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Retreat on the Priesthood

The Priesthood of the Faithful

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There is more than passing value in looking at the meaning and implications of the priesthood of the faithful. There is much confusion these days in some quarters about who and what is a priest; there is an overwhelming amount of what they call identity crisis in many priests. So many writers are saying that ordination makes no difference, that every Christian is equally a priest, and that priests (as they are properly called) are merely functionaries; long, learned disquisitions on this subject say priests are not really different from the faithful. Finally, most of the agitation about women’s ordination stems from confusion over who is a priest….” Oh, she can be a priestess!”

The Mass, being in the vernacular, now brings out more clearly than ever the intimate participation of the faithful in the Holy Sacrifice. The liturgy says throughout “we” and “our” and “us”, “your sacrifice and mine.” Somehow they share in the offering of the Mass. Somehow the faithful participate; they must, otherwise the language of the liturgy would be unintelligible. They participate in the priesthood. The question is, how? It is worth going into this subject because it is part of divine revelation.

We have the explanation in the first letter of Saint Peter, the first letter of the first Pope, in which he speaks on the priesthood of all Christians. My intention is first to quote what he says, and then explain briefly what the Church says he means, all the while make applications to our own personal and corporate spiritual life.

He (speaking of Christ) is the living stone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him; set yourselves close to him so that you too, the holy priesthood that offers the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God, may be living stones making a spiritual house. As scripture says: “See how I lay in Zion a precious cornerstone that I have chosen” and “the man who rests his trust on it will not be disappointed.” That means that for you who are believers, it is precious; but for unbelievers, “the stone rejected by the builders has proved to be the keystone, a stone to stumble over, a rock to bring men down.” They stumble over it because they do not believe in the word; it was the fate in store for them.
But you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart” to sing the praises of God who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were “not a people” at all and now you are the People of God; once you were “outside the mercy” and now “you have been given mercy.”
I urge you, my dear people, while you are “visitors and pilgrims”, to keep yourselves free from the selfish passions that attack the soul. Always behave honorably among pagans so that they can see your good works for themselves and, when the day of reckoning comes, give thanks to God for the things which now make them denounce you as criminals.

As we prayerfully reflect on the inspired words of the first Vicar of Christ, we find they contain four great mysteries of Christian revelation that are like four pillars of the priesthood of the faithful. They are: vocation, community, faith, and responsibility.

The first pillar is vocation, in the mysterious designs of Providence, not everyone has been actually called to Christianity. We are not now here referring to God’s absolute Will; but de facto, concretely and historically, less than one half the human race has even heard the name of Christ. As Saint Paul asks, how can anyone believe in Him unless they have heard of Him? Before us, there were those who had heard and we inherited their faith. In a word, our primary vocation, on which all other vocations rest, is our vocation to Christianity. Fundamentally, it was this that Christ, speaking to all of us, meant when He said, “Come follow me.”

We do not often enough think of being a Christian as not merely “a” vocation, but “the” vocation, of which all other vocations are only aspects and variety. God’s ways are not men’s ways. The fact is plain that not all have actually, existentially received this call. We have. In our own country there are millions who haven’t the vaguest notion of who Christ is!

Some years ago I happened to be travelling on a train on Christmas Day. I got into conversation with two little boys whose ages were about seven and ten. As we were talking, I found out they knew that the day was Christmas. “But,” I asked them, “What is Christmas?” Well, they told me something about Santa Claus and Christmas trees. So I further asked them, “Do you know today is Somebody’s birthday?” Both said it was not their birthday. “No”, it is some great Person’s birthday – Jesus’ birthday.” They had no idea. And behind them, of course, was the ignorance of their parents.

We, unworthily, have been called. That is why Peter uses the word “chosen.” We have been called, selected; we have been preferred. Truly it cannot be because God foresaw such great heroic virtue in any of us. No Lord, depart from me a sinner! Never get the idea that having a vocation or being called is something which the one who is called merits. God calls whom He wills. But He does choose. Having been chosen, we then have an extraordinary dignity. All our consequences of being Christians follow from the fact that we have been called specially.

