Why the Church needs Priests
Excuse Me, Aren't We All Members of the Priesthood?
As the Jubilee Year of the Priest begins, Catholics all over the world are making plans to honor religious saints and heroes as well as their own pastors who serve their parishes everyday. But many of our Protestant brothers and sisters are probably wondering why these celebrations are necessary when the establishment of the priesthood seems to contradict the intentions of Christ in the New Testament.
WHAT WILL YOU SAY when they ask you to defend the doctrine of the priesthood?
When you are told that 1 Peter and Hebrews say that we are all priests now you can proudly agree. YOU ARE A PRIEST! The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the idea that under the New Covenant we all participate in the priesthood (1546). But it also distinguishes between the common priesthood of believers and the ministerial priesthood. Revelations 1:6 says that Jesus “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.” We exercise this priesthood through the participation in the mission of Christ, according to our own vocation. Being priests we are each called to spread the Good News of the Gospel and to participate in divine worship, thereby making “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” (1 Peter 2:5).
So what is this “ministerial” priesthood and how does it differ from the common priesthood? “The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood... [It is] a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church. (CCC 1547). Those who are specially called by God for this service are entrusted with sacred power and special responsibilities that the non-ordained body believers does not possess. Ordained priests have three primary duties (CCC 1592):
To teach the faithful
To lead Divine Worship
To govern as pastors
The second duty of a priest is the most important and most unique to his office. It includes the supernatural powers to celebrate Mass with the Eucharist and to forgive sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We will explore these gifts in a later article, but right now we will continue to discuss the Biblical basis for the ministerial priesthood.
Martin Luther wrote in the Babylonian Captivity of the Church that the ministerial priesthood had no authority to exercise over the baptized. He said that we were all made equal under the New Covenant. But after the resurrection, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17) In doing so, he puts Peter in the role of a shepherd with authority over the sheep. In Mark 16:15, Jesus entrusts his apostles with the task of preaching the Gospel to the whole world. And St. Paul later tells the Thessalonians that they must respect these people who have this mission. He says to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” 1 (Thessalonians 5:12-13).
The early priests did not wear black cassocks or white collars. The doctrine of the priesthood has developed over time. It began at the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) Their priesthood was passed on when they laid hands on other men and entrusted them with the sacred duties of spreading the Gospel and administering the Sacraments. (2 Timothy 1:6-7, 1 Timothy 4:14-16, 1 Corinthians 4:1) While all believers are entrusted with the tasks of spreading the Gospel, certain men were called to leave their families and travel abroad. These ministerial priests embraced privations and were often called to live a celibate life for the sake of serving Christ's Church and its community.
In future articles related to the Year of the Priesthood we will look at various aspects of the priestly ministry such as Confession, celibacy, and why only men can be ordained. We will also look at the lives of heroic priests in our modern era who have answered God's call to “Feed my sheep.”
Important resources we recommend on the priesthood: