Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Priesthood in Transition
"Is it harder to be a priest today than it used to
be?" A parishioner who was wondering why there are fewer priests
these days asked me this question recently. I don't know if being
a priest is harder than it used to be, but I do know that
it is certainly different.
I will not try to explain why there are fewer priests
todayalthough this issue concerns me greatly. I was ordained
in 1966 and for most of the past 30-some years I worked to "make
priests"mainly by teaching in seminaries. In this Update,
I will simply give my personal reflections on how our understanding
of the Catholic priesthood is in transition.
To understand what is happening to the
Sacrament of Holy Orders today I suggest that we first look at the
changes we Catholics have experienced in the other sacramentsespecially
the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Reconciliation.
All seven sacraments are part of one
sacramental reality or system. In any system, when one element changes
we can expect changes in others. Think of your family: When a baby
is born into a family, older children can become jealous and feel
displaced. When an elderly parent can no longer live alone and moves
in with you, more things change than simply bedrooms and bathroom
schedules. Or think of your body as a system. A brisk walk not only
exercises your feet and your legs, but also helps you feel good
all over. When one part of your body is injured (a hand, an eye,
a tooth), your whole body is affected.
The Body of Christ, the Church, is a
system of sacramental relationships. If we change one sacrament,
the other sacraments will also be affected.
A Catholic can hardly be unaware of the changes that
have taken place in the Sacrament of Baptism during the past 30
years. We see catechumens being dismissed after the homily. Infants
are being baptized during Sunday Eucharist. Baptismal pools are
replacing holy water fonts. These external ritual and architectural
changes are an indication of a deeper, internal changea
change in our understanding of the role and meaning of Baptism.
Since Vatican II, we have come to a new appreciation
of the power and the effects of Baptism. No one can be baptized
and not have a role to play in the Church. Baptism and discipleship
go together. Jesus says, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of
all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of
the Son, and of the holy Spirit..." (Mt 28:19).
The disciples of Christtoday as in biblical
timesare entrusted with carrying on the mission and ministry
of Christ. As the community came to see Christ as the priest of
the New Covenant, it also came to understand that every baptized
Christian shares in that ministry also. The Catechism of the
Catholic Church reminds us that the "whole community of believers
is, as such, priestly" (#1546).
We call this priesthood which is shared by all the
baptized "the common priesthood of all the faithful" (Catechism,
#1547); the priesthood resulting from the Sacrament of Holy Orders
is called the "ministerial priesthood."
The fact that we are all priests is not a new ideait
is as old as the Scriptures: "...Let yourselves be built into
a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual
sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pt 2:5).
But if our common priesthood is not new, the importance given
to it certainly is.
This new emphasis given to Baptism and the common
priesthood of all the faithful has caused a flowering of ministries
in the Church. In parishes around the world we now see Christians
serving as readers, Communion ministers, spiritual directors,
catechists, liturgists, ministers to the sick, directors of religious
education, parish managers.
Now that non-ordained Christians are exercising these
ministries once reserved for the ordained, many Catholics are
asking what the difference is between the common priesthood of
all the faithful (the priesthood of Baptism) and the ministerial
priesthood (the priesthood of Holy Orders). If we are all priests
why do we need an ordained priesthood? Vatican II did not answer
this very important (and difficult) question.
Vatican II said that the common priesthood of the
faithful and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained are "essentially
different" from one another (Constitution on the Church,
#10), but the Council left the explanation of this essential difference
to theologians. The meaning of this "essential difference" is
currently under much discussion.
Eucharist and community
We are all aware of the changes that have taken place
in the Mass since Vatican II. These changes have affected the
role of the ordained priest. When I was a child, it was very clear
to me who was a priest and who was not. Priests were ordained.
They were the ones who did all the important things: They said
Mass, heard confessions and administered the sacraments. They
knew all the answers; they could talk out loud in Church. It was
obvious to me that I was destined to become a priestI thought
I knew all the answers and I always found it difficult not to
talk in Church!
Today it seems that no one knows all the answers and
everyone talks in Church. Together we all pray the Mass, sing
the hymns and respond to the prayers. Today no one would consider
the Mass to be the private affair of the priest, the one with
special powers to consecrate. But if we all celebrate the Eucharist,
what is it that the ordained priest does that others cannot?
On those days when no priest is available to celebrate
the Eucharist many Catholics have experienced a Communion service.
An unordained minister distributes Communion with hosts consecrated
previously. Seeing the difference between Eucharist and a Communion
service we begin to see that Mass is much more than simply the
words of consecration.
If consecration alone were the issue, we would really
need only one priest daily, or weekly, to say the words of consecration
over an appropriate quantity of hosts, and the Eucharist could
then be shipped to Catholics worldwide!
