Christian priesthood flowed out of the four ministries in the new testament—the disciple, the apostle, the presbyter and the celebrant of the Eucharist. While not the only roles, these are the most obvious ones to deal with over the next months.
The dominant role of the disciple of Jesus comes through in the gospels. A comparison of all four gospels gives a clear picture that in them is a development beyond the purely historical. In Mark there is a portrayal of devastating discipleship failure; in Matthew they are ‘little faiths’, but that is better than ‘no faiths’; Luke gives a far more positive portrayal in Acts as they carry out the important task of founding the church; John’s disciples are given an ideal in the Beloved Disciple and the beautiful image of the vine and the branches. Each gospel presents a unique, theological portrayal of discipleship.
While it is true that all Christians are called to be disciples of Jesus, those engaged in a special Christian ministry are bound by the demands of Christian discipleship. Jesus chose 12 from among his followers to be with him more intimately, setting up a pattern of those designated to a special ministry of closer discipleship. If Christians are called to be a light to the world, then priests are called to be a light to their Christian community. In our own diocese we have been called to be both salt and light; the call for our priests to be salt and light for their people is also there.
The new testament portrait of discipleship is a very Jewish one. The rabbi gathers his pupils close to him to see what he does and to live like him so that they may represent him to others. There is an intimacy here that almost breaks the bonds of superior and inferior relationship: ‘You are my friends… no longer do I call you servants’ (John 15:14-15). Yet it remains clear who the source of the influence is: ‘Disciples are not above their teacher’ (Matt 10:24).
Demands of discipleship
What is significant for the subsequent development of Christian priesthood is the element of vocation in discipleship. Old Testament priesthood came by birth. Because Christian priests are also disciples, they accept a calling as did the companions of Jesus. The radical and absolute nature of this call has left a deep imprint on the idealism of Christian ministry.
For the disciple, there can be only one master, Jesus. ‘No one can serve two masters…’ (Matt 6:24). In Jewish practice a rabbi chose his disciples, not the other way round: ‘You did not choose me but I chose you’ (John 15:16). Such a call is marked by a commitment that makes no compromise even in the face of such a sacred duty as burying one’s father (Matt 8:21-22) or turning back (Luke 9:62).
The discipleship ideal is an all consuming vocation, occupying all the interest of the disciple and allowing no competitive diversion whatsoever (Luke 14:26). Such an ideal for a disciple has stronger implications for Christian priesthood, since priests are expected to meet the most rigorous demands of discipleship.
For instance, the ideal has strongly militated against a part-time or temporary priesthood. Priesthood has been conceived precisely in terms of a lifetime vocation with no turning back. Laicisation has a place when it touches on sensitivity to pastoral and human issues; but the heart of discipleship as presented in the gospels involves more than revoking a medieval canon law. It is the ideal of permanent discipleship with which the gospels present us.
The vocation to special discipleship involves hardships such as leaving possessions and family to follow Jesus (Matt 4:22): the story of the young man who could not give up his possessions (Matt 19:16-22), the scribe who wished to join the group of disciples only to be told of the Son of man having nowhere to lay his head (Matt 8:19-20). Jesus confronts the candidate to discipleship with a stark portrait of the hardships it involves. This is hardly an attractive portrait of priestly life!
Following Jesus demands self-denial and taking up the cross (Matt 10:38; 16:24). This is the pattern of Jesus’ own life.
The ideal portrait goes beyond permanency in ministry. Criticism of wealth and leisure, demanding more honour and consideration than other Christians, these differentiations run contrary to the new testament ideals, for the priest is supposed to be a disciple of him who came not to be ministered to but to minister (Matt 20:28), a master for whom it was anathema to have his disciples seeking first place (Mark 9:35).
It would be unfair to enter into the question of celibacy and priesthood and do it justice, but we need to remember it was an ideal held up precisely for the sake of the kingdom of heaven from a very early period. By the law that allows only a celibate clergy the Western Catholic Church has ensured a large-scale, public witness of the celibate life. It is vital that those who accept it do so for the sake of Christ and not simply out of preference for the bachelor life.
The new testament ideals of discipleship offer challenges to priesthood that have often been poorly met, as the present crisis underlines. But the positive outcome from the recent pain is a heightening of the gospel ideals of discipleship for both laity and priests, sharpened by the realisation that a first century ideal is as relevant to our 21st century as it ever was.
This touches on the essence of the generosity demanded today to be open to the call of the reign of God in history. It is as great a struggle today as it was then – fidelity to a commitment, humble service, openness to God’s future, and humility to rely on God’s strength rather than one’s own.
Reference: Raymond E Brown Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections.