Today a priest is a prophet due to the similar elements that they share in common. This enables us to understand that today we don’t merely need priests, but priests with a prophetic nature.
Functions of a Priest
In the Old Testament, the main duty of a priest was to offer sacrifices for the people — sheep and goats without any defects. After the cutting of the sheep or the goat, the priest had to splash its blood on the four sides of the altar. As the tradition went, priests presented sacrifices to the Lord. The priest was also in charge of the Lord’s covenant box, the leaders of Israel and God’s law (Mal 2:7).
A priest is called to walk in the midst of troubles. He is called to bloom even on the dry land with faith and trust.
|A priest has many similarities to a prophet — all to make known the Eternal Word of God. Photo by Jim Olvera
The ministerial priesthood is rooted in the priesthood of Jesus who gave a ministry to the priests of today through which He continues to act in their midst as teacher of the word, as minister of the sacraments through which He sanctifies and reconciles people, as leader of the community and as pastor. Through the ordination rite, the priesthood of Jesus is conferred on priests to share in His eternal priesthood. Thereby, the priest gives powers and authority to people. He announces the Gospel and teaches the Christian community. Thus, the function of ministerial priesthood is to make present the message of Jesus Christ by sacramental worship of the Father and shepherding action, which creates a holy community.
But, the priestly function needs to be really consonant with contemporary conditions, so as to render it effectively and to adequately respond to the circumstances in which it is exercised. This can be done only in constant reference to Christ, our model, who enables us to move in contemporary conditions without losing sight of our final goal. The function should be based on a burning love of Jesus Christ and His Church to bring about the Kingdom (Cf., Lumen Gentium, No. 48).
Teacher of the Word. The primary function of the ministerial priest is to teach and preach the word of God to all and to bring about the Kingdom of God in reality in the lives of people. As we know, the ministerial priesthood is rooted in the priesthood of Jesus; therefore, while discussing the function of the priest, we should always refer to Jesus. The Gospel depicts Jesus as describing His own life and function in terms of serving others (Mk 10:45, Lk 22:27, Jn 13:1-20). Jesus commanded His disciples, “To go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).
Thus, heeding the command of Jesus, “It is the first task of priests to preach the Gospel and to establish and build up the people of God” (Cf., Presbyteroum Ordinis, No. 4). It is his duty to share the word of God which he has lived in daily life, to proclaim the message of God to those who have not heard it, to explain the Christian doctrine, to strengthen those who have the gift of faith, to present the Gospel message in such a way as to enable the hearers to solve the problems of the present-day world. Preaching the word is not merely an intellectual transmission of a message but “the power of God for the salvation of all who believe” (Rom 1:16).
Through the preaching of the word of God priests throw the spark of faith into the hearts of unbelievers and feed the hearts of the faithful. St. Paul also says in his letter to the Romans, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). It is this faith that must be the first objective of the priest’s office since faith in Christ is the constituent of the unity of the people of God.
But in this educated, developed and modern world, preaching has become very difficult. Today, priests cannot touch the hearts and minds of people unless they offer concrete applications of the Gospel to the particular situations of modern life. They must also become living examples of that word. Thus, preaching is not only by words but also by actions, which demand a personal dedication on the part of the priest to the preached word.
By effective preaching, the priest leads the faithful from baptismal infant faith to mature adult faith and brings the faithful to an awareness that they have been called by God to closely follow Christ and personally collaborate in the Church’s mission. Thus, they transmit the faith. “Transmitting faith means awakening, proclaiming and deepening the Christian vocation. . .” (Congregation for the clergy, directory for the ministry and Life of Priests, Tota Ecclesia, No. 45).
Minister of the Sacraments. Priests are the ministers of the sacraments through which they enter into communion with God and bring people to communion with God. Sacraments are expressions of our faith relationship to God in the Church; they build and strengthen our union with God as our Father. Through sacraments, priests make God present to the faithful, share His word with us and, at the same time, help people relate to each other and to God through community, the Kingdom of God in the world.
Thus, we see sacraments as the means of obtaining grace, building community and effecting transformation. By the sacrament of “baptism, priests introduce men into the people of God; by the sacrament of penance, they reconcile sinners with God and the Church; by the anointing of the sick, they relieve those who are ill, and especially by the celebration of the Eucharist, they offer Christ’s sacrifice sacramentally” (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 5).
