The Incarnation and Priestly Loving in the Thought of Edward Holloway

William Massie FAITH Magazine November-December 2008s

Fr William Massie, the parish priest of three parishes in Hull, and Reviews editor of this magazine, recalls some of Fr Edward Holloway’s insights into priest’s ministering of Christ’s love, which have helped to inspire numerous such vocations through the activities of Faith movement.

It is notable how many vocations to the priesthood have been inspired and nurtured within the friendships and activities of Faith Movement. This has occurred at a time when there is acknowledged to be a crisis of priestly identity. Cardinal Stickler in his The Case for Clerical Celibacy (first published 1993, English edition Ignatius, 1995) summed up the crisis as not only priests renouncing their ministry and fewer vocations but also a “profound secularization” by many who stay in active ministry (p. 85). It might then be helpful to gather together those principles and ideas about priesthood that have been distinctive within the Faith Movement while being rooted in the theological tradition of priesthood and its practice within the Church.

The Priesthood as the Continuation of the Economy of the Incarnation.

Back in November 1977 the co-founder of Faith Movement wrote, as editor of this magazine,
“ There will be no traditional priesthood left in Europe in ten years time, among the younger clergy, unless a start is urgently made to teach priests the full faith, the full spiritual heritage of the Church, and the full content of the life of Christ in the traditional image of the priest of the Western Patriarchate, the priesthood of the Latin rite, which is the priesthood of the fullness of Peter and Paul.” Faith Editorial, November/December 1977

That the majority of the relatively few men coming forward for priesthood now want to be faithful to the magisterium is likely due in large part to the enormous efforts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to teach the “full faith”, the “full content of the life of Christ”. In the long term, the Church only flourishes where the full faith is taught. It is not surviving where it is not.

Holloway suffered no crisis of understanding of the nature of the priesthood. It is rooted in the perspective of creation focussed on the Incarnation of Christ as its purpose and fulfilment. The whole material and spiritual creation is in view of Christ and for Christ. Christ is the primordial Sacrament of creation. Creation is only fulfilled when it comes into contact with the whole Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity. And so ‘Christ our Eucharist’ is the material and spiritual centre and meaning of creation. For this reason Holloway frequently defines the essence of the priest as the one who presides and has power over the Body and Blood of the Lord. He does not mean it in any merely functional sense of the ‘one who can perform the magic’. For the identity of the priest is not simplyfunctional but a personal sharing of one’s whole being with Christ’s whole being:

“ We share with Christ first, the giving in ministry of our senses, hand, feet, voices especially for the continuation of the economy of the Incarnation, of the Word, made fish. To minister our bodies to incarnate the Lord in word and work, we must minister also our spiritual souls, our minds and hearts, all that is in our person, to be even feebly adequate vessels of that ministering of Christ across the ages.” The Priest and His Loving (TPL), Edward Holloway,1985, p. 10

The priest is empowered through the sacrament of order to stand in for Christ. The sacred character of priesthood “confers a spiritual relationship to Christ” so that the faithful can see something of Christ in the priest. But the sacred character does not of course increase “the intrinsic likeness of God in … [the priest’s] soul” (TPL p.12). This marks one of the main differences between the New Testament priesthood and the Old Testament priesthood. In the Old Testament, the priest was from the priestly tribe, chosen from among men to do service on behalf of the whole of God’s people before God. In the New Testament, the priest is not a priest by natural birth but by God’s new and specific intervention in human history in the conferring of the sacrament of orders. “The root of the gift[of priesthood] does not come from below. The root is not of human nature but of the mediatorial and priestly office, from before the world was, of the Son of God and of Man” (New Synthesis, Edward Holloway, 1970, p.299).[1]

The utter clarity of this vision of the priest as the one who makes present something real of the person of Christ throughout time and space was a gentle refreshing breeze for those considering a vocation who encountered the Faith Movement in the 1970s and ‘80s when the identity of the priest was so in dispute. “The people and emphatically the young, see the priest as mirroring to them the personality of Christ as Man.” (TPL p.11) For Fr Holloway orthodox doctrine concerning priesthood was not just something one gleaned from teachers, but also through one’s daily ministrations.