Today when Catholics talk about the role of the priest
at Mass they are referring to more than the consecration: They
are usually discussing the way he preaches and presides. Eucharist
is a complex ritual action at which we gather, first, to hear
the word of God proclaimed in Scriptures, prayers and homily.
The priest's role is vital in all these actions.
The Sacrament of Holy Orders enables the priest to
speak in the name of the whole community. Just as your hand can
write a signature and it binds your whole body, or your mouth
can give "your word" which binds your whole person, the priest
can speak in the name of the whole Body. He is ordained to say
prayers to which we can all respond "Amen." Because of Holy
Orders the priest "possesses the authority to act in the power
and place of the person of Christ himself" (Catechism,
Each time we gather for the Eucharist, we hear the
words "Do this in memory of me." By these words Jesus commands
us not only to bless and share the bread as he did, but to "live
as he lived." His mission is now our mission.
Consequently, the Second Vatican Council, in Decree
on the Ministry and Life of Priests (#4), and the Catechism
of the Catholic Church (#1564) teach that the first task of
the priest is "to preach the gospel." Preaching the gospel
has assumed an importance in the life and self-identity of a priest
that it did not have in the years before Vatican II.
Reconciliation is key
When I was ordained, the identity of the priest was
closely associated with Confession. The priest was the one who
had the power to say with the voice of Christ, "I absolve you
from your sins."' During those first years as an ordained
priest I spent more time in the course of a week hearing confessions
than I did saying Mass. Each Saturday long lines of penitents
approached the confessional. Today, in most parishes, those lines
No one who listens attentively to the prayers of the
Eucharist can fail to miss the numerous references to the forgiveness
of sins. Is it mere coincidence that the long lines for Saturday
Confession have decreased at the same time that the lines for
holy Communion have increased? The Eucharist, which Vatican II
reminds us is the source and summit of the Church's activity,
is the primary sacrament of reconciliation (see Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, #10).
The forgiveness of sins is seen today in the context
of the mission of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. On nearly
every page of the Gospels we see Jesus healing, forgiving and
reconciling. After his resurrection he appears to the disciples
and gives them his Spiritthe Spirit of pardon and peaceand
says, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you..." (Jn 20:21).
Reconciliationstriving for communion with God
and one anotheris the primary ministry of the Church; it
is not merely something the priest does for a few minutes on Saturday
No one needs to be reminded of the crucial role reconciliation
plays in contemporary society. The prevalence of racism, sexism,
nationalism and consumerism indicates the need for reconciliation
in our world, in our country, in our local communityeven
in our parish.
If we are to be a sacramenta visible signof
reconciliation, we must actively pursue those works of justice
and mercy that will make this reconciliation possible. The parish
must see the priest himself as a reconciling person. Otherwise,
parishioners will not see him as an icon of the forgiving Christ
in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
New Testament job description
It should not be surprising if the changes we have
experienced in the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Reconciliation
have brought about major changes in our understanding of the Sacrament
of Holy Orders. Today, the question "What is a priest?" is not
an easy question to answer.
Usually with questions such as this we can turn to
the New Testament and ask, what does Jesus say about priesthood?
What did the early Christian communities expect of their priests?
Scripture does not provide an easy answer in this regard. For
while there are many different ministries mentioned in the New
Testamentteachers, prophets, healers, preachers, evangelists,
shepherdsthere is no mention of priests in the modern sense.
When the first Christians (who were Jews for the most
part) thought of priests and sacrifice, they thought of their
Levitical priests and the Temple sacrifices in Jerusalem (see
Mk 1:44; Mt 8:4) and pagan priests from surrounding regions. In
the Christian community we find no individual set apart as mediator
between the community and God. Christians did not need a priest
in this sense. Jesus himself fulfilled this role: "For there is....one
mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus" (1 Tm 2:5).
There was no longer any need for a priest "to offer sacrifice
day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the
people; he [Christ] did that once for all when he offered himself"
By the same token we do not find any reference to
lay ministry in the New Testament. Jesus did select some disciples
and make them apostles, giving them a special mission in relation
to the rest of the community. What these apostles did or what
made them different from the other disciples is not clear in the
New Testament. But we know that this apostolic ministry continues
in the Church today. "Holy Orders is the sacrament through which
the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be
exercised in the Church....It includes three degrees: episcopate,
presbyterate, and diaconate" (Catechism #1536).
Originally "episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate"
referred to secular offices in Greek society. Episcopos
means "overseer" or "leader"; presbyter means "elder" or
"adviser"; and diaconos means "minister" (as in civil government
today we might speak of the minister of finance or the minister
of education.) We cannot find any distinct job description for
these three offices in early Christian writings; it seems that
their function varied from place to place. Early Christians used
the terms somewhat interchangeably.
