The Priesthood of the Laity
by Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.
Saint Peter, in his First Epistle, was writing to Baptized Christians
(the Laity) when he referred to them as a "Holy Priesthood"
"Be yourselves as Living Stones, built as an Edifice of Spirit, into a Holy Priesthood, offering Spiritual
Sacrifices, acceptable to God, through Jesus Christ . . . You are a Chosen Race, a Royal Priesthood, a Holy Nation".
The Second Vatican Council, in its
Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, speaks in Similar Language:
"The Laity derive the Right and Duty, with respect to the Apostolate, from their Union with Christ, their
Head. Incorporated into Christís Mystical Body through Baptism, and Strengthened by the Power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation,
. . . they are Consecrated into a Royal Priesthood and a Holy People" (n.3)
Ordinarily, when we hear the words "Priesthood" or "Priest",
we think immediately of those who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Yet, the Quotations
above, refer to every Baptized Christian. It will be Fruitful to discuss a bit what Saint Peter
and the Vatican Council meant by those words, to better understand our Christian Vocation.
Yet, to better understand the Priesthood of the Laity, which is a Sharing in the Priesthood of Christ,
it will be helpful to consider First of all, the Priesthood in-general, and the Priesthood of Christ
Priesthood & Sacrifice
From Time Immemorial, the notion of Priesthood has been associated with Sacrifice. The most Ancient
and Primitive of Peoples, had a Deeply Ingrained notion of a Supreme Being, Who had an Influence over their Lives. Consequently they sought
the Favor or Pardon of the Supreme Being (or Supreme Beings), by offering Sacrifice, a Function carried
out by a Designated-one (Priest), who Represented the Community before their God.
By their Natural Religious Instincts, these Primitive Peoples saw these Supreme Beings as in some way having Power over them, and thus
they offered Sacrifice to Appease them, or to Seek a Blessing on their Harvest, on their Marriage, or
to obtain Victory in Battle, etc. In the most Primitive Times, this Priestly Function was carried out by the Head of the Family; and in
more Complex Communities, by the Head of the Community.
Priesthood in the Old Testament
In addition to the Natural Religious Instincts mentioned above, God has Revealed-to Mankind, the
Need to offer Sacrifice, and has given Extensive and Minute Details in the Old Testament as to how
it is to be carried out. It appears, however, that there was no Priestly Class in the Earliest Periods of the Ancient Hebrews. The Israelite
Priesthood was established at Mount Sinai, when Moses was instructed by God to appoint the House of
Aaron, of the Tribe of Levi, to carry out the Ceremonial Precepts contained in the Law. (Exodus 28:41)
From then on, the Priests exercised Considerable Influence in Israel, becoming its Official Teachers and Interpreters of the Law which
Regulated the Life and Worship of the Israelites. Its Members, being Descendants of Aaron, of the Tribe of Levi, the Israelite Priesthood
was Hereditary. Lest, however, the Service be Interrupted at any time in the Temple, King David divided the Priestly Families into
Twenty-Four (24) Classes, each Class serving for a Week,
i.e. from Sabbath to Sabbath. Their Duties necessitated a Knowledge of the Requirements of the Sacrificial
Rites, the Precepts to be Observed, and all the Rules regulating the Liturgy in the Temple. Only the High Priest, who became
the Spiritual Leader of the People, was Anointed (Leviticus 21:10). Sometime after the Babylonian Exile in the
6th Century B.C., the High Priest became the National Leader.
The Priesthood of the Old Law, which filled an Important Role in the Divine Plan for the People
of God, before the Coming of Christ, served Primarily (as did the
whole Old Testament) to Prefigure and Prepare the Way for the Royal Priesthood of the New
The Priesthood of Christ
Our Blessed Lord is not simply a Priest of the New Law,
He is the One-and-Only High Priest of the New Law.
He is the One-and-Only Mediator between
God and Man. All other Priests of the Christian Era, Share-in His Priesthood; all other
Mediators share in His Mediation. For this reason, Saint Thomas Aquinas refers to
Him as the Fountainhead of the entire Priesthood, for the Priest of the Old Law, was a Figure
of Him, while the Priest of the New Law, Acts in His Person
(in Persona Christi) (ST III,22,4).
Unlike the Priests of the Old Law, He was not a Descendant of Aaron, of the Tribe of Levi, a
fact that meant the Abrogation-of the Priesthood of Aaron, and the Institution-of a New Order of things. As Saint Thomas Aquinas points out:
"Since the Priesthood of the Old Law was a 'Figure' of the Priesthood of Christ, He did not wish to be Born
of the Stock of the Figurative Priests, that it might be made Clear, that His Priesthood is not the same as theirs, but differs therefrom,
as Truth differs from Figure" (ST III,22,1,ad 2).
