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Vol 39 No 2


Kristina Keneally


Jim Quillinan

Vincent Battaglia
BELONGING, COMMUNITY, AND THE CHURCH: Some Theological and Pastoral Reflections

Lawrence Cross
THE TRINITY'S FIRST CREATION THE CHURCH: An Orthodox Bishop's Appreciation Of The West's Greatest Father Of The Church

Anthony Arthur MSC

Mark Raper SJ
THE CHURCH AS AGENT OF HOPE: What can Religious Faith Contribute to Life in Contemporary Australia?

Bruce Duncan CSsR
A NEW CATHOLIC SOCIAL MANIFESTO? The Compendium Of The Social Doctrine Of The Church



Priesthood in the theology of John Paul II


IN THE COURSE of what proved to be a long and, at times, controversial pontificate, Pope John Paul II wrote and spoke extensively on the identity and function of the ordained ministry within the Church, with particular emphasis on the presbyterate. He did so in what was commonly acknowledged to be a time of crisis for 'the priesthood' and, as we now enter a period of evaluation of his contribution to the life of the Church, it seems appropriate to ask if this contribution was able then, or is able now, to clarify some of the urgent questions which continue to exercise the minds and hearts of all those for whom the ordained ministry continues to hold a vital place in the Church's self-understanding.

To undertake such a process of evaluation is not easy. John Paul did not write a single theological treatise on the theology of the priesthood: nor did he write a number of easily accessible theological articles. Rather, his thought on this matter has to be gleaned from a wide variety of sources: his Holy Thursday Letters to Priests, the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, the frequent and often lengthy reflections on the priesthood contained in many of his major Encyclicals, Apostolic Exhortations and other authoritative documents, and the many addresses, homilies, catechetical instructions and occasional talks which have the ordained ministry as their main point of concern.

Laborious though such an undertaking might be, the results it yields are extremely important, given the central role which John Paul played in the life of the Church, because they reveal an approach to the ordained ministry which was complex, theologically sophisticated, and, while certainly 'conservative,' open to some interesting possibilities and developments.

A 'Relational' Priesthood
In order to evaluate John Paul's theology of ordained ministry, it is important to recognise some fundamental features which 'coloured' that theology to a large degree. The first of these was John Paul's conviction that the ordained ministry is an essentially relational reality in the life of the Church. By this I mean that the ordained ministry can only be understood in its relationship to the Christian community as a whole, and in its relationship to Christ. This, of course, is hardly revolutionary or controversial theology, but it is an important point to make. John Paul was not one of those who would conceive of the priesthood as standing apart from, or over against, the rest of the Church.

This is particularly clear in John Paul's frequent reference to and use of the text of Lumen gentium 10:
Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.

While many theologians have pointed out the lack of precision in this conciliar formulation as regards the precise nature of the difference between the two ways of sharing in Christ's priesthood, and the way in which they are 'ordered, one to another,' John Paul provided a useful way of thinking about this question. Writing to priests in his 1979 Holy Thursday letter, he remarked that the sacrament of priestly ordination 'by virtue of its very nature and of everything that it produces in our life and activity, serves to make the faithful aware of their common priesthood and to activate it…' (Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, 1979, par. 4). He returned to the same theme some years later when, in his 1990 Holy Thursday letter, he insisted that 'the priesthood is not an institution that exists 'alongside' the laity or 'above' it. The priesthood of bishops and priests, as well as the ministry of deacons, is 'for' the laity, and precisely for this reason it possesses a 'ministerial' character, that is to say, one of 'service.' Moreover, it highlights the 'baptismal priesthood,' the priesthood common to all the faithful. It highlights this priesthood and at the same time helps it to be realised in the sacramental life' (Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, 1990, par. 3).

This referring of the ministerial or ordained priesthood to what John Paul would frequently call the baptismal priesthood, common to all the faithful (and therefore, of course, to all baptised Christians, both non-ordained and ordained), is extremely important, for it enables us to suggest that the most fundamental sharing in Christ's priesthood takes place through baptism. It is the Church, the community of the baptised, which is 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people' (1 Pet 2:9). In John Paul's thought, the ordained priesthood exists in the Church as a ministry of service in order to enable the Church to be what it is called to be—a priestly people. If ordained priests are called to be holy, to be 'men of God,' it is fundamentally because of their baptismal priesthood rather than primarily because of their priestly ordination. This point cannot be stressed strongly enough in a Christian tradition which has a long history of focusing on the ordained priesthood more as an honour and a privilege (which of course it is), and as a state of special holiness, than as a life of humble service to the priestly People of God.

John Paul's linking of ordained priesthood to the more fundamental reality of the priesthood of the whole Church enabled him to develop a theology of priesthood which, while it certainly did not deny the 'cultic' aspect, re-presented the concepts of cultic priesthood in a new way. This was achieved through a rethinking of the nature of Christ's own priesthood, of which all priesthood in the Church, baptismal and ordained, is a sharing.

