Richard Norman reflects from the College of the Resurrection on the nature of priesthood and some of the challenges faced by new priests today
In his letter last year to the seminarians of the Catholic Church Pope Benedict wrote that
‘God is alive, and he needs people to serve him and bring him to others. It does make sense to become a priest: the world needs priests, pastors, today, tomorrow and always, until the end of time.’ As one nearing the end of his studies at theological college, and preparing – God willing – for ordination and the beginning of parochial ministry, I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect briefly on the meaning of the sacred priesthood and some of the contemporary challenges new priests face.
Ministry of reconciliation
At the heart of priesthood lies the ministry of reconciliation. In the religious environment into which Christianity was born, priests were responsible for the sacrifices by which human beings sought reconciliation with the divine. ‘[E] very high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men and in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.’
It was within this model of human interaction with God that the oncefor-all oblation of Jesus Christ upon the Cross has in Christian thought been understood: Christ is our great high priest, who has conclusively effected our reconciliation with the Father.
The Church is the Body of Christ, and as such it participates in this cosmic work of salvation: across the ages, and by virtue of incorporation into this Body by baptism, all Christian people have become collaborators with Jesus Christ in the redemption of the world. He alone is the source and origin of this work, but as his image is superimposed on our humanity, his work becomes ours too.
Within the Body of Christ, ministerial priests do the humblest work: if the prayers of the faithful are the Church’s beating heart, and God’s grace and glory the Precious Blood which flows around it, then priests are but the vessels and veins through which that Blood is moved.
Priests are not called upon to do a new work, for all that could have been done was done to perfection by Christ upon his Cross: but they are called to make a memorial of this, by the continual representation of the reconciliation achieved by Jesus – to provide within the Church
and for the world the framework of the sacraments by means of which the reconciling work of Christ is manifested.
What are the concrete ways in which priests do this? I wish to suggest three of them. Firstly, priests are agents of reconciliation in the confessional, offering to penitents God’s assurance of forgiveness. The sacrament of penance, or reconciliation, is a sacrament for the whole Church, because it fuses together in the love of God those elements of a person’s life which have become disintegrated and have through sin drawn that person away from full participation in the Body of Christ.
Importance of teaching
Secondly, priests have an urgent duty of catechesis, of teaching the people of God. Learning the faith is important for all Christians in order that they may deepen their understanding, and have the tools for apologetics and evangelism, but more so for liturgical and aesthetic reasons: our praise of God becomes richer and more articulate when the light of revelation shines upon and through us – when, like the cherubim and seraphim, we are brought into the presence of the Trinity in Unity and can with them cry ‘Holy, holy, holy’. We were made to praise God, and priests through their catechetical office can reconcile us to this work.
Finally, priests have a special responsibility for the reconciliation of the Church, thus fulfilling Christ’s high-priestly prayer that ‘they all may be one.’ The ecumenical landscape has altered significantly in recent years, and the new generation of Catholic priests in the Church of England face an increasingly novel task in this regard.
The advent of women in the episcopate means that there will no longer be any hope of corporate reconciliation between Canterbury and Rome. The Ordinariate provides one means by which the reconciliation of our two traditions may be achieved; it remains to be seen whether it is the only such path.
The Church, Christ’s Body
In some respects this will be the most important challenge for those recently – or soon to be – ordained. We must keep alive in the Church the consciousness that she is Christ’s Body, for this is the sole means by which humanity is reconciled to God.
Priests must place before the Church the image of Christ, as her guiding and governing principle, and they must do this first and foremost by the faithful celebration of the Mass. Priests share in the reconciliation ‘on behalf of men and in relation to God’ by preaching Christ crucified, by pointing to the one pure Sacrifice for sin, and thereby calling the people of God into the divine life of Christ. ND