I recently spoke to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, about his own vocation and role in the church. The Cardinal is a diocesan priest himself and a great advocate for the diocesan priesthood. So here, by way of an interesting contrast, is what he has to say about that identity and how it differs from the identity and experience of those in religious orders.
…[One] of the first parishes to which I was appointed had been a Benedictine parish in the middle of Liverpool. It was a Benedictine parish when I think a lot of the ship owners and captains lived there. When they moved, I think the Benedictines moved as well. But I met people in the flats that now filled the parish who said quite straightforwardly: “Oh, I’ve not been to church since the real priests left.” And they meant the Benedictines. And so diocesan priests somehow were kind of second best.
But there is an important difference, and to me the difference lies in, if you like, the basic orientation of the different pathways of priesthood. Those who join religious orders, their first context is the order, the congregation to which they belong and the charism that it gives and the bonds that it set up, and therefore within that they’re free to move in all sorts of places. They can go to this frontier or that endeavour, and they can change, you know, an order can change its focus. A diocesan priest is attached to the land. A diocesan priest is the one who has the soil in his fingernails, because this piece of land, this territory, is the vineyard that he’s been entrusted with. Therefore the more the priest gets to know the quality of the soil, the kind of grapes that grow, how fruit is produced in these circumstances, the more wise he becomes as a parish priest. To walk the streets of a parish with a parish priest is like walking with a farmer who knows his crops, and he knows his soil, and he knows the temperature, and he knows how this field is good for that, and that one is good for the other. And it’s a wonderful experience, actually, to walk as a bishop with a priest round his parish.
The first parish I went to had an old priest who’d been in the parish for forty-five years. I was a young priest in Liverpool, and I went to St. John’s in Kirkdale, and Father Hopkins walked me around the parish. And he just talked to me about the people who lived in the different houses—he’d been there for ages. Then we came around one corner, and there was a patch of wasteland, and on the brick wall on the far side of the wasteland in six-foot letters was written: GOD BLESS FATHER HOPKINS. So I thought: I wonder why he brought me round this way? But it just said that he was in the bricks and the muck of the parish. As Archbishop in Birmingham, I remember one priest who’d been in his parish a long time. We stood at the door together and he greeted everybody by name. He could tell me the background of every family. He was their priest. And that’s the great joy of being a diocesan priest.
You can see the interview in its entirety here.