Through the celebration of the sacraments, priests identify themselves with Christ. But, in this sacramental identification with Christ, the priest must add his vital, experiential and spiritual identification with his master. The priest will never truly fulfill his mission if he is not a living image of the good shepherd. The authenticity of his priestly life and the effectiveness of his ministry depend on his profound union with the vine, without which he can do nothing. The priests should always keep in mind and instruct the faithful through the sacraments that the Church celebrates her identity as a community of persons believing in Jesus Christ and striving to live out His proclamation in everyday life. This proclamation includes values of justice, freedom and fellowship, which Jesus proclaimed and lived out in His own life.
Leader of a Community. Priests as leaders of the community have the obligation to build a community of worship, faith, charity and justice. They are to bring people together in the experience of God’s love and in the paschal mystery of Jesus’ triumph over death. Priests are to promote reconciliation of people, not only between themselves and their Lord, but also with the community of conscience that is the Church. Each priest, as leader, leads his community in the formation of a just, mutually respectful and caring community.
As a leader, a priest is also a good listener who listens to the word, to the people, and to the community at large. Therefore, a priest is encouraged to develop ways in which he can listen to the heartbeat of his parish people and find ways through which he can enter into the community that he serves. If a priest is unable to listen, he will not be able to interpret the people’s experience and give them word and expression. He will not be able to recognize how God is acting in community life and what He is saying to its members. As a result, preaching will become empty rhetoric and liturgy a mere ritual.
Functions of a Prophet
The effort of the Old Testament prophets was the restoration of communities. The attempt was to remind the people about the Mosaic Covenant and its religious and social imperatives. If we wish to be the prophets of the modern world, we must remind the people about our covenantal relationship with God that was established by Jesus Christ with His precious blood. As prophets of God’s kingdom, priests are the builders of an alternative community. The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception that is alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Like the prophets of old, priests have to criticize and dismantle the materialistic, relativistic secular society and project the vision of a society that is free, fraternal and non-exploitative.
Relating the Law. The Law declares what is of obligation for all times and all men. The prophet’s first task is to denounce offences against the Law. What distinguishes him here from the representatives of the Law is that the prophet does not wait to be notified of a case before pronouncing judgment on it but exercises authority without proper jurisdiction or accreditation.
From what God reveals to him at the present moment, the prophet relates the Law to the existential situation. He makes accusation, saying to the sinner as Nathan said to David, “You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7). He seizes on facts (1 Kg 21:20), often by surprise (1 Kg 20:38-43). Hosea (4: 2) and Jeremiah (7:9) make appeals to the Decalogue; Ezekiel (18:5-18) to laws and established customs. Other applicable scriptures pertain to non-payment of wages (Jr 22:13, Mic 3:5), fraud (Am 8:5, Hos 12:8, Mic 6:10), the venality of judges (Mic 3:11, Is 1:23), the refusal to free slaves at the proper time (Jer 34:8-22), the inhumanity of money lenders (Am 2: 8) and of those “who grind the faces of the poor” (Is 3:15, Am 2:6-8). All these are so many faults against the Law and Covenant. With the power of charism, a prophet awakens in each man that moment when the light is accepted or rejected.
Seeking Common Good. The Prophets are aware of novelties within the traditional morality of clothing (Is 3:16-23), music (Am 6:5), or social relations. With change increased on all social levels, Israel now experiences the situation which Samuel had foreseen (1 Sam 8:10-18). The relation of master to slave has been, since the stay in Egypt, transferred to the heart of society.
Prophets oppose nostalgic thinking by the Jewish people, a seeking of the common good in some blissful image of past achievement that is expected to carry them along in the present. Such is the euphoria of those who say, “Is not Yahweh dwelling in our midst?” (Mic 3:11). The prophets are not opposed to the past but they clarify the true past with its moribund relics. They use the past to put into focus again the true basis of the nation’s religion.
Condemning Sacrilege. The prophets had harsh words for sacrifices (Jer 7:21, Is 1:11, Am 5:21-25), the ark and the temple (Jer 7:4, 26:1-15) — the same temple where Isaiah received his calling (Is 6) and where Jeremiah and Amos preached. They condemned sacrifices insofar as they had become sacrilegious. They would be just as validly critical of acts of Christian worship performed under similar conditions. These sacrifices have no value except in relation to the unique sacrifice of Christ.
Straightening Paths of Society. In the community of Israel, one perceives that the prophets, with the priests, play a role in the coronation rite of the king (1 Kg 1). King, priest and prophet are, for a considerable period of history, the three pillars of the society of Israel, sufficiently distinguished so as occasionally to be antagonistic to one another, but normally linked in a necessary interdependence.