Holloway speaks of the “sacral action of Christ through men who are ministers”. His ontological understanding of the priest as the one standing in for Christ who teaches, protects, leads and sanctifies led him to question many of the initiatives in the 1980s which sought to extend to the laity tasks traditionally the function of the priest. He questioned the introduction of communion ‘under both species’ on the grounds that it would necessarily require lay people to perform functions which were not properly theirs. The terminology of ‘lay minister’ which was then used sums up how the whole dynamic relationship of priesthood and faithful was being emptied out. “[The lay person does] not participate intrinsically in the Liturgy of the Eucharist as Sacrifice and Sacrament and ministryfrom the persons of the sacred ministers to the People of God”. Because of the plentiful supply of priests at Faith movement activities use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion is never appropriate, even by our local Church’s, creative interpretation of the relevant recently updated norms. It is interesting that over the years of my involvement in Faith movement I cannot recall any protests from those who attend that they have been deprived of exercising what they have sometimes been told in the parishes are their ‘rightful ministries’ as lay people. The ‘active participation of the faithful’ is encouraged as an interior participation through the joining of one’s life to Christ in the offering of the Mass. The experience of so many priestsconcelebrating at conferences has itself helped to inspire men to consider the priesthood. It has not generally inspired resentment of clerical/male patriarchy.

The Loving of the Priest is Closest to the Loving of Christ

When a draft copy of The Priest and His Loving first came out I remember a shared sense of keen interest, even excitement. To young men wrestling with the thoughts of priesthood over a long period, to young men just beginning to wonder at the possibility of priesthood, it came as a massive reassurance and encouragement to be told, in a nutshell, that following Christ’s call to priesthood did mean ‘no sex’ but it did not mean ‘no love’. It is a constant refrain in The Priest and His Loving that the love of a priest for the Kingdom of God within and for the people to whom he is sent is the “most close to the loving of Christ Himself ” (TPL p.1, p.5, p.8). Now Presbyterorum ordinis (PO, Vatican II) had already spoken of priestly celibacy as the imitation ofChrist’s own celibacy. It also spoke of celibacy as expressing and increasing “pastoral charity” and helping the priest to cling to Christ with an “undivided heart” and be dedicated through Christ more freely to the service of God and men and be less encumbered for the task of “heavenly regeneration” (PO n.16). What was so refreshing and inspiring in Fr Holloway’s short pamphlet was that here these truths were expressed not merely in theological language but in the very personal and personalist language of this priest’s own experience of his priesthood. Given that time after time the discussion of priestly celibacy in the media and in many Catholic journals and books begins and ends with statements about the marriages of the apostles and the attempts to impose celibacy in the 12th centurymotivated by a desire to protect the Church’s property and by a dualist denigration of marriage, it was definitely good news to link priestly celibacy with Christ and his loving.
Holloway prefers ‘vowed chastity’ to ‘celibacy’ which he points out is the natural vocation of all the unmarried (TPL p.5). It is a way of living and loving and being loved with a love that is “warm, joyous and creative” (p. 1).

Holloway is in line with other theologians like Jean Galot, in grounding the vowed chastity of the priest in the priestly character of Christ that he is given in ordination.[2] However for Galot, it was not “necessary” for Jesus to renounce marriage for he sees that as implying that there was something necessarily sinful about marriage (The Theology of Priesthood, Jean Galot, Ignatius, 1985, p.230). Rather the renunciation of marriage was “appropriate” for the furthering of the Kingdom and a more universal love. For Galot, these are the reasons why Christ imposed continence on the apostles and these are the enduring reasons for celibacy to remain absolutely “appropriate” for priests today.

