In a recent article in The Atlantic, a former Catholic priest shared his thoughts about the crisis in the Church. His solution was doing away with the priesthood and putting power into the hands of the laity.
I find many problems with his argument, but at the heart of it there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the priesthood is. Because of this misunderstanding, his solution is faulty, and I offer another.
What the Priesthood and Hierarchy Are (and Aren’t)
The priesthood and hierarchy of the Church are not meant to be a power structure. Because the Church is composed of fallible, sinful human beings, it sometimes resembles that. But that is not its purpose or theological meaning. The hierarchy and priesthood exist solely to serve the people of God. They exist to tend to the Church, and to help to distribute graces to the laity. Any power they have is not theirs, but rather Christ’s. Their only job is to allow Christ to work through them. Any time they make their priesthood about themselves, their own preferences, or how they think things should be done, we can see shades of clericalism. Anytime they submit themselves to Christ and his Church, then we see an image of what priesthood is intended to be.
A good friend was recently ordained a priest, and at the reception the night before his first Mass, he told us all that he was going to have a different priest preach at his first Mass. “I don’t want it to be about me or what I have to say. I want it to be about that moment of sacrifice, when I elevate the bread and wine and they become Jesus. I want it to be about Jesus, not me.”
That is what the priesthood is intended to be. Which leads to the next point…
Priests Offer the Sacrifice
Throughout human history, in every culture and religion, the priest is always the one who offers the sacrifice on behalf of the people. The priest is not the one who is in charge of things, who delivers inspirational speeches, or who has a dynamic personality. The priest offers the sacrifice.
The same is true in the Catholic Church. There is only one high priest, and all other priests participate in his priesthood. That is why when a priest acts sacramentally, he is said to do so “in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ). It is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him, as St. Paul would say.
Likewise, there is only one perfect sacrifice – the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. When a priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass, he re-presents (makes present again) the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
It is impossible to abolish the priesthood and still be the Church founded by Christ. It is essential to who the Church is, that this sacrifice is made present again, every day, throughout the world. We (the laity) unite our sacrifices to the sacrifice that the priest is offering on the altar. But we need someone to offer the sacrifice for us. Only Christ can offer it, in the person of the priest.
If a priest is aware of that (as the priests that I know are) then Mass is a real sacrifice. It is something that he prayerfully prepares himself to offer. It is something that is a sacrifice of his own self and energy. Like my newly ordained friend told his family and friends, it is not about the priest – it is about Christ in the Eucharist. To die fully to himself at every Mass, the priest needs to be willing to suffer for Christ and his people. Each Mass is a death to himself and a further conforming to Christ.
As we can see in the abuse crisis, there were priests that abused that. But those abuses don’t take away from what the priesthood is meant to be. We must abolish the abuse and cover-up. But we must not abolish the priesthood.
What the Church Actually Needs
The heart of the problem in the crisis of the Church is a crisis of faith. Priests and bishops who abused and/or covered up abuse not only betrayed Christ, but they led many away from their faith. Do we benefit from good laity who are active in the Church, in various roles in ministry and leadership? Yes. But that won’t solve the crisis in the Church.
What will solve the crisis is good and holy priests. We don’t need to abolish the priesthood. We need the priesthood now more than ever.
These priests already exist, and the Church is ordaining more of them every year.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, my husband is a theology professor at our Archdiocesan seminary, and our family has had the unique opportunity to get to know many priests, deacons, seminarians, and even a bishop or two. One of my favorite things to do is to attend as many of their deaconate and priestly ordinations as possible.
At both diaconate ordinations we attended this year, we were able to sit by the aisle and see all the bishops, priests, deacons, and seminarians as they processed into Mass. Because our family often visits the seminary, my daughters recognized many of the men in the procession. These sweet men waved or smiled at them, and my girls were delighted. At one point in the procession, the woman sitting behind us asked me, “Is that your brother?” The delight on that seminarian’s face was so great when he saw our family, that she thought that, surely, we must be related to each other! One of the auxiliary bishops of our Archdiocese used to be our pastor, and he has a real gift for making our family – and every person in the diocese, really – feel beloved. I have talked to so many other people and they all say the same thing – this particular bishop makes them all feel like they are the most important person in the room. When he passed our family in the procession, he smiled at us and patted our big girls on their heads. His fatherly love shown through.
Our family isn’t special. We are an ordinary family, and I know for a fact that these same men treat every family they know like how they treat ours. They treat them with the kind of genuine affection that only a spiritual father can have.
But more than that, the men that I know are men of sacrifice. They desire to suffer and sacrifice for the Church. They want to lay down their lives for the laity. They are thrown into that task almost immediately after ordination. After a long ordination Mass, without a break to eat or drink anything, a new priest may spend hours standing and giving first blessings. You would expect him to be hurried and impatient by the end of those hours, but I have personally witnessed the joy that priest shows to those at the end of the line. It is no less great than it was for the first blessing he gave.
The Church doesn’t need to abolish the priesthood. It needs more good, holy priests like these. Pray for seminarians and priests. They need our prayers now more than ever.