Nature of Priesthood

By Carl Hemmer and Jim Burch

The sacrament of ordination can be viewed, traditionally, from two perspectives: in terms of ex opere operato (the ontological view), or ex opere operantis (what the recipient must do). Here we focus on one of the traditional aspects that is often overlooked. It’s both legitimate and important to attend to what priests should do to make the most of their graces.

Priesthood is usefully expressed by the modern image of the coach. A priest, like a good coach, knows the game of life because he’s played it. He’s wrestled with the tough questions that come up during the game and he can prepare others, his players, to deal with these questions. His role is important in forming the players, teaching them the disciplines they need, suggesting ways to deal with the problems they’ll have to solve in the course of a game, motivating them to do their best and to strive to win. But the (priest, as) coach has a very limited role. After the locker room chat, after brief sessions during timeouts, the players are on their own. The game, after all, takes place apart from the coaching. The coach’s pride is that the players can play successfully under their own power and with their own wits. They can improve on his advice and counsel.

The application to the priest is fairly straightforward. He is a player himself who takes on the role of sharing what he has learned so that others can play more successfully. If he has somehow bridged the gap between the human and the divine in his own life, he wants to help others to build their own bridges.

Ultimately, the priest wants those he coaches to walk their own bridge to God because that’s the only way it happens. The priest facilitates, motivates, and leads the way but he cannot walk the walk for others. The priest keeps the signs of the invisible God visible and meaningful to others but he always recognizes that, beyond the signs, there is the game of life that others must play. The priest sees assertions of his “betterness” as irrelevant to his role; he is either a successful coach or he is not.

There are other consequences to this view of priesthood. Most obviously, some people are not cut out to be priests. They may be able administrators or technical assistants, but they don’t have the stuff to be good coaches. When “priest” is used to describe wildly different capabilities related to Church administration, it confuses the term. It should be reserved for those who are really pastors and coaches.

Another consequence is that priesthood is not necessarily for life, not forever. It’s an “arrogance of institution” to pretend that lives can be so commandeered that no other role can be permitted. In fact, the Church accepts the temporary character of priesthood when it laicizes priests, or allows them to retire, or gives them non-pastoral roles, or permits the ordination of priests who will primarily serve in jobs that don’t require ordination — e.g. teaching chemistry. Are all of these non-functioning priests still priests forever?

Does any of this denigrate priesthood? Of course not. Rather, this approach demands more of priests, insists that they be what they claim to be or stop claiming a special place in creation. More importantly, it insists that priests must be helpmates, coaches, sources of inspiration who bring others to their full potential and adulthood, not gurus or mediators who must always be there for something worthwhile to happen. Ultimately, a priest mirrors Christ precisely because he is willing to die and disappear and let others carry on the message he has shared with them. Like Christ, a priest multiplies his presence by empowering others who can live without him, not by creating dependencies that hold others back from following the spirit that works in them. For a priest, the sacraments are training camp, back-to-basics exercises that school believers in what they must do in the whole of their lives, in the continuing game (!) of life. For a priest who has found his own bridge to the divine, his work is to build up the courage and yearning and faith in others that will multiply these bridges so that all can enjoy the wonders of creation.

The priest also celebrates the sacraments as signs of what must continue throughout life, apart from the ritual. The sacraments are, in their way, the locker room pep talks, but the game is still to be played. If the priest’s celebration of Eucharist doesn’t knit the celebrating community into a stronger family, open to other humans who also need their love, it fails as a pep talk. If receiving the Lord in communion doesn’t drive home the mandate of Matthew 25 to make communion a consuming daily occurrence, it fails its purpose.

And so the priest must be a natural leader of spiritual services. The priest who is awkward, tongue-tied, inarticulate or a wall-flower will not inspire confidence and light up a service. Yet there is a fine line in the other direction as well: the priest should not make the service about himself or herself, but should integrate all the people into a joyous experience. The axiom of Lao-Tze comes to mind here: “Of the greatest leaders, the people say, ‘We have done it ourselves’.”

The priest must be able to generally follow the outline of the service (whether baptism, Eucharist, funeral, house blessing, etc.) without making it rote or a blathering of words exhaled from a book with no life or energy. The priest, in order to be good at the role of service celebrant, must be able to spontaneously pray in a way that expresses the theme of the service, the resonance of the congregants and the grace-filled inspiration of the moment. The message should be adapted to each time, situation and type of participants. It must always come across as uplifting, relevant, personable, welcoming, professional, warm and vibrantly spiritual. It is taken for granted that it must express the message of Jesus.

Always, always and always, it must be considered well and put into clear execution: what are we doing here, and how do we communicate and uplift with today’s message of Jesus.

You know that in the world the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and their great men make them feel the weight of authority. This is not the way with you: among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be the first must be the willing slave of all.

– Mark 10: 41-43

See my servant, whom I uphold; my Chosen One, in whom I delight. I have put my spirit upon him; he will reveal justice to the nations of the world. He will be gentle – he will not shout nor quarrel in the streets. He will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the dimly burning flame. He will encourage the fainthearted, those tempted to despair. He will see full justice given to all who have been wronged. He won’t be satisfied until truth and righteousness prevail throughout the earth, nor until even distant lands beyond the seas have put their trust in him.

– Isaiah 42: 1-4

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