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Vol 40 No 3


Barry Brundell MSC

Gerard Kelly

Thomas Groome

Anthony Gooley

Daniel Ang

John O’Carroll and Chris Fleming



What’s in a name?
Part I: ‘Ministry’ and ‘Common Priesthood’


THE TERMS ‘Ministry’, ‘common priesthood’, ‘ordained’ and ‘lay apostolate’ help us to understand the relationship and roles of the laity and clergy in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The author attempts to provide an account of each of the terms as a guide to understanding what the Council sought to teach. Correct understanding is important if the laity are to take on their full apostolate which is to transform the world through Gospel living. Perhaps too much of the renewal of the laity has been to focus on ‘ministry’ within the Church and not to the world. The four terms are considered in parts one and two of the article.

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In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet we soon come to realise that a name means everything. Names, like many other words can create confusions and divisions as much as they can bring clarity. In the post-Vatican II Church Roman Catholics were introduced to some new names and some older ones were used in new ways, some of which have brought confusion and created tensions where they should not exist. In this two-part essay I will consider four terms which are important for our understanding of the role of the laity and clergy in the Church. These terms are ‘common priesthood’, ‘ministry’, ‘ordained’ and ‘lay apostolate’.

I believe that the first of the terms in our list was a remarkable recovery of a deeply Biblical phrase that Luther had tried to draw to the attention of the Church in the sixteenth century but which Roman Catholics tended to reject as ‘too Protestant’. In the less ecumenical times before the Second Vatican Council, to describe something as ‘too Protestant’ was enough for many Roman Catholics to reject the idea as being close to heresy. It is a pity that the attitude took so long to shake because, as we have witnessed since the Council, the recovery of the term was a boost to activating the laity to become involved in the Church in ways that many could not have thought possible before. However, a downside of the recovery of the term and of the new ways of interpreting the old ones meant that much of the focus of the active involvement of the laity was focused on intra-Church activity rather than mission, to the detriment of the proclamation of the gospel in our day. I will develop this theme after we have considered the four terms individually. We consider the first two terms in this article and conclude our reflection in Part II.

Common Priesthood
Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, introduces the term in a number of different ways in paragraph 10. Quoting the Scriptures the Council teaches that Christ created the Church as a new people, ‘a Kingdom of priests’ (Rev 1:6; 5:9-10) and that ‘through baptism and the anointing of the Holy Spirit they are consecrated to be a spiritual household and a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices to God’ (1 Peter 2:4-10). The same theme is repeated in the Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests (par. 2) and the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (par. 3). The documents use a number of synonymous terms to describe this common priesthood: royal priesthood, holy people, holy priesthood and holy temple. The terms as they are used in Scripture and in the documents of the Council refer to the whole people of God, not only to the ordained.

In the world in which the Scriptures were formed the Christians knew of only two kinds of priesthood; the priesthood of Judaism and the priesthood of the official Roman/pagan religions. The first of these priesthoods was a hereditary priesthood descending through the line of priestly families. Being a priest was not a matter of choice but of birth and gender (only men could take up the office of priest). The second form of priesthood was mostly entered into by public election or because of some prior right to a priestly position. In ancient Greek and Roman culture of the first centuries of Christianity the pagan priesthood stood apart from the people. Generally worshippers had to approach the Temple and place their offerings in the profanum, (it is from this word that we get our profane) the space outside the temple proper, and the priest would conduct the offering inside to the gods.

What is truly profound in the texts from the book of Revelation and the epistles of Peter is that priesthood in the Christian view is a characteristic of all the baptised and anointed women and men. Secondly, a people who were not related by heredity or common language, nationality or culture are made into one people through the Body of Christ. These first communities were conscious that in baptism they had entered the Body of Christ and as such were parts of one another (Rom 12:4-5). Christ, in the Holy Spirit, formed them into his own body and continued to offer his prayer to the Father through them. The Scriptures speak of Christ as the High Priest who continues to offer sacrifice through his body the Church (Heb 5:1-5 and Rom 12:1-2) through the very lives of the people who had been baptised. Given that these first Christians knew of only the two priesthoods discussed above, we can see how this concept of a common priesthood shared by all the baptised would have come as a radical departure from dominant religious views. Because of their baptism in Christ every aspect of their lives participated in Christ’s great Eucharistic prayer and through them the world could be consecrated to God.

Roman Catholics have preserved this sense of the idea of common priesthood in our liturgy. When they ask the question, ‘Who offers the Mass?’ the answer is, ‘Christ does’. When they ask, ‘How does he offer the Mass?’ The answer is, ‘Through his body the Church in head and members’. The language of our liturgical prayers convey this communal sense; ‘we ask this..’, ‘we make this prayer..’ and ‘we offer you …’ Celebration of the Mass requires (under normal circumstances) at least a priest and a lay person because Christ prays through us, with us and in us as his body. A priest presides at Mass as one who stands, as Christ the head of the Church, with the whole congregation which is Christ’s body. The full, active participation of the laity is not a liturgical innovation of the Second Vatican Council but a profound theological statement about the liturgical activity of the people made new in Christ. Each one offers the Eucharist for the peace and salvation of all the world. Without such a conscious awareness many people will believe that they come to Mass to hear Father say Mass and to receive Holy Communion and leave without knowing that in them Christ offered himself to the Father for the world which God loves so much (John 3:16).

Consciousness of the new dignity as part of the priestly people is possible when we really take in the full implications of the meaning of the common priesthood. The basis for this common priesthood is the sacrament of baptism. Christians stand in the midst of the world offering continual prayer to the Father in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The pinnacle of this prayer of the Church, for Roman Catholics, is the celebration of Sunday Eucharist. Sunday Eucharist is the summit and source of the whole of the Christian life; it leads us into the mystery of the Trinity, communion with each other and mission to our world (Sacrosanctum Concilium 4).

Ministry comes from the word diakonia (pronounce dee-a-kone-e-a) in the New Testament. Recent studies have shown that the word is best translated by such terms as ‘delegate’, ‘representative’ and ‘commission’ (Collins, 1990). That is, the one who exercises an office does so as representative of the one who sent him or her. In the New Testament ministry and minister (diakonos) is used to refer to the work of some who are called from among the community to build it up through leadership, proclamation of the Gospel and teaching. The word diakonos was used of some women and some men. Diakonos was chosen by the Christian community because of its religious significance in the Greek speaking culture in which they lived. It conveyed for them their understanding of what ministry is, making real in the community the Word of God spoken in Jesus Christ, so that he would continue to be among his people as Shepherd. From this initial broadly-defined ministry the Roman Catholic Church developed, over many centuries, the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop. How this development took place is beyond the scope of this essay. The threefold ministry is maintained by other Churches, such as the Orthodox and Anglican churches.

Ministry is a gift (charisma) of the Holy Spirit for the building up of the Church which is not given to all Christians but only some (Eph 4:11-13). Collins demonstrates that all Christians are not ministers (Collins 1992). Ministry in the New Testament required a calling or sense of vocation to the work but also required commissioning which the Church did through the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6) as a clear sign that the one who was to minister did so in relation to the community which had passed on the apostolic mandate to him or her. Ministry required three elements, a sense of call from God, confirmation by the Church and a sign of delegation for the ministry. Vatican II taught that ministry is a gift of the Spirit through which the unique ministry of Christ is present and which ‘from ancient times (ab antiquo) has been called deacon, priest and bishop’ (Lumen Gentium 28). It is significant that the Council Fathers chose ab antiquo (from antiquity) and not ab initio (from the beginning) because it tells us that while ministry is a gift for the building up of the Church it has not always had the present shape it has. It may in the future, take on a new shape. Vatican II wants to acknowledge the divine origin of ministry but acknowledge that historical consciousness allows us to know that these divinely-established ministries developed in form.

There are many important texts that should be considered when trying to get an understanding that ministry and being a minister is the responsibility of some and not all. We will consider Ephesians 4:11-13 because it is a key text. Recent translations obscure the intention of the text and overlook a basic point of grammar to produce a very different outcome (Collins, 1992, p17-20). I have placed two translations beside each other to illustrate the significance of a comma. (See below)

Ephesians 4:11-13 RSV 1946
And his gifts were
that some should be apostles,
some prophets,
some evangelists,
some pastors and teachers,
for the equipment of the saints,
for the work of ministry,
for the building up the body of Christ,
until we all attain to the unity of faith
and the knowledge of the Son of God…

Ephesians 4:11-13 RSV 1971
And his gifts were
that some should be apostles,
some prophets,
some evangelists,
some pastors and teachers,
for the equipment of the saints for the work of ministry,
for the building up the body of Christ,
until we all attain to the unity of faith
and the knowledge of the Son of God…

The removal of the comma in the new translation (not limited to New Revised Standard translations but almost universally now in modern translations) shifts the focus away from the intended meaning of the Scripture that some are called to equip the saints, to the work of ministry, to building up the Church. The second translation says that the saints (i.e. the church) are to be equipped for ministry and building up the Church. Collins, in the works already cited, indicates the new translation cannot be justified from the grammar.

Luther and Calvin were equally convinced, on the basis of this text, that the order of minister was part of the Spirit-given structure of the Church (Ainslie, 1940). Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians 4:11-13 is that the task of ministers is to build up the Church and that ‘anyone who seeks to abolish this order or disparage it as of little importance plots the destruction and ruin of the Church’. Luther also held that ‘the people as a whole cannot do these things but that they should be entrusted to the care of one person’, a minister. The Reformers knew that priesthood by virtue of baptism was different from ministry by virtue of office and they did not wish to see the ministry abolished on the basis of a common priesthood of all believers. This important distinction is somewhat more difficult to overcome in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches because they use the term priest for the whole people and for their ministers and so the names blur the distinctions. To complicate matters even further, not everything ministers do in these Churches is priestly, i.e. restricted to the altar and presiding at Eucharist. These three Churches bundle all of the pastoral, administrative and liturgical roles and functions of their ministers under the title priest. There may be good reasons in the future for untying the bundle a little and seeing if everything belongs to this one minister or if things could be distributed a little differently.

In Part II of the article we will consider our remaining terms and some criteria for evaluating the impact of Vatican II on renewal of the local Church.

Anthony Gooley is a Ministry Development Officer with the Archdiocese of Brisbane. He is currently working toward a PhD in theology from Griffith University, School Of Theology.