You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6). This verse puts forward the distinguishing elements and the newness of the priesthood of a Supreme Order. After the Second Vatican Council, priesthood underwent certain traumatic experiences. The priestly exodus that followed left a question mark in the minds of both those who clung on in fidelity as well as the laity, which stood in awe. Some called it a “crisis,” while some others found “renewal” to be a more suitable term.
Today, in an almost entirely secularized world, which causes ripples in priestly life, too, more issues are cropping up. Now the concern of everyone has to be: to shape priests into greater fidelity, commitment and authenticity.
The source of discernment for the true identity and ministry of the priest is Christ himself, who established it. It is by incorporating Christ into his life and inserting his own very person into the person of Christ that a priest recognizes his true identity. In other words, the priest finds his original image in the person of Christ. Christ is the ultimate cause of his ontological existence. Therefore, this is a true blessing, for all the priests who represent Christ through their life.
On the other hand, priests’ identity and ministry are bombarded with a series of questions and are not exempted from the present crisis. Coping with the changing world would not offer any solution, but would seem to be a betrayal. An unquestioned acceptance would place the individuality, dignity and freedom of the person at stake. This is the dilemma into which priests were plunged into after Vatican II. Living in this world but belonging to the other world, having an ontological existence for the world above, a priest finds himself caught up in the widening dichotomy between the secular world and the eternal values of the other. Self-actualization, achievement orientation and self-fulfillment, along with scientific, technological and cultural progress in a competitive scenario, has left the priest in a state of disillusionment regarding his mission in the world. He stands amidst challenges of all kinds. Some even raise questions on whether it is worth taking such a risk for the cause of an unseen One. Many others would doubt whether the priest has a function in this world, or whether he is wanted or has relevance at all.
There are certain factors that affect the life of priests — namely, shortage of personnel, overwork and lack of understanding. The life of the laity is becoming more and more secularized. We also find values such as love of neighbor, respect for others, forgiveness, etc., fading away. There is a change in the theological understanding of priesthood, expectations of the laity regarding their priests and the way that many priests understand themselves.
In this situation, What is the function of a priest? How can he give witness to the world? How does a priest discover within him the priesthood of Jesus? Above all, what is the identity of a priest? Reflecting on all these, I understand better the concept of priesthood and its implications in the present world from the perspective of blessings and challenges that are posed to the priests to live an authentic life.
We see the identity of priests in the unique priesthood of Christ, the perfect mediator-High Priest. The eternal priesthood, which Christ instituted in the existing Israelite milieu, derives its newness from the unprecedented and perfect redemptive value, which differentiates it from all the pre-Israelite priesthood, which had a human origin, and the Israelite priesthood, which was confined to the service of Yahweh. It is the divine origin, salvific motive and permanence that made Christ’s priesthood a participative priesthood, so that it can continue to be his efficacious instrument in the economy of salvation. The participation is realized through a call and consecration which mark the priest to be the alter Christus, so that he can faithfully represent Christ.
The Church, through the centuries, has never lacked the witness of men and women who have sought to imitate the Lord Jesus in His particular way of living and loving. From the analysis of the contributions made by Vatican II on priests and the priesthood, as well as the identity of priesthood today, it can be seen that there is a shift in the understanding of priesthood taking place.
We have come to the realization that the old ideas about the priesthood have been changed. Now we have a new understanding of priesthood which is based on Christ our Lord the Eternal Priest. Today, at the Eucharistic celebration, the priest faces people. It shows the new demands that are placed upon the priest, which calls him to be a real leader to the community. If a priest is to be a leader, then first he has to be one among the people. Again, if he is to lead people to holiness, then he has to be holy himself.
Today, a priest is no more a person who exercises power and authority, but is a person of ministry and service. In order to gather people as one community, to lead them in prayer and to invite them to Eucharistic celebration, the priest should not be just a priest, but a minister and servant of God’s people. Modern studies have challenged the concept of priesthood that was prevalent in the Catholic Church for almost a millennium. But in the midst of challenges and the crises that are faced today every priest should realize that he has responded to the divine call freely and willingly. This response is not merely a job, but involves an enormous task, tremendous responsibility and, above all, taking the daily cross and following the Lord who has shown the way.
Chosen by God from among men for the sake of men (see Heb 5:1), the priest becomes a mediator between time and eternity in the economy of salvation. Christ becomes the why and how of a priest’s state of life, assuring credibility to his priestly nature and mission. And so, the solution to the disillusionment and the identity crisis of priests lie in the changes of social, cultural and contextual scenarios. The undisputable features of Christ’s priesthood remain as the yardstick of authenticity. The sole priesthood of the Eternal Mediator, Son of God made man, remain as the only source of verification as long as there is the need for mediation and redemption. The integrity and identity of the priest who is called, consecrated and sent out to his mission is derived not in the so-called up-to-date, secular and modern world, but in Jesus Christ.
May the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ the eternal Priest intercede for us, that we all who are priests and aspiring to be priests may obtain from her Son all the graces that are needed for the fulfilment of our vocation as servants of God and his people.
Father Singarayar, S.V.D., is a well-known writer and contributor of The Priest. He has written various articles in international and national journals.
|Witnesses of Christ
Priests, who are taken from among men and ordained for men in the things that belong to God in order to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins, nevertheless live on earth with other men as brothers. The Lord Jesus, the Son of God, a Man sent by the Father to men, dwelt among us and willed to become like his brethren in all things except sin. The holy apostles imitated him. Blessed Paul, the doctor of the Gentiles, “set apart for the Gospel of God” (Rom 1:1) declares that he became all things to all men that he might save all. Priests of the New Testament, by their vocation and ordination, are in a certain sense set apart in the bosom of the People of God. However, they are not to be separated from the People of God or from any person; but they are to be totally dedicated to the work for which the Lord has chosen them. They cannot be ministers of Christ unless they be witnesses and dispensers of a life other than earthly life. But they cannot be of service to men if they remain strangers to the life and conditions of men. Their ministry itself, by a special title, forbids that they be conformed to this world; yet at the same time it requires that they live in this world among men. They are to live as good shepherds that know their sheep, and they are to seek to lead those who are not of this sheepfold that they, too, may hear the voice of Christ, so that there might be one fold and one shepherd. To achieve this aim, certain virtues, which in human affairs are deservedly esteemed, contribute a great deal: such as goodness of heart, sincerity, strength and constancy of mind, zealous pursuit of justice, affability and others. The Apostle Paul commends them saying: “Whatever things are true, whatever honorable, whatever just, whatever holy, whatever loving, whatever of good repute, if there be any virtue, if anything is worthy of praise, think upon these things” (Phil 4:8).
— Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 3