For Holloway, Christ’s own celibacy is so important he could almost use the word ‘necessary’. This is absolutely not because there is anything necessarily sinful about marriage but because of Holloway’s firm grasp that there are degrees of loving. God became incarnate in Jesus Christ to bring us “a quite specific love”. The priest “sacrificially, sacramentally magisterially carries Christ through the character of Order and its powers into the souls of men...”. “He [the priest] shares so much of the same specific type of love that it cannot flourish with its perfection unless he is chaste; i.e. alone but not lonely, given, but not taken, for the Kingdom of God’s sake” (TPL p. 4).

Holloway is saying in the strongest and clearest terms that vowed chastity is essential to the full living of the ordained priesthood of Christ without being an ontological necessity (as is the maleness of the priesthood). “[T]he perfection of priestly love and its true specific fullness cannot be achieved in the married state, any more than it could have been achieved in a married Christ.” (TPL p. 7) How does he explain these high and beautiful claims for the priest and his loving? By his claim that: “Vowed Chastity” is the giving of oneself to God in a special, higher and more perfect relationship of love for God and his people (TPL p.8).

This is rarely heard but is part of the Tradition of the Church. In the New Synthesis (p.418) Fr Holloway reminds us that it was actually defined by the Council of Trent (“Vita ac melior ac beatiorDS 1810). Holloway considers it important not to forget this point for on this understanding stands or falls the case for mandatory celibacy.

It is this “higher relationship of love”, that is “so great, so intimate” that it can “knock on the most private doors of the human heart” ( TPL p. 3). It was when the youngster Edward Holloway tried to encourage a ‘girl who was just a friend’ to go to daily Mass that he realised that what he truly desired was not the intimacy of a purely natural, human friendship but the supernatural friendship of Christ. He points out something obvious but often overlooked: marriage is an equal relationship in Christ. Priestly loving is not an equal relationship: it has “the unique challenge, the authority which enters the soul to prompt goodness, holiness and to release from sinful ways… [It is] a Christ relationship” (TPL p.7). A few years ago I wrote a letter to The Tabletin defence of priestly celibacy as a higher way of loving. Afterwards I had a number of emails including one from a convert married priest. He disagreed with me for implying he could not love God as much as a celibate priest because he was married. This really is what the Trent teaching comes down to - whilst, it almost goes without saying, it is not judging the moral goodness and holiness of particular individuals. Another convert priest who had been married but was widowed before he was finally ordained, Fr Ronald Walls, admits in his autobiography that even as a Presbyterian minister he had felt torn between ‘giving himself totally to his wife and family and ‘giving himself to the people to whom God had sent him. He makes the insightful remark that many of the arguments in favour ofallowing married priesthood put marriage in second place (Love Strong as Death, Ronald Walls, Gracewing, 2001, p. 290).

Over twenty years ago Fr Holloway was raising his voice against claims that we were moving to a brighter future where there would be fewer priests and religious but the laity would assume what was rightly their own. This would be “to canonise defeat and disaster” for it would among other things to undervalue the sign and gift of the loving of vowed chastity for the Church and society. In characteristically blunt language, Fr Holloway wrote in 1987:

“ Chastity for the Kingdom of God’s sake, in the priest or in the nun, witnesses to the fact that love has many degrees of depth and perfection; that love, also as a warm fulfilling experience is independent of sexual orgasm, and that in marriage itself, sex as an experience as opposed to loving acceptance or desire of family, is the least important ingredient of human love. A world rotted with greed of every kind needs to know that what Jesus Christ never experienced is not, and cannot be essential to human fulfilment.” Faith Editorial March/April 1987

Holloway and John Paul II on Priestly Loving

It is interesting to see the similarities between Fr Holloway and the Servant of God John Paul II in speaking about the vocation of the priest to make present in his soul and in his flesh the loving of Christ. Holloway quotes some contemporary words of the then Holy Father in the foreword to his pamphlet, The Priest and his Loving:

“ And we priests find ourselves particularly close to this redeeming love which the Son brought into the world -and which he brings continuously. Even if this fills us with a holy fear, we must recognise that together with the Eucharist, the mystery of this redeeming love is, in a sense in our hands. We must recognise that it returns each day upon our lips, that it is inscribed in our vocation and our ministry.” (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Priests, Holy Thursday 1983)

