Last year I attended a very moving ordination ceremony in Hamilton. I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of what was happening to my friend Mark Field as I witnessed Bishop Denis Browne laying hands on him – the primary symbol of ordination today – and praying the beautiful Prayer of Consecration. This was Mark’s public entrance into a life of ministry as an official representative of the church and his call to be a personal sacrament of Christ, to make present what Christ is doing – the Christ who offered himself in sacrifice. But how do we trace Mark’s ordination back to Jesus? Did Jesus really ordain the 12 apostles? Was Paul a priest? What about other disciples?
Paul tells us that he is from the ‘tribe of Benjamin’ (Phil 3:5) and therefore did not belong to the priestly class which at this time consisted entirely of the Sadducees’ party and members of the tribe of Levi such as Zachary who were sometimes required for Temple duty (Luke 1:8-10). Paul, then, would have been included in the people Luke describes as (laos) laity (3:15; 7:29).
While ‘holy orders’ is not a biblical term, like all sacraments, of course, it can be traced back to the ministry of Jesus and the practice of the early Christian communities. Jesus came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45).
Proclaiming the reign of God and modelling an extraordinarily inclusive table fellowship, he healed, taught, exorcised and chose 12 to be companions and co-workers (Mark 3:14-15). Luke adds that Jesus appointed a further 72 disciples and sent them out (Luke 10:1), giving them authority and power over demons (10:16-20). While the biblical record makes it clear that the 12 were male, there is no indication of the gender of the 72. We know, however, that there were women disciples (Luke 8:1-3). But were the apostles and these other disciples actually ordained priests? Certainly they did not see themselves as priests.
To say that Jesus ordained the 12 apostles as priests is anachronistic. The words ‘ordain’ and ‘ordination’ are not used in the new testament. Ordination was a much later development. In fact we cannot draw a straight line between any roles found in the new testament and church offices today. However, four occasions concerning the laying-on of hands (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6) speak to the ordination question. Theologians are not agreed on the background of this action nor whether it means the same in each case. They warn against collating the four occasions to provide the ordination rite of the early church. Instead they suggest that leaders emerged or were appointed in different ways in different communities.
The new testament itself refers to no individual Christian as a ‘priest’ (perhaps because the Jewish priesthood was still seen as valid). In the Letter to the Hebrews Jesus Christ is called ‘high priest’. The Book of Revelation and 1 Peter use the term ‘a royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9) and ‘priests’ (Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6) to speak about the whole Christian community. Within the new testament then, priesthood is common to all Christians by virtue of their baptism. Today we are reminded of this whenever we witness a baptism. The baby/adult is anointed as priest, prophet and king. There is no greater status than that conferred in baptism.
It was precisely this priesthood of all the baptised that Vatican II emphasised, beginning its discussion of priesthood with the person of Jesus Christ. The church’s ministry is essentially related to the ministry of Jesus as prophet/teacher, priest and king/pastor. So today the church continues Jesus’ prophetic, sanctifying and shepherding work through both laity and priests. While Lumen Gentium #10 notes that there is an essential difference between the common priesthood of all the baptised and the ministerial priesthood, what these differences actually mean in liturgical and pastoral practice continues to be explored.
Whereas once the ordination ceremony spoke of receiving ‘priestly powers’ (the Catechism emphasises this aspect—#1536-1600), the ceremony today speaks of receiving a ‘priestly office’ in the church.
What might this ‘priestly office’ that Mark Field received look like? Let me give three personal examples not from the life of the recently ordained but from someone much older.
Last month I was present at our parish celebration of Fr Ray Stachurski’s golden jubilee. As with Mark’s celebration it was a privilege to be there. Many years ago, shortly after Vatican II, Ray helped a teenager deal with her father’s suicide. He assured me that dad would have a Catholic burial.
Five years earlier Fr Barney Keegan put on my mother’s apron and did the tea dishes. Arriving before the ambulance, he had anointed my mother who had died very suddenly. He cried during the funeral. To me then, ‘priestly office’ means being present when it matters most.
Years later when teaching an old testament course, I benefitted greatly from Ray’s accumulated wisdom. Forty-five years of actually praying the scriptures trumped academic study. Ray’s generosity in sharing his wisdom with his classmates was pure gold and indeed humbling. To me then, ‘priestly office’ means nourishing with word.
More recently I welcomed his daily visits as chaplain when in hospital recovering from a cardiac arrest. Fr Gerard Burns had earlier anointed me in the intensive care unit. To me then, ‘priestly office’ means nourishing with sacrament.
So what Ray has done over 50 years in his ministry of word and sacrament and what Mark has begun to do is rooted in the ministry of Jesus and the practice of the early church. For their generosity in continuing this great tradition of service I am truly grateful.
St John Vianney: Pray for them.