From presider to other Christ
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THE ROLE OF A PRIEST: FROM PRESIDER TO “OTHER CHRIST”   

                                   Brother Thomas P. Draney, CFC                                 

A selection from A New Look at the Sacraments by William J Bausch, parish priest/author of many works on liturgy and spirituality (13th printing of the revised edition of 1995),Twenty-Third Publications , pp. 247-257.

With the emergence of the bishop as main community leader … there were consequences. One is that the charismatic figure, so popular in the early church, tended to disappear or, perhaps more accurately, to be absorbed into the bishop’s role … The reason is a sociological one free-floating, spontaneous prophets, teachers, and other charismatic figures are a real asset in a small, mobile, loose knit community, but are a liability in one struggling for stability and order. .. Charismatic figures had to be institutionalized and merged into the office of the bishop. By the third century the bishop had, for the most part, gathered such roles into his person and emerged as the full leadership and authority figure in most church communities.

The second consequence of needed centralization was that the momentum went on. That is to say, eventually all ministries became absorbed into the bishop's office. Anyone outside his office who did ministry came to be seen as extensions of him. We have then is the beginning of the c1ericalization of all ministries so that in time to come, anyone engaged in any ministry must somehow be brought into the clerical orb. Meanwhile, appointment to this office of bishop and the process of installation (ordination) was done by the laying on of hands. However, what is being done is not any transfer of power but rather appointment or confirmation of one as presider over the community. The prayers and laying on of hands is communicating the gift of the Spirit to preside, to rule, and to guide the Christian community. No innate power to do supernatural things was as yet envisaged.

Leadership does not Mean Priesthood

So far we have seen the birth of a variety of ministries prompted by community needs, adapted to changing conditions, and shared by ordinary Christians in virtue of simple baptism. But we have also noted that the variety was slowly reduced, coalesced into the singular office of the bishop. At this point, however, we have one striking observation: neither in the variety of ministries or in its reduction do we find the mention of the category of priest. The reason is simple. Nowhere in the entire New Testament is the word priest used of a Christian individual, even of any of the apostles.

Jesus, the Only Priest Needed

There are reasons. First of all, the word priest was associated with the pagan priesthood and their animal sacrifices, and so the early Christians avoided the term. Second, the first Jewish Christians already had priests in the temple and went there, so there was no need to neither duplicate the office nor confuse it. However, when the Jewish temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. and the Jewish priesthood with it, considerable doubt was left in the minds of both .Jews and Jewish Christians as whether the concept of priesthood was even valid anymore. The Epistle to the Hebrews, to which we shall return shortly, tried to answer this-and tried to give comfort to the bewildered now that both temple and priesthood were gone. And in the response, the epistle gave another reason to jettison any notion of priest. It is said that the crucifixion and death of Jesus replaced forever any need for a temple, a sacrifice, or a priesthood. Jesus, the high priest, rendered a once-and-for-all sacrifice, superseding all others and making all future sacrifices and priestly offices superfluous. So, again, there was no reason for early Christianity to think in terms of priests.

Then, too, there was a whole attitude, inherited from Jesus and Paul that confirmed their disinterest in priests, priesthood, and temple. According to Jesus, God could be encountered anywhere. They recalled that he said as much to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:20-24) that God would be worshipped in spirit and in truth and that where two or three are gathered in his (Jesus') name he, would be in their midst (Matthew 18:20). Jesus seems in fact to be quite critical of all cultic acts, took a dim view of the dietary laws, was cavalier about the Sabbath, and spoke of destroying the temple. Therefore, the early Christians took their cue from such words. They did not need temple, sacrifice, or consequently priests. If there is to be any temple at all, it is to be one constructed of "living stones," of people who offer up "spiritual" sacrifices to God through Jesus (I Peter. 2:4).

We come back to that Epistle to the Hebrews. It gives the undeniable impression that sacrificial cult (and the priests who perform the same) is not a fitting thing for a Christian anyway, since what .Jesus did is unique -"once and for all"- and cannot be added to or repeated. There is, as the epistle to Timothy expresses it, "one God and there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself up as a ransom for all" (I Timothy 2:5, 6). Leaders in the Christian community therefore were in no way to be considered priests. Rather they were to consider themselves as "stewards of the mysteries of God" (I Corinthians 4:1), arousing the .faith of a priestly people. All the baptized are priestly and Indeed "a holy people, a royal priesthood" (I Peter I: 2). No one is excluded from the Lord or given special status or privilege since the Spirit is poured out on all, for the Spirit is radially democratic (Acts 2: 17).