John Paul II frequently returned to this idea but it was magnificently addressed in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (1990). In developing the theological understanding for the Church’s law on celibacy, the Holy Father finds its ultimate motivation in the ontological configuration of the priest to Jesus Christ, Head and Spouse of the Church:

“The Church, as the Spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to his Church and expresses the priest’s service to the Church in and with the Lord.” (n.29) “ Therefore, the priest’s life ought to radiate this spousal character which demands that he be a witness to Christ’s spousal love, and thus be capable of loving people with a heart which is new, generous and pure, with genuine self-detachment, with full, constant and faithful dedication and at the same time with a kind of ‘divine jealousy’ (cf. 2 Cor 11:2) – and even with a kind of maternal tenderness, capable of bearing the ‘pangs of birth’ until ‘Christ be formed’ in thefaithful (cf. Gal 4:19).

The internal principle, the force which animates and guides the spiritual life of the priest, inasmuch as he is configured to Christ the head and shepherd, is pastoral charity, as a participation in Jesus Christ’s own pastoral charity. (Pastores dabo vobis nn. 22-23)

Others have written in such positive and beautiful language about priestly loving. It is remarkable however how often priestly celibacy is explained simply as ‘being free to serve’ rather than ‘being free to love’. Even official publications like the Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community make no reference to priestly loving and the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests simply re-presents and comments briefly on the passages mentioned above from Presbyterorum ordinis and Pastores dabo vobis (cf. Directory on the Life and Ministry of Priest nn. 43-44)

It should be said that while Holloway did not, as far as I can discover, reflect upon the relationship between the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of the faithful, he had a high view of the lay apostolate of the baptised. He insisted that the fundamental vocation in the Church is to holiness and constantly exhorted the lay men and women involved in Faith to sanctify and witness in those places where they rather than priests belong - the school, the college, the work place, the home. It seems that most of us, whose vocations to the priesthood have been fostered through Faith Movement would acknowledge that we were not badgered in any way to consider this call. Our witness is that there need be no shortage of labourers for the harvest if men will onlylisten attentively to the Lord’s voice calling them to service. The importance and dignity of the lay state also comes across in Holloway’s explanation of the complementary but distinct vocations of priesthood and marriage.

Vowed Chastity as Complementary to Marriage.

Priesthood and marriage are “mutually complementary loves and mutually exclusive loves. Neither can embrace the perfection of the other.” (TPL p.8) This is especially the case in the matter of the formation of children. Marriage is a vocation to build up the city of God and the city of man.

 “[The priest’s] vocation does not stand without theirs. [He] deepens and perfects the work the parents have begun but cannot well finish, especially from the age of ten.” He acts and speaks “with a further authority and a love which tries to enflesh again in a man the love of Christ for the ‘little ones’.” Priests can enter, when invited, the “inner sanctuary of mind and heart” where they say yes or no to God, where parents often cannot enter, because they “do embassy for Christ” (p. 9). The love of a priest is the love of Christ the redeemer.

The Priests Loving is Taken Up into the Eucharist

Numerous writers on priesthood note the historical connection between celibacy or the continence of priests who were married and the celebration of the sacraments. This connection has been present in the understanding and laws of celibacy from the first millennium, and is probably apostolic. One writer explains it as due to anxieties regarding “ritual impurity”, linked to the Church’s “ambivalence regarding sexual intercourse” and “boundary anxieties” regarding the Church’s relationship to “the world” which was maintained for 800 years until Vatican II.[3] Cardinal Stickler offers an impressive and detailed explanation of the legislation concerning priestly continence and the teachings of the Fathers. He concludes that the reasons for priestsbeing required to give up all conjugal relations with their wives on being ordained was not the “cultural purity of the minister of the altar, but rather the efficacy of mediatory prayer by the sacred minister”. He was to put aside things which were not in any way bad in themselves, but indeed good in themselves, so as to be completely dedicated to God in prayer and pastoral ministry (The Case for Clerical Celibacy, p. 99).

