The role of priests is a well-established, biblical idea that precedes the advent of the Church. In the Book of Exodus, for instance, every family had its own priest, with the father taking on the role for his household. In this ancient understanding of priesthood, to be a priest meant primarily to offer sacrifice. Following the idolatry of the golden calf, the priesthood was restricted to the Levites. But did you know that the Church has restored this broad concept of the priesthood? In fact, the Church teaches us that all of the baptized are priests! But how can that be? We don’t all wear clerics or hear confessions.
What does it mean for us to all be priests?
When we think of priesthood, most of us think of the ordained or ministerial priesthood. The Second Vatican Council taught that ministerial priests teach and rule the priestly people, acting in the person of Christ. Further, priests make present the eucharistic sacrifice. That is to say, they administer the sacraments and, especially, perform the consecration of the bread and wine at Mass.
The common or baptismal priesthood does not perform the same function. So what does the common priesthood look like, and how is it distinct from the ministerial priesthood? Lumen Gentium puts it this way:
“Therefore all the disciples of Christ, preserving in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.” (LG 10)
A few lines later, the same document teaches:
“But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity.” (LG 10)
What does this mean, practically?
Fundamentally, it means there is a deeper meaning of baptism which we need to recover and share. While we usually think of baptism as being the entryway to the sacraments, understanding the fact that baptism makes us into a royal priesthood shows the extent to which baptism transforms us and changes us. It’s not merely an initiation, it is so much more. It’s an elevation into the dignity of a royal priesthood! Baptism thus carries with it lifelong responsibilities.
Being baptismal or common priests, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Lumen Gentium, is fundamentally about two key concepts:
- Making a sacrifice of our lives, through prayer and the reception of the sacraments
- Living as a witness by a holy life and active charity
If we take this concept of making a sacrifice, and of uniting our lives to Christ through the sacraments and a life of prayer, it can reorient our understanding of the whole of Christian life. Seen through the lens of a common priesthood, the sacraments become not mere events to attend, but opportunities to offer our own selves, our own lives. Just as it would be a minimalist view to say being a priest means “saying the Mass” rather than “offering” it, so, too, we might say we are suffering from a minimalist ecclesiology if we think our main duty as lay Catholics, or common priests, is to merely be at the Mass.
Rather, as common priests, we are called to unite our own hearts and lives to the offering of the priest. We should see in the offering of bread and wine our own cares and concerns. Whatever is going on in our lives, whatever purification we might need, whatever struggles we might be having, we bring all of this and spiritually unite it not just with the priest’s offering, but with the offering of all the baptized in the Church. And this “Church” extends not just to the people in our pews, but to the universal Church. All of our offerings are caught up together as we, the common priests, join with the ministerial priests.
The ordained, to be sure, participate in the Mass in a different way, and it is a difference of kind, not only degree. But the laity, part of the royal priesthood, truly need a deeper awareness of the fact that we, too, are called to join in the offering of the Eucharist. This is one of the great truths of the Second Vatican Council that needs more emphasis.
Beyond the offering of our own spiritual sacrifice, the common priesthood means bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel through the witness of a holy life and active charity. I turn to St. Paul VI’s insightful comment in this respect: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 41)
Evangelization, which the world desperately needs, takes different forms, but a critical first step in spreading the truth of the gospel is to live it and let the witness of our lives shine forth to provide light to a world in darkness. We are called, through our baptism, to be for the world what the soul is to the body.