Priest, Prophet, and King
In baptism, each Christian rises to new life in Christ and is anointed priest, prophet, and king. To this threefold sharing in the identity of Christ correspond three munera, or aspects of his saving mission: the priest sanctifies, the prophet preaches, and the king governs. The ontological change brought about in baptism therefore also enacts a commissioning in which the Christian receives the grace and the responsibility to exercise these munera in union with the risen Lord. I remember well the lesson that our venerable canon law professor, Gianfranco Ghirlanda, drilled into our heads again and again when speaking of this commissioning: you cannot separate the munera. Authentic Christian discipleship requires a continuity and harmony among the three: a Christian cannot authentically preach the faith without offering prayer and sacrifice, cannot offer sacrifice without serving others as Christ has served us, cannot serve others without telling them of the great gift we have received in Christ.
The way in which the munera are exercised undergoes a transformation in the man who receives the sacrament of Holy Orders. Christ’s example shows us that this ministry is profoundly human and relational, also entailing the full breadth and scope of the munera: one united action of teaching, sanctifying, and governing. How many of the events in the life of Christ clearly demonstrate this three-fold harmony in his ministry. We need only to look to the Last Supper, where Christ first arranged for the upper room to be made available, then taught his disciples and prayed for them, then bent to wash their feet before finally rising to break the bread and offer the chalice. Every element of the last supper was important and was part of Christ’s ministry – not only the breaking of the bread. Jesus is not only the one who offers the Eucharist – he is also our teacher and our Lord. And likewise, a bishop or priest cannot only be the one who sanctifies – he must also be one who teaches and who governs. Thus, from the earliest days of the Church, it has been clear that a bishop cannot authentically preside over the Eucharist while at the same time abdicating his duty to teach the faith or govern the local church.
In recent years, however, an understanding of this necessary unity of the munera has been undermined, and particularly in the ministry of priests. In the common understanding, and even among many members of the clergy, it is often either explicitly or implicitly held that priests are ordained as ministers who share only in Christ’s ministry of sanctification. Often one hears “Father, if only you did not have to worry about the practical concerns of the parish and could just focus on the spiritual matters.” And it is common today to speak of the priest and of priestly ministry in a way that resembles the work of a magic man – of one who whisks into the room, waves his hands and makes something holy, and then moves on to the next place. But clearly such an understanding of the priest cannot be reconciled with the actual priestly ministry of Christ, who did not just sweep in and sanctify. This mistaken notion that focuses the identity and ministry of the priest almost exclusively on the work of sanctification has had widespread negative repercussions in the Church.
Reticence in the Laity to Follow the Teaching and Governance of Church Leaders.
How many conversations in recent years among priests have unfolded something like this: “Did you read the editorial page this morning?” “Yes, I assume you’re referring to Betsy’s letter to the editor?” “Can you believe that? And she is a daily communicant! I just don’t understand how she could really believe that.”
Today we often find faithfully practicing Catholics who either blatantly dissent from the Church’s teaching or who openly oppose the leadership and authority of their priests or bishop. It is an everyday occurrence. Many of us assume that such dissent and disobedience are the signs of a lack of faith – that if the person just had more faith they would believe what the Church teaches and be more respectful of the clergy. While faith certainly plays a role, I think it is important to also recognize how an impoverished understanding of priestly ministry has also fed into this problem. If I believe that the priest shares only in Christ’s ministry of sanctification, or at least only fully in this aspect of his ministry, whereas I believe that Christ’s ministry of teaching and governing are not intrinsic or at least not entrusted in their fullness to those who have receive holy orders, then it seems perfectly logical that I could go to Mass and yet at the same time reject the teachings and the authority of my bishop and his priests. I would say to myself “Well he is out of his element. He should stick to what God has given him to do: which is to sanctify.” And I would be more inclined to resent the bishop or priest for attempting to teach or govern with authority, because I would see such authority not as having come from God by virtue of his sharing in the Christ’s ministry, but instead as coming from his own desire for power and control. Why would I follow someone who is trying to push me around or tell me what to think of his own authority?
Diminishment in the Number of Priestly Vocations.
Vocations to the priesthood have been growing throughout the United States in the last decade, and yet this growth has not been even. Some diocese have had an incredible boom in the number of men entering the seminary, whereas others have seen anemic growth. Why? People opine continually, and clearly there are many factors that affect the overall number of vocations. Yet a critical factor that I do not believe is given nearly enough attention is the extent to which the understanding of priestly identity and ministry operative in a diocese or religious community affects its ability to attract vocations.
