First in a series that explains the priesthood during the Church’s Year of the Priest.
By Father Robert A. Pesarchick
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “by Baptism, (the baptized) share in the priesthood of Christ, in his prophetic and royal mission” (CCC, 1268). This baptismal priesthood, also called the common priesthood, is founded on the sacrament of baptism.
The sacramental character conferred on those who receive this sacrament empowers them to participate in the Paschal Mystery, the dying and rising of Jesus, through the Eucharist and the other sacraments.
A priest offers sacrifice. The universal priesthood of believers is exercised in the daily lives of the lay faithful who offer spiritual sacrifices by allowing their entire existence, all that they do, to be incorporated into the one sacrifice of Christ, which occurs in the sacrifice of the Eucharist.
In this way, all the baptized share in the priesthood and the mission of Jesus. They consecrate the world by the offering of their day-to-day existence and allow themselves to be incorporated into His one sacrifice to the Father.
The ministerial priesthood, also called the hierarchical priesthood, is founded on the sacrament of Holy Orders. The sacramental character conferred on those who receive this sacrament configures the recipient to Christ the Head and Spouse of the Church.
Jesus is sacramentally present in the ministerial priest. It is through this sacramental presence in the ministerial priesthood that the risen Christ unites His one sacrifice to God the Father with the spiritual sacrifices of all the baptized in the celebration of the Eucharist.
The Second Vatican Council affirmed the definitive teaching of the Church regarding the different participations of the Church in the one priesthood of Jesus, and explains the relationship between the two, in Lumen Gentium:
“Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity” (LG no. 10).
The essential distinction between the two participations in the one priesthood of Christ lies in the fact that the ministerial priest acts in persona Christi capitis, that is “in the person of Christ the Head of the Church.”
It is through the ministerial priest acting in the person of Jesus that Jesus, the Head and Spouse of the Church, is able to make the Church part of His self-offering in the Eucharist and to bestow His saving grace on the Church through the sacraments.
The teaching of the Church is clear regarding the essential distinction between the two ways in which the Church participates in the one priesthood of Jesus. Both participations are ordered to one another and depend on one another, yet are essentially different from one another.
It is through both participations in His one priesthood that the risen Jesus sanctifies and builds up His Body and Bride the Church, and through her offers salvation to the entire world.
Father Robert Pesarchick is the academic dean of the theology spanision at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.