A Holy Priesthood (May 2006)

May 2006



Once a year, the Catholic Church implores its members to carefully consider the present situation of vocations and to pray to the Almighty that he might send workers into his fields. The implication: either that too few people are called or too few heed the call, or both.

This has always struck me as an odd proposition. I don’t see how he would be so almighty if he failed to see the evident shortage of harvesters, or neglected to call a suitable number of them, or even that he would settle for a lukewarm response throughout a long period of futile bidding.

Moreover, the church, while confessing interest in all the trades needed to reap, carry and store an abundant harvest, has seemed to be particularly attentive to one — presbyterial ordination, and maybe secondarily those called to consecrated life.

In the past, I have added my own modest effort to highlight the fact that each baptized person has a personal call, whether to ordained or consecrated, married or single life. This year, I’d like to focus on the vocation that belongs to 99 per cent of Catholics, namely lay vocations.

Historically, the words “lay” and “vocations” are rarely used together. Some might have even said that the laity is for people who don’t have a vocation – except, of course, to “pay, pray and obey.”

Since Vatican II, there has been a growing respect for the place of the laity in the church. But the awareness of its role is still under construction. Part of the problem is the concern among some people that the roles of the clergy and the laity not be confused. Setting aside that potential confusion and focus more on what both have in common rather than what sets them apart. It’s the best way of addressing the untapped potential of the laity in the mission of the church. To do so, we must go back to where genuine vocations begin, to baptism.

Specifically, baptism confers upon all of us the triple vocation of priest, prophet and king, in the image of Christ himself. Does this mean that clergy and the laity have indistinguishable roles? Surely not.

Still, we should not exaggerate the differences between these two expressions of priesthood. The main difference ought to be the field in which the two principally operate. Ordained ministers operate mainly within church structures, sacraments and sacred liturgies. The laity, on the other hand, operates most effectively in the world. Its purpose is to pursue God’s plan in the affairs and activities of the world.

In effect, the role of the laity is critical to the effective engagement of the Church with the world. By contrast, lay movements that isolate its members from the modern world fail to meet the most essential mission of evangelizing and sanctifying that world. In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, we read “the laity exercise their apostolate in fact by their activity to the evangelization and sanctification of people and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel.”

So what does evangelization and sanctification of people got to do with being priest, prophet and king? The answer is: everything! Christians are called to be men and women who by grace are priests, through their redemptive sacrifice; prophets, through their redemptive speech; and kings, through their redemptive action.

Let’s take a closer look at the priestly vocation of the laity.

Priesthood is the most fundamental of human vocations. It is the gift of self to God. Christ sacrificed himself. Ministerial priests recall this saving action in the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Our common priesthood is the dedication of our very lives to the service of God and our neighbour, through self-sacrificing love. This is indeed a honourable calling. Self-sacrifice is the simplest and the most profound expression of our faith.

Our common priesthood is also expressed in our calling others to prayer and by the consecration of even the tiniest elements of our daily lives. Even when a layperson prays alone, according to the 19th century theologian, Cardinal Newman, he is a priest for himself.

What of the prophetic vocation of the laity?

We all have an equal interest in truth. It is a heavenly treasure, common to each of us. All of us are responsible for the safekeeping and transmission of the Faith. Each of us is called to speak the truth, at home, at work, wherever we are. Pressing and controversial issues in the public arena fall directly into the domain of the laity on issues such as marriage, the family, education, abortion, religion and culture.

The prophecy call supposes fearless and creative engagement of society and culture. The prophetic voice must be both good and effective, not just snipping away on the margins of public debate. We must learn to proclaim our faith intelligently, shrewdly and imaginatively.

Finally, what of the kingly vocation of the laity?

Being a king in the manner of Jesus is to have a sense of our dignity as children of God. It is to exercise the freedom and authority to provide moral leadership in a rudderless world. Moral leadership is not forcibly applied; it is compelling. It is not punitive; it is uplifting. It is not shaming; it brings peace and joy to the hearts of those that we lead in the manner that Jesus led — by the washing of his disciples’ feet.

A friend with whom I was talking about this a few weeks ago put it very well. He said, “We need men and women inflamed with a priestly zeal for lay spiritual life; men and women burning with prophetic concern for their faith and their culture. Men and women empowered with kingly hearts and kingly skills to fight the good fight.” If we accomplished this, there would be no point in preaching on vocation Sundays about ordained and religious life — not because they do not serve a purpose but because those who God is calling to those roles would hear it easily and clearly, and they would respond with equal ease and clarity.

Yes, we all have a vocation. No one vocation is more “important” than another. Each person, is expected to respond, according to the Sprit of the Lord, to do our part in preparing the way of the Lord, to make straight his path: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways plain: and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3: 4-6)

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The title of this reflection is not meant to lead the reader into a consideration of the merits of the clergy. Rather, it is inspired by St. Peter himself who in his first letter refers to us — all of us — as a holy priesthood. It is our role to offer sacrifice, which is the true calling of a priest. It is to offer ourselves to the Father, which was the constant focus of Jesus’ life on earth, reaching fulfilment in his death on the cross – spilling his blood so that many could know the truth and be led to holiness.

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 2: 4-5

Jesus Christ is the one whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and established as priest, prophet, and king. The whole People of God participates in these three offices of Christ and bears the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them.

On entering the People of God through faith and Baptism, one receives a share in this people’s unique, priestly vocation: “Christ the Lord, high priest taken from among men, has made this new people ‘a kingdom of priests to God, his Father.’ The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood.”

The holy People of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, above all in the supernatural sense of faith that belongs to the whole People, lay and clergy, when it “unfailingly adheres to this faith . . . once for all delivered to the saints,” and when it deepens its understanding and becomes Christ’s witness in the midst of this world.

Finally, the People of God shares in the royal office of Christ. He exercises his kingship by drawing all men to himself through his death and Resurrection. Christ, King and Lord of the universe, made himself the servant of all, for he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” For the Christian, “to reign is to serve him,” particularly when serving “the poor and the suffering, in whom the Church recognizes the image of her poor and suffering founder.” The People of God fulfils its royal dignity by a life in keeping with its vocation to serve with Christ.

– Catechism of the Catholic Church