The priesthood today
By Bishop Stephen Brislin
The ministerial priesthood has its foundation in the Priesthood of Christ which therefore forms the starting point for the understanding of priesthood.
Christ’s priesthood is prefigured in the Old Testament but is also the fulfilment of the cultic priesthood of the Old Testament. The Last Supper, crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation of Christ may be the most obvious moments of Christ’s priesthood, but his priesthood did not start with these. His healing, forgiving, feeding, proclamation of the Good News — indeed his very incarnation — are all aspects of Christ’s priesthood. So St Paul understands that when preaching, teaching and pursuing the pastoral ministry, all these aspects belong to the priestly ministry as much as baptising and celebration of the Eucharist (cf 1 Cor 1:16; Acts 20:7-12).
However, ministerial priesthood is completed by the living tradition of the Church. Pope Benedict, when announcing the Year of the Priest on March 16 this year, makes the point that the ministerial priesthood is ontologically distinct from the baptismal priesthood. As baptism and confirmation result in an “indelible mark”, so does the sacrament of orders.
While each baptised Christian may share in the mandate to profess the faith publicly, the apostolic mandate “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole of creation” (Mk 16:15) is constitutive of the ministerial priesthood and not merely a duty.
Through Tradition the hierarchical structure of priesthood emerged, and the sharing of episcopal ministry by priests and deacons. The Reformers denied such a hierarchical structure and denied ministerial priesthood, recognising only a “common” priesthood of all the baptised. Furthermore, they placed emphasis on the Ministry of Word which replaced the cultic aspect of priesthood, leading the Council of Trent to emphasise the link between the visible sacrifice of the Mass and priestly authority, reinforcing the understanding of priesthood primarily in terms of sacramental powers and duties.
The Mass was the key to priestly identity, the hierarchical structure was meant to govern, and the place of the laity was a very secondary one. The Reformers, while acknowledging functionaries in the New Testament, (such as bishop, presbyters and deacons) denied a cultic dimension, saying that this emerged only during the first few centuries of Christendom when presbyters became priests.
The Second Vatican Council “rediscovered” the general priesthood of all the baptised, which had its effect on the perception of ministerial priesthood.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in an address to the Synod of Bishops in 1990, stated that certain old arguments of the 16th century Reformation “acquired a certain plausibility” and Catholic theology did not have sufficient answers. Thus, there arose theologies of priesthood based more on a sociological and functionary understanding of priesthood with the belief that cult had only emerged gradually and became the dominant dimension over a period of centuries. There was speculation, for example, that — if sufficient need exists, such as due to a shortage of priests — then a designated non-ordained person could legitimately celebrate the Eucharist. This came to some sort of climax last year in Holland where certain Dominicans suggested that this should be done even in defiance of Church and bishops.
These various understandings of priesthood as ecclesiological — that is in a functionary sense (facilitator, social worker), rather than as a representative of Christ, together with cultural and social changes manifested in current trends such as secularisation and materialism — have radically changed perceptions of priesthood.
Even in traditionally “Catholic” countries, there has developed strong pressure to privatise faith and religious values, to accept a subjective ethic (relativism) and an indifference to God, rather than even a rejection of God.
The growth of a fundamental materialism — which has as a result associated evils such as callousness to empathy with the suffering of others, subjection of moral values to the desire to accumulate and addictiveness — has also negatively influenced priesthood in many places.
Such a negative influence has produced its effect in the number of priests leaving ministry (although there can be no judgment here, and reasons for doing so are many and varied), the often critical shortage of priests, and in more recent years, the revelation of long-standing and serious moral failure. Furthermore, it has led to a kind of “identity crisis” where priests and people are confused about the role of a priest.
The Gospel message that priests represent and which once put them in high esteem has become irrelevant to many, who live for the here and now and see no need to reflect on the meaning and nature of life, or to speculate about “after death”, further leading some priests to try and find “relevance” in a functionary way. All these things lead to a common belief that priesthood is in crisis.
However, it is more true to say that the Church is in crisis, and the changed perceptions and dilemmas in the priesthood are a symptom of that crisis, rather than the root.
I think it was Raymond Brown in his book Bishop and Priest who said something like, “if there is a strong degree of faith and commitment to following Christ among the faithful, there will be an abundance of celibate vocations”.
This is the first part of a presentation by Bishop Stephen Brislin of Kroonstad to the August plenary session of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Part two will run next week.