Three of the seven sacraments -- Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders -- confer what is called a character upon the people receiving the sacrament. These characters radically and permanently change the recipient, giving him or her a share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
The character in Baptism transforms the person from the level of a purely natural being -- a so-called rational animal -- to a person who can live supernaturally. The baptized person has, quite literally, been born again.
Confirmation marks the recipient as one who has been strengthened by the Holy Spirit and assigned to Christian witness. While Baptism gives power for one's own salvation, Confirmation gives power for the salvation of others.
The character impressed by the Sacrament of Holy Orders takes this progression still further. The priest is one empowered to act in the person of Christ. He is Christ's minister. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians" (no. 1547). The priesthood, then, is fundamentally a form of service to the People of God.
People talk about the priesthood being a form of service, not power, in the church. This is a theological statement, not an attempt to say priests are better people than laity or religious. (Of course, the priesthood does include a special call to live a holy life and many priests do respond to that call in a most noteworthy way.)
The Second Vatican Council's description of the priesthood as a ministry of service to the People of God has given rise to the church's greater insistence in recent years that clergy not take on political office. Their "political duty," rather, is to encourage the development of gifts among the laity which would enable them to bring the values of the Gospel to bear not only in politics, but in all secular occupations.
Exercised well, and with the active cooperation of the laity, this task is a most valuable one not only for the church, but for society as a whole. It embodies a vision of the church which is not something set apart from the world, but is rather the body of God's people which bears the joys and hopes, sorrows and anxieties of all humanity. In such a vision, there is no competition between priests and laity, but rather complementary forms of service in building the kingdom of God.
The ministerial priesthood is seen as that office which enables the laity to live lives of faith, hope and charity in union with the Holy Spirit. It exercises this ministry primarily through offering sacrifice, forgiving sins and preaching the Gospel.
So if the priest is a servant living in the midst of his people, sharing the joys and grief of their lives, he is also a prophet pointing towards the New Jerusalem. He nourishes the faith of the people by teaching God's wisdom, not the opinions of mainstream society.
This is a counter-cultural role. Because of his orientation toward the sacred, the priest is invariably somewhat at odds with the world around him. Moreover, he is called to a lifestyle different from our materialistic Western world.
Contrary to popular belief, diocesan priests do not make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. That is reserved for members of religious orders. But Vatican II urged priests to live according to those three "evangelical counsels" in order to build up the church. In particular, it called them to a simple lifestyle of voluntary poverty so "they become clearly conformed to Christ and more ready to devote themselves to their sacred ministry."
The priesthood then is a great gift to the church and, through the church, to the wider society. It is a gift which sadly is not being much appreciated these days. Yet the priesthood never loses its power to transform the lives of people. And, as such, it is a form of service which is the hidden key to renewing the values of society.
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