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The Common Priesthood Of The Faithful And The Ministerial Priesthood

October 21, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

The priest-king Melchizedek, as we saw last week, is a type, or figure, of Christ. He appears only briefly in the Old Testament and his figure is shrouded in mystery. Yet he is the first person in the Pentateuch to explicitly be called a “priest,” he is the only figure in the Book of Genesis to be identified as a priest of “God Most High,” and his sacrificial offering of “bread and wine” (Gen. 14:18) can be seen to prefigure the Holy Eucharist.
“Despite the brevity of his canonical appearance,” affirms Dr. Scott Hahn, “[Melchizedek] can claim the exalted roles of first king of Jerusalem (long before David), and first priest (long before Aaron), whose legitimacy is recognized by Abraham” (Kinship by Covenant, p. 297).
We also saw last week that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews demonstrates that the priesthood of Melchizedek is superior to that of Aaron and the Levitical priesthood. In its commentary on Hebrews 7:4-10, The Didache Bible succinctly summarizes the argument:
“The Mosaic Law prescribed that Levitical priests were to receive a tithe from the people. However, the fact that their father Abraham gave Melchizedek tithes, and in turn received Melchizedek’s blessing, shows that the priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek was superior to that of the Levitical priesthood” (p. 1644).
Moreover, as Sacred Scripture clearly attests of Jesus: “Thou art a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 7:17), thus fulfilling Psalm 110:4.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) resolutely proclaims that “everything that the priesthood of the Old Covenant prefigured finds its fulfillment in Christ Jesus, the ‘one mediator between God and men’ (1 Tim. 2:5)” (n. 1544).
The repeated sacrificial offering of animals by priests of the Old Testament could not take away sin, but served as a reminder to the people of their need to repent, of their need to seek forgiveness from Almighty God for their many transgressions.
As Fr. Austin E. Green, OP, states in an article entitled “The Eternal Priesthood of Jesus Christ,” this forgiveness was granted “only through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross; a forgiveness that applied to all sins, those which preceded as well as those which followed upon the sacrifice of Christ” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, June 1, 2012).
Christ’s redemptive sacrifice “is unique, accomplished once for all; yet it is made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church . . . through the ministerial priesthood” (CCC, n. 1545).
Before leaving behind the topic of the scriptural basis of Holy Orders, it would be good to identify precisely when Christ instituted the sacrament. It was at the Last Supper when, after having consecrated bread and wine and changed them into His Body and Blood, He said to His apostles: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
It was at this moment that He conferred upon the apostles and their successors the principal power of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, to consecrate and offer His Body and Blood in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Yet, as Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, explains, “Christ did not confer the fullness of the sacrament of orders all at once. He advanced the apostles only gradually to their priestly orders” (The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, n. 1467).
Initially, He chose the Twelve (see Luke 6:12-16) and placed them above His other followers, naming Peter as their head (see Matt. 16:12-20). It was on Easter Sunday night that He gave them the power to forgive sins:
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). Finally, it was before His Ascension that He commanded them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
The Catechism now examines more closely a topic we touched upon earlier, namely the distinction between the “common priesthood” of all the baptized faithful and the “ministerial priesthood” which is conferred by the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
To unpack what the Church teaches, we will draw mainly from two sources: an instruction issued by the Holy See on August 15, 1997, Ecclesiae de Mysterio (EdM), which dedicates a complete chapter to “The Common Priesthood of the Faithful and the Ministerial Priesthood,” and a section in Fr. Hardon’s Basic Catholic Catechism Course (BCCC) which addresses distinctions between the two priesthoods.
Before identifying differences in the two participations in the one priesthood of Christ, we are reminded by the Catechism that “Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church ‘a kingdom, priests for his God and Father’ (Rev. 1:6; cf. Rev. 5:9-10; 1 Peter 2:5, 9). The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly” (n. 1546).
What does this mean? St. Paul takes up this topic in his Letter to the Romans where he teaches that “the members of Christ’s Body, like parts of a human body, have different functions, yet each contributes to the good of the whole (cf. Romans 12:4-5)” (BCCC, p. 195).
Vatican Council II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity elaborates: “In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world” (Apostolicam Actuositatem [AA], n. 2 § 3; emphasis added).
Simply put, all who enter the Church through faith and Baptism receive a share in Jesus’ mission as priest, prophet, and king. It is precisely this sharing in the mission of our one great High Priest that the Church refers to as “the common priesthood of the faithful.”
Ecclesiae de Mysterio, citing Lumen Gentium (LG), further explains how the two priesthoods are similar:
“There exists ‘a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ’ (LG, n. 32 § 2)….The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood ‘though they differ essentially and not only in degree…are none the less ordered one to another; [since] each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ’ (LG, n. 10 § 2)” (EdM, I-I § 1).
Therefore, teaches Ecclesiae de Mysterio, “the essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood is not found in the priesthood of Christ, which remains forever one and indivisible, nor in the sanctity to which all of the faithful are called” (EdM, I-I § 2).
How, then, do they differ? “While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace — a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit — the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood . . . directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (CCC, n. 1547).
Consequently, “the ministerial priesthood differs in essence from the common priesthood of the faithful because it confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful” (CCC, n. 1592).

Bringing Christ To The World

The Sacrament of Holy Orders confers onto its recipients supernatural powers that the lay members of the faithful do not possess.
As Fr. Hardon expounds:
“Only men ordained to the [ministerial] priesthood through the Sacrament of Holy Orders share in the supernatural power that Christ conferred on the Apostles: the powers to consecrate bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and to forgive sin. The unfolding of baptismal graces is consummated when the faithful unite themselves to Jesus, High Priest and Victim, as He continues to offer Himself for our Redemption in the Holy Eucharist. Without ordained priests, there would be no Eucharist” (BCCC, p. 196).
The lay faithful, for their part, are called to exercise their role in the life of the Church by directing their vocation in society toward the “sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. . . . Since [they] . . . live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ” (AA, n. 2 § 4).
In practical terms, they are called to bring Christ, through word and deed, through their Christ-like example, to locations and settings which ordained ministers simply do not normally have access and thus “work for the sanctification of the world” (LG, n. 31 § 2).
It is primarily the laity, through the graces of their common priesthood, who are called upon to influence the social, professional, political, and economic affairs of the world in accordance with Christian doctrine. The ordained minister, for his part, “represents Christ the head, shepherd, and spouse of the Church…[and] aims at promoting the exercise of the common priesthood of the entire People of God” (Pope St. John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, n. 16 § 2).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a consecrated Marian catechist.)

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