THE DUAL NATURE OF THE CATHOLIC PRIESTHOOD IN THE LIGHT OF THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL
THE DUAL NATURE OF THE CATHOLIC PRIESTHOOD IN THE LIGHT OF THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL
Rev. Fr. Barr. Alex Okonkwor
NCCF: Seminar, February 2018
It is the mind of Jesus Christ that his one and indivisible priesthood be transmitted to his Church from one generation to another. This Church is the people of the New Covenant who, “through Baptism and the anointing of the Holy Spirit are reborn and consecrated as a spiritual temple and a holy priesthood. By living the Christian life, they offer up spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the prodigious deeds of Him who called them from darkness into his own wonderful light (cf. 1 Pt 2, 4-10)”. “There is but one chosen People of God: ‘one Lord, one faith, one Baptism’ (Eph 4, 5): there is a common dignity of members deriving from their rebirth in Christ, a common grace of filial adoption, a common vocation to perfection”.
Thus there exists “a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ”. By the will of Christ some are constituted “teachers, dispensers of the mysteries and pastors”. The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood “though they differ essentially and not only in degree are none the less ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ”. Between both there is an effective unity since the Holy Spirit makes the Church one in communion, in service and in the outpouring of the diverse hierarchical and charismatic gifts.
The work therefore will x-ray the dual nature of the catholic priesthood in the light of the Second Vatican Council, before then, what is Catholic Priesthood?
What Is Catholic Priesthood?
Priest is one who offers sacrifice to God, under the Old Covenant the chosen people were constituted by God as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6; cf. Isaiah 61:6). Then the tribe of Levi was set apart for liturgical service. As Hebrews says (Heb 5:1; cf. Exodus 29:1-30; Lev 8) the priests are “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
These, along with the high priest, Melchizedek (Heb 5:10; Gen 14:18) were the prefiguring of the New Testament priest, the Son of God, who came and offered the “one perfect sacrifice” – Himself, to God the Father on our behalf. This redemptive sacrifice is unique, and accomplished once for all, yet as Christ is God, and outside of time, so is His Sacrifice of Himself, so that sacrifice is re-presented in every holy Eucharist, enabling all people, everywhere, and throughout time, to witness His One Sacrifice for the forgiveness of their sins.
Jesus Christ has instituted priesthood in His Church–the ministerial priesthood, which is at the service of the common priesthood, that of all believers. Thus “priesthood” refers usually to the ministerial priesthood who stands in the person of Christ before the altar and offers the sacrifice of Calvary to the Father on our behalf. The priesthood, thus, comprises all of those men who are ordained in the apostolic succession by the Bishop as a priest of God.
Who is a Priest?
A priest is an authorized mediator who offers a true sacrifice in acknowledgment of God’s supreme dominion over human beings and in expiation for their sins. A priest’s mediation is the reverse of that of a prophet, who communicates from God to the people. A priest mediates from the people to God. Christ, who is God and man, is the first, last, and greatest priest of the New Law. He is the eternal high priest who offered Himself once and for all on the Cross, a victim of infinite value, and he continually renews that sacrifice on the altar through the ministry of the Church.
Within the Church, there are men who are specifically ordained as priests to consecrate and offer the body and blood of Christ in the Mass. The Apostles were the first ordained priests, when on Holy Thursday night Christ told them to do in his memory what he had just done at the Last Supper. All priests and bishops trace their ordination to the Apostles. Their second essential priestly power, to forgive sins, was conferred by Christ on Easter Sunday, when he told the Apostles, “For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained: (John 20-22, 23).
These men are the authentic face of Christ in the priesthood. They are priests of God molded into the image of Christ as both priest and victim. They are men who have been transformed into the person of Christ, in Persona Christi, not only through laying on of hands when the sacrament is celebrated by the bishop, but having allowed their very lives to be transformed into the image of Christ in what they say and what they do, carrying Jesus Christ to those people to whom they were sent in and through their very presence. They are men who understand that they were called by God to serve and not to be served. The priest continues the work of redemption on earth. If we really understood the priest on earth, we would die, not of fright but of love. The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.
All the Christian faithful, however, also share in the priesthood by their baptismal character. They are enabled to offer themselves in sacrifice with Christ through the Eucharistic liturgy. They offer the Mass in the sense that they internally unite themselves with the outward offering made by the ordained priest
The Nature of Priesthood
Priesthood is usefully expressed by the modern image of the coach. A priest, like a good coach, knows the game of life because he is played it. He is wrestled with the tough questions that come up during the game and he can prepare others, his players, to deal with these questions. His role is important in forming the players, teaching them the disciplines they need, suggesting ways to deal with the problems they will have to solve in the course of a game, motivating them to do their best and to strive to win. But the (priest, as) coach has a very limited role. After the locker room chat, after brief sessions during timeouts, the players are on their own. The game, after all, takes place apart from the coaching. The coach’s pride is that the players can play successfully under their own power and with their own wits. They can improve on his advice and counsel.
