Do you want a holy priest or a theologian?

The excellent Theology as Prayer: A Primer for the Diocesan Priest, by Msgr. Walter R. Oxley and Fr. John P. Cush, calls for an integrated priestly existence, as all dimensions of a priest’s life must form a coherent whole.

Detail from undated painting of St. Thomas Aquinas. (Image: Institute for Priestly Formation)

All too often, when a seminarian is confronted with bad grades, he may end his self-defense with the flourish: “Do you want a holy priest or a theologian?” A savvy formator will reply with a flourish of his own, reminding the aspiring priest that St. Teresa of Avila opined that, faced with the unfortunate choice between a holy priest lacking theological acumen and one wise in theology but perhaps lacking in some virtues, she would opt for the latter! Over a century ago, Father Francis Duffy, a founder of the Dunwoodie Review, reflecting on an anti-intellectualism among the seminarians of his day, remarked: “Our main drawback is a certain intellectual sloth which masquerades as faith.” Another priest, with less tact, simply asserted, “Piety is as ephemeral as the morning dew; dumb is forever!”

Monsignor Oxley and Father Cush, the joint authors of this short but very valuable volume, bring a vast experience in the work of priestly formation to the present work. They eschew any dichotomous approach to priestly formation; after all, the “Catholic” way is rarely “either/or” but “both/and.” In point of fact, if searching for an overarching theme here, it would be that good theology provides the matter for a sound spirituality, especially for a priest. That is why, in addressing future priests, I remind them that their primary vocation at the moment is that of a student; hence, if they are not applying themselves in the academic sphere of their lives, that should be the first sin they bring to their next confession.

Here one finds a love for the priesthood and for priests; hence, the oft-used second person pronoun, as the reader can feel himself personally addressed, indeed, appealed to. The very first page sets the tone as the reader is encouraged to “pray with theology” and to “continue to read”1 theology, leading to “a deeper love and appreciation for theology.”2 We are reminded that the primary task of a priest “is to teach the People of God in charity”; as a matter of fact, that point was underscored by the Council of Trent as well. This may seem counter-intuitive to some who would imagine Trent as highlighting the sacramental or liturgical role of the priest over preaching and teaching. Not so, because the Fathers of the Council had learned, from painful experience, that “sacramentalizing” without “catechizing” only leads to the very superstitions on which the Protestant Reformers built their case. And so, to teach well requires one to read widely – a point to which we shall return shortly.

Therefore, the priest must cultivate the life of the mind and become an “intellectual apostle” who,” according to Father John Courtney Murray, “must know with fuller sympathy and speak with greater nicety, conscious always of his primal duty to seek and love and liberate the truth that is at the heart of every error” (emphasis added). Our authors again cite Father Murray’s insights: “The simple priest is under the necessity of being trained as a theologian because of his association in the magisterial office of the bishop.”

The first chapter, which so well sets the tone for the rest, ends by asking: “Does good theology lead to holiness? Can study lead to holiness?” The answer comes swiftly: “Hopefully, this book will offer the reader who is a priest a rationale and an encouragement to continue to engage in the work of the intellectual life.”

The second chapter, “The Habitus of Prayer and Lectio Divina,” is a practical guide to “prayerful study,” “the means by which theology and doctrine come to life for the faithful because of the credible sign that the priest has become and is becoming.” We see that although there is great personal benefit to the priest to be a lifelong learner, there is also an important pastoral benefit. What is being called for here is an integrated priestly existence; in other words, no compartmentalization: prayer here, study there, work somewhere else. Rather, all dimensions of a priest’s life must form a coherent whole. The seminarian (and by extension, the priest) is warned against self-distraction through useless online pursuits, thus wasting time. Inasmuch as time is a precious commodity which, once wasted, can never be retrieved, we must guard against its misuse – which becomes very possible if a priest has made peace with a bachelor existence, rather than an apostolic one.

The third chapter zeroes in on “theological lectio,” which uses the four-part approach of lectio divina and adapts it to theological pursuits: lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer), contemplatio (contemplation). The text chosen should be Christocentric and should be read prayerfully, then re-read, pausing over passages that struck a chord; a caution is leveled that the reading should not be done so much primarily as a learning exercise as for an encounter with Christ. Similarly, the text selected should not be excessively difficult, lest it devolve into an analytical process. Once the reading phase is completed, the next three steps follow pretty much in the same manner as lectio with a biblical passage. Thus, the reading is committed to the written word which, in turn, will eventually find their way to the spoken word, whether through preaching, teaching, counseling or confessional praxis. The reading and reflection thus serve as a kind of remote preparation for the various aspects of pastoral ministry, giving flesh to St. Peter’s encouragement: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

In the fourth chapter, the authors select ten theologians whose works they consider to be apt candidates for theological lectio: Bernard Lonergan (I never understood him as a college seminarian and don’t think that he’s gotten any less dense or I any brighter); Hans Urs von Balthasar (another one who always seemed to work from the fog into the clouds for me); Karl Rahner (I never “cottoned” to his formal theology but found his homilies and meditations quite beautiful); Henri de Lubac (now we’re getting warmer); St. Bonaventure (whose work “grabbed” the young Ratzinger); St. Thomas Aquinas (who was treated like a neanderthal by my horrible seminary but whom I grew to appreciate deeply under the tutelage of the friars of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington); St. Ignatius of Antioch (the second-century theologian, who launched the Anglican John Henry Newman on his love affair with the Fathers of the Church); St. Maximus the Confessor (the seventh-century, indefatigable “confessor” of a true Christology, who so wedded theology to life that he endured excruciating sufferings for the truth); St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (both of whom exercised an extraordinary influence on my post-ordination theological formation). Needless to say, anyone can produce his own “faves.”

The fifth chapter answers the question of the dubious cleric: “How does all this work?” The authors take the theologians identified in Chapter IV and “subject” them to the four-part process as the skeptical cleric is gently led to see how “do-able” it all is. The reflections are profound, beautiful, and inspiring.

In classical style, the book ends on the very same note on which it began, holding up “the life of the mind and the connection between the spiritual dimension of priestly formation (which is, of course, lifelong and ongoing) and the intellectual dimension.” What Monsignor Oxley and Father Cush have been advocating in these pages can be stated quite simply as “doing theology on one’s knees.”3

Early on in the text, the authors quote with approval Jesuit Father J. Leon Hooper, who echoes 1 Peter 3:15, pointedly calling for the development of skill “in defense of the faith against rationalistic incursions. . . as the price of the survival of faith.” “The survival of faith.” That expression put me in mind of Cardinal Newman’s only sustained consideration of priestly formation – a sermon preached by him on what should have been a joyous occasion on the opening of the first Catholic seminary in England since the Reformation.4 To say that the future Cardinal rained on the parade would be an understatement. After tipping his biretta in the direction of the happy nature of the momentous event, Newman used the rest of his time proffering a series of dizzying predictions about what those young men would face in the coming years of their priestly ministry.

He refers to the “perilous times” which he saw on the horizon: “The special peril of the time before us is the spread of that plague of infidelity,” by which he meant living without any sense of a transcendental horizon. Wasn’t there, one might ask, always unbelief in one form or another throughout history? Well, not really, as Newman explains: “Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious.” Then addressing the seminarians directly, he warns: “My Brethren, you are coming into a world, if present appearances do not deceive, such as priests never came into before, that is, so far forth as you do go into it, so far as you go beyond your flocks, and so far as those flocks may be in great danger as under the influence of the prevailing epidemic.” Did Newman’s crystal ball take him into the 21st century?

Permit me to conclude with two points:

First, the authors set the tone by calling this work a “primer”; in other words, this is to be a first step along the long road of forging a fulsome spirituality of study.

Second, since this is a “practical” book. Let me be practical, too. So, Reverend Fathers, get hold of a copy of this book and make it your Advent reading project – perhaps it will lead you to make a new liturgical year resolution to commit to theological lectio. Lay Faithful, if you are wracking your brain for a “practical” gift as a stocking stuffer for your favorite priest or seminarian, think about this book, which can contribute to his welfare and which could also overflow for the welfare of the people he serves.

Theology as Prayer: A Primer for the Diocesan Priest
By Walter R. Oxley and John P. Cush
Institute for Priestly Formation, 2022
Paperback, 128 pages


1In other words, such continuous reading is the work of a lifetime. This puts me in mind of a conversation at the Saturday evening dinner table of a rectory where I – and six other weekend assistants (all teachers) – were discussing some current theological topic, only to be interrupted by the pastor who proudly proclaimed, “Guys, I haven’t read a book since I was ordained.” One of the brethren retorted: “Larry, you never read a book before you were ordained!”

2This is a necessary corrective to the rather frequent slights directed at theology by the present pope, which can fuel a negative attitude toward theological pursuits by seminarians.