Christological Foundations
It is no exaggeration to say that John Paul, over the course of his pontificate, developed a Christology which we might properly call 'priestly.' To understand this, we need to go back to his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis (RH), in which he announced that 'the Redeemer of humanity, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the cosmos and of history' (RH par.1). Seeking to spell out just what this means, John Paul explained that the redemption of humanity, which is the fundamental goal of the incarnation and all that it entails, is summed up, contained and achieved 'in the mystery of the sacrifice which he makes of himself to the Father on the altar of the cross' (RH par.20). For John Paul, this is a pre-eminently priestly act, precisely because it is an act of sacrifice in obedience to God, in order to reconcile humanity with God. In this context John Paul, in his writings on the ordained ministry, often made reference to the Letter to the Hebrews, ('a fundamental text for knowledge of Christ's ... priesthood.' Holy Thursday Letter, 1987, par. 3) and pointed out that what the priests of the Jewish tradition did, namely 'to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins' (Heb 5:1), Jesus has done 'once for all when he offered himself' (Heb 7:27).

For John Paul, it was fundamentally significant that this act of self-offering, which found its culmination and its complete and irrevocable expression in Jesus' death on the cross, was in fact the fundamental truth of his whole life. As the pope correctly pointed out, 'all that Christ did and taught was at the service of our redemption. The ultimate and most complete expression of this messianic service was to be the cross on Calvary. The cross confirmed in the fullest possible way that the Son of God became man 'for us men and for our salvation' (Credo of the Mass.) And this salvific service, which embraces the whole universe, is 'inscribed forever in the priesthood of Christ' (Holy Thursday Letter, 1987, par. 16). We can understand from this that, for John Paul, the essence of Christ's priesthood, seen both from the point of view of the fulfilment of the Jewish priesthood and also as something new, was to be found precisely in this: salvific service. If this service reached its fulfilment on Calvary, and is therefore celebrated in the Eucharist, it is because what happened on Calvary was in the most profound harmony and continuity with the whole of Christ's life: not just his death, but his whole life, was an act of self-offering to God on behalf of humanity, so that humanity might be reconciled with God. It was a priestly life.

A 'Priestly' Church
Because of this we might say that true priesthood is both located in and revealed through an inner attitude of self-sacrificing service which manifests itself in a life lived for others and a death undergone for others. This is the essence of true priesthood, and it is the heart of every Christian vocation. For John Paul, this is what it means to speak of a baptismal priesthood, and of the vocation to 'offer spiritual sacrifices in union with the one redeeming sacrifice offered by Christ himself' (Holy Thursday Letter, 1989, par.1). This is not a 'second-class priesthood' lacking in some kind of essential dignity which only the ordained ministry enjoys. On the contrary it is the fundamental and foundational sharing in Christ's priesthood, for the service of which the ordained ministry exists.

As we examine John Paul's theology of ordained ministry, and his linking of it to the priesthood of Christ, on the one hand, and the baptismal priesthood of the Church on the other, it becomes clear that John Paul was operating with a particular model of the Church in mind. One of his favourite expressions for the Church was 'the community of disciples' and, in the light of what we have seen above, we might suggest that 'community of servant disciples' is an even more accurate description. For John Paul, to be a Christian is to be servant in a community of disciples, and to be a disciple in a community of service. It is in following Christ that we learn to be servants of each other and of all people.

Jesus Christ, Head, Shepherd and Spouse of the Church
It was impossible for John Paul, and is probably no less problematic for most of us, to conceive of the Church independently of Christ. For the Pope, however, this meant much more than that the Church looks back to Christ for its original inspiration and as an ongoing point of reference for its present day decisions. In John Paul's understanding, there is a dynamic, living and life-giving relationship between Christ and the Church which makes of Christ, through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, the ever present source of the Church's life and identity. It is a decidedly Christo-centric though not Christo-monistic approach to ecclesiology.

This is particularly clear in John Paul's frequent description of the Church as the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, and the sheepfold of Christ, and of the consequent designation of Christ as head of his body, spouse of his bride and shepherd of his flock. While each of these images was developed in various ways in John Paul's theology, they all serve to highlight a basic truth: the Church, totally dependent on Christ for its identity and vitality, is to be both intimately identified with him and at the same time distinguished from him. Our intimate identification with Christ, which we experience in and through our belonging to the Church, is both the means of our salvation and the source of our Christian vocation of service. Our distinction from Christ reminds us that, even with all our gifts and talents, we are not a self-sufficient community but always stand in radical and absolute dependence on the gracious gift of Christ in the Holy Spirit.

