What Do Priests Do?
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!
Beautiful reflection, Sr Melannie. I guess I’m most priestly either when I pray or when I do some work of service. Sometimes I “feel” priestly when I’m at my rosary (which does help to de-fog and de-clutter the soul rather nicely),or when I write, but I perhaps “am” most priestly when I’m in my community, or in my family, helping my mom with something, or holding a door for someone, or simply being present to another human being who’s working through some stuff and just needs a listening ear.
Yes, isn’t Pope Francis wonderful? I think that in 2013, Pentecost came early: on the 13th of March, the day of Francis’s election! Ad multos annos to the Holy Father.
Washing of feet, of course, summons to mind humility. Somewhere in the collected essays and other prose of American poet Marianne Moore, the noted poet observes: “Humility is a quality that attracts our admiration, but not always our imitation.” (And here, I think of Francis, again. I’m not called to admire him, as much as I am to imitate him and other saints, living or dead, who walk the way of humility and service.)
I have become friends with several members of the Episcopal Church’s clergy in the last year or two. The way of self-sacrifice, of kenotic (self-emptying) service, is exemplified in a number of priests I know among the Episcopalians (women among them).
To sum up: I guess we best show forth Christ, the High Priest, when we are priestly enough to put mercy into action. Then we become as monstrances of Christ to others.
Peace and light, everyone. Looking forward to reading what others have to say!
Beautiful words, Tom! That Marianne Moore quote is a gem!
Dear Tom, Thank you for your response to today’s post. It was a good one. I especially liked the specific examples of times you feel “priestly.” And I loved your summary at the end: we show forth Christ when we “put mercy into action.” Great! Thanks again, Tom! Melannie
Good morning, Sr. Melannie…
Good morning, all…
“Priesthood, whether ordained or lay, is essentially selfless service of others. It’s as simple — and as profound — as that.”
These are words every Catholic needs to know, memorize, and live! They serve as a bulwark against clericalism — something our beloved Pope has repeatedly railed against. But at the same time, these words remind us of what we must do. When Jesus washes the feet of his apostles, Peter protests, but Jesus says — forgive the gross paraphrase — “No, this has to happen.” So yes, we are called to wash the feet of other — even those who do not align with our religious or world view (thank you, Francis!), but we also need to let go and let others wash our feet, a humble — but at times — difficult thing to do.
Also, the literal act of washing feet brings us close to the ground, brings us “down to earth,” so to speak.
Good morning to you, John. I liked your emphasis that we are called to wash the feet “even of those who do not align with our religious or world view.” And your reminder that we must let others serve us too! Always good to hear from you! Again, thank you! Melannie
My 37 year old son passed away from an unexpected brain bleed a few weeks back. Evidently he had a malformed blood vessel since birth, and August 28, 2021 was the day it gave out. He had moved home with my husband and me during the pandemic to help me with his father, who has dementia. He and I recently met with the social worker in our neurology practice and he told her he wanted to spend one more year at our house to make sure we could figure out the best plan of living for his parents before returning to his music career, based out of Chicago. He is a beautiful pianist with a large online following of those who love his improvisational piano sessions, and also piano teachers, as he often composes music for his 40 plus students. Three weeks before his death he composed five new pieces (one-a-day for a week) and put the free sheet music on his JCC Piano Studio website for teachers to procure, including “Candy Coated Scales” which, as the priest said at his funeral Mass “Oh Jonathan, where were you when I was taking piano lessons?” I share about his death not for sympathy; we’re all sad and heartbroken and always will be, but mainly because since the first EMT people arrived at our house until I went to bed last night, somebody has been by my side “being priestly.” One of those people is right now sleeping on my couch, and when she awakes in a few hours she will step into the hard task of caring for my husband which includes dealing with soaking wet clothing and bed sheets. The kindness and concern has poured out of so many people in recent days and is what keeps me going right now. The hospital doctors, PAs, nurses, social workers, Gift of Life organ team were not only priestly during our time of crisis in ICU, but continue to reach out to check up on me. Friends have provided enough gift-cards for restaurants so I won’t have to worry about meals for at least a month. Because of COVID there could be no after funeral lunch at the church, but within hours of his death his many cousins and friends procured a pavilion in a nearby park, provided an abundance of food, decorated it with bright table clothes, flowers and pictures boards of Jonathan and made a most beautiful spot to gather and celebrate his life. Many musicians he studied and played music with flew in from around the country, at great financial sacrifice (musicians are pretty much always poor) to play music at his Mass and in the park after Mass. Parents drove to Kalamazoo from Chicago, bringing their children to learn about death, and of course, life, and say goodbye to their dear teacher. All of these people were being priestly.