Holloway links priestly loving, chastity and the Eucharist in a manner which throws light upon this. He says that a priest’s loving “comes to a head” in the Mass. As he prays the Mass he can experience many things. His union and communion with Christ and with Christ’s own people is intense. He identifies with Christ in his pains, desolations and joys. He particularly mentions that he finds the “joy of Christ” in his own people. As he finds the self-oblation and self-immolation of Christ in the Mass, he knows that “in the likeness of Christ, he has to give himself, body and soul, to be ‘bread broken for you’ in the ministry of Christ.” He senses “the union and communion of soul of his people in the offering and feeding upon the Body and Blood, the Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ”. And“Through all this the priest knows and feels his own union and communion with the people he loves…”. In other words, the active participation of a priest celebrating Mass means the taking up of “all aspects of a priest’s life, ministry, and love in chastity” into it. No wonder Holloway emphasises that it is in the celebration of Mass, in this “terrible power over the Body and the Blood of The Lord” that the priest knows “why he is alone, and he knows he is never lonely”. (TPL pp. 12-13) Fr Holloway seems to be saying that the priest’s loving, the priest’s gift of self to God and to his people, what Stickler calls his “mediatory prayer”, is most real, most expressed and most justified and actually most strengthened, when the priest is identified with Christ to the point of sayingmy body… my blood’ in the Mass. The ontological identification of the priest with Christ, Head and Spouse of the Church, is here described in penetrating spiritual and psychological detail.


Before the 1971 Synod of Bishops, the International Theological Commission issued a report in which it recommended that celibacy become optional for priesthood. While recognising that celibacy is the “better way” the members of the Commission felt that to ensure the “permanent, efficacious and universal” proclamation of the Gospel, both celibate and mature married men may be chosen for ordination (quoted in The Theology of the Priesthood, p. 249, fn. 51). In the Synod of Bishops that followed there were 87 votes cast for a position that would encourage the pope to allow the priestly ordination of “married men of mature age and proven life” (ibid p.250 fn.52). Just twenty more votes (107) were cast for the position that maintained the ban on the ordination of married men.[4] During the pontificate of John Paul II the question of priestly identity and celibacy was raised although one senses with less ambivalence to the traditional position. He resoundingly explained and defended the case for mandatory celibacy in Pastores dabo vobis. Still the question of celibacy is often raised whenever the issues of the abuse of children by priests and homosexual scandals are discussed.

It will always be hard to defend the rule of compulsory celibacy in the face of scandals and confusion. The best defence will be a positive and beautiful vision well presented and well lived. The clear ideas about priestly identity expressed by Fr Holloway continue to inspire young men to seek to be shepherds after the heart of Christ. It seems important to hold fast to the vision.

[1] Perhaps in this context it could be mentioned that Fr Holloway was of the opinion that as the priest would naturally face the people while celebrating at least six of the sacraments, for he stands in for Christ, so it is preferable for the priest to celebrate the Eucharist facing the people. Might the priest facing in the same direction as the faithful be more expressive in some ways of the meaning of the Old Testament priesthood rather than the priesthood of Christ?
[2] Two important consequences flow from this vocation to love Christ’s way: it is as essential to society as is marriage and it also will be crucified “to great deeps of sorrow, often and often” (TPL p.1).
[3] The Struggle for Celibacy Paul Stanosz, Chapter 1, Priestly Celibacy, a Brief History. Stanosz cites the writers Paul Beaudette and Philip Sheldrake as his authorities.
[4] According to the Synod, candidates to the priesthood must, from the beginning of their formation, “give attention to the positive reasons for choosing celibacy, without letting themselves be disturbed by objections, the accumulation and continual pressure of which are rather a sign that the original value of celibacy itself has been called in question” – quoted in The Theology of Priesthood, p. 245.

Faith Magazine

November - December 2008