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The Wisdom of the Priest


Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller

Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller

Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addresses seminarians at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine. (Photo by Matthew Barrick)

Editor’s Note: Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2012, delivered an address to more than 300 seminarians at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., Nov. 4, 2014, at the invitation of Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl. This text is an abridged version of the address and is reprinted with permission.

My dear seminarians, it is an honor for me to be with you today. I speak to you as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose particular mission is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals throughout the whole Catholic world. We do this in order that the faith might flourish, so that more and more people might draw near to Christ who is himself the way, the truth and the life.

It is only natural, then, that my remarks to you today concern the doctrinal and intellectual formation of candidates for the priesthood. Your academic formation is a privileged opportunity to explore the rich theological heritage of our Church, which is not reducible to a series of dry, academic doctrines. The academic formation of seminarians is about immersion into the teaching and thinking of the Church, which has as its origin and its ultimate goal the God of Jesus Christ. To do theology as priests means that we appropriate this teaching affectively as well as cognitively; unfold this teaching pastorally as well as academically. For this, we need wisdom.

Wisdom defies easy definition. It is a graced virtue, a gift from on high. It evokes the breadth and power of God, and God’s desire to be known and loved even as he reveals his love to his creatures. Let us see how it might be applied to the life and ministry of priests.


Disciples must learn at the feet of the Master before they can proclaim to others what they have learned. Priestly wisdom, therefore, begins in seeing the entire theological enterprise as something that arises out of a lived relationship with the Lord Jesus. It is fides quaerens intellectum [faith seeking understanding].

What are the implications of this? A few come to my mind. First, the academic study of theology cannot be abstracted from prayer and growth in the spiritual life. The intimacy of prayer is the context of our study, and our study leads us back to prayer. Second, because we engage the relationship with God both intellectually and as whole persons, so too our theological reflection is not detached from philosophy, psychology and the human sciences, but is enriched by them. Third, as disciples of the Good Shepherd, who came to serve and to lay down his life for the sheep, priests must never lose sight of the pastoral goal of theological reflection, and that goal is no less than the salvation of souls. Finally, the paschal events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are the supreme teaching of our Lord and Master. The faithful and wise priest always seeks to integrate what he studies into the paschal mystery he celebrates at Mass and in the other sacraments.


Much time in seminary is devoted to the study of sacred Scripture, which in one way is obvious since the primary application of a priest’s theological learning is in preaching and teaching. Priestly wisdom peers beyond the practical, however, to a deeper truth: Listening to the Word of God is the soul of Catholic theology.

For priests, theology is never a purely speculative undertaking. All theology begins in divine revelation, the personal encounter with Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. By its nature it begins with listening, for it is God who speaks, who reveals himself in loving self-disclosure for us and for our salvation. This attentiveness to God’s Word implies humility, obedience and a willingness to respond with the answering self-disclosure of discipleship.

As men well-grounded in the Word, priests are able to speak not only with conviction, but also with authority — the authority of Jesus Christ. And this proclamation of the Word carries through the homily. The wise homilist understands his role as theologian nurturing the faith of the Christian faithful. For this reason, the homily — like all of theology — must be grounded in Scripture and thus be both faithful and responsive to divine revelation.


A third dimension of what I am calling priestly wisdom is ecclesial. If the ultimate concern of theology is bringing people into the living dynamic of revelation and the response of faith, then this concern must burn all the more in the hearts of priests who have been ordained for the Church and are sacramentally configured to Christ the bridegroom who laid down his life for his bride, the Church.

In the dynamic of divine revelation, God does not condescend merely to give us ideas about himself or humanity’s place in the cosmos; instead, he communicates his very self to us as an invitation into divine friendship (cf. Dei Verbum, 2). In the providential unfolding of salvation in Christ, that divine friendship is lived out in the Church, the community of disciples incorporated into Christ and enlivened by the Holy Spirit. After all, it is in the Church that the living Word of God is preserved, reflected upon and handed on faithfully to new generations. And it is in the Church that the sacramental mysteries are celebrated.

In short, priestly wisdom recognizes the profound privilege that comes in Holy Orders, and with that privilege comes responsibility.


I propose now to go a step further and reflect upon how we might arrive at this wisdom. Priestly formation is spread over a period of years. There are many, many courses in philosophy and theology, Scripture and canon law, which you must take. Some seminarians can lose a sense of “the whole,” and the formation process can be reduced to an experience of checking off courses.

A mechanistic approach to intellectual formation, however, does not lead to wisdom. What is needed is unitive vision, a point of integration — a lens through which we can view the various courses and experiences not as isolated parts, but as facets of the same beautiful gemstone.

I propose that it is the Eucharist, the Sacrament of sacraments at the heart of the Church, that provides the context and structure for the intellectual formation of priests. All of the major themes you will study in your years of formation come together beautifully in the celebration of the Eucharist. Let me give some examples:

First, the eucharistic assembly is not a haphazard gathering of like-minded individuals, but a people constituted by the initiative of the Father, disposed to the sanctifying action of the Holy Spirit and sacramentally incorporated into the Body of Christ. The eucharistic liturgy is ultimately the epiphany of the heavenly liturgy of the divine Lamb, penetrating time and space, transforming us in the Spirit, and drawing us “on high” where, with the communion of saints, we behold the blessed face of the Father. Put another way, the Church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the Church.

Second, it is easier to see how our study of sacred Scripture resonates and is amplified in the celebration of the Eucharist. Our study of the Scriptures will certainly help our preaching. But well before that, it is aimed at improving our listening and seeing, because in the celebration of Mass, the proclaimed Word is alive — calling to conversion and promising salvation.

Further, the entire eucharistic liturgy is charged with Trinitarian language and themes. From the opening Sign of the Cross to the final blessing, it is thoroughly Trinitarian in structure and language. The Eucharist plunges us into the mystery of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — to such an extent that our action of worship invites us to share in the communion of the blessed Trinity itself. In other words, the apex of every celebration of the Eucharist is also the goal and summit of the Christian life.

There are other examples I could give, but you get the point. Allow your studies to change the way you participate in the Mass, and move beyond checking off courses to the integration of the theological vision that will sustain you throughout your priesthood. That is wisdom.


At this National Shrine of St. John Paul II, we may reflect upon the eloquent example of a truly wise shepherd whose priestly heart burned for love of Christ and the Church. St. John Paul reminds us that, while your work in the classroom is of great importance, the wise priest, looking back on his seminary formation, recognizes that the seminary chapel is God’s privileged workshop. It is there that the Father unseals the fountain of grace to quench the thirst of your hearts — hearts so conformed to the Sacred Heart of Christ the High Priest that the ordained priest himself can be described by the beautiful phrase alter Christus (another Christ) (cf. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 15).

Through the authenticity of your lives, the truth of your teaching and preaching, the fidelity of your celebration of the sacraments, God’s people will encounter nothing less than the life and grace of the risen Lord. To be the instruments by which people hear and encounter the Lord is a privilege beyond description and an awesome responsibility.

I urge you to give yourselves over to this formative encounter with Christ. His pierced heart is the fount of wisdom from which priests should never tire of drawing water! Your thirst for this wisdom can only be quenched by Christ with the living waters of eternal life.

My final words, therefore, are a prayer for you. I pray that God may give you the grace of perseverance in your journey toward Holy Orders. I pray that he may open your minds and hearts to his life-giving doctrine. And I pray that God may form your hearts in the pattern of the Sacred Heart so that you might truly be men of abiding wisdom, priests full of grace and truth.