That John Paul operated from such a model of Church, which wants to stress both intimate communion with Christ and radical dependence upon him, explains why he regarded the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the Church as being so important. It is precisely in this structure that the Church's basic identity is revealed. While our intimate union with Christ is symbolised and effected through the sacramental life of the Church, and especially through the 'dominical' sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, our absolute dependence on the Christ who is our head, our spouse and our shepherd, is symbolised and effected, though not exclusively so, through the ordained ministry. This is why John Paul, when he spoke about the ordained minister as an alter Christus (which he did, in fact, quite rarely), did not wish to suggest that only bishops and priests can represent Christ in the Church or in the wider world. On the contrary, it is our belonging to the Church through our baptism that enables us, together, to be an alter Christus, to be the ongoing presence of Christ in the human story. Within the reality which we call Church, however, and always at its service, we find the ordained ministry of bishops and priests, who are called and enabled by Christ to stand as the sacramental representation of the Church's dependence on Christ as head, as spouse and as shepherd. John Paul expressed this view clearly when, in Pastores dabo vobis, paragraph 16, he wrote:
The apostles and their successors, inasmuch as they exercise an authority which comes to them from Christ, the head and shepherd, are placed—with their ministry—in the forefront of the Church as a visible continuation and sacramental sign of Christ in his own position before the Church and the world, as the enduring and ever new source of salvation, he 'who is head of the Church, his body, and is himself its saviour' (Eph 5:23).

This is undoubtedly a 'high' theology of priesthood, and one which might give rise to a fear that it will fuel a resurgence of that 'clericalism' which has done so much damage to the Church, placing both heavy demands and unwarranted power in the hands of the ordained, and at the same time relegating the laity to a role of passive and subservient dependence on the clergy. Were this to happen, and to the extent that it has, perhaps, already happened or continues in the Church, it would represent a serious misreading of John Paul's theology. For him, the priestly Christ is the one who comes among his disciples as the one who serves (see Lk 22:27). Like Jesus himself, the ordained minister is called to be the humble foot-washer of the Lord's disciples (see Jn 13:1-20), just as those disciples, including the ordained ministers, are called to be a community which places itself at the humble service of the whole human family.

The Problem Of Theological Dualism
In spite of the 'servant theology' of priesthood which John Paul so strongly advocated, the Church continues to struggle with clericalism. It would be unfair to lay the blame for this solely, or even primarily, at John Paul's door. However, it can be pointed out that his theology did at times appear to labour under the burden of a theological dualism which draws a sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane, the Church and the world. It can be argued that it is precisely this dualistic approach which breeds clericalism by reserving the area of the 'sacred' to the clergy and committing the area of the 'secular' to the laity. That there was something of this in John Paul's approach is clear from a close reading of his writings. It was certainly the basis of his reflections in his Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici (CL), where he wrote, for example, that 'the 'world' thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfil their Christian vocation…they are not called to abandon the position they have in the world' (CL 15). Such considerations led John Paul to the conviction that 'by virtue of their own vocation the lay faithful…are united with this 'world' in a way that differs from ours. The world is given to them as a task by God in Christ the redeemer' (Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, 1989, par.8).

While there is obviously some truth in all of this, the great danger is that it leads to a mentality which sees the ordained standing on the side of the Church, the sacred and the holy, (and therefore, perhaps, also the divine) with the laity standing on the side of the world, the secular and the profane (and therefore, also, the human). If this is how the Church is understood, then the laity, humbly and gratefully receiving spiritual goods from the hands of the clergy, are seen to leave the realm of the sacred and return to the realm of the secular where they act as a leaven, and as the salt of the earth. Inevitably, such an approach runs the risk of creating two classes of people: the clergy who deal with the sacred, and therefore more exalted, things of God, and the laity, who deal with the secular, and therefore less exalted, things of this world. The real mission of sanctification belongs primarily, in such a view, to the clergy: the laity are the recipients of this gift. This makes the laity not so much the protagonists of the Church's mission, but rather the object of that mission.

There is another way, of course, of seeing all of this: it is the way of the incarnation, the 'divine methodology' of the Father, who in sending his Son through the Spirit, destroys forever in the person of Christ the absolute distinction between the holy and the profane, the sacred and the secular, the divine and the human. In Christ, all of this is brought into a new unity, so much so that it is precisely in living human life to its fullest, as Christ did, that God is most fully praised and glorified and the work of reconciliation between God and humanity is achieved.

This is precisely where John Paul's insight into the priestly nature of Christ's whole life becomes so important. The redeemer's life of salvific service, that is, of life given as a gift for others, is the truest and deepest act of priestly worship which reconciles us to God, and which offers to God that worship 'in spirit and in truth' which God seeks from us. The transformation and 'consecration' of the world thus takes place in Christ. This same reality continues to take place as people enter into the movement of Christ's own life, death and resurrection through their own lives of salvific service. In this way Christ's priesthood continues to exercise its reconciling and consecrating power. Within the Church, the ordained ministry, as it enables and fosters the priestly vocation of the community of servant disciples, plays its essential role in this transformation and consecration of the world.

Pope John Paul II has left us a compelling, complex and, perhaps surprisingly, open-ended theology of ordained ministry. In spite of the inevitable difficulties and limitations of this theology, we can be grateful to John Paul for opening up such potentially rich horizons for us.

Tim Costelloe SDB is a Salesian priest working in the area of formation within his congregation and lecturing in Systematic Theology at Catholic Theological College, Melbourne.