3Truth be told, one of the biggest difficulties of the post-Vatican II era was the emergence of certain problematic academics who did theology in a laboratory. For instance, can anyone envision a Charles Curran or Hans Küng on his knees? As a matter of fact, is there a single photo of either of them even celebrating Holy Mass?

4“The Infidelity of the Future,” 2 October 1873.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 283 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. Thank you, Father, for an engaging review of a work I do not expect to see reviewed elsewhere in my online reading. I particularly enjoyed your brief comments on the works of various theologians.

    The Guardian has thoughtfully provided a photograph of Hans Küng celebrating mass:

    Hans Küng obituary

    The somewhat predictable caption reads:

    Hans Küng, right, celebrating an ecumenical service in Munich, 1984. Photograph: Getty Images

  2. For a few unpleasant seconds, I thought I had lost data. Hans Küng’s four classic excuses should not be forgotten. From my HoudaSpot interface to Apple’s Spotlight:

    Insight Scoop | The Ignatius Press Blog: “It is amazing that the Roman and German authorities have had that much patience with him.” 4/23/10 6:00 PM
    Insight Scoop | The Ignatius Press Blog
    Thursday, April 22, 2010
    “It is amazing that the Roman and German authorities have had that much patience with him.”
    From a piece, “On the Withdrawal of Hans Küng’s Authorization to Teach,” written by Hans Urs von Balthasar and published in the Spring 1980 issue of Communio: International Catholic Review:
    What to many people may seem like a bolt from heaven is, in reality, the culmination of ten years of intensive and tragic investigation. No objective judgment can be formed without access to the nearly 200-page appendix to the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Conference of German Bishops. It contains all the relevant documents from 1967 to 1979. When studied without prejudice, the surface perturbances recede and the real issues come to the fore. In the following I shall refer to source materials by page numbers in the Appendix of the German Bishops’ statement.
    One can be justifiably annoyed by Küng’s poor taste in publicly questioning and throwing doubt on the Pope’s Christianity and then falsely claiming that in retaliation he was deprived of his teaching position. The disrespect with which he addresses the representatives of the Congregation is also irritating. But most aggravating is his obstinacy in leaving the bishops’ questions unanswered and, instead, focusing attention on Roman procedures which he deems unsatisfactory. His technique of prolonging the proceedings is, to say the least, provoking: he answers invitations too late or with a curt “I have no time,” or “it is mid-semester,” or “I am traveling,” or “I am writing a book.” It is amazing that the Roman and German authorities have had that much patience with him. One follows with anguish how those who were sincerely well disposed toward him become frustrated and finally write him off: Cardinal Volk writes, “I beg you from the depth of my heart to speak for once with Rome.” Cardinal Doepfner toward the end of his life concedes that that if at long last the difficulties are not cleared up, “I will hardly be in a position to help” (p. 115). The Bishop of Rottenburg also loses heart: “An unpleasant sequel is unavoidable” (p. 185). Küng, in answer to continued pleas for revision, occasionally makes a promise or holds out hope for explanations to come in a new book.

  3. A pastor who grooms the spiritual burrs from the flock, will be at his best when he uses the comb which is the word of God. “Comfort my people” with Holy Scripture.

    Psalm 73:26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

    Psalm 34:18 The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

    Joshua 1:9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

    John 16:22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

    Matthew 11:28-30 Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

    • If you are a catholic, you are a bit mistaken. What nourishes the soul is not the ‘word of God’, but the sacraments, especially Communion and Confession.
      The sacraments are the tools of salvation left by Jesus when He renew t he nature of the priesthood!!!

      • Dear Luis:

        Through faith and obedience we honour the Lord by means of confession and communion. It is our duty and acknowledges our utter dependance and complete thanksgiving for His work on the cross for our salvation.

        Holy Scripture makes these matters clear and a dutiful servant of the Lord will proclaim His majesty in the church and to the world.

        John 6:26-27 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”

        Matthew 4:4 But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

        Romans 10:17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

        John 15:5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

        John 6:63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

        John 6:32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.

        God bless you,


  4. In the absence of theology, all one has is a “feel good” religion. Faithful Catholic need to understand that Jesus is the founder of the Catholic Church and that His authority is handed down to the Church through the Apostles. Key beliefs such as the true presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist depends on an understanding of theological sources such as the Bible and tradition.

