Presbyterorum Ordinis, the decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, was promulgated at the fourth and final session of Vatican II. It’s probably as good a place as any to start a lay person’s assessment of the Catholic priesthood. Diving straight into section 2:
“In (Christ) all the faithful are made a holy and royal priesthood; they offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ, and they proclaim the perfections of him who has called them out of darkness into his marvelous light. Therefore, there is no member who does not have a part in the mission of the whole Body; but each one ought to hallow Jesus in his heart, and in the spirit of prophecy bear witness to Jesus.”
Baptismal call, of course. Before there is a whiff of ordination in a person’s future, that person is already a priest by virtue of baptism. Note the two-fold mission: offering sacrifices and proclaiming God. Not only is this a parallel of the Christian Eucharist–Word and Sacrament, it states boldly that the laity have no less a duty in their reponse to the call from God.
Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is illustrative of Jesus’ intent to move beyond the cultic priesthood and worship of Judaism. That’s how we get it from the lens of John the evangelist: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)
The Johannine notion of “Spirit and truth” is closely tied with the Holy Spirit’s action in human lives. God “intercedes” within us to replace our sins and failings with a powerful divine force. Gandhi’s satyagraha (truth-force) immediately came to mind as I pondered this. The root understanding of this term involves sat, that is, truth, but also what we would call justice, or right relationships. Ahimsa is the refusal to inflict injury on others. Taken in a broader Christian perspective beyond pacifism, this would be the subduction of the sinful self, the withdrawal from temptation, declining the option of violence. The third part of this philosophy involves tapasya, the willingness for self-sacrifice.
The application for non-violence is clear, but expanding satyagraha into a Christian perspective not only deepens Gandhi’s original vision, but also gives the lay person a broad mission in the proclamation of God and the offering of spiritual sacrifices. Christ embodied these values: his preaching of justice and truth, obviously his example (not followed often enough) of refusing to inflict injury, and of course, his willingness to embrace the ultimate sacrifice of the cross. Even his closest disciples struggled against some of the truths he preached, most notably in the Passion with Peter’s violence (John 18:10), and his refusal to consider self-sacrifice (John 18:17, etc.).
The Christian understanding is that God wishes this path for all of us, and calls us gently to follow. Like Gandhi’s pacifism, the call is not for an exceptional few, but for all people. But like the world’s rejection of large-scale heroism, many Christians likewise reject the notion of a baptismal priesthood. Burdens can become mere duties to bear, not sacrifices made in the Spirit. We rely on the religiously educated to give it meaning, but the disciples of the Samaritan apostle (she substantially predated Paul as the first to preach Christ outside of Judaism: an apostle by any definition of the term) quickly moved beyond hero worship: “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” (John 4:42)
We should consider the Samaritan model. Before Christ, their reaction to Judah was to set up worship on their own mountain. With his advent through the witness of the woman, they were able to come to know the Savior through the direct experience of proclamation. But soon their reliance shifted from the person to their direct experience of Christ. They moved from “hearing” to “knowing,” which suggests to me they “got it.” The parallel I see? The catechumenal experience: faith follows from the preached word.
Before we or the Church can hope to come to terms with priesthood, we could acknowledge the first priesthood all Christians are called to exercise. We could begin by taking more initiative, and taking more seriously our part in the mission of Christ.