What I have learned during these past two weeks from those who knew my son was how “selfless” he was. Evidently he was a good listener, and both adult students and parents of children continually report how he was so much more than a piano teacher, but a good friend, a patient listener, someone who would take 10 minutes at the end of an online lesson to play a video game with a student or address a concern a parent had about their child. Evidently he did pro bono or reduced rate lessons for those would could not afford piano study. Our new neighbors next door came yesterday to tell me Jonathan had been shoveling their walk all winter. And, a sister reported that in a recent conversation with him about how he felt about giving up his expansive social life in Chicago to come home and live with the two of us, he said it was very hard, but that he loved caring for us, and he had learned what it was to become truly selfless, and that was important for him.
So yes, as Sister Melannie shares above “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.” I thank all of the priestly humans who have been praying for us, helping us, listening to us, and loving us. And I thank you too for reading this and caring; that is being priestly too.
Thank you for sharing.this beautiful reflection. My husband and I are nearing the end of our earthly lives and you made me realize that everything we do or allow others to do for is being priestly. Your family will be in our prayers.
Thank you so much Jean. You are right about “allowing others to do for us” as an also an act of being priestly. So many want to help in so many ways right now and despite best intentions some of it isn’t necessarily helpful. However, I’m realizing it’s better to let them reach out for their sake, as it’s a way for them to express their love for us and sorrow for our son’s loss. God Bless You and your husband.
Dear Mary Therese, I am sure all my readers join with me in extending our deepest sympathy to you, your dear husband, and your family on the death of your son, Jonathan. From your description of him, we can see what a wonderful and generous man he was. You can be so proud of him! I can’t help but think that he grew into the beautiful human being he was because of his parents’ influence on his life. We will hold you in our prayer. And we pray also for your husband too. Your account of all the individuals who reached out to you during this time of sadness and difficulty was truly inspiring. My goodness! What an encouragement to all of us! Thank you so much for writing, Mary Therese… With much love, Melannie
Thank you Sr. Melannie. After I sent it I felt ashamed I wrote so much, but I needed to in order to show all the examples of how people have reached out at a difficult time in a priestly way. I’m learning a grieving mother needs to talk about and share her loss. Thank you for responding so kindly and keeping us all in your prayers. Mary
Dear Mary Therese, Do not feel ashamed in the least. I am not a regular reader but stumbled upon Sr. Melanie and your beautiful story. I have been feeling lost in our divided world, our divided church, and your sharing, with every single example, was exactly what I needed to feel restored and uplifted. Your son’s love has affected the lives of others in ways that will live on and on. I needed all of the concrete examples to be reminded that in the end, all that really matters is our love, poured out into everything we do and every person God puts in our path. St. Therese has always been a favorite saint and I hear her speaking to me through you. ❤️
Lisa, Thank you for your kind words. I am a devotee of St. Therese too, and had the opportunity to visit her house in Lisieux in France a few years back. Quite frankly, I haven’t thought of her since Jonathan died until just now. Thank you for sharing her voice with me today. M.T.
What a great reflection Melanie I have seen both sides of the priestly life in the lay life in this reflection really opened my eyes.
Maryann, I appreciate your words. Thank you! Melannie
Thank you for today’s message and song! Last 18 months have helped us to help others!
And thank you for your comment, Dolores… and the reminder of how the struggles of the past 18 months have called us to greater thoughtfulness of others. Melannie
No matter how hard we try, our human nature prompts us to present a good deal of “ourselves” as we go about being priests in image of Christ. For this reason I was struck by the song’s refrain: “at the end of myself.” How important to remember that, like John the Baptizer, we do our best when we are proclaiming the One to come.
As usual, Tom, you say much in few words… and you always take us a little beyond what I’ve written. The refrain “at the end of myself” really spoke to me too. Thanks so much! Melannie
What a beautiful reflection! So much has happened since our gathering for retreat with you. We were blessed with new leadership and a fruitful General Chapter. This reflection will be an inspiration as I will soon begin a new ministry as Vocation Coordinator for the Diocese of Ogdensburg. Our Baptismal call is so important and we need to reflect more deeply our call as a ‘priestly’ people. All of us share in this sacrificial offering of ourselves each day as we continue to proclaim the Gospel in a variety of ways. Please keep me in your prayers as I do for you and your Sisters. Many blessings upon you and your ministry with and for us.
Dear Mary Eamon, It’s always good hearing from you! I’m so happy to hear that your General Chapter was so fruitful. I know from my experiences with your community, that you are a beautiful group of women! I appreciate your words that we all “share in this sacrificial offering of ourselves each day.” Nicely put! And blessings on your new ministry. May you continue to bring your many gifts to this new way of loving and serving others! Thanks for writing! Melannie
After reading this blog, a friend of mine sent me this old Scottish poem. “I said to myself,” she wrote, “This is what Melannie was talking about–how we can exercise our priesthood.”
I’d rather see a sermon than hear one, any day;
I’d rather one would walk with me than merely show me the way.
The eye’s a better pupil, more willing than the ear;
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear.”
Dear Sr. Melannie
Thank you and all the readers of yesterday’s reflection
on being a Priestly People. I feel that our call to holiness is best exemplified by doing what we are asked to do at this very moment. You demonstrated so many wonderful examples that I never considered. Thank you for awakening the priest in all of us.