The Keys to the Kingdom

For all these reasons there is no mention of priest in the New Testament as applied to an individual Christian, even the leaders. There is no notion that leaders such as bishops were given any priestly power at ordination. Holy orders, to use a later term, did not include the notion of any power to forgive sins. The action of the risen Christ after Easter, giving his apostles the power of the "keys" to loose and to bind, has more to do with the whole mission of the church and its proclamation of God's reconciling forgiveness. Nor did holy orders include the notion of any power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. On the contrary, any connection with the Eucharist was seen, not in terms of a consecratory power, but rather deeply in terms of action, of community presiding. We must explore this.

From all early accounts it seems that the prophets and teachers, presided at the Eucharist ("said Mass" as we might express it). The first century document, the Didache, indi­cates this and even allows for bishops and deacons to take over if the prophets were overworked. The document known as the Apostolic Witness talks about confessors (those almost-martyrs for the faith) as presiding at the Eucharist. We have a record of an elder from Carthage presiding during the persecution of Decius. The fourth century Council of Aries held that in the absence of priests (who by now are in existence) deacons may preside at the Eucharist in emergencies, especially during persecution times. Tertullian held the singular opinion that any layman would preside in the absence of a priest

In all this we must go back and catch the rationale operat­ing here, that the one who presides over the community should preside over the Eucharist. Since in fact this really meant the bishop, then he, as the community’s leader, became that community’s liturgical leader. In other words, what en­titled one to preside at the Eucharist was his role as presider over the community.

There is a compelling logic here. The Christian communi­ty reaches its highest faith expression at the Eucharist. It is only natural therefore that the one who does in fact preside over the community should preside at its most intimate celebration of unity. Therefore it was almost axiomatic in the first centuries of the church that those who preside over the life of the church preside at the Eucharist. And in respect to ordination, this meant that it is fundamentally orien­tated towards one's pastoral role. One is ordained to gather, build, and celebrate the Christian community, and flowing from this, to preside at that community’s Eucharist. One is not ordained to preside at the Eucharist and then, as a side effect, to preside over the community. It is the other way around. There is no question of power here, only presi­dency. And that is why the ancient canons voided the ordi­nation of anyone who was a free-floating presider at the Eucharist without a community. This was considered a con­tradiction. This is also why some modern theologians can argue that, given early church history and the evolution of office and ministry, lay leaders might preside over the Eucharist in an emergency.

From Meal to Mass

The bishop naturally emerged as the liturgist, the presider over the Eucharist since he was the official presider over the community. He was still not considered a priest or even a high priest, but this was about to develop quickly. The development came when some began to relate the eucharist to the Old Testa­ment categories of sacrifice. As soon as this caught hold, then it was only a matter of time before the next logical steps would be taken. From a fraternal meal presided over by a leader (much as Jesus did at the Last Supper), the eucharist became, a cult that required an increasingly elaborate liturgy. Be­coming a cult, the eucharist demanded not a presider, but a priest. The place of sacrifice, no longer a communal meal at someone's house, becomes a temple or church. The meal table becomes an altar. The presiding leader, the bishop, be­comes a high priest. Finally, he becomes something more. He becomes a mediator between God and man in spite of St. Paul's words that there is only one such mediator.

Although the bishop was now high priest at the eucharistic sacrifice, he became increasingly constrained by time and space. Christianity moved out into the suburbs and rural areas of the empire. The bishops were, and remain for the most part to this day, city men. Who was going to take care of those others beyond? Eventually, the bishops turned to the holdover elders or presbyters. They were still around, though for the most part subservient to the bishop as local council members. These pres­byters took over the eucharistic presidency in the outlying dis­tricts since they were already the local leaders there. The city bishops kept all other powers except baptism which, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the presbyters were doing. The bishops also kept control over confirmation (as we also saw), jurisdiction and official teaching. This left the presbyter identified and as­sociated with the eucharist. He became the priest. This role was further deepened as catechetical instruction decreased, infant baptisms grew, and adult converts declined. And, as the great doctrinal heresies declined and the monks took over penance, this newly emerged presbyter-priest really became identified with his cultic role at the altar.

The humble origin of the priest as basically an inferior cleric from the countryside remained intact throughout the centuries. This is to say that the priests remained largely uneducated and from a lower social strata than the bishops, who were educated, often aristocratic, and men of leadership and breeding. At best, the country priest often had to memorize the Mass and other rituals since he could not read or write. Demands were meager. One medieval church law insists that a priest must present him­self to the bishop at least three days before ordination. The priest, then, especially in feudal times, was a part-time cult fig­ure, full-time worker elsewhere, and often at the beck and call of the local feudal lord who hired him.

Clericalization of the Ministries

Meanwhile, as we have noted, all other ministries were being absorbed into the bishop's role and, by extension, to those roles connected with him. Lay people's ministries were c1ericalized. Indeed, religious laymen such as monks eventually had to capitulate and become ordained priests in order to be consid­ered as having a legitimate mission in the church. Other of­fices too met the same fate.