The application to the priest is fairly straightforward. He is a player himself who takes on the role of sharing what he has learned so that others can play more successfully. If he has somehow bridged the gap between the human and the divine in his own life, he wants to help others to build their own bridges. Ultimately, the priest wants those he coaches to walk their own bridge to God because that is the only way it happens. The priest facilitates, motivates, and leads the way but he cannot walk the walk for others. The priest keeps the signs of the invisible God visible and meaningful to others but he always recognizes that, beyond the signs, there is the game of life that others must play.
A priest mirrors Christ precisely because he is willing to die and disappear and let others carry on the message he has shared with them. Like Christ, a priest multiplies his presence by empowering others who can live without him, not by creating dependencies that hold others back from following the spirit that works in them. For a priest, the sacraments are training camp, back-to-basics exercises that school believers in what they must do in the whole of their lives, in the continuing game of life. For a priest who has found his own bridge to the divine, his work is to build up the courage and yearning and faith in others that will multiply these bridges so that all can enjoy the wonders of creation.
The priest also celebrates the sacraments as signs of what must continue throughout life, apart from the ritual. The sacraments are, in their way, the locker room pep talks, but the game is still to be played. If the priest’s celebration of Eucharist does not knit the celebrating community into a stronger family, open to other humans who also need their love, it fails as a pep talk. If receiving the Lord in communion does not drive home the mandate of Matthew 25 to make communion a consuming daily occurrence, it fails its purpose.
The priest must be able to generally follow the outline of the service (whether baptism, Eucharist, funeral, house blessing, etc.) without making it rote or a blathering of words exhaled from a book with no life or energy. The priest, in order to be good at the role of service celebrant, must be able to spontaneously pray in a way that expresses the theme of the service, the resonance of the congregants and the grace-filled inspiration of the moment. The message should be adapted to each time, situation and type of participants. It must always come across as uplifting, relevant, personable, welcoming, professional, warm and vibrantly spiritual. It is taken for granted that it must express the message of Jesus
The Dual Nature of the Catholic Priesthood
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council issued a groundbreaking document on the Catholic priesthood. In doing so, they provided us with not only a more expansive understanding of the ministerial priesthood, but also fresh insights into the priesthood of the faithful.
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church introduces the term in a number of different ways in paragraph 10. Quoting the Scriptures the Council teaches that Christ created the Church as a new people, ‘a Kingdom of priests’ (Rev 1:6; 5:9-10) and that ‘through baptism and the anointing of the Holy Spirit they are consecrated to be a spiritual household and a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices to God’ (1 Peter 2:4-10). The same theme is repeated in the Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests (par. 2) and the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (par. 3). The documents use a number of synonymous terms to describe this common priesthood: royal priesthood, holy people, holy priesthood and holy temple. The terms as they are used in Scripture and in the documents of the Council refer to the whole people of God, not only to the ordained.
In the world in which the Scriptures were formed the Christians knew of only two kinds of priesthood; the priesthood of Judaism and the priesthood of the official Roman/pagan religions. The first of these priesthoods was a hereditary priesthood descending through the line of priestly families. Being a priest was not a matter of choice but of birth and gender (only men could take up the office of priest). The second form of priesthood was mostly entered into by public election or because of some prior right to a priestly position. In ancient Greek and Roman culture of the first centuries of Christianity the pagan priesthood stood apart from the people. Generally worshippers had to approach the Temple and place their offerings in the profanum, (it is from this word that we get our profane) the space outside the temple proper, and the priest would conduct the offering inside to the gods.
What is truly profound in the texts from the book of Revelation and the epistles of Peter is that priesthood in the Christian view is a characteristic of all the baptised and anointed women and men. Secondly, a people who were not related by heredity or common language, nationality or culture are made into one people through the Body of Christ. These first communities were conscious that in baptism they had entered the Body of Christ and as such were parts of one another (Rom 12:4-5). Christ, in the Holy Spirit, formed them into his own body and continued to offer his prayer to the Father through them. The Scriptures speak of Christ as the High Priest who continues to offer sacrifice through his body the Church (Heb 5:1-5 and Rom 12:1-2) through the very lives of the people who had been baptized. Given that these first Christians knew of only the two priesthoods discussed above, we can see how this concept of a common priesthood shared by all the baptised would have come as a radical departure from dominant religious views. Because of their baptism in Christ every aspect of their lives participated in Christ’s great Eucharistic prayer and through them the world could be consecrated to God.
Roman Catholics have preserved this sense of the idea of common priesthood in our liturgy. When they ask the question, ‘Who offers the Mass?’ the answer is, ‘Christ does’. When they ask, ‘How does he offer the Mass?’ The answer is, ‘Through his body the Church in head and members’. The language of our liturgical prayers convey this communal sense; ‘we ask this..’, ‘we make this prayer..’ and ‘we offer you …’ Celebration of the Mass requires (under normal circumstances) at least a priest and a lay person because Christ prays through us, with us and in us as his body. A priest presides at Mass as one who stands, as Christ the head of the Church, with the whole congregation which is Christ’s body. The full, active participation of the laity is not a liturgical innovation of the Second Vatican Council but a profound theological statement about the liturgical activity of the people made new in Christ. Each one offers the Eucharist for the peace and salvation of all the world. Without such a conscious awareness many people will believe that they come to Mass to hear Father say Mass and to receive Holy Communion and leave without knowing that in them Christ offered himself to the Father for the world which God loves so much (John 3:16).