The second pillar is community. We are called. That is a collective, not a distributive plural. No doubt each one is called as an individual, but we are called to join an already existing community. The first believers were Mary and Joseph. That is the nucleus of Christianity in whose midst was Jesus. He couldn’t have made the collectivity or community aspect of this vocation more plain. In fact, He made sure there was the making of a community even before He was conceived; it is why Mary and Joseph got together, to make sure there would be at least two to start this thing going.

We are called to something; that something is a community. That is why Saint Peter uses words that are symbolic of community. He speaks of Christians forming a spiritual house made up of many stones; that was in the days before they made houses of wood. It takes many stones to build a house. We are a chosen race having a common ancestry in Jesus Christ. That is what a race is, people who somehow have a common heredity. We are, he said, a consecrated nation, having all been born. And that is what “nation” really means: people somehow born together, politically speaking, within a geographic space; and spiritually speaking, all born of grace. We form one nation, a nation of grace. And we are a people set apart. We are not to be, because we are not, like those who are not called; and we’d be out of our Christian minds to suppose that there is any credit to us.

Our priesthood as Christians, therefore, is that of a community. We belong together; we are members of the Body of Christ. Christianity is not solitary – that is a contradiction in terms. There are no solitary Christians, which doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes feel lonely. We have solidarity; we are not solitary. Nature is individual, is divided, is in pieces, grace creates community.

The third pillar of our common priesthood is of course faith. This is what, building on the grace that God gives us, makes us a Christian community. We are first and mainly a community of believers. Let me make that stronger. We are a community only insofar as we are believers. Much of the confusion in so many peoples’ minds nowadays arises from the fact that there are those who no longer believe but still claim to belong to the community. No they don’t! You either believe and you belong or if you don’t believe, you don’t belong. And it is possible to have belonged and to cease to belong.

By our faith we believe, which means we grasp that we cannot see; we accept on the word of God. He sees. We take His word; we embrace what He tells us is true. But let us never think that because we do not see with reason when we believe, we do not see. Yes we do! We see by faith. One of the most comforting phrases in Latin is “lumen fidei”, the light of faith. We have it. We can see things that people who don’t have the faith just don’t see. When we kneel down before the Holy Eucharist, reason tells us it is bread; faith tells us it is Jesus. We love other people including those who don’t love us; reason sees an enemy, while faith sees a friend. This is seeing. A person dies. Reason sees the life principle of the body leaving the body and leaving a corpse; faith sees the human spirit leaving this world, thank God, for a better one. Faith sees.

The heart of the Christian priesthood is faith. Whether it is the priesthood of the faithful, which is why they are called faithful and why they are priestly, or whether it is the priesthood of those who are ordained, the heart of the Christian priesthood is faith.

One of the great joys of this common priesthood of the faithful is to be in the company of other people who also believe. We have all had enough experience in life to know what the opposite means. This is no make believe; it’s real. The moment we enter a home or a group or a religious community and are among people who believe like we do, we relax and feel that we belong, even though we may never have met before. It is as though we have known each other all our lives. And we have, because in Jesus Christ we have long ago met before we have met in body.

The fourth pillar is responsibility. God does not call anyone in vain. He always calls for a purpose. Every vocation implies a mission. Simply put, to have been called to be a Christian is to be called to exercise the responsibilities of a Christian. What are they? They may all be summarized in the word which we all know synonymizes priesthood: sacrifice. To have been called to be a Christian is to be called to a life of sacrifice. Sacrifice means surrender. Since the priesthood we are talking about is the priesthood of Jesus Christ, who sacrificed not things outside of Himself but Himself, it must also somehow mean the surrender of ourselves.

Our faith could not be more sublime. It could also not be more demanding. This priesthood is not something merely to reflect on; it is something to put into practice. How?

Saint Peter says that we must sacrifice of our selfish passions, and he identified what kind of passions we are meant to sacrifice. We are told to sacrifice our passion to spite, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and criticism. Now we know that not to be spiteful, when we have every reason to be; or deceitful, when it would be so helpful; or hypocritical, when no one would know; or envious, when somebody has something that we obviously like; or critical, when it is too clear for words that the person is wrong – not to do these things calls for immense sacrifice.

