NEW IDEAS ON THE ROLE OF THE PRIEST
The priesthood has been a much debated subject at the Vatican Council. Here Fr. Gregory Baum, 0.S.A., Consultor to the Vatican Council's Secretariat of Christian Unity, writes about the new view of the priesthood which is emerging from Rome. WE are witnessing the transition from one concept of the priesthood to another.
For a very long time. Catholic theologians have defined the priesthood in terms of the celebration of Mass. A priest is a Christian who can say Mass. He is the offerer of the sacrifice. In our book we spoke of "the sacrificing priesthood". If this is the definition of the priesthood, then the Bishop is simply a priest with something added—a priest plus jurisdiction, a priest with the power to rule.
However, in Chapter of the Constitution on the C'hurch last year this understanding of the ministry in the Church was discarded. The ministerial priesthood in the Church is defined there, not beginning with the priest as the typical case, but with the Bishop.
The fullness of the ministerial priesthood is found in the Bishop. He is the priest par excellence. He differs from the ordinary priest (properly called presbyter) sacramentally. The presbyter is not a bishop minus jurisdiction, but a Christian who shares in the ministerial priesthood given by Christ to the Church, not fully as does the Bishop. but in a subordinate way, dependent on the Bishop.
What does this mean in practical terms? Since the ministerial priesthood in the Church is de.
fined as a participation in Christ's office of Teacher, Worshipper, and Shepherd, this determines the function of the Bishop as well as the presbyter.
The priesthood therefore must be defined in terms of teaching the Gospel, celebrating the sacramental liturgy, and acting as shepherd (or to use a more modern expression, exercising leadership in the community). We have passed from a cultic understanding of the priesthood (the priest is a Christian who offers the sacrifice of the Mass) to a ministerial understanding (the priest serves in the midst of the people rendering present the teaching of Christ, his sacramental worship of the Father, and his shepherding action creating holy community).
If the priest is defined by his power to say Mass, he will regard himself principally as a worshipper, as a sacred person, singled out for a sacred action which no one else can perform.
He differs from the ordinary Christian ontologically. Since he deals with the sacred, he will have a tendency to regard ordinary life in the world as profane, worldly, a distraction or a temptation. His priestly spirituality will inspire him to detachment, separation from people.
Since he regards himself as a sacred person. he will expect veneration and prompt obedience from the laity. Religion is his special prerogative.
What is the priest's relation to the Bishop? Since in this theology the difference between priest and Bishop is only the jurisdiction given to the latter, the priest's relationship to the bishop% will be mainly in terms of obedience.
The preceding sentences are too schematic a description of the ideal priest. They point, however, to the inevitable consequences of the cu/tic understanding of the priesthood. If, on the other hand, we understand the priesthood as a share in Christ's office of teaching, sanctifying, and leading, then the priest is first of all a man among men, a brother among brothers (as was Jesus) with a special service or function to perform. . He announces the Good News. He is teacher, but he must also teach men to look upon the present world and its problems in the light of the Gospel.
To do this, the priest has no ready-made formulas. Only by sharing the life of people, by being in dialogue with them by striving together with them for a deeper Christian understanding of human life, can he be faithful to his office as teacher.
He will Celebrate the sacramental liturgy. What does eucharist mean? To celebrate the presence of Christ in our midst, healing us from our sin, making us into a single family of friends, so that together in the Spirit, we do the will of the eternal Father.
The priest is a worshipper: yet this does not separate him from other Christians; on the contrary, this unites him more closely to them.
The priest is shepherd, a leader among men. He has been sent, as was Christ, to create
community, to reconcile and unite men into a single family. For this reason the world of men will appear to the priest not as a permanent temptation or a great danger to be shunned, but rather as his field of priestly action, where he serves Christ and encounters Christ in his brother. The priest will not regard people as leeches who sap his strength, but as the bread with which the Lord feeds him.
On the basis of the new theological understanding of the priesthood, the priests relationship to the Bishop is also changed. Since he receives a share of all that the Bishop receives, partially and in dependence on him. the priest participates not only in authoritative teaching, the sacramental ministry, but also in the governing of the Church.
This doctrine is taught in the Constitution on the Church, though it is not developed there. The priest participates in the ministerial priesthood which the bishop has received in fullness. Now participation always means dependence and communion.
In our context this means that obedience alone does not define the relationship of the priest to his Bishop: there is also a certain sharing in the determination of policy. What this will mean concretely, is not clear at this time.