Priestly Ordination

Thursday, November 13, 2003



A reader wrote to me stating that he had read a letter to the editor of NCR from a former priest stating that "once a priest always a priest" is false because Jesus alone is the one high priest and mediator, and priesthood of mediation ended with him. The reader wanted to know what this meant.

I confessed that not having seen the original letter, I could not be absolutely sure, but I thought I could take a stab. It's an argument that I don't make very often for reasons I will clarify.

In Psalm 110:4, we see the line, "You are a priest forever, according to the line of Melchizedek". This Psalm is alluded to in reference to Jesus in Hebrews 6:20 and the theme continues in chapter 7. The Greek word for priest in this instance is archiereus , which is translated high priest. This is the role of the cultic priest as a mediator between God and others in the Old Testament as found in the Septuagint. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of the abolition of this role since it was culminated in the one mediator, Jesus Christ. The entire New Testament only uses the word archiereus in three different ways:

1) In reference to the Jewish priests of the Sadducee court who ultimately rejected Jesus.
2) In reference to Jesus himself as the final and ultimate high priest.
3) In 1 Pet 2:9, all Christians are called a royal priesthood (using a different word), because we can approach the Father directly by a share in Christ's nature.

Lumen Gentium speaks of one universal priesthood belonging to Jesus Christ alone. In number 10, it states that through baptism, we all enter into a common priesthood with Christ. Ministerial priesthood is an expression of the baptismal calling to the common priesthood. It differs in essence and degree by being ordered to the common priesthood of the faithful. This ordering serves a functional purpose of calling the community together to become what it is - the Body of Christ. This is most perfectly symbolized in the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of Christian life according to SC 10.The following quote is from Lumen Gentium 10:
10. Christ the Lord, high priest taken from among men (cf. Heb. 5: 1-5), made the new people "a kingdom of priests to God, his Father" (Apoc. 1:6; cf. 5:9-10). The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, that through all the works of Christian men they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the perfection 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 sacrifice, living, holy and pleasing to God (cf. Rom. 12:1). They should everywhere on earth bear witness to Christ and give an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope of an eternal life which is theirs. (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15).
We see in this paragraph that there is one high priest in the Church, who is Jesus Christ. Through baptism, this priesthood is conferred on all Christians. In other documents of Vatican II referenced in the Catechism, we see that baptism imprints an indelible seal on the soul that begins a process of transformation in Christ (see par 1272 of the CCC).

LG 11 and SC 10 of the Second Vatican Council decrees tell us that the Eucharistic liturgy is the source and summit of Christian life. We are called to participate in the priesthood of Jesus by offering our very selves. Often, we think of Eucharist as God's gift of himself to us, and it is. Yet, we also offer ourselves to God through Christ in the Eucharist. We become what we receive. Through the transubstantiated bread and wine, we ourselves are substantially changed. The ministerial priest does not simply mediate between us and God. Rather, the ministerial priest functions to call us together to become what we are: the Body of Christ! These thoughts are echoed in the remainder of LG 10 in the following paragraph:
Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.[2] The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly people; in the person of Christ he effects the Eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people. The faithful indeed, by virtue of their royal priesthood, participate in the offering of the Eucharist.[3] They exercise that priesthood, too, by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, abnegation and active charity.
The faithful participate in the offering of Eucharist. The ministerial priest does not offer Eucharist alone. Technically, it is improper to refer to a Mass as "Father Jim's Mass". It is our Mass. It is not as though the ministerial priest consecrates the Eucharist for himself and generously decides to share it with the rest of us. Rather, the ministerial priest presides within an action that belongs to the entire community!

Christ performs the act of consecration not through the ministerial priest, but through all of us!

Nor does the ministerial priest offer Eucharist in place of Jesus. Jesus alone acts in the Eucharist, through the entire community. Thus, the priest is simultaneously acting in persona Christi and in persona ecclesiae (in the person of Christ and in the person of the Church). His role is functionally ordered to the common priesthood of the faithful, as the one who calls us together to become what we are: The Body of Christ!

Many Catholics conceive of grace pouring from Christ through Mary to the Pope, then down through the bishops to priests and deacons with what's left over trickling down to the rest of us. While Lumen Gentium does speak to a hiearchical teaching authority acting as spokespersons for the Body of Christ, grace itself is not conceived this way in the document. Rather, the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful face one another, side by side, and are ordered to one another. Grace flows in a circle, rather than running down a pyramid.

Yet, there is a difference in essence and degree between the ministerial priest and the laity. In some circles, ordination is called an ontological change. Ontology deals with the nature or substance of thing. It answers the question, "What is it?" Saint Augustine never used this language, but he did speak of ordination leaving a permanent character on the soul, where a "character" referred to the Roman practice of branding or tattooing soldiers to mark them permanently. In some mysterious way, the ministerial priest is a different nature than the common priesthood by virtue of a permanent change that occurs in ordination.

What is this difference?

Many people immediately jump to the fact that a priest acts in persona Christi at Mass to suggest that the ministerial priest is more like Christ than others. However, baptism initiates a transformation that conforms us to Christ, and all Christians are called to act as another Christ in the world.

Is ordination a change that occurs after baptism, such that the ministerial priest is transformed twice? Or, is ordination a deepening of a change that occurred at baptism? If ordination deepens a change received at baptism, is the ministerial priest ontologically different from others from the moment of initiation into the Body of Christ? Whenever the change occurs, what does it mean to say that the ministerial priest differs ontologically or essentially from others?

