The Year of the Priest is intended to be first and foremost a time of prayer—by priests, with priests, and for priests. It involves the whole church, and benefits the whole church. We welcome Pope Benedict’s invitation.
It is also a time for us to reflect on the meaning of ordained ministry in a context however, that is often negative. Our priesthood has been undermined in ways that make us all feel ashamed. The scandal of clergy sex abuse is one example and readers will be able to think of others. We cannot and must not ignore this.
But it is also being undermined in subtler ways. To suggest that Pope Benedict’s ‘inspired move’ from a Year of Paul to a Year of the Priest was intended to draw a contrast between Paul who was ‘never ordained’ and ordained priesthood is to misrepresent the Pope’s intentions.
To suggest that priests are being asked to reflect on ‘what “added value” ordination brings to baptism…’ is to distort the discussion. Ordination was never about ‘added value’.
To draw conclusions about ordination based on the earliest years of the apostolic era before the church’s ministries had finished developing is to be selective indeed.
None of our ministries—in their present form—is to be found in the New Testament scriptures. Instead we find a plurality of charisms, roles and ministries. By a gradual process that began even during the lifetime of the apostles and continued after their deaths, some of these roles and ministries coalesced into the ordained ministries we have inherited. Any research that limits itself to the earliest writings of the apostolic era disqualifies itself from understanding the ministries we have today, and even from understanding the origins of these ministries in the New Testament writings as a whole.
Nor can we ignore the light thrown on the apostolic era by writers such as Clement of Rome, writing just 40 years after Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and Ignatius of Antioch, who lived during the latter part of the apostolic era itself.
The emergence of clericalism
The coalescence of New Testament roles and ministries into the ministries of deacons, presbyters and bishops is one thing; the development of these into a kind of privileged and separate class within the church is another.
Various sociological factors contributed to this less fortunate development: for example, the kind of leadership that was sometimes expected of bishops at the time when the magistrates of the Roman Empire were becoming less effective; the better opportunities that clergy had for acquiring an education than did most lay people after the Barbarian invasions; and even the use of Old Testament terminology by the early fathers of the church, to describe Christian ministry—all these factors contributed to setting the clergy apart and above, resulting in privileges and exemptions that even became incorporated into medieval civil and canon law.
The undoing of clericalism
Social scientists speak of ‘group bias’, which results from a natural tendency to describe any organisation by reference to those in it whose profile is more prominent. Historically, the clergy and religious have had the highest profile in the church so when people have referred to the church, they have often meant its priests and religious. It was an easy step from there to assume that the call to holiness was mainly for religious and less for others; and responsibility for the mission of the church mainly for those who were ordained.
These assumptions are not harmless. Is it really harmless for people to think that some belong to the church more and some less depending on whether or not they are ordained? Or that holiness of life is less accessible to those who are not priests or religious? Or that responsibility for the mission of the church does not come with one’s baptism? Is it really harmless to be under the impression that those who are not ordained participate in the Eucharist less than those who are ordained? Is it really harmless to imagine that particular callings within the church somehow ‘add’ to baptism?
These perceptions—even when they are the perceptions of lay people—are what we mean by clericalism.
It was precisely these distortions that the Second Vatican Council intended to correct by its teaching that holiness is the calling of all the baptised; and responsibility for the mission of the church belongs to all the baptised.
But clericalism dies hard. It is still seen in the writings of those who imagine that priesthood needs to be somehow diminished in order to establish ‘equality’. A correct understanding of priesthood and indeed of sacramentality in general, does not lead to this conclusion.
The meaning of priesthood
All the members of Christ’s body make present and visible what the risen Christ himself is still doing. That is sacramentality. It does not add to what Christ is doing. The same is true of the way that ordained priesthood makes present and visible Christ’s relationship to his body, the church.
The Catholic tradition is beautifully summarised by Bishop Michael Putney:
There is only one pastor of the church and he is Jesus Christ, the good shepherd. All that priests do as pastors is serve Christ’s own pastoring of the church. There is only one priest in the church, Jesus Christ, and all that Christian priests do is to be the sacramental presence of Christ’s own priesthood. There is only one teacher of the church, Jesus Christ, and all that priests do is give voice to Jesus who speaks through them as the word of life for their hearers.
As priests preside over the church’s liturgy and over the Christian community, they do so only as servants of Christ who alone is head of the church.
( Bishop Michael Putney, Foreword in The Prayer of the Priest, 2005.)
These images (high priest, good shepherd, head of his body) describe Christ’s relationship to all the baptised. It is from him that the church receives its existence and its identity. We are the church only to the extent that we receive our life from Christ. The ordained ministry of word and sacrament symbolises this relationship with Christ and a priest’s authority to do this is also received—in the sacrament of Holy Orders.
A priest’s spiritual life is first and foremost the gift and task of being a disciple as it is for all the baptised. It involves both a calling into closeness to the person of Jesus and being sent by him to be ‘for others’. The calling and the sending are two sides of the same coin for all disciples.
To find what is specific to priestly spirituality, we look to the Ordination rites especially those of the third, fifth and seventh centuries which more clearly show that the Holy Spirit is being asked to bring about deep inner renewal. It is seen as a ministry of personal holiness for the sake of bringing about the holiness of others.
Karl Rahner reminds us that, at all key points of salvation history, the call to holiness and the call to a particular vocation have converged. A priest’s spirituality is his ongoing task of bringing about this convergence between his personal life and his ministry.
In this way, the word he preaches is not merely a report about God’s love, but is God’s word made present and visible in him. People need to see how much the word means to him—even when he needs to acknowledge his own failure fully to live up to it. Because the word is not our own, we have no authority to reduce it to what we ourselves manage to practise. We too are challenged by the word we preach.
The Ordination rites also show that ordination means ordination into the presbyteral order. There is no independent priesthood – and no independent priestly spirituality. Supporting his fellow priests and bishop, and being supported by them, is part of being true to what a priest has become.
Ministry is mutual
Every priest knows that in ministering he is being ministered to. It is the faith and hopes, struggles, sacrifices, goodness and love of the people that inspires our faith, our desire to serve, and our ability to persevere. For this, we say ‘thank you’.