Presbyterorum Ordinis, the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, is one of the documents produced by the Second Vatican Council. Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965, it had been earlier approved by the assembled bishops by a vote of 2,390 to 4. The title means "Order of Priests" in Latin, and is taken from the first line of the decree (its incipit), as is customary for such documents in the Catholic Church.
Priests are sacraments of faith, prefigured in the person of Melchizedek, and must themselves be dispensers of a life other than earthly life; they must not seek to please men but rather must follow Christian doctrine and life and strive always for holiness and voluntary poverty. Deriving authority from Christ within the hierarchical church, priests provide the ministry by which the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect, in union with the sacrifice of Christ. Their own spiritual sacrifice is key, including the celebration of the mystery of the Holy Eucharist — the greatest task of priests — and the recitation of the Divine office (see Breviary), the voice of the Church, together with Christ, making intercession. Prayer, example, and penance enable the church to exercise a true motherhood toward all souls who are to be led to Christ, irrespective of nationality, blood, or time. Priests must help the faithful to know and love the liturgy, and for their own part must ever strive to perfect their knowledge of divine and secular affairs. Perfect and perpetual continence is suitable for the priesthood in many ways, and prefigures the world to come, in which the children of the resurrection neither marry nor take wives. The dispenser of the mysteries of God can see himself in the man who sowed his field, of whom the Lord said: "then sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed should sprout without his knowing" (Mk 4:27).
The period that followed the promulgation of Presbyterorum Ordinis was marked by a severe drop in the number of priestly vocations in the Western World. Church leaders had argued that age-old secularization was to blame and that it was not directly related to the documents of the Council. Historians have also pointed to the damage caused by the sexual revolution in 1968 and the strong backlash over Humanae Vitae. Yet other authors have asserted that the drop in vocations was at least partly deliberate and was part of an attempt to de-clericalize the Church and allow for a more pluralistic clergy.
There is also a related phenomenon of exodus from the priesthood, which began under Paul VI and continued during the papacy of John Paul II. In 2007, "La Civilta Cattolica" reported that 69,063 priests left the ministry between 1964 and 2004 but said 11,213 of them later returned.
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