The Priesthood of the Faithful

Over the next three weeks, I want to look at our baptismal call as Christians. There are many effects of the sacrament of Baptism – the forgiveness of all sin (original and personal) and the infusion of God’s life into our soul. We receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and God marks our soul with an indelible mark. We are incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church. As a result, God gives us a share of the three-fold office of Christ: priest, prophet, and king. This office is really a mission.

All baptized Christians are priests. We call this the common priesthood or the priesthood of the faithful. Christ is true priest. As Thomas Aquinas notes, “Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers.”

There are two participations in the one priesthood of Christ: the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful.

These two participations differ in nature or in essence, not in degree. It’s not that Father Smith is “more” of a priest and I’m “less” of a priest. To use a food analogy (my favorite kind), it’s not like we are all chocolate, but Father is 90% cacao and I’m milk chocolate. Rather, his priesthood is different in its very nature than my priesthood. The ministerial priesthood, received through the laying on of hands by a bishop, is matter for another post.

So what does it mean for us to share in the priesthood of Christ as laity? In 1 Peter 2, Peter reminds us that we are a holy priesthood. God calls you to something great: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

This short letter is one of my favorite books of the Bible, and the whole book can be read as a discourse on Baptism. Some scholars posit that the letter is a baptismal address of Saint Peter to new Christians. His listeners, many of them Jews, would have realized that Peter is making an obvious reference to the history of the Jewish people.

After the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, God tells Moses that He desires to make a covenant with them:

“Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Ex 19:5-6

But we know what happens next, after the covenant is made – the incident of the Golden Calf.  The people don’t obey His voice and keep His covenant. But God remains faithful, and He renews His covenant with them again and again.

He remains so faithful that in the fullness of time, He makes another covenant. This new and everlasting covenant surpasses the covenants of Old Testament. Foretold by Jeremiah, this covenant was made in the Upper Room and sealed by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. In light of this new covenant, Peter is calling us back to the holy nation and royal priesthood.

In the new covenant, we are all anointed. First and foremost, we are anointed in the sacrament of Baptism. We are then anointed again when baptismal grace is perfected in the sacrament of Confirmation. So while the ministerial priesthood is formed through the sacrament of Holy Orders, Baptism and Confirmation (both anointings) create and strengthen the common priesthood of the faithful.

As priests, we are united to Christ and His sacrifice in the offering we make of ourselves and our daily lives. This is what Paul speaks of when he exhorts us, “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). God calls us to offer up the joys, sorrows, and sacrifices of our daily lives. Those ordinary activities of our lives have power when united with Christ’s sacrifice. At Mass, the priest reminds us, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”

Throughout our daily lives, we are called to be Christ’s priests: silently offering the sacrifices presented to us – whether they be physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. In this way, we can sanctify our lives and the world around us. We become instruments of Christ and He saves the world through us, through our daily actions.

As the Second Vatican Council reminds the Church, “[The laity] exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, 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.” (Apostolicam actuositatem, 2)

It is not only up to ordained priests to change the world. It’s not only up to them to be holy. It’s up to us. Nourished at the altar of Eucharistic sacrifice, fed by the ministerial priests of Christ, the common priests go out to be God’s instruments of the sanctification of the world.

Image credit: Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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