Men do not have a vocation to be a magic man, particularly a celibate magic man. If the understanding and exercise of priesthood and priestly ministry are impoverished to entail sacramental ministry alone, it is very possible that men who have an authentic vocation to priestly ministry will not feel called. And this is particularly the case for men who are intelligent and have leadership ability. Articulate and intelligent men know that God would not call them to a vocation that did not allow them to use the intellectual gifts that he had given them in service to the Church. And so if they do not understand that the ministry of preaching and teaching is intrinsic and essential and defining of priestly ministry, they will be less inclined to be open to a priestly vocation. Similarly, those men who possess strong leadership ability and administrative skills will be less likely to consider a vocation to the priesthood if their understanding of priestly ministry either does not include or includes an impoverished sense of the ministry of service and governance exercised by the priest.
Damage to Community
The priest is ordained to ministry in the Church in persona Christi… capitis. This last word is often left out, particularly among those who promote an impoverished notion of the priesthood. The priest is called to act in the person of Christ the head. Jesus is not the big toe of the body. He is the head who shows his humility precisely in that as head he bows low and serves, even to the point of death. For the toe to bow low means nothing, but for the head to bow demonstrates true humility. As Saint Paul so eloquently wrote: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself. (Phil 2:6-7)” So it must be for the priest. The priest is given and must be understood to possess real authority not only sacramentally, but in matters of teaching and governance as well.
The undermining of the priest’s authority in non-sacramental ministry undermines his sense of responsibility to act in service of and for the good of the body. And so it is common to find a correlation in priestly ministry between the loss of authority and absence from ministry. This absence, the 9-5 syndrome, the complaining of being overworked, the multiple days off and extended periods of vacation, make more sense when the priest thinks that his ministry is supposed to be merely sacramental. Pastoral council meetings, managing staff, teaching at vacation bible school, and going to the woman’s sodality meeting – these are all seen as impositions and activities that lie outside of the priestly vocation. And so the priest quite easily can begin to excuse himself from building up and maintaining community life in his parish because he does not see such activities as being intrinsically tied to his ministry as a priest. Instead, he becomes a sacramental accessory to the life of the parish, and may say things like “This is your parish, you decide what you need to do.” And many of those who seek to dominate particular parts of parish life may encourage him in this thinking and commiserate about how overworked the poor priest is. “Poor Father, you have so much going on, don’t bother coming to the meeting – we’ve got it covered.”
Lack of Subsidiarity and the Adoption of Secular Governance Models
Another symptom of the impoverishment in understanding of priestly ministry manifests itself at the diocesan level. Since a magic man is clearly not capable of running a parish, it becomes necessary to institutionalize and even require lay positions and structures that can fill this void in priestly ministry. Large diocesan offices must be created to oversee finance and business administration and to direct religious education. These offices, in turn, begin to communicate and work directly with lay staff and volunteers from the parishes, rather than the priests themselves, since the work of teaching and governance is no longer considered to be intrinsic to priestly ministry. Soon, lay staff outnumber ordained clergy and religious, and because of this shift toward non-clerical hierarchies within the diocese, the model of governance adopted by the bishop and his lay staff is increasingly influenced by secular employment practices.
The context of governance within a diocese that is envisioned by Lumen Gentium and by the codes of canon law is nowhere to be found. While finance and administration meetings may begin and end in prayer, the spiritual relationship of shepherd and flock that is at the heart of Christ’s priestly ministry entrusted to the apostles and their successors is seriously compromised. Fewer and fewer administrative decisions are made by those who have been directly entrusted with the salvation of those under their care and have received the grace of holy orders to carry out their ministry.
What results when the three munera of priestly ministry are separated in favor of a purely sacramental model is destructive to the life of the Church. Vocations to the priesthood are lost, dissent from church teachings and authority among the laity is fostered, parish community is weakened, and priests become apathetic and frustrated. A priest can only carry out Christ’s ministry as he is baptized: priest, prophet, and king. Just as Christ stooped to wash his disciples feet, so must the priest stoop to pay the bills, oversee a youth minister, or attend the finance council meeting. The priest acts in the person of Christ the head, in the person of Christ who is the bridegroom to the Church, in the person of Christ who offered himself, priest, prophet, and king, to his beloved.