Wherever the state as an institution existed, there were prophets on hand to counsel the kings: Nathan, Gad, Elisha, Isaiah especially, and on occasion Jeremiah. It was their prerogative to declare whether any action undertaken was according to God’s wishes, whether such a policy clearly fit into salvation history.
Models of Priesthood in Relation to Prophets
Priesthood is the road less traveled by the people. A priest is the salt of the earth that gives taste to the people’s lives. If he loses his saltiness, then he becomes useless. He is like a pearl that glitters in the light. He is the light of the world (Mt 5:13). In fact, priesthood is a journey with Jesus in the whole life of a priest. A prophet is a person who challenges people and enables them to change their lives.
Priest as Sacerdos. In this model, the priest is understood as a sacred person with sacred power to fulfill certain sacred functions. This was the understanding of the priesthood in the Church for centuries until Vatican II. Even after the Council, this image of the priest continues to exert great influence on the thinking of a large number of Catholics. The New Testament, in several key passages, portrays Christ as high priest and the Christian people as an essentially priestly community. All ministers are called to serve. Diakonia is the core of every ministry.
Priest as Builder of Christian Community. Presbyters played an important role in the earliest Christian communities. In Jerusalem, they were intimately related with the apostles in the Council (Acts 15: 2-29). They continued to be part of the leadership of the Jerusalem community at the time of Paul’s final visit (Acts 21: 18). It is not only the church at Jerusalem that had presbyters, but also in Ephesus (Acts 20). They were the servants of the community whose service consisted in the pastoral care of the people (1 Pet 5: 1-3). At the end of the first century, there was a church order according to which a group of presbyters was responsible for the leadership and pastoral care of the local communities (Acts 14: 23, 20:17-30).
In the theology of the priesthood, too, Vatican II marks a new beginning. The council was convinced that ministries exist in the church for the nurturing and constant growth of the people of God, and that the ministers are servants of their brothers and sisters so that all the people of God enjoy a true Christian dignity. It is the task of priests to gather the faithful and build a true Christian community and lead it by the proclamation of the word, by the celebration of the Eucharist and by pastoral care.
Priest as Prophet of the Kingdom of God. One of the significant insights of Vatican II was that the mission of the priest must be derived from the mission of Jesus (Lk 4:18). The life and ministry of Jesus was, as we have seen, centered on the Kingdom of God. In Him God was re-launching His project for a new society. Hence, Jesus strove to build an alternative community of freedom, equality and justice. As prophets of God’s kingdom, priests are the builder of an alternative community based on the values of the Kingdom: freedom, equality, love and justice.
Challenges of Priests and Prophets
Here are some of the challenges that priests and prophets undergo in their ministries. Challenges make them tough and bring them closer to God. In challenges, they find the strength and comfort of God’s love. Hence, challenges and sufferings are important parts of the life of every priest and every prophet.
Re-Evangelization Today. Evangelization is the proclamation of Good News and propagation of faith among the people. It is to build a community of faith with the values of Jesus Christ. Evangelization should be understood as bringing the Good News of God’s salvation to the human society. The word of God that is active and alive has to be preached. The Old and New Testaments are concerned in diverse ways with manifestation of God’s action toward humanity.
Today, it is a greater challenge to re-evangelize Christian people than it is to evangelize people of other faiths. In many parts of the world, many Christians are Christian by baptism, but they really don’t know Jesus. Therefore, they are not able to experience Jesus. Our methods of giving them Jesus Christ no longer attract them. It is a challenge for prophetic priests to make known God’s love expressed by Jesus on the cross. This can be done through new ways and means, by our own life example and enculturation.
Formation of Communities. In the early days, community was at the heart of Jesus’ world. St. Paul also formed communities wherever he went, the fruits of his heard work. The early Christians had good unity in their communities. They shared things. They took care of the needs of each other (Acts 4:32f). Can we find such communities today? Communities full of love, care and concern for each other? Then, the whole group of believers was united with the heart and soul. Jesus chose for his community persons from different walks of life, such as fisherman, tax collectors, etc. He educated them to live in communion where love became the center. Therefore, today’s prophetic priest has the challenge of building communities characterized by true communion.