But as often happened in the history of the Church,
time and pastoral experience have drawn uniformity from original
diversity. By the third or fourth century the variety of ministries
mentioned in the New Testament was assumed into the ministry of
leadership. The episcopos, or bishop, became the primary
The bishop exercised his ministry with the help of
a council of elders (presbyters) who were his co-workers. Their
principal function was to advise the bishop. They shared this
responsibility for the local Church and sometimes stood in for
him when he was absent. The bishop also had the help of deacons
who were responsible for specific ministries, for example, assistance
to widows and orphans, care of the sick, finances, education and
administration. This threefold ministry continues today.
As the Christian community grew and became distinct
from Judaism, it defended and explained its rituals in contemporary
terms of the day. Christians gathered for the "Breaking of the
Bread" and saw this sacred meal to be the sacrament of Christ's
sacrifice on Calvary. Those who presided at this sacrificebishops
and especially presbyterscame to be called "priests."
Their function began to be seen as similar to the Jewish Levitical
By the end of the third century the community leader
was seen as a sacred person, one set apart to offer sacrifice
on behalf of the faithful. The Orders of Bishops, Presbyters and
Deacons became Sacred Orders.
From then until the time of Vatican II, Holy Orders
was identified almost exclusively with the second of these three
degrees: the presbyterate.
Apart or among?
I believe that this idea of being sacred
or set apart is at the very heart of today's discussions on the
role of a priest. When I was ordained in 1966, a priest was defined
as someone set apart from other Catholics. Priests wear special
clothing (clerical black); we live in a special house (a rectory);
we have a special lifestyle (celibacy).
Today most Catholics I encounter are
not especially concerned about these things. They want their priest
to be one of them, someone living in the midst of their worldnot
someone set apart. They expect the priest to know their joys and
their sorrows, their trials and their pain. The priest is expected
to know how difficult it is to raise children, what it is to fear
losing a job or face an addiction.
Speaking personally, I have found that
parishioners want me to know how hard they work for their money.
They expect me to preach about these things so that I can bring
the gospel to their everyday experience. They want a priest who
can pray with their voice, the voice of the Church. Vatican II,
in its decree on the life of priests, tells me that "priests have
been placed in the midst of the laity so that they may lead them
all to the unity of charity..." (Decree on the Ministry and Life
of Priests, #9).
I find that it is not always easy to
be both set apart and in the midst.
In this world and the next
It might help to look at these distinctions
from an even broader perspective. What Catholics expect of a priest
is related to what they expect of religion in general. When I was
a child, religion seemed more concerned with the next life than
with this one. This life was mainly a proving ground or training
camp for the next life. Life on earth was an exile. True life and
religion were focused on heaven, not earth.
Yet this life is where we first encounter
God. Today our bishops are writing pastoral letters on the economy
and world peace and a multitude of social issues. As Vatican II
put it, "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of
the people of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted,
are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of
Christ as well" (Church in the Modern World, #1).
Parishioners expect me, as a priest,
to be engaged in this world. As parishioners see me up close it
becomes more evident to them that sometimes my words come from Christ
and other times they come from my own ignorance, prejudice and even
sometimes from my sinfulness. Reconciliation between people of different
social and economic classes, races, religions, political parties
is a difficult if not impossible task. Yet I am instructed by the
Second Vatican Council that the priest has the task of "bringing
about agreement among divergent outlooks in such a way that nobody
may feel a stranger in the Christian community" (Priests,
Ministry becomes the place in which the
priest encounters the Holy Spirit. I am a better preacher when I
know the congregation's hopes and fears, joys and sorrows. Living
in the midst of the parishvisiting homes, attending wedding
receptions, helping build a housethese are not distractions
from prayer but are the source of my prayer. The parish is the sacrament,
the window, through which the priest views God.
The tension between being set apart and
living in the midst is perhaps a reflection of the tension between
the Sacraments of Holy Orders and Baptism. As the Church passes
from century to century, each age discovers a way to synthesize
St. Augustine spoke of it in this way
during the fourth century: "The day I became a bishop, a burden
was laid on my shoulders....Indeed, it terrifies me to think that
I could take more pleasure in the honor attached to my office, which
is where its danger lies, than in your salvation, which ought to
be its fruit. This is why being set above you fills me with alarm,
whereas being with you gives me comfort. Danger lies in the first;
salvation in the second" (Sermon 340 [Liturgy of the Hours, September
In these difficult times we might do
well to learn from St. Augustine. He spoke of the dangers inherent
in being set above others and the salvation that comes from our
common Baptism. Today, we do well to understand the Sacrament of
Holy Orders and the ordained priesthood within the context of the
priesthood which we all share in virtue of our Baptism.