Too, unlike the Priests of the Old Law, who had to wait until they
were Twenty (20) before being admitted to the
Office, Christís Priesthood began at the
Moment of the
Incarnation, for then, the Total Oblation of
Himself to the Father began. As
Saint Paul wrote to the Hebrews:
Wherefore, coming into the World, Jesus said:
Sacrifice and Oblation You did not Desire,
but a Body You prepared for Me.
Holocausts and Sin Offerings, You took no Delight in.
Then I said: ĎAs it is Written in the Book,
I have come to do Your Will, O Godí" (10:5-7).
Every Act of Christís Entire Life on Earth was an Act of His
Priesthood, for all were offered for the Redemptive Purpose for which
He came, all of which was Consummated-in the Sacrifice on
Calvary. There, as Priest and Victim, He Offered
Himself, Totally in Obedience to the
Will of the Father, for the Salvation of the World.
Again, unlike the Priesthood of the Old Law, that of Christ "Continues
Forever" (Hebrews 7:24). His Sacrifice on
Calvary was of Infinite (∞)
and Everlasting Value. And now, having Ascended into Heaven
"He is able at all times to save those who come to God through Him since He Lives always to make Intercession
for them (Hebrews 7:25).
Sharing Christ's Priesthood
There are Different Ways of Sharing-in Christís Priesthood. To Understand this, we must First
consider some Fundamental Ideas about the Sacraments, through which
Christ Shares His Priesthood with others.
There are Three (3) Sacraments which can be Received only
Once (Baptism, Confirmation
and Holy Orders), and the Reason why they can be Received only Once,
is because each of these Sacraments Imprints an Indelible Character
on the Soul, that cannot be Destroyed or
Effaced in this Life or the Next. "And therefore, after this Life", says Saint Thomas
Aquinas, "the Character remains, both in the Good - to their Glory, and in the Wicked - to their Shame"
(ST III,63,5,ad 2). This Sacramental Character
is a Spiritual Faculty or Power to Share-in the
Priesthood of Christ. It is a Power, Enabling one to take part in the Public Worship
which Christ offers to His Father through the
Church, especially the Mass and the other Sacraments.
The Ministerial Priesthood
In order to Perpetuate the Priestly Work He came to do, as Mediator
between God and Man, Christ established
His Church and gave it a Priesthood that would be a Continuation of
At the Last Supper, the Night before He
Died, Christ Instituted the Ritual Sacrifice and the
Priesthood of the New Law. Changing Bread and Wine into His Own Body and Blood,
He Offered-to the Father for the Sins of Mankind,
His Precious Blood that would be Shed the Following Day, and
His Body that would be so Torn and
Bruised during the Passion. He then said to
His Apostles: "Do this in Memory of Me".
He thereby gave to them the Power to Effect that Same Change, to Offer that Same
in Persona Christi - - Alter Christus
Shortly after His Resurrection, He gave them the
Power to Forgive Sins (John 20:22). And before
His Ascension into Heaven, He gave them the Mandate
to Preach His Gospel and Baptize in the Name of the
Divine Trinity, making Disciples of all Nations (Matthew 28:19-20). Thus they were to continue
His Priestly Redeeming Mission. "As the Father has sent Me, so I send
you" (John 20:21). These Powers were Granted-to His
Church in such a way that they would be Handed-down to their Successors through the
Sacrament of Holy Orders, in which the Ordained Priest, by the Anointing-of the
Holy Spirit, is Marked-with a Special Character, and is so Configured-to
Christ the Priest that he can Act in the Person of
Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body
(Vatican Council 11, Presb. Ord. 2).
Although the Ordained Priest is a Representative of the Community in Offering their Prayers to
God (through the Sacrifice), and in bringing
Godís Gifts to Men (through the Sacraments), he is not a Representative of the Community
in the sense that he is Chosen-by them, or Receives his Powers from them. He is Chosen-by
Christ (through the Grace of Vocation, and by the Acceptance-of
him by the Church), and his Powers come from
Christ, through the Church He has Established.
The Priesthood of All the Baptized
The Sacramental Character, of which we have been speaking, is Received Initially at
Baptism, giving the Power to all the Faithful, to Participate-in the
Sacrifice of Christ, not as someone who Passively looks on, but as one who Actively
Participates in that which Christ does. As Pope Pius XII explained in his
Encyclical on the Mystical Body:
"By the Waters of Baptism, as by Common Right, Christians are made Members of the Mystical Body of
Christ-the-Priest, and by the Character which is Imprinted on their Souls, they are Appointed to give Worship to God. Thus they
Participate, according to their Condition in the Priesthood of Christ".
The Sacramental Character of Confirmation brings added Power
and Obligation, Enabling the Faithful to Share-in the Priesthood of Christ, in a more Perfect Way:
"They are more Perfectly bound to the Church, and Endowed with the Special Strength of the Holy Spirit.
