As more and more parishes of the diocese are experiencing the loss of a resident priest and the necessity for greater involvement of lay people in the administration of parishes, now is an opportune time to reflect on the teaching of the Catholic Church on both ordained priesthood and the “priesthood of all the baptised”.

The theology underpinning both of these important issues has been set out in Vatican II documents, in subsequent teaching documents and written about by a range of Catholic theologians.  Understanding the unity of these two participations in the one priesthood of Christ is crucial as the diocese moves forward into an era of greater participation by laity in the life and mission of the Church.  Without clarity it is easy, but damaging, to err either into seeing ordained priesthood as the extent of Christ’s ministry in the Church or to fail to honour and make appropriate use of the priesthood of all the baptised.  “Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers.” [Hebrews 8:4, St Thomas Aquinas; CCC 1545]

The catechism makes clear, “The faithful” [meaning, all the baptised – ordained and non-ordained] exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his[her] own vocation, in Christ’s mission.” [CCC 1547].  From the earliest days of the Church this has been expressed as threefold – a mission expressed through witness, worship and service, [martyria, leiturgia and diakonia].  This threefold nature of the Church for mission is seen today, for example, in the faithful life of any parent and family witnessing to the faith in the ways they live and pass on the faith, in their prayer centred on the Sunday Eucharist and in the way they serve one another and the world beyond their ‘domestic church’.  For anyone, even to pray the Our Father is a priestly act in that it is a foundational role of the priest in scripture to intercede for people, as we do when we pray, “give us… deliver us…”  “Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are ‘consecrated to be…a holy priesthood.” [Vatican II: Lumen Gentium 21.1, citing 1 Peter 2:9].  All that any of the faithful do to build the kingdom through every faith-inspired expression of Christ’s life and care is priestly in that it shows, expresses, Christ’s love reaching out in witness, worship or service.  This far exceeds any tasks and jobs in a parish, goes far beyond active participation in the liturgy of the Eucharist and reaches out well outside the walls of their local place of worship.  It is necessary to the life of the Church. [cf. Vat II: Decree on the Laity 10]

At the same time the Church makes clear, “In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd…high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth.” [CCC 1548]  This is what the Church means when it teaches that, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, a priest acts “in persona Christi capitis” (in the person of Christ the head of his Church).  The sacrament of Holy Orders, like other sacraments, makes an actual difference and configures the ordained to Christ for the mission of Christ by all the faithful.  “The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church.” [CCC 1547]  As Christ taught, Christ’s priesthood is to serve and not be served. [Matthew 20:28, Mark 10.45, John 14: 1-17]  The ordained priesthood (as part of the fullness of priesthood in the bishop) is grounded in Christ the servant.  It is “for the good of people – the communion of the Church.” [CCC 1551]  Like every ecclesial ministry of the Church it is intrinsically linked to service [CCC 876] and is collegial in character. [CCC 877]  No ministry, ordained or non-ordained, acts alone, out of communion with the bishop or out of union with the bishop’s appointed parish priest.

“Through ordained ministry, especially that of bishops and priests, the presence of Christ as head of the Church is made visible in the midst of the community of believers” [CCC 1549, Lumen Gentium 21].  Over the past half century, building on the teaching of the last General Council of the Church, the teaching of the Church has overcome the great divide that had grown up within the Church between the ordained and the non-ordained.  Ministry in recent centuries had been exercised almost exclusively by priests and restricted to sacraments and sacramentals.  The laity were kept from public ministry just as they were kept from the sanctuary. [Thomas O’Malley, The Ministry of Presbyters and the Many Ministries in the Church in The Theology of the Priesthood (ed, Donald Goergen and Ann Garrido) page 75]

The potential for confusion when either the ordained priesthood or the priesthood of all the baptised are over-emphasised and treated as independent of the other is real in the diocese.  An over-emphasis on the exclusive role of the priest in ministry and, thereby, the failure to support the priesthood of Christ building his kingdom through any of the faithful leaves the Church locally reduced.  Through the growth in theological understanding of the Church over the past century, we have become able to move forward to better serve the secular  world we now are called to draw closer to Christ. [Matthew 28: 19]  The parish today, respecting the two participations in the priesthood of Christ, changes in nature from the one minister and all others as docile sheep [cf the guidance of Pope St Pius X in 1906 encyclical Vehementer Nos: 8] of recent centuries, to church communities much closer to the New Testament beginnings.

From the very beginning, the Church has had a variety of ministries.  Paul’s analogy of the body is only one instance of this explained.  But Paul ranks ministries, “First, apostles…”  It is not true that there was a time when there was no order or distinction between ministries.  As early as AD 101 St Ignatius of Antioch pointed out how the three ordained orders each focus on one aspect of the nature of the Church: the bishop as father and leading in witness, the ordained priest as sanctifier in leading the worship and spiritual growth of assigned people and the deacon as the servanthood of Christ.  But, like any parents or any of the faithful, it is impossible to segregate the triple nature of the Church; nevertheless the three orders help focus on the nature that underpins the purpose of the Church – the mission of Christ made real through witness, worship and service.