Consciousness of the new dignity as part of the priestly people is possible when we really take in the full implications of the meaning of the common priesthood. The basis for this common priesthood is the sacrament of baptism. Christians stand in the midst of the world offering continual prayer to the Father in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The pinnacle of this prayer of the Church, for Roman Catholics, is the celebration of Sunday Eucharist. Sunday Eucharist is the summit and source of the whole of the Christian life; it leads us into the mystery of the Trinity, communion with each other and mission to our world (Sacrosanctum Concilium 4).
The Ministerial Priesthood is all who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders and are chosen by God to serve and preach to others. It is drawn from the male common priesthood. The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood, and is the means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church. By virtue of their vocation and ordination, priests are set apart in the midst of God’s people, ordained to be of the service to the common priesthood. In his inimitable way, Pope Francis told priests to go out “among their flocks” and know the people they serve “like shepherds living with the smell of sheep.
The common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, while interrelated, wrote the Council Fathers, “differ both in essence and degree”. Through the service of the ordained minister, Christ himself is present to his Church as Head of his body, Shepherd of the flock, High Priest and Teacher of truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest acts in persona Christi capitis – in the person of Christ the head. This is the mysterious means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church.
The Difference Common Priesthood and Ministerial Priesthood
The essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood is not found in the priesthood of Christ, which remains forever one and indivisible, nor in the sanctity to which all of the faithful are called: “Indeed the ministerial priesthood does not of itself signify a greater degree of holiness with regard to the common priesthood of the faithful; through it, Christ gives to priests, in the Spirit, a particular gift so that they can help the People of God to exercise faithfully and fully the common priesthood which it has received”. For the building up of the Church, the Body of Christ, there is a diversity of members and functions but only one Spirit who, for the good of the Church, distributes his various gifts with munificence proportionate to his riches and the needs of service, (cf. 1 Cor 12, 1-11).
This diversity exists at the mode of participation in the priesthood of Christ and is essential in the sense that “while the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace, – a life of faith, hope and charity, a life according to the Spirit – the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood… and directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians”. Consequently, the ministerial priesthood “differs in essence from the common priesthood of the faithful because it confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful”. For this reason the priest is exhorted “…to grow in awareness of the deep communion uniting him to the People of God” in order to “awaken and deepen co-responsibility in the one common mission of salvation, with a prompt and heartfelt esteem for all the charisms and tasks which the Spirit gives believers for the building up of the Church”.
However, the characteristics which differentiate the ministerial priesthood of Bishops and Priests from the common priesthood of the faithful and consequently delineate the extent to which other members of the faithful cooperate with this ministry, may be summarized in the following fashion:
a). The ministerial priesthood is rooted in the Apostolic Succession, and vested with “potestas sacra” consisting of the faculty and the responsibility of acting in the person of Christ the Head and the Shepherd.
b). It is a priesthood which renders its sacred ministers servants of Christ and of the Church by means of authoritative proclamation of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments and the pastoral direction of the faithful.
To base the foundations of the ordained ministry on Apostolic Succession, because this ministry continues the mission received by the Apostles from Christ, is an essential point of Catholic ecclesiological doctrine.
The ordained ministry, therefore, is established on the foundation of the Apostles for the upbuilding of the Church: “and is completely at the service of the Church”. “Intrinsically linked to the sacramental nature of ecclesial ministry is its character of service. Entirely dependent on Christ who gives mission and authority, ministers are truly ‘servants of Christ’ (Rom 1, 1) in the image of him who freely took for us ‘the form of a slave’ (Phil 2,7). Because the word and grace of which they are ministers are not their own, but are given to them by Christ for the sake of others, they must freely become the slaves of all”.
The Importance of Priesthood
Priesthood is important because the brothers of the Church continue their work for Jesus Christ.
It is also necessary, because the priest is the alter Christus. He is Christ operating in this world. It is through the priest that God forgives sins, re-presents Christ’s sacrifice on calvary on the altar. The priest baptizes, educates, prays, counsels, marries, and at the end anoints and buries the people of God. Then he prays for our souls. The priest is God’s action in our lives.
The light which the Second Vatican Council has brought to the Church in all fields of her doctrine and life is so great, and that which it has projected concretely on the vocation and mission of priests so intense that the Fathers of the Council have recognized the dignity and the participation of the lay faithful in the threefold munus christi in the church
Thus priesthood implies sacrifice, the Ministerial priesthood is set aside by God through the ordination by the Bishop to stand in the person of Christ and offer His Body and Blood in sacrifice to the Father in Heaven. But, all Catholics are called to priesthood through their baptism. The priesthood of all believers also offers sacrifice, as St. Paul says, we offer our body as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship. (cf Romans 12:2). We are called to consecrate our whole lives, whatever we do, whatever we eat, etc. all for the glory of God.