Enduring Persecutions. “Watch out, for there will be men who will arrest you and take you to court, and they will whip you in the synagogues” (Mt 10:17). Before the apostles suffered, Jesus had predicted persecution. Jesus made this prophecy so that His disciples would have strength to endure it. A priest has to choose the narrow path that is hard to pass through. This narrow path is nothing but enduring sufferings and bearing crosses daily in any given situation. Sufferings are good when believers endure it for the love of Christ. A prophetic priest has the challenge of facing persecution in every given context.
Being an Exemplary Person. It is better to be a practical priest than to be a mere preacher. The Pharisees, Scribes and teachers of the Law were mere preachers who did not put into practice what they preached. Today, we need prophetic priests who are men of affection and reflection. Jesus was a good teacher as well as a practical man. Therefore, He had to face challenges even until death. Those who practice what they preach have to undergo persecutions. The one who stands for truth is always persecuted. Jesus commanded his disciples to listen to the Pharisees but never to follow them.
Today, we need prophetic priests who can be exemplary to others. Today, many priests are not prophetic in nature because they are not people who experience God. Prayerful priests are able to mold and shape themselves first, and then the people of God.
Living Faithful to Vows. Another great challenge is to live one’s priestly vows — especially in today’s world of freedom where the attitude of “enjoy life, be independent and have more” is widespread. A priest, who is a disciple of Jesus, has to live a chaste life so that he is open to give his love for all; he has to detach from worldly ties so that he expresses his trust in the Lord in all ways; he has to obey God’s voice, and the voice of his superior when necessary, for the betterment of society. He should be a man of faith who has to think about heavenly things. Saints were thinking of their reward when they worked hard for the Lord. In the same way a priest is called to follow Him. He sacrifices for the sake of the Kingdom of God so that others may be benefited. Doing this through his dedication to his work, a priest can bring people to Jesus the life giver.
Conditions for Becoming a Priest and a Prophet
Indeed, priesthood is the precious gift of God. Jesus sets some conditions for those who wish to become His close disciples. Even if someone wants by his own will to be a priest, he can’t become one because there is no grace of God upon him. At times, God has His own plans for different persons. Here are some conditions that Jesus gives to each and every disciple who wants to be His close friend in all the circumstances of life.
Love for Jesus. “Whoever loves his father or mother more than me is not fit to be my disciple; whoever loves his son or daughter more than me is not fit to be my disciple” (Mt 10:37). The successful priest is the one who loves all people without too great an attachment to his family members. Jesus himself has given this condition to the one who wants to follow Him. Following Jesus means to walk in his footsteps. Love for Jesus is the most important key of discipleship. Jesus asked Peter whether he loved Him more than anything. The love for Jesus also demands responsibility and sacrifice. We may have great love for parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and near-and-dear people, yet to be a priest or a close follower of Jesus, we need to forego many things. Our Master himself said, “Whoever doesn’t take up his cross daily and follow in my footsteps is not fit to be my disciple” (Mt 10:38).
Taking up One’s Cross. “If anyone wants to follow me, he must forget self, carries his cross and follow me” (Mt 16: 24). There is freedom to choose what one wills. Missionary life is full of crosses. Here the cross means the daily troubles and sufferings that come our way. When there are troubles in our lives, we complain about them to God and to others. But Jesus accepted suffering like an ass that never complains. Hence, He sat on the ass symbolically to show that He is carrying our troubles. We need to carry each other’s burdens. Jesus helps all of us to carry our troubles.
Love for One Another. Love is the keynote of priesthood. Jesus commanded His disciples to love one another. He said that, if we love one another, then we become His disciples. This love became the keynote of priestly life. Priests are identified as disciples because they share Jesus’ love for people. This love of Jesus sustains a prophet from his sins. Jesus said, “And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. You must love one another, as I have loved you, then every one will know that you are my disciples” (Jn 13:34). Because of Jesus’ love, a prophetic priest knows God, and he also knows that God loves us. He is born to love. God loved him first. Love makes his life whole. It gives satisfaction in his life. As the saying goes, “Even at the eleventh hour, we will be judged on the love that we had for the people.”
Obeying the Teachings of Jesus. Jesus said, “If you obey my teaching you are really my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). The words of Jesus are full of truth. There is life and meaning in His words. The words that He spoke are spirit and life. His word set many people free from their sins and diseases. The word is active and powerful in the hands of His disciples. Like a prophet, a priest of Jesus must believe in God’s words in order to be His close disciple. The one who obeys Jesus becomes the closer friend of God because Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit — the Trinity — are one. They work hand in hand to bring life to those who obey. The apostles of Jesus did not disobey His teachings. Jesus’ teaching is life-giving. It is like food that is full of taste and nourishment.
