Written by Keith Strohm
I've been a priest for 35 years. "Wait a minute," you might be saying to yourself. "I thought this blog about supporting the formation and discipleship of lay Christians.
You're right. It is.
Thirty five years' ago, through my parents' assent and the sacramental power of the Church, by water and the Holy Spirit, I received my baptism. In that moment, I became a new creature--united forever with Christ and with the Church as a member of His Body. Incorporated. Adopted. Grafted to the very Being of the Word Made Flesh. God's scandalous Love for me reached into the darkness of my fallen humanity so that I might share in the very Life of Christ.
And, if I share in the fullness that is Christ's Life, then I must also share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal dimensions of that life. Not metaphorically. Not analogously. But ontologically--at the deepest level of being. I have, because of Christ, been made priest, prophet, and royal child for the sake of the world. So says the Apostle Paul, the scriptures, and the unbroken teachings and traditions of the Church:
Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church "a kingdom,priests for his God and Father." The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ's mission as priest, prophet, and king. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are "consecrated to be . . . a holy priesthood (CCC 1546)
I am a member of the universal priesthood of Christ.
And, if you are reading this blog, there's a good chance that you are, as well. We are priests--sacramentally configured by our baptism for service to the world. Again, the Church isn't speaking poetically here, creating some uplifting language to make us feel good about ourselves. Rather, she is pointing to a part of our ultimate identity in Christ, reminding us of exactly who we are. Not over and against the ministerial (ordained) priesthood--who are sacramentally configured for service to the People of God (the universal priesthood)--but in conjunction and collaboration with them in Christ's mission to the world.
This is radical, life-altering reality. The fact that bringing it up tends to annoy both 'liberal' catholics (who see too much of an emphasis on 'old language' and the possibility that highlighting the nature of the common priesthood would interfere with their bid to take on the responsibilities of the ministerial priesthood ) and 'conservative' catholics (who sometimes overemphasize the dignity of the ministerial priesthood above that of laypeople and who sometimes see any discussion of the priesthood of believers as a threat to the ordained priesthood instituted by Christ) reinforces to me that this really is the way God intended it to be.
And so, we are priests in every facet of our lives. Around the water cooler at work, in line at the grocery store, in school, driving on the road, in relationship with our families--there is always a priestly dimension to our lives.
Well great . . .what the heck does that really mean?
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a priest is one who offers sacrifices, who intercedes for others. As sharers in Christ's own priesthood, which fulfills and completes the Old Covenant priesthood, laypeople are to offer our lives--our giftedness, our talents, and our resources--for the sake of the world. We are to work, and pray, and labor for the restoration of creation "to its original dignity." (Christifideles Laici)
What would the Church look like if every lay person were to receive adequate catechesis and formation around the reality of their priesthood--a formation that would acknowledge the dignity, jurisdiction, power, and authority that we have been given by virtue of our life in Christ. What would our world look like?
Our priesthood finds its fullest expression in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is the foundation of the great work to which we have been called. It is also the greatest gift of our priesthood--that we are given to participate, not watch, in the deepest expression of Love in the Universe.
Too often, catholics, especially those active in an organized ministry, see the Mass as mainly a moment of refreshment and refueling so that we can be nourished for our real work in the world or at the parish. And while it's true that we receive strength and grace by receiving the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, viewing the Sacrifice of the Mass primarily through that lense denies the full reality of what is occurring. For the Mass is not simply a moment of sanctuary for the faithful; it is, fundamentally, an action of the whole priestly community and the deepest activity of the universal priesthood.
As Christ is made present at each mass through the sacramental power of the ministerial priesthood, the world is made present at each mass through the action of the universal priesthood. We, as priests, are called to bring the world--its needs, its struggles, and its hopes--to the Eucharist. Not simply in a general way, but in a way specific to the interactions we have in our own lives. Each of us as individuals know people who are suffering and struggling, people who need prayer and real physical, emotional, and spiritual help. It is these individuals that we each bring to the Eucharist so that as a community of priests we may intercede for the world.
And then, impelled by the Love of Christ, we bring the Eucharist back out into the world. This is what it means to be fully, actively, and consciously engaged in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Not simply to pay attention to the readings, or to bring just our own lives to the altar, but to fully live out our priesthood by bearing the world to the altar, and then bearing Christ to the world--working for all that it truly, authentically human in the cultures and societies in which we live.
We don't hear about this reality much. And it's a shame. Why not?
How can we best exercise our priesthood? How do we form laypeople for their priestly role? How can we collaborate with the ministerial priesthood for the fulfillment of Christ's mission in a way that honors and nurtures our particular areas of authority and jurisdiction. Hopefully, those of you who are reading this and reflecting these questions will share your thoughts.