The order of acolyte of the fifth century, the order of exorcist of the third and fourth centuries, the order of lector of the third century and the order of por­ter all were original lay ministries that not only became clericalized hut were made stepping stones to the priesthood. The same fate awaited the subdeaconate and deaconate. In fact, after the twelfth century there came the distinction be­tween the "major" orders -­­ subdeacon, deacon, and priest­hood - and the "minor" orders acolyte, porter, exorcist, and lector. All were now clerical offices, the minor orders not being considered as part of official ordination, while the major orders were. Medieval theologians, by the way, had some logical trouble with all these orders (which is why the sacrament is called holy orders, in the plural). How could so many steps con­stitute one sacrament? It was Thomas Aquinas who came up with the best solution. He said that the minor orders were but, the "potentialities" of grace, while the major orders actually! brought the fullness of power. As a footnote to history, we might mention here that in 1972 Pope Paul V I finally dropped exorcist and porter as clerical orders altogether, and made lec­tor and acolyte lay ministries once more.

Ordination Introduced as Ontological Change

It was around the twelfth century that a decided shift in the concept of ordination occurred. Formerly, as we have men­tioned the old principle prevailed that the presider over the community was the one qualified to preside over the eucharist and the reason that the bishop became chief eucharistic liturgist was that he was already the chief community leader. There was both an intimate connection and interaction between a commu­nity and its bishop, with the former having its free choice of the latter. That is why the ancient document, the Apostolic Tradition says, "Let him be ordained as bishop who has been chosen by all the people." In the fifth century Pope Celestine said much the same thing, "Let a bishop not be imposed upon the people whom they do not want." Pope St. Leo adds, "He who has to preside over all must be elected by all." We know that often men were elected by the community against their will, such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory. All this underscores the closeness and the role of the community in picking its leader and therefore its eucharistic presider.

A Transmutation of Priestly Power

This primary of the community held firm, so much so that the fourth century Council of Chalcedon issued a canon that said that no one was to be ordained unless he was attached to some kind of community. If he were ordained otherwise, such an ordination would be without effect because the cleric would be in permanent suspension. But, as we said, the twelfth century saw a decided shift in this principle. The Third Lateran Council and succeeding popes and councils transmuted community power into personal power. They did this by making ordination a ritual for giving this power personally to the priest. Ordination, which formerly was tied in with the presidency of a community, is altered to impart a personal investment of power to the individual. Independent of community as a result, the priest carries this power with him wherever he goes in the world. Moreover, according to a developing theology, he receives an indelible mark on his soul that "shapes" him "to the likeness of Christ the Priest"

A Man Apart

This mark, the Catholic Encyclopedia says, "confers the power over the real Body of Christ to consecrate, offer and administer His Body and Blood, and the power over His Mystical Body to prepare the faithful by the sacraments and the preaching of the word,
to he fit and worthy for the Sacrament of the Eucharist."  *   With awesome power the priest has indeed arrived at the status of sacred personage. Furthermore, add the over the centuries separatisms such as civil exemptions, celibacy, a monastic model of holiness, different clothes and lifestyle, and you can see that ordination has become a ceremony to designate a man as totally apart from the community instead of totally identified with it.

In fact, so complete was this separation that the priest could, finally do what was inconceivable to the minds of the early Christians: he could effect a contradiction, the celebration of the private Mass. This was a "public" liturgy without any people, without community... Why not? He had all the power in himself and the community basically contributed nothing.

This movement from community to personal power reflected the whole process of what happened to ministry in general. All is transferred to one person. It is the kind of ex­pression that Pius X in the early part of this century would make in one of his encyclicals, "The Church is essentially an unequal society. That is, it is a society formed by pastors and flock... As far as the multitude is concerned; they have no other duty than to let themselves be led."

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All of the preceding is historical hindsight. Current history is in the process of reacting to and redressing misplaced emphases. It is restoring the sacrament of holy orders to its old focus. For one thing, this sacrament is being seen more in its community related aspect. The word priest is still being retained but its content is being stretched. Various ministries that were pulled into the office of priesthood are. being redistributed, not in the sense of being "loaned out" to the laity, but in the sense of acknowledging that they belong to them by right. As an example, the United States Bishops, on the fifteenth anniversary of Vatican II's Decree on the Laity wrote that "the adult character of the People of God flows from baptism and confirmation which are the foundations of the Christian life and ministry... Baptism and confirma­tion empower all believers to share in some form of minis­try   **



  *  Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol.7, p.83
**  Catholic laity: called and gifted November 1 – 3