Jesus?” How can we live the intense and manifold dialogue with the men to whom we owe ourselves because the Father sends us to them? How to reproduce this man who discerns and does the will of God, the man of supernatural vision and at the same time the most absorbing action, not afraid of the cross but always ready to embrace it “after him,” a child of the light who “tries to learn what pleases the Lord?”



V. Prayer for the Gift of Discernment

I have no other answer to offer you but the fundamental one the Lord himself gives us: “Who will trace the things of heaven, who will know your design if you do not give him wisdom, sending him your Holy Spirit from heaven?”


We have to pray for the GIFT of the Lord. If anyone needs it, it is the priest. We have to pray in a responsible manner, born from our awareness of the fundamental duty of every priestly life: that the Father may be seen in us.


The Lord himself has taught us to pray for this gift with what we could well call the prayer for discernment:

God of our ancestors, Lord of mercy,

who by your word have made all things

and by your wisdom have fitted man

to rule the creatures you have made,

to govern the world in holiness and justice,

and to render judgement in integrity of heart:

grant me Wisdom, the attendant at your throne,

and do not reject me from among your children;

for I am your servant, the son of your handmaid,

weak and feeble and short-lived,

with little understanding of justice and laws.

Indeed, were anyone perfect among the sons of men,

if he lacked the Wisdom that comes from you,

he would still count for nothing.

You have chosen me to be king over your people,

to be judge of your sons and daughters.

You have bidden me build a temple on your holy mountain,

an altar in the city where you have pitched your tent,

a copy of that sacred tabernacle

which you prepared from the beginning.

Now with you is Wisdom, who knows your works

and was present when you made the world,

who understands what is pleasing in your eyes

and what agrees with your commands.

Send her forth from your holy heavens,

from your glorious throne dispatch her,

that she may be with me and work with me,

that I may know what is your pleasure.

For she knows and understands all things

and will guide me discreetly in my affairs

and protect me by her glory.

Then all I do will be acceptable,

I shall govern your people justly

and shall be worthy of my father’s throne.



Original Source:

Challenge to Religious Life Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—I, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1979, “To Be and to Work With and Like Jesus,” pg. 175–190.

Scroll to Top