The understanding of the Church made clear in Vatican II that all ministries flow out of Baptism and are exercised around the leadership of the chief pastor – the bishop – goes a long way towards breaking down the strict separation between sacred and secular.  One result of this is that ministry can be seen as broader than specific sacramental actions by an ordained priest within strict laws and limits.  The ministry of Christ through the grace he gives and lived out in his people can be viewed much more widely and, thereby, the priesthood of all the faithful can be developed and exercised.  The need for this can be seen if we lift our eyes beyond the parish walls.  The mission of Christ needs to expand far beyond a rapidly dwindling Mass-attending core.  Seen in this way, it becomes clear that much more ministerial action is now needed by the Church towards a wider and needy faith-seeking local world.

A serious drift, perhaps arising from an over-emphasis on liturgical change alone without a broader understanding of so much more within Vatican II, has been – in recent decades – a reduction in the understanding of the dignity and role of laity and their participation in the priesthood of Christ.  Whereas (for example in Sheffield) there was a wide variety of Catholic action both for Catholics and among the wider population before the 1960s, these outward facing expressions of Catholic faith and service have largely gone.  Our grandparents and beyond got involved in all sorts of action because they were Catholic, as an expression of their faith in action.  We can discover the once high presence of Catholics in positions of local leadership, in trade unionism, in social caring services and in activity for justice in many guises.  By contrast, lay ministry has come to be seen as expressed in liturgy and inside the church buildings rather than based on Baptismal grace lived out in the totality of ordinary faith-based lives serving others.

Hence, with the now growing number of parishes without a resident priest, thoughts turn to how to replace the priest who is no longer resident with a lay person to hold together/lead the newly ‘orphaned’ parish.  And this is where error can enter.

Every person in every parish has a Parish Priest appointed by the bishop.  That he may not reside within the parish boundaries makes no difference to his leadership.  The priest is not replaceable as the spiritual leader in persona Christi capitis that he is ordained to be.  The Parish Priest, appointed by the bishop and in union with him, is the spiritual leader of the parish.  No priest (since the Middle Ages ‘chantry priests’) is ordained to be an ‘itinerant consecrator’.  His role in presiding at the parish Eucharist is as the spiritual leader and this cannot be delegated to a lay person.  Kasper writes, “We must affirm that community leadership (in the Church) in the theological sense is possible only for one who is ordained (a priest) since it cannot be divorced from the celebration of the Eucharist.  Such a dichotomy would reduce community leadership to a purely functional service, thus reversing one of the most important developments at Vatican II”. [Walter Kasper Leadership in the Church page 68]

That said, genuine collaboration between the priesthood of the ordained priest/bishop and the priesthood of the baptised is essential for the united Catholic expression of the distinct priesthoods of each.  The ministry of the parish priest does not exhaust all ministry possible through Christ in any parish.  And this is not new teaching.  St Thomas Aquinas concluded that there was a diversity of ministers in the Body of Christ because there existed a diversity of actions necessary for Church. [Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium 37]

Genuine collaboration between priest and parishioners is not easy.  It can take years to take root and mature through phases of tolerance/co-existence, developing an ability to communicate effectively, co-operation and, finally, collaboration. [cf. Sofield and Juliano in Collaboration – uniting our gifts in ministry or Sofield and Kuhn in The Collaborative Leader – listening to the wisdom of God’s people]  Nor is collaboration to be confused with or limited to the active participation by lay people within the Mass.  It is much more and reaches into all areas where the gifts of the lay parishioner can serve the needs of the parish.

A key role of priesthood is to draw out and build up the Spirit given charisms, attributes and abilities of parishioners able to divert time and energy from any other God-given responsibilities they may also have. [cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis 9 et al]  But it is well to remember that for a full time working lay person, practical actions for the parish begin only after 40 hours of work plus commuting time, home and family responsibilities and proper attentiveness to nurturing and living well the sacrament of marriage.

The living out of ordained priesthood is not easy just as the living out of self-giving, kingdom-building Catholic life is not easy.  Both forms of priesthood are needed because both bear witness to Christ and bring to others the Spirit of Christ.  The priesthood of the non-ordained is crucial to the mission of the church and has always been much more than doing tasks helping the parish priest, whether linked to the celebration of the Eucharist or around the church buildings and administration.  These tasks will be needed and appointments and commissions will be given, but this is only a tiny fraction of the expression of the priesthood of the baptised and in no way replaces the leadership responsibility of the parish priest.

“The primary affirmation here is that laypersons’ sharing in the salvific mission of the church, which is rooted in their baptism, can include the call to direct collaboration in the apostolate of the hierarchy (ordained ministers).” [Walter Kasper: Leadership in the Church page 69]  As Pope Paul VI had already pointed out, drawing from Vatican II, “the laity can also feel themselves called, or be called, to work with their pastors in the service of the ecclesial community, for its growth and life, by exercising a great variety of gifts and ministries according to the grace and charisms which the Lord is pleased to give them.” [Evangelii Nuntiandi: 73]  And Vatican II had already set out the responsibility of priests to “listen to lay people…and recognize their experience and competence in the different fields of human activity…also be confident in giving lay people charge of duties in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom… and even inviting them on suitable occasions to undertake works on their own initiative.” [Presbyterorum Ordinis 9]

For Hallam, through clustering opportunities, the path can lie clear to mature growth in collaboration between parish priest and people within the clear teaching of the Church and supporting the distinct vocations of all the faithful.

Deacon Bill Burleigh