  5. Unfortunately nowadays most catholics are uneducated; this happens mainly due to the poor instruction given by priests from the 60s until now. Most catholic websites and blogs nowadays are pretty much useless; instead of properly instructing catholics, they spread confusion and errors [modernism and heresies].
    Theologians might be useful, but what catholics need – them like it or not – are priests because it’s them who provide the tools of salvation: the sacraments!!!
    Without regular confession and communion, a soul will spiritually perish.
    So the question of this article is also pretty much erroneous; catholicism isn’t a democracy – either catholics obey God’s law or not. Catholic dogma and traditions is not open to interpretation!!!

      • Several commenters obviously did not read the article too carefully and wanted to trot out their own hobby horse. As I pointed out: first, the Catholic way is not either/or, so not Scripture or sacraments, but both; second, Trent made it eminently clear that sacraments without preaching/teaching were nothing more than magic or superstition.

  6. “good theology provides the matter for a sound spirituality, especially for a priest.” Ii appears that many commentators have missed this point in there reading.

  7. Was Thielhard de Chardin a ‘theologian’? It seems many ‘theologians’ suffer from the intellectual conceit that they must innovate. Recall St Thomas Aquinas dismissed all his writings as ‘straw’ after he was gifted with a revelation. Is there not enough good theology in the gospels and epistles to sustain us? Malachi Martin said the best exorcists were priests of simple bedrock faith.
    How many priest do not have faith in the True Presence? How many pray for a spiritual knowing of the True Presence beyond their feeble faith, beyond their redoubtable powers of reason, beyond their cathechesis and theological indoctrination?

  8. A holy priest is worth more to heaven and earth than his weight in gold. There are a few I think.
    Why did the Cure of Ars, poor student, holy pro
    Priest, attract masses of souls to the Faith?

    • Being educated enough to give people good advice and lead them to God is an obligation of a priest, and he cannot become holy without fulfilling his obligations. This is not an obligation of all holy people though. Some holy people know little about the spiritual life outside their own experiences, and therefore give advice by trying to relate your problem to their experience, which often doesn’t work, and can be harmful.

      St. John Vianney attracted souls in part because he was an excellent confessor, which requires either a lot of practical understanding of how to apply good theology, or direct aid from the Holy Spirit. He had the first, and on multiple occasions, the second as well. It was abstract knowledge that he found difficult, along with Latin grammar.

      When he started seminary, he had no prior formal education. I have seen the difference in learning speeds between people with a bachelor’s and equally intelligent people with an associate’s degree, and it can take hours per day more studying for the same achievement. No formal education means no study skills, not stupidity or ignorance. St. John Vianney also had no knowledge of Latin initially, which classes were taught in. Learning Latin while learning material taught in Latin and responding to Latin questions, in Latin, is more than most academics can succeed at. So he was allowed to take classes in French, and got a tutor for Latin. He worked hard to learn, and was quite good at theology, just not at abstract, academic theology.

  9. Good theology meaning teaching the Truth of Christ. However, we experience many scholars and teachers who write hundreds of pages explaining and comment on the gospel but most of it seems to be their own opinion and leaves the facts to everybody’ guess and errors sneak in. A holy Priest would also have the Holy Spirit to guide and enlighten him. Seems to me we want both: a priest holy with the knowledge of theology and the scriptures.

  10. I have never understood why Catholic theology is based on Greco-Roman PAGAN philosophy! Candidates for ministry should be studying the Torah, like Jesus did, or the works of Hillel, a Jewish rabbi contemporary to Jesusi. The church will only get back to the message of Jesus when it abandons its PAGAN roots for its true Jewish roots.

    • To study the Tanakh is to give the breath of life to our Christian faith. Indeed why stop at the Torah? The God of Jacob promises a New Covenant to the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He also promises the gentile His grace by means of faith.

      What an astounding God we serve. Israel is the true vine and we Christians have been grafted in! The Old Testament tells clearly why the Jews rejected their promised saviour (for the most part).

      God has plans for the Jews and they are Good plans according to Holy Scripture.

      Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

      Romans 11:1-36 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. …

      Romans 9:1-I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. …

      Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

      Isaiah 55:8-12 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

      God bless you.

  11. I agree with Shawn that seeking a spiritual knowledge of the True Presence is an element of the Christian faith that is more in the background of the modern Church, than at the forefront. I have a notebook that I began using recently to record the results of an experiment concerning a topic that my wife and I have often put on the table for discussion. The experiment involves seeking a revelation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we have seen signs of the presence of God in the process of engaging with this experiment.

    Perhaps we should get through all of the clutter of religion and get to the point of seeking to know God (Jer 31.34), and then to evangelize concerning seeking signs of the revelation of the presence of God (Acts 2.22,43).

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