The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests

The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (in Latin, Presbyterorum Ordinis, “the order of priests”) was approved on Dec. 7, 1965, by a vote of 2,390 to 4. This last-minute document concerns the ministry of priests in light of the Council’s teaching and the pastoral circumstances of the day. The decree reflects the Council’s intent to expand the notion of priestly ministry from one focused largely on ministry of the sacraments to a broader threefold ministry of God’s Word, sacraments, and community leadership. Priests are said to act “in the person of Christ the head” in the exercise of this threefold ministry.

The decree speaks of the relationship priests have to the body of bishops, in which they share the one priesthood of Christ; the relationship they have to other priests, with whom they are united by a sacramental bond; and the relationship they have to the laity for whom they function as pastors, even though they are one with the faithful by virtue of a common baptism and with whom they share a common call to discipleship. Priests achieve holiness of life, the decree teaches, through the ministry they exercise. The decree failed to deal with celibacy and left the priesthood unrenewed in an otherwise overhauled Church. A 1970 synod tried to fix things, but only made matters worse. The renewal of the priesthood remains the most significant unfinished work of the Council.