The Mystery of the Priesthood
- The common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood
All Christians, by their baptism, are consecrated into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, which we call “the common priesthood”, because it is common to all Christians, lay people and priests. We read in the First Letter of St. Peter: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices accepted to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5).
The ministerial priesthood in proper to priests. Yet there is an intimate connection between these two kinds of priesthood, as is explained by the Second Vatican Council:
“Christ the Lord, High Priest taken from among men, made the new people “a kingdom and priests to God the Father”. The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.
Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity” Lumen Gentium, 10.
- The ministerial priesthood is an organic function in the Body of Christ
The ministerial priesthood is not given for the personal sanctity of the priest. St. Augustine says to his parishioners: “What I am for you terrifies me, what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian. The former is a title of duty, the latter, one of grace. The former is a danger, the latter, salvation”.
The ministerial priesthood is not above or independent of the Christian community, it is at its service. It is a function, but not a merely social function. It is an organic function, essential to the Body of Christ and related to the other functions of the Body of Christ. Therefore as “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21), so the priest cannot say to the lay people, ‘I have no need of you’, neither the lay people to the priest, ‘we have no need of you’.
The harmonious cooperation between the priest and the lay people is an essential condition for the sound development of the whole Body of Christ. It is Crist himself who according to St. Paul, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
- The triple function of the ministerial priesthood
The ministerial priesthood assures the permanence of the People of God and builds up the Body of Christ. This ministry is implemented in three means: the service of the word, the service of the holy mysteries, and the pastoral ministry. And these three functions are the incarnation through history of the triple office of Christ as Prophet, as Priest, and as King.
- The service of the Word
Jesus is first of all a Prophet. He founded his Church by preaching the Word of God, and he sent his disciples to the same ministry. “The People of God finds its unity first of all through the Word of the living God, which is quite properly sought from the lips of priests. Since no one can be saved who has not first believed, priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have as their primary duty the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all. In this way they fulfill the Lord’s command: ‘Go into the all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15). Thus they establish and build up the People of God”.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the Word of God, that is, he who expresses in its perfect form God’s will and God’s plan for the world he created. This plan is that every human being reaches to the fullness of his humanity. That is the significance of “salvation”, in the following saying of St. Paul: “who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all this was attested at the right time”. (1 Timothy 2: 4-6).
As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the only mediator between God and humankind, that only through Jesus and in following his teaching men and women can reach the fullness of their humanity. Jesus sent his Apostles to make known to all peoples and all nations this divine plan. The Acts of the Apostles relates how people “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (2:42). And the result was that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (2:47).
By preaching the Word, priests continue the ministry of Jesus and of the Apostles, in order to establish the People of God, who live according to God’s will and God’s plan for humankind.
- The service of the holy mysteries
Jesus is “the High Priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). He is the Priest of the New Covenant, who “bye a single offering, has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 7:14). Priests continue this priestly ministry of Jesus. Besides the preaching of the Word, the Acts of the Apostles cites “the breaking of the bread and the prayers”. “The breaking of the bread” is a biblical expression for the Eucharist. This is the second function of the ministerial priesthood. Through the holy mysteries, Christians participate in the life of Jesus. Through these mysteries, Jesus himself comes to those who desire to be united to him like the branches to the vine, knowing that without this union with him they cannot bear any divine fruit: “I am the vine”, says Jesus to his disciples, “you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15: 5).
Like the first Christians, the Christians of today, who have been brought into the people of God by Baptism, are called to participate frequently in “the breaking of the bread”, in the holy Eucharist. “The other sacraments, as well as every ministry of the Church and every work of the apostolate, are linked with the holy Eucharist and are directed toward it. For the most blessed Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth, that is, Christ himself, our Passover and living bread. Through his very flesh, made vital and vitalizing by the Holy Spirit, he offers life to men and women. They are thereby invited and led to offer themselves, their labors, and all created things together with him”.
The importance of participation in in the holy Eucharist for the life of Christians has led the Church to establish the “Sunday obligation”. St John Chrysostom explains the reason for coming to the church: “You cannot pray at home as at church, where there is a great multitude, where exclamations are cried out to God as from one great heart, and where there is something more: the union of minds, the accord of souls, the bond of charity, the prayers of the priests”.
- The pastoral ministry
Jesus is thirdly a King, who came to establish on earth the Kingdom of God. The ministerial priesthood incarnates this royal office of Christ. Christ has redeemed humanity and constituted by his blood the new People of god, and by the presence of his Holy Spirit, he is still alive, leading the Church to the fullness of the divine life. He is the head of the Body. The ministerial priesthood does not take his place, and the priest is not “another” Christ, he is rather the sacrament of Christ, that is, the visible sign of the invisible Christ. St. Paul speaks of the body which is “joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped” (Ephesians 4:16). The role of the ministerial priesthood in the Church is similar to the role of the ligaments in the body. It assures harmony and cooperation between the members of the body.
God’s plan is “to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). The third function of the ministerial priesthood is to gather the People of God in “one flock” under the guidance of “one shepherd” (John 10:16). “To the degree of their authority and in the name of their bishop, priests exercise the office of Christ the Head and the Shepherd. Thus they gather God’s family together as a brotherhood of living unity, and lead it through Crist in the Spirit to God the Father. Therefore, as educators in the faith, priests must see to it, either by themselves or through others, that the faithful are let individually in the Holy Spirit to a development of their own vocation as required by the Gospel, to a sincere and active charity”. Vatican Council II, Decree on the Ministry and life of Priests, 6.
The office of pastor is not confined to the care of the faithful. “The local community should not only promote the care of its own faithful, but filled with a missionary zeal, it should also prepare the way to Christ for all men and women”. In the way they implement the will of Jesus who said: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. Must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
In conclusion we say that the ministerial priesthood is not to be separated from the ministry of Jesus Christ, who is the High Priest of the New Covenant, in intimate connection with this ministry of Christ, the ministerial priesthood of the priests fulfills its mission: to constitute the People of God and build up the Body of Christ.