Common Elements in a Priest and a Prophet
Priests are well trained during their formation for several years; their internal journeys are also well cared for, and their weaknesses and strengths judged well. Yet these men who are called by God to serve Him on behalf of His people are not perfect beings.
Called by God. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, I have chosen you” (Jn 15:16). This is the clear indication that God chooses whomever he likes. Therefore, priesthood is a gift of God. It is a free choice. A man has to say either “yes” or “no.” In other words, we are not chosen by chance, but by choice. A priest is like a cornerstone that builds the spiritual temple, to serve as a holy priest. There is always a correspondence between a person and God. When God’s call came to Mary, she said “yes.” Moses became a prophet just because God chose him (Ex 3:4). Jeremiah was also called (Jer 1:4f): “Before I formed you in the womb. . .I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Called to Serve. We find often in the Bible Jesus saying, “Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great” (Mt 23:12). The value of the virtue of humility is great. When we have it, we must consider that we have a treasure and that we are friends of God. When we don’t have it, we need to consider that we are enemies of God. When some one practices humility, the fruit of it is as sweet as honey. We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility. Humility is a friend of God and of humble people. It follows patience. The more we use it, the more we become successful. The one who is humble is beloved of the Lord Jesus. We are called to serve others with humility as Jesus did during the Last Supper when he, a teacher, washed the feet of the apostles (Jn 13:5). A dedicated person works for the Lord and for the Lord’s people. A successful and faithful priest is one who has dedicated his life fully to God and to people.
Called in God Experience. Jesus called his apostles to be with Him and to be sent out. A priest has to be a man of God experience. Jesus demands this experience from each of His disciples who wishes to be His witness. It is through experience of God that one abides in the love relationship with God. Apostles of Jesus were with him for three years, yet they were lacking God experience. Jesus scolded them for having little faith and for asking Him to show them the Father. The priest who has God experience can give it to other people. We can give only what we have.
Called to Liberate. Jesus is sometimes thought of as a great liberator because His prophetic mission stood against all types of oppression and exploitation and led people to freedom and enjoyment of life as free children of God. He is the model and inspiration for all who proclaim the Kingdom of God, all who address justice and peace and all who respond to the plight of the poor and marginalized. Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God calls into question the unjust order, the oppressive and exploitative structures of the modern world. Throughout the world today, priests must proclaim the Church’s preference for the poor and lead their communities through Christ’s love and mercy to selflessly serve those in need, those imprisoned, those exploited, those oppressed and those in need of hearing the Gospel.
Spirituality of a Priest as a Prophet. Karl Rahner spoke of the death of real spirituality in the Church. To his mind, we are to a terrifying extent a spiritually lifeless Church. My observation is that there is a lot of piety among us, but not enough spirituality. A person is considered pious if he or she is faithful to a number of external exercises of piety. This fidelity may or may not affect the quality of that person’s life. That is why one wonders why there is a multiplicity of devotional practices in some religious communities. Spirituality has to do with the quality of one’s life. People can not claim to be truly spiritual if the fruits of the Spirit are not visible in their lives (Gal 5:22-23). Only a person who has been touched and transformed by the Spirit of God is truly spiritual. Such a person will sincerely try to live by the values of the Gospel.
Catholics need to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and personally appropriate His spirituality. The spirituality of Jesus is founded on His experience of God as Abba; for Jesus, God was the unconditionally loving parent. This experience was the source of His supreme freedom and the driving force of His radical commitment to God’s people. We need to recapture Jesus’ Abba experience. Only such an experience can free us for and sustain us in our prophetic mission. To appropriate Jesus’ spirituality, we have to identify ourselves with the poor and marginalized and be prepared to confront those who oppress them.
Effort has been made to show that a priest has many similarities to a prophet. Both are chosen. Both are called to serve. Both are men of God experience. They have similar functions to perform, challenges to face, and conditions to live in the given context. The main thing necessary for both priest and prophet is the call felt through God experience. A prophetic priest needs to be rooted in his God experience. This experience leads him to have moral authority within by self-giving in love to others without having attachment to anything in the world. This God experience becomes the core of his life. He needs to understand that the power to love and serve the needy comes from God alone who is the Eternal Word.
FATHER SINGARAYAR belongs to India Mumbai Province of the Society of the Divine Word. He has written many articles in various journals. Presently, he is doing his ministry at Sacred Heart Church, Andheri (East), Mumbai.