What do priests do? You might answer: “They preside at Mass, consecrating the bread and wine… They preach, breaking open the scriptures for us… They administer the sacraments… They oversee our parishes.” Such answers are true—if you are speaking of ordained priests. But the Catholic Church also proclaims the belief in the “Universal Priesthood of all believers.” What does that mean?
Briefly, it affirms that all believers are in a way priests. This means all believers have direct access to God. We can all offer intercessions, praises, and spiritual sacrifices to God. This belief is based on several passages in scripture—most notably 1 Peter 2:5-9. Verse 9 says, “But you are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises’ of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Some of the Protestant reformers saw this passage (and others) as abrogating the need for ordained priests. The Catholic Church, however, maintains both the Universal Priesthood of all believers as well as the clerical priesthood achieved through the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Check out The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no, 1546) which says: “The whole community of the faithful is priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his/her own vocation, in Christ’s mission.”
Sometimes there is a tension between the ordained priesthood and the universal priesthood. At times we Catholics can think that only ordained priests have the answers to all questions about faith. (“Ask Father….”) At times we can even idolize certain clergy. (“Let’s canonize more priests and more popes!”) But more importantly, an exaggerated emphasis on the ordained priesthood can lead so-called “ordinary Catholics” to think that real ministry is reserved for clergy. Thus, we laity (Yes, nuns are part of the laity) can miss out on the depth of our calling as followers of Jesus.
Just ten days after he was elected pope, Francis did something that shocked many believers. It was Holy Thursday. On this day, most of the Popes before Francis used to wash the feet of twelve priests in St. John Lateran Basilica. But Francis surprised the world when he traveled to a juvenile detention center outside Rome and washed the feet of twelve prisoners—including two women and two Muslims! His humble expression of love and service modeled Jesus’ own example on that first Holy Thursday. As someone so aptly said: “At the Last Supper, Jesus tied a make-shift apron around his waist and redefined success.” He redefined priesthood too. Priesthood, whether ordained or lay, is essentially selfless service of others. It’s as simple—and as profound—as that.
So you and I exercise our priesthood every time we follow Jesus’s example of loving service of others. If that is true, then how can we answer that question, “What do priests do?” We could say things like this: They give birth to children… they change diapers… they pray every day… they serve as doctors, nurses, lawyers, CEO’s… they volunteer in homeless shelters… they teach catechism… they stock shelves, sweep floors, and serve tables… they pave roads and fix the plumbing problem… they serve on boards… they bake casseroles for the parish bereavement committee… they mow lawns… they coach kids’ soccer teams… they give haircuts… they care for the sick… they help with the parish RCIA program… they babysit their grandchildren… they look in on an elderly neighbor… and the list goes on and on and on.
Being a part of the Universal Priesthood means being a follower of Jesus. It means communing directly with God. It means being a person of hope. It means giving up all cynicism and instead, reaching for a basin of water and a couple of towels.
+ Did anything in this reflection stand out for you?
+ If you are not an ordained priest, when do your feel most like a priest? If you are ordained, when do you feel most like a priest?
+ Does Jesus’ washing of feet speak to you? If so, what does it say? If not, why not?
+ What other kinds of things do “ordinary Catholics” do that are priestly?
The song today is by Casting Crowns. It’s called simply “Follow Me.” The song is antiphonal. A particular person in the Gospel speaks to Jesus (the fishermen apostles… the woman caught in adultery… the “good thief” on the cross.”) Then Jesus speaks to each one of them. May the words of the particular person become your own words—especially when you are “at the end of yourself”… and may you hear Jesus speaking his words directly to you: “Just follow me.”
I invite you to comment to this reflection below. I’m always eager to hear from you!