Priesthood Revisited

A precious stone has many facets, the beauty of which cannot be truly grasped if the stone is viewed from only one angle. That beauty is also such that we are invited to look at it again and again. The priesthood is like that. We need to look at it from different angles, and we need to revisit it. Doing that also helps remove the veil imposed by familiarity.

Fundamental to a current understanding of the priesthood is the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) of the Second Vatican Council (Dec. 7, 1965). Our thinking about the priesthood, our efforts to formulate for ourselves or to incorporate the ideal of the priesthood into our lives, must be enlightened and animated by that teaching.

The decree points out the purpose priests pursue in their ministry. That purpose is to procure the glory of God the Father in Christ. A fruitful principle for understanding is the principle of finality. To understand something we seek to know its purpose. Whatever the decree tells us about the life and ministry of the priest is dictated by how it conceives the purpose of the priesthood. The Council Fathers envisioned the priest’s purpose in these words: “While engaging in prayer and adoration, or preaching the word of God, or offering the Eucharistic sacrifice and administering the sacraments, or performing other works of ministry, priests devote their energy to increasing the glory of God and to man’s progress in the divine life.”

Since the promulgation of that decree, a great deal has been written on the priesthood. Among the many valuable contributions to that literature is a chapter in Raymond Brown’s book, The Critical Meaning of the Bible, entitled “Rethinking the Priesthood Biblically for All.” In that chapter Brown deepens and enriches one’s understanding by distinguishing a first, second and third priesthood.

The first priesthood is eloquently described in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is the priesthood of Jesus Christ, a priesthood that can be shared by no one. At one time it was popular to speak of the ordained priest as an alter Christus (another Christ). The expression is ambiguous. While the ordained priest is a special instrument for the distribution of God’s grace through the sacraments, he is not the source of that grace and, in that sense, not really an alter Christus.

Priesthood of All Believers

The second priesthood is the priesthood of all believers. It is a priesthood which manifests itself “in offering spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God” (1 Pt 2:5). In this regard it is worth noting that the designation “priesthood of the laity” is ambiguous. The priesthood in question here is shared by all, laity and clergy alike.

When reflecting on priesthood in this sense it is important to note the distinctiveness of the ordained priesthood. The priest is not just another Christian, sharing in the priesthood of all believers. He is that, but not only that. Failure to recognize that is much more than a change in the traditional understanding of the priesthood. It makes it impossible to find any new meaning. It is doing away with the very bases of meaning and definition: distinction and difference. The difference is real and the way to give proper value to a difference is to recognize it for what it is, not to suppress it.

To put that a bit differently, the difference between the priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood is in kind, not just in degree or intensity. The difference consists in the diverse way in which each partakes in the priesthood of Christ. At the same time, the two are interrelated. They are two forms of the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. They are ordered to each other. It would be misleading to think of one priestly expression as “above” or “over against” the other.

When the Council of Trent taught that the sacrament of orders imprints a character on the soul, it wanted to insure that ordained priesthood is understood not just as a specialized function in the Church, a role that could be filled as needed and then abandoned. Rather than being a job exercised by select laypersons, the priesthood is a special permanent participation in the life of Christ. Whatever the sociological realities may be, the priest is simply not just like everybody else. The fact is that ordained priesthood is a different way of being in the Church, so different that it definitively changes the one on whom it is conferred.

The third priesthood, a priesthood linked to altar and sacrifice is what usually comes to mind when the term priesthood is used. Such a priesthood does not appear as a Christian institution in the New Testament. No member of the Christian community is called a priest in relation to the Eucharist in the New Testament. It was only in the third or fourth century that the term priest began to be understood as referring to ordained ministers of the Eucharist. Thus priestly service was special, with the expectation that a priest be a person of signal holiness and even be expected to live a different style of life.

The “Prince–priest”

For a long period prior to Vatican II, the nature of the priesthood and the role of the priest were clearly understood and valued. The dominant concept for more than a millennium emphasized “sacred power” which set the priest apart and gave him unique authority. This concept seems to be the result of more or less consciously attributing to priesthood in the third sense characteristics of priesthood in the first sense. It involved focusing on the characteristics of power and authority to the neglect of other characteristics of Christ, the High Priest, i.e., compassion, suffering and obedience to the Father’s will. It might be summed up in the once popular description of the priest as an alter Christus. Raymond Brown uses the phrase “prince–priest” to reflect this concept.

In the period after the council, that clarity seemed to evaporate. At the 1990 synod of bishops, then-Cardinal Ratzinger stated that the Catholic image of the priesthood had “passed into a state of crisis.” Priesthood now is increasingly understood in terms of ministry and service, not power and authority. That understanding together with the council’s emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers” led to confusion as to what specifically constitutes the meaning of ordained priesthood. Brown uses the phrase “priest–pal” to reflect that concept. Emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers” should not be allowed to obscure the real difference between ordained priests and non-ordained persons.

According to traditional Catholic belief, at the Last Supper Jesus instituted both the Eucharist and the priesthood, now understood as linked to altar and sacrifice. Catholics further believe that the priesthood has remained an essential feature of the Church.

This means the ordained priest receives the power to “confect the Eucharist.” It is through the ordained priest that Jesus Christ becomes “really, truly and substantially present” in the community. Focusing only on that power and the special role of the ordained priest, leads to the concept of priesthood described earlier as “prince–priest.”

Priest as Servant-Leader

There is, however, a feature of the Last Supper described only in John’s Gospel. It is the washing of the feet. In washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus takes on the role of servant. At the same time Jesus shows himself as leader, instructing the disciples that they must do the same. Thus priest is to be a servant–leader.

The leadership of the priest does not mean exclusivity in ministry. Others can be called to direct service of the local community. The priest needs to see those so called not as rivals or surrogates, but as authentic collaborators. To find a way to affirm and maintain the authentic leadership role of the ordained priest without downplaying the true gifts and responsibilities of laypersons is a great challenge.

The council’s decree, speaking of the priest’s relationship with the laity, reminds priests of “the need for humility and that the priest should consider himself a ‘brother among brothers’ in the community of the people of God.” At the same time the priest must remember that he is a teacher and educator in the faith.” Two extremes are to be avoided in a priest’s dealings with laity: on the one hand, haughtiness, an overbearing attitude, a superiority complex, and, on the other, an abdication of his role as teacher and leader.

The concluding exhortation of the decree on the priesthood offers encouraging words. “Priests should remember that in performing their office they are never alone, but strengthened by the power of Almighty God, and believing in Christ who called them to share in his priesthood, they should devote themselves to their ministry with complete trust, knowing that God can cause charity to grow in them.”

FATHER CLARK, O.M.I., taught at the Oblate Major Seminary, Lewis University, in Romeoville, Illinois, and at St. Joseph Theological Institute in South Africa. He served as academic vice president at Lewis University, as president at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), as director at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, and as director of the Missionary Association. He is currently semi-retired, and doing occasional preaching for parish missions and retreats.