This next topic is so vast and important that I’m going to present it in easy to understand sections that build upon each other. The topic is the Catholic priesthood, and understanding what it is to be a priest.
First I must make the point that I am, as I explained in my introduction, using Catholic doctrine as the basis for this tutorial. This does not imply that only the Catholic Church contains the practices I describe throughout this series, as different Christian denominations maintain, or not, differing components from the mother Church. However, with the exception of the Orthodox Church, the “eastern tradition,” all Christians up until the Reformation had the common doctrine and furnishings of worship as I describe here in this series.
What is the priesthood, and what does it mean to be a Catholic priest, and where does the current structure of the priesthood come from? First, let me address a modern misconception that the priesthood is an “elite” position with a “job description.” That concept has never been true, and is wrong for two reasons. One is that under Catholic doctrine all the faithful are considered priests, called the “baptismal priesthood.” The second reason this is wrong is that the “ministerial priesthood” is not a job description to which one attains, but has its roots in the priesthood of the Old Covenant, which has the purpose of offering sacrifice.
So that you don’t have to believe me, but read the actual words of the Catholic Church, here are readings from the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” The correctness of the Catechism is, by the way, a responsibility of the Pope, one of his “job responsibilities!” This means that the Pope “signs off” on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and all updates and clarifications. This is not a work of the Pope’s “infallibility” per se; it is, rather, one of his responsibilities as Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Jesus Christ to ensure accuracy and “quality control.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church is, to quote Pope John Paul II in his introduction, “a compendium of all catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals… a point of reference for the catechisms or compendiums that are prepared in various regions.” This means that the Catechism is a statement of doctrine that the Church has always maintained and guarded, but assembled into one reference book so that local churches can have the complete set of doctrine from which to draw upon as a resource locally. Pope John Paul II even calls it a “reference text.”
Thus, here is the Catholic doctrine regarding the priesthood of all the faithful.
Two participations in the one priesthood of Christ
1546 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.”
Let me explain. Far from demeaning parishioners, the lay people, and “reserving priesthood for the elite hierarchy,” Catholic doctrine has always maintained that all the faithful are members of the priesthood. This is called the “baptismal priesthood,” and each member carries out their participation in the priesthood of Christ according to their vocation. I cannot tell you how annoyed I have been with non-Catholic Christians who blatantly lie, willfully or out of ignorance, that the Catholic priesthood is somehow elitist and separating of the people from Jesus Christ, when the opposite is true. In fairness in the crisis of faith that affects all Christians in this society, Catholics themselves of the past two generations have lost track of the realization that they, through Baptism and Confirmation, have been initiated into the very real priesthood of Jesus Christ. They are then speechless when non-Catholics criticize them, quoting from scriptures the very basis that yes, indeed, Catholic doctrine agrees, which is the priesthood of the faithful. I sigh in extreme exasperation and get headaches of annoyance, and my blood pressure rises, I won’t hide those facts from you.
While leaving discussion of infant Baptism and the sacrament of Confirmation to later tutorials, let me make this pertinent point. I’ve explained it before in posts under the tag of Baptism, but now you probably understand it more easily. Baptism of infants is a continuation of the washing and swaddling that Israelite infants received after their birth to bring them to the Temple and be initiated into their faith. John the Baptist did not “invent” baptism and he didn’t “mean for it to be for adults.” John the Baptist recognized that a new baptism will be needed when the Messiah comes; that no longer the washing of the infant, the putting of the infant in new swaddling clothes, and taking the infant to the Temple with the appropriate sacrifice made one a member of the faithful that the Messiah will call. John the Baptist, called by Jesus the greatest born of human woman, understood that a new Baptism is needed, of water and Spirit. This Baptism was given, obviously, to adults as the shift from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant took place, with the coming of Jesus Christ. But the Catholic Church always understood that infants are to be consecrated to God at their birth, just as had been true of the Israelite infants. This is the Baptismal origin of both the practice of baptizing infants and the Catholic doctrine that upon their baptism they are part of the “baptismal priesthood.”
Recognizing that infants cannot have a vocation other than to be infants, the active period of the “baptismal priesthood” of children commences at their thirteenth birthday when they receive the sacrament of Confirmation. Again, without preempting what I want to explain about this sacrament in future tutorials, I will make some simple points. At thirteen in the Israelite tradition of the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, children are viewed as being adults regarding their responsibility to God and their faith. Confirmation is a continuation of that understanding and, again, it is where the Old Covenant meets the New Covenant. This is why the Catechism section that I have just quoted calls the priesthood of the Christian community, the laity, a “baptismal priesthood” but one where the faithful are fully “consecrated” “through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.”
Yes, you Catholic parents who are reading this and who have either not baptized your child or had them receive Confirmation; this is why there is a problem. It is not the Catholic Church being “mean” but rather, these are the steps one takes to be consecrated, to be made a sacred member of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, exactly as when in the Jewish faith, the Bar Mitzvah boy must actually study and do his Bar Mitzvah to be the Bar Mitzvah boy; just thinking good thoughts and going to synagogue is not the same.
So this directly addresses the dignity of the laity. The Catholic laity is not only dignified, it is priestly and each and every person, male or female, married, single or divorced, straight or gay, rich or poor are a member of the “baptismal priesthood” and are “consecrated” “in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king” if they have received Baptism and Confirmation, period. From the point of those sacraments onward, throughout one’s life, it is “each according to his own vocation” that the baptismal priest exercises their priesthood. Here is further explanation.
1547 The ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests, and the common priesthood of all the faithful participate, “each in its won proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ.” While being “ordered one to another,” they differ essentially. In what sense? While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace-a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit-, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church. For this reason it is transmitted by its won sacrament, the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Notice that rather than being an upward hierarchy, “the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood.” Thus the “ministerial priesthood” serves the baptismal priesthood, the common priesthood. To summarize:
1591 The whole Church is a priestly people. Through Baptism all the faithful share in the priesthood of Christ. This participation is called the “common priesthood of the faithful.” Based on this common priesthood and ordered to its service, there exists another participation in the mission of Christ: the ministry conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders, where the task is to serve in the name and in the person of Christ the Head in the midst of the community.
1592 The ministerial priesthood differs in essence from the common priesthood of the faithful because it confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful. The ordained ministers exercise their service for the People of God by teaching (munus docendi), divine worship (munus liturgeicum), and pastoral governance (munus regendi).
1121 The three sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders confer, in addition to grace, a sacramental character or “seal” by which the Christian shares in Christ’s priesthood and is made a member of the Church according to different states and functions. This configuration to Christ and to the Church, brought about by the Spirit, is indelible; it remains for ever in the Christian as a positive disposition for grace, a promise and guarantee of divine protection, and as a vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church. Therefore these sacraments can never be repeated.
I’m going to wrap up this segment of discussion here, even though I know it raises even more questions! But I want to keep this a “one topic at a time” approach as much as possible. Therefore my summary point of this section is that Christians should understand that Catholics, through Baptism and Confirmation, are considered of the priesthood of Christ and that while this differs from the ministerial priesthood, there is a dignity of vocation that if anything is under-recognized and under utilized among Catholics themselves. Rather than agitating an erroneous belief that the Catholic “hierarch” somehow “keeps down the dignity” of the laity, everyone needs to understand that Catholic doctrine most clearly states as it has from Apostolic times that the opposite is true. When I write later about the apostolic basis for the understanding of the sacrament of Confirmation, you will see that even more clearly. I honestly have been disappointed with many Catholics at their lack of understanding of the dignity and the calling of the baptismal priesthood.
I hope that you have found this helpful.