In asking such questions, it is not my intent to suggest that the Church is mistaken in saying that ministerial priests differ from other Christians in essence. The doctrine appears to be held definitively by the Church, and I believe there are some good reasons for holding the doctrine. I ask such questions not to challenge the doctrine itself, but to suggest that there remains room for development in the theology of ministerial priesthood. Some questions are answered by the teaching, but new questions arise. We'll explore the answered questions in just a bit.

What does the New Testament say about ministerial priesthood?

Catholic ministerial priesthood does not derive from the office of archiereus referenced in the Old Testament. That priesthood ends (or culminates) in Christ. Rather, Catholic ministerial priesthood derives from a New Testament office known as the presbuteros, or elder.

The Vatican II documents refer to passages such 1 Tim 5:17-22 as evidence for ordination by laying on of hands to this role (see footnote 155 to LG 20,21). In its secular sense, the word means "elder", and the presbyter seems to have a role that was to build up the community and call out the gifts of the members of the Body of Christ. The presbyter was not a cultic mediator between God and other people. Rather, the presbyter was a servant-leader who brought out the best in the community, and lead through preaching and teaching.

It is also interesting to note that since Vatican II (LG 20,21) references 1 Tim 5:17-22 in reference to ordination, then it is very odd that verses 1 and 2 of the same chapter, which speak of male presbuteros and female presbuteras are translated in English as elders, while verse 17 translates the same word as "presbyter" indicating an office. The word for youths in 1 Tim 5:1-2 is neoterous or neoteras, which can be translated as novices. Did women hold the office of presbyters?

Another point the author of the letter to NCR may have been making is that the sacraments are all derived in some way from either explicit or implicit passages of the New Testament.

However, aside from those bearing the title "Apostle", we have no indication what any other office did. In addition to offices of deacons, presbyters, and bishops (episkopoi), there was a separate office called teachers, and there were also administrators, and prophets. The New Testament does not tell who presided at Eucharist, or who confirmed, or who heard confessions, or even who the Apostles left in charge.

The idea of a three-fold ministry of deacons, presbyters, and bishops is derived from Saint Ignatius of Antioch in the second century, and there is disagreement among many orthodox saints of the early church over who performed which duties. Even Ignatius does not tell us clearly who did what in his hierarchy, and there is evidence that deacons once held more authority than presbyters in many places. For example, Pope Clement, also writing int he second century, does says Apostolic succession comes from Christ and goes to bishops and deacons, with no mention of presbyters (see First Letter: Ch 42). We have no clear evidence that presbyters presided regularly at Eucharist until about the fourth century.

Conservatives will argue that the lack of evidence that presbyters presided regularly at Eucharist does not mean that they did not, in fact preside at the Eucharist. Furthermore, while some will admit the confusion of roles among some early saints, they will claim that things were later cleared up through infallible definitions at Councils.

Some progressives will argue that this confusion in the early Church indicates that Jesus never intended a cultic priesthood of mediation, and never ordained anyone a presbyter, per se. Rather, they speak of the office arising as a post resurrection development that took centuries to evolve to our current understanding.

Either way, if we do not admit that the Holy Spirit guided the Church in making some decisions that Jesus did not resolve in his life-time, we wind up in a quandary of confusion.

Since I am usually arguing with lay people that women and married men are called to priesthood as we understand it today, I seldom make the full progressive argument, because it leads too far astray into issues of what we mean by a "priest" and how it evolved in the first place, and I am trying to argue for ordaining married people and women to the common perception of a priest as we have come to understand it today.

I also like the theology of "once a priest always a priest" because it allows the laity to have confidence in the sacraments even when they are performed by a sinner. This is why I believe the doctrine of ministerial priests differing in essence is held definitively by the Church. What the Church is trying to say is that we need not doubt our ministers based on the fact that they are all too human.

This notion was developed by Saint Augustine after the Donatist controversy. During the fierce persecution of the romans, many priests and bishops had committed apostasy. After the edict of Milan and later Chritianization of the Empire, the Donatist maintained that the lines of succession of ordination for apostate bishops were broken by the apostacy. Many Christians doubted whether their own priest were presiding over valid sacraments.

Saint Augustine countered that once a person was validly ordained, they remain ordained forever, even if the person lapses into heresy and apostasy. As already alluded to, he compared ordination to a permanent tattoo on the soul, called a "character" in those days. The notion of a permanent character developed into a change of essense through Trent and Vatican II, and has been manifestly demonstrated through Councils to be a definitive part of the deposit of faith. Because the bishops acred collegially to reach a consensus, LG 10 meets the requirements of canon 749.3 to "manifestly demonstrate" an infallible teaching of the ordinary universal magisterium.

This notion of the permanent character of ordination was intended to protect the Church from doubting that Christ worked through the community even if her priests were failures and sinners. The idea of a permanent change in the recipient of ordination was never intended to set the ministerial priests apart as some sort of higher class of being.

Someone who made a confession to John Geogen, Paul Shanley or James Porter before they were arrested should not need to worry about whether Christ really forgave their sins. Nor should people wonder if they really received the Body of Christ when these men celebrated Eucharist.

I believe "once a priest always a priest" is a legitimate development of doctrine under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it assures us that Christ performs the sacrament, and not the human sinner holding the office of presbyter. It is based on the principle that Christ's grace is mediated through the whole Church, and not simply the sinner receiving the laying on of hands.

However, when other progressives say that Jesus ordained nobody a priest, they are often referring to the fact that Jesus made no cultic line of mediation, and the role of presbyters established after the resurrection was somewhat undefined at the closing of the canon. Priesthood, as we understand it today, took a long time to develop, and progressives believe there is still plenty of room for further development and even apparent (though not substantial) change.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 9:53 AM

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Weblog Commenting by