Hence they are, as True Witnesses of Christ, more Strictly Obliged to Spread the Faith by Word and Deed"
In the fact that Christ Exercised His Priesthood, Offering
Himself to His Father for us, we should see in our Participation
of His Priesthood an Invitation to Offer our Lives to the Father,
not through Physical Immolation as Christ did, but
by Offering "Spiritual Sacrifices". The Second Vatican Council speaks often of this:
"Incorporated into the Church through Baptism, the Faithful are Consecrated by the Baptismal Character
to the Exercise of the Worship of the Christian Religion. (Lumen Gentium 11 ) . . . The Baptized, by Regeneration and the Anointing
of the Holy Spirit, are Consecrated into a . . . Holy Priesthood, in order that by means of every Work befitting Christian Men,
they may offer Spiritual Sacrifices, and Proclaim the Power of Him who has called them out of Darkness into His Marvelous
Light. (ibid. 10) "Incorporated into Christís Mystical Body through Baptism and Strengthened by the Power of the Holy Spirit
through Confirmation . . . they are Consecrated into a Royal Priesthood and a Holy People, in order that they may offer Spiritual
Sacrifices through everything they do, and may Witness to Christ throughout the World" (Decree on Laity, n.3).
The Reception of these Two (2) Sacraments, then, gives to each
of the Faithful, a Share-in the Priesthood of Christ, in the sense that it not only gives them the
Capacity to Participate Actively in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, but gives
a Sacrificial Value to "everything they do" in
Union with Christ the Priest.
The above Statements of the Vatican Council helps us to understand the Admonition given by the Angel
to the Children at Fatima in 1916: "Pray a great deal. The Hearts of Jesus
and Mary have Designs of Mercy for you. Offer up Prayers and Sacrifices constantly to the Most High". At this Lucia
asked: "How are we to make Sacrifices?" The Angel answered:
"Make everything you do a Sacrifice, and Offer it to God as an Act of Reparation for the Sins by
which He is Offended, and in Supplication for the Conversion of Sinners. Bring Peace to your Country in this way . . . Above
all, Accept and Bear with Submission the Sufferings sent you by the Lord".
Every Baptized Christian, then, can Exercise his or her Priesthood, by Offering to
God, in Union with Christ
the Priest, everything they Do or Endure, that is in keeping with the
Will of the Father. They can place a Constant Flow of "Spiritual
Sacrifices" in the hands of Our Lady, that she may add
to them the Boundless Love of her own
Immaculate Heart, and Offer them to the Father "in Reparation for
the Sins by which He is Offended, for the Conversion of Sinners, and for Peace in the World", as the
Angel at Fatima requested.
The recent Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church explains so well these "Spiritual
Sacrifices", that is Worth-while, quoting at length:
"The Supreme and Eternal Priest, Jesus Christ, Wills to continue His Witness and Service through the Laity
also . . . giving them a Share-in His Priestly Function of Offering Spiritual Worship for the Glory of God and the Salvation of Men.
For this Reason, the Laity, Dedicated to Christ and Anointed by the Holy Spirit, are Marvelously Called and Equipped to produce
in themselves ever more Abundant Fruits of the Spirit. For all their Works, Prayers, and Apostolic Endeavors, their ordinary Married
and Family Life, their Daily Labor, their Mental and Physical Relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the Hardships of Life,
if Patiently borne - all of these become Spiritual Sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ".
"During the Celebration of the Eucharist, these Sacrifices are most Lovingly Offered to the Father along
with the Lordís Body. Thus as Worshipers, whose every Deed is Holy, the Laity Consecrates the World itself to God" (n.34).
Such, then, is the Priesthood of the Laity, Derived-from the Sacrament of Baptism, as distinguished
from the Ministerial Priesthood, Derived-from the Sacrament of Holy Orders. We have a Parallel to this
Priesthood of the Laity in the Old Testament. Israel, a Figure of the
Church, was also called "a Kingdom of Priests, a Holy Nation" (Exodus 19:6). The Israelites
were Consecrated to God in a Special Way, by the Covenant which God
established with them as His Chosen People, set apart from other Men for the
Worship of God. Yet, the Individual Israelites, were not Priests in the Strict Sense, and were not Allowed-to Offer
Sacrifice in the Temple, a function, as we saw, that was reserved to the Descendants of Aaron, of the
Tribe of Levi.
These Considerations on the Priesthood of the Baptized, and the Capacity it gives to each one to
Share-in Christís Sacrifice, and to Offer
"Spiritual Sacrifices" of all that one does, in Union with
Christ the Priest, should make us Recall and Respond to the Plea
of our Blessed Mother at Fatima, so Concerned about the Souls of
"Pray much, and offer many Sacrifices for Sinners; many Souls are going to Hell because there is nobody to
Offer Sacrifices and Prayers for them".