Needless to say, what Peter specially had in mind is the kind of sacrifice on this level which those who are Christians are called upon to practice to be members of a community. We are not spiteful unless other people are around; or deceitful unless there is somebody to deceive. Why be hypocritical if there’s nobody to impress; or envious, if we don’t see someone better or better off than ourselves; or critical, unless we are living so closely with someone else that we can watch every breath they breathe? The sacrifice of our selfish passions is our lifetime of sacrifices, and Peter tells us that this is the first and continuous exercise of our priesthood of believers.

Our priesthood is secondly, as Peter further tells us, the sacrifice of patience, patience in putting up with those who oppose us. In Peter’s time he had his pagans; in our times we have our pagans, and they are all around us. We are, therefore, to expect to be criticized, to be opposed, to be handicapped in so many ways by those who do not believe. This was in large measure Christ’s sacrifice. He was finally put to death by His own people who did not believe in Him and by the pagan Romans who, perhaps, could not have been expected to believe. What He endured in His way, as He told us, we are to expect to endure in our way. I don’t know where Christians got the idea that being a Christian in any day is anything but to arouse opposition. You can be the nicest person in the world. Jesus was the nicest person in the world. Look what they did to Him!

The unbelieving world will oppose us, and does oppose us just because of what we are: mothers with families; men practicing chastity; priest’s faithful to their commitment; religious behaving like religious. There are many that admire Sisters in religious garb; they thank God and thank Sisters for looking like Sisters. But not all. Sometimes, may God forgive them, our worst enemies and the greatest sacrifice of patience we are called upon to practice is from those who have been with us but who have left us.

Thirdly, Peter says that the priesthood of the faithful is to be a sacrifice of witness. The apostle could not have been more extreme in describing who we are. He called us a royal priesthood. Conscious of our dignity, of our royalty, we are to behave accordingly by frankly, though humbly, witnessing through our practice of virtue so that the world might learn to know and love Christ from having seen us. A Christian is always on display, is always watched; a Christian is always to give witness to the great High Priest, who witnessed to His undying love for mankind by dying on the cross.

Saint Peter finally says that we exercise our priesthood of believers by our praising God, which he calls our spiritual sacrifice because it comes from within the spirit of man. You might wonder why Peter would call this praising God a sacrifice. When we talk about the sacrifice of the New Law, we mean necessarily the sacrifice of self. What does praising God mean? Very simply, it means not praising self. Concretely, we praise God in what we call our “acts of adoration.” To praise God is to adore God. The greatest temptation to which man is prone is to adore himself. If the word sounds strange, the reality is not strange at all. Adoration of God, otherwise known as praising God, means paying attention to God, acknowledging Him; it means admiring God.

Praising God means paying attention to God, and we know what sacrifice that takes, because it means turning attention from self. Acknowledging God’s greatness, who He is, means sacrificing that recognition of ourselves which we so hunger for that nations have been plunged into war because of one man’s ambition to be acknowledged as great. Psychologists tell us the deepest hunger of the human spirit is to be acknowledged as something by someone else. People will die to have this hunger satisfied. Acknowledging God in adoration means we acknowledge God’s greatness by acknowledging our nothingness. That is what we were before He made us and that is what we would be except for His love, nothing! This is the hardest sacrifice of all, the sacrifice of the praise of God.

We finally praise God by our admiration of God, which means that we so often, even daily, have to turn away from the mirror of self-admiration. We know this is costly. Faith tells us that it is here that we practice our priesthood, not just once in awhile, but all day, participating in the priesthood of the Savior, sacrificing ourselves like Him. But in addition, since He is God as well as man, we must also sacrifice ourselves for Him.

Jesus, our great High Priest, help us to better understand what it means to share in your priesthood. Help us to live this kind of priestly life, a life of daily, total, self-sacrifice.

Conference transcription from a retreat that
Father Hardon gave in December, 1977 to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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