By José María Castillo (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Reflexión y Liberación
August 12, 2013
Christianity has its roots in Jesus of Nazareth. But Jesus wasn't a priest. Jesus was a layman who lived and taught his message as a layman. Jesus gathered a group of disciples together and named twelve apostles.
Let's remember that the Church of the first millennium had a very different concept of the priestly vocation than the one we have now. Today we think of vocation as "a call from God" so that a Christian, with the approval of the bishop, can be ordained a priest. In the first ten centuries of the Church, they thought that vocation was a "call from the community" so that a Christian might be ordained a priest. But it happens that, right now, the shortage of vocations is such a notable fact that the Christian Democratic politicians in Germany have put out a letter in which they're asking the bishops for married men to be able to be ordained as priests. Even the politicians are worried about how badly things are going in the Church because of the alarming lack of priests to attend to the spiritual needs of Catholics, among other reasons.
That's how things are right now. The bishops -- the Germans have already said it -- aren't ready to abolish the celibacy law. And they're even less willing to make more radical decisions with respect to the clergy, especially with respect to the need in the Church for there to be priests to administer the sacraments. And I don't know if the bishops are going to yield on this delicate matter. Or if they yield, when they're going to do it. Whatever may be, it seems to me that the time has come to face this question: And what if the day comes when we are practically without any priests? Would that be the complete breakdown of the Church?
Christianity has its roots in Jesus of Nazareth. But Jesus wasn't a priest. Jesus was a layman, who lived and taught his message as a layman. Jesus gathered together a group of disciples and named twelve apostles. But that group was composed of men and women who went with him from village to village (Lk 8:1-3; Mk 15:40-41). Jesus' death on the cross wasn't a religious ritual but the civil execution of a subversive. That's why the Letter to the Hebrews says Christ was a priest. But that text is the most radically secular one in all of the New Testament. Because Christ's priesthood wasn't "ritual" but "existential." That is, what Christ offered wasn't a ceremonial rite in a temple but his entire existence, through his work, through life with others, and especially through the horrible death he suffered. For Christians, there's no other priesthood than Christ's, which was that everyone should live for others. Nothing more or less than that. The Christian priesthood, such as it is in the Church, has no Biblical basis whatsoever. Therefore you don't have to have "consecrated" men in the Church. What you do have to have are "exemplary" men and women. The "holy priesthood" or the "royal priesthood" that the First Letter of Peter talks about (1 Pet. 1:5,9) is merely a "spiritual" designation for all Christians.
Moreover, "priests" in the Church is never mentioned in the whole New Testament. What's more, it's well demonstrated that the authors of the New Testament, from Saint Paul to Revelation, carefully avoid applying the word or the concept of "priest" to those who led the communities that were being formed. That situation remained until the 3rd century, i.e. the Church lived almost two hundred years without priests. The communities would celebrate the Eucharist, but it never says that a "priest" would preside. In the Christian communities there were people who were responsible or in charge of different tasks, but they weren't considered "holy" or "consecrated" men. In the 3rd century, Tertullian reports that any Christian might preside at the Eucharist ("De Exhortatione Castitatis" VII, 3).
What would happen if we ran out of priests in the Church? Simply that the Church would return, in practice, to the original model that Jesus wanted. Therefore, what would happen would be that the Church would be more authentic. A Church that would be more present in the people and among the citizens. A Church without clergy, without functionaries, without honors that separate and divide. Only thus would we retake the path that Jesus' movement -- a prophetic, charismatic and lay movement -- followed. Clericalism, holy and consecrated men, have alienated the Church from the Gospel and the people. That's how the people see it and what they say. The Church thought that, by having an abundant and prestigious clergy, it would be a strong Church, with influence in culture and society. But I'm referring to the facts. That model of Church is running out. We can't ignore all the good that priests and religious have done and are still doing. But neither can we forget the scandals and violence that the Church has experienced and those for which the clergy, in large part, have been responsible.
But the worst is none of that. The most negative thing that the clerical model of Church has given in and of itself, is that those who have had the "sacred power" have established themselves as the responsible ones and the "communities of believers" have been made "obedient subjects." The Church has split, it has been divided -- a few give orders and the rest obey. In the Church, there must be, as in any human institution, persons responsible for the management of affairs, for coordination, for teaching the message of Jesus ... But, one of the two: either Jesus was wrong or we're the ones who are misguided.
Of course, the end of the clergy can't be improvised. The change will probably happen not because of decisions coming from Rome but because life and the turn history takes will lead us to that -- to a Church composed of communities of believers, aware of their responsibility, united with their bishops (led by the Bishop of Rome), respecting the diverse peoples, nations, and cultures. And concerned above all with making the memory of Jesus visible and obvious. There are already many communities all over the world where, due to the lack of clergy, lay people are the ones who celebrate the Eucharist all by themselves. Because there are many Christians who are persuaded that the celebration of the Eucharist isn't a privilege of the priests but a right of the community. The process is underway. And I believe nobody will stop it. I'll end by stating that, if I'm saying these things, it's not because the Church matters little to me or because I don't want to see it at all. On the contrary. Precisely because I owe so much to it and care so much about it, what I most wish is that it be faithful to Jesus and the Gospel.