On the Priesthood - Part 2

4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. 5 This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders (presbyteros) in every town as I directed you, 6 if any man is blameless, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of being profligate or insubordinate. 7 For a bishop (episkopos), as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled; 9 he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it. (Titus 1:4-9)

14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders (presbyterion) laid their hands upon you. (1 Tim 4:14)

Our English word priest is derived from the Greek word prebyteros, which is underlined above and is translated in the RSVCE as elders. In the passage above from Titus, priests were appointed. In the other passage, the bishop Timothy received his gift of ordination by the laying on of hands by other priests. The literal meaning of the Greek words refers to raising one’s hand to vote, hence the idea of ‘appointing’ a priest. However, this phrase was used to indicate an actual laying on of hands, as the very earliest Christian texts attest.

In the above text from Titus, we learn of the episkopos, or bishop. From the context, we understand that a bishop is a priest. In fact, from this text we see that the bishop Titus has the charism to ordain priests. This is a characteristic that sets a bishop apart from ordinary priests: a bishop has the charism to ordain. We understand that ordinary priests, while having the charism to administer all of the other sacraments same as a bishop, has no charism to ordain.

The other characteristic of a bishop is described in Titus 1:9 above: a bishop is to ‘hold firm’ to Christ’s teachings, so that he may be able to hand them on to others. This is what bishops have done, for two thousand years; the same Faith that Jesus taught is still taught today through this powerful episcopal charism of protecting and handing on the Faith generation after generation. This charism to protect the teachings of our faith is not given to ordinary priests, who teach what has been given to them. Such teaching is, nevertheless, a priestly charism: a sermon preached by a priest is more than mere words.

What is the relationship between bishops and priests? It is our belief that the bishop enjoys the full expression of Apostolic ordination, such that he is the chief steward of his flock, distributing the grace and truth of Christ as described in part 1 of this essay. The ordinary priest enjoys a similar expression of ordination, but in subordination to his bishop. He is, so to speak, a steward, but not the chief steward. Here we have the meaning of hierarchy: the priestly ministers of the Church are not each to their own, but follow an hierarchical rule with priests subordinate to their bishop. (Hierarchy is further defined by adding the order of deacons under the bishop as well.)

Let’s now compare and contrast this ministerial (sacerdotal) priesthood with the priesthood of all believers.

4 Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious; 5 and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Pet 2:4-5, 9)

This is the primary text describing the priesthood of all Christians. We are ‘a holy priesthood’ and ‘a royal priesthood. Our priestly sacrifice is ‘to offer spiritual sacrifices.’ There is an OT background to this declaration:

3 And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel." (Ex 19:3-6)

As explained in another essay, this declaration by God to Israel was a preface to the first covenant God swore with His people at Sinai. This original covenant was easy and established Israel as God’s priesthood to bear witness to the other nations. However, the Israelites broke this covenant immediately when they worshipped a golden calf, and God established a second, harsh covenant with His people in which priesthood was limited to the Levites, the sons of Aaron specifically.

By quoting from that first covenant episode, Peter teaches us that the New Covenant re-establishes that plan. The people of God is a priesthood. But, as the New Covenant church is a spiritual entity (the Mystical Body of Christ), so our common priesthood is a spiritual one. As St. Peter teaches, we offer spiritual sacrifices. Note the plural on ‘sacrifices.’ Not so with the ministerial priesthood, which offers only one sacrifice: that of Christ on Calvary. And, although the grace of Christ’s sacrifice is spiritual, the sacrifice itself is not – it was a real, physical sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The ministerial priesthood offers that same physical Lamb of God on the Eucharistic altars. The rest of us do not offer that sacrifice; however we participate in that sacrifice when we receive Holy Communion.

What are examples of these spiritual sacrifices of which Peter speaks? The Second Vatican Council said:

The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. (cf 1 Pet 2:4-10) Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, (cf Acts 2:42-47) should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. (cf Rom 12:1) Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them. (cf 1 Pet 3:15) (Lumen Gentium, 10)

Basically, everything we do is ordered towards spiritual sacrifice. Chief among “all those works” is prayer and bearing witness to others. And that, in the end, is the purpose of the priesthood: to help others.

We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed to be able to instruct, become light to illuminate, draw close to God to bring him close to others, be sanctified to sanctify, lead by the hand and counsel prudently. (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio)