Who is a priest???
As part of Jesuit formation, Jesuit scholastics (or brothers in formation to become priests) do a one-month program called “Arrupe month” or Pre-ordination program (as it is known in India) during the study of theology and a little before the diaconate ordination. It is special time to ask existential and fundamental questions related to priesthood and ministry; it is also a time to integrate more fully different experiences the scholastic have lived all throughout his life, and to prepare for the ordination. And one of the questions that we ask, who is a priest? Or what makes somebody a priest? And many fundamental questions in that genre. It is not that we start asking these questions only at this point of time, but deeper questions should be asked many a times, and the answers have a huge value on the way each one lives one’s vocation.
Before getting into this question, I will ask another question that Jesuits asked in one of our General Congregations (which is like our supreme body which meets once in a while either to elect the superior General or to discuss very important questions). The question was, who is a Jesuit? One anecdote which captures the essence of a response is, “A Jesuit is a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus”. It captures in one sense, the essence of Ignatian Spirituality — the spirituality that animates the Jesuits… but the definition is not limited to Jesuits; it can be applied to Christians in general. In similar fashion, my response to the question on priests follows similar line. More than a scientific definition, which can be applied to a certain group of people, I try to make it flexible, but without loosing a certain sense of uniqueness. But when we speak of difference or uniqueness, I need to utilise the idea of my professor-philosopher-friend George Karuvelil SJ, who says “Uniqueness doesn’t mean superiority”. Or confusing uniqueness and superiority have created innumerable troubles in the world.
- A priest is a baptized Christian, who like every Christian has a call to holiness. There is a dignity of the “people of God”, and thus all have equal dignity.
- All Christians are called to offer their deepest self in ways that are different for the growth of the Kingdom. In some sense, we may call this as “our vocation”. Married men and women, single men and women, religious sisters and brothers, priests are all called to the same task, though in manner that are appropriate for their vocation or the way of life. Though there are certain similarities in the way two married couples or two priests live their vocation, uniqueness associated with each one of them living their vocation can’t be denied. To say in simple terms, there is no mould called Jesuit-priest mould, husband-mould, wife-mould etc to which we are called to fit.
- The church calls priests to ministries (though ministries are not limited to priests in the church) and priests preside/animate very liturgical celebrations, which is their way of participating in the mission of the Church.
- Many of us hold on to a strict difference between sacred and secular (temporal). And some consider the priest to be in that sacred realm (I don’t think such a dichotomy is taught by the church teachings). I personally don’t subscribe to those views in anyway, because sacred-profane distinction is many a times against the logic of incarnation. Priests take an important part in the administering of sacraments, but it shouldn’t be extended to give them a “sacred power”. The word sacred-power may be anomaly if we take kenosis of Jesus seriously.
- Some would say that “priests are set-apart”. I think everybody is set-apart in one way or the other. If set-apart is understood as an expression of difference which gives sacred power and an ability to dominate, it is completely un-Christian. One of the authors I enjoyed reading, interpret it as, being totally available for the kingdom of God. And I think, this is applicable for all Christians, in ways that are sensible to their vocations.
- Priestly promises (whatever be it) is always taken in the context of the Church’s mission. My celibacy and chastity are opportunities to love, and not just orders (from God or the church) to abstain from sex and exclusive relationships. I think it is equally valid for married couples, whose chastity is an appropriate expression of their way of life. I remember a married couple sharing that a family completely focused into itself (cocooned into itself) is not a chaste family. Any vows or promises taken in the context of church should be an occasion to love, but not an opportunity to close to myself or a certain group.
- The responsibilities given to a priest can easily put him in the grip of power (as like any person given with responsibilities). Here is the greatest offer to imitate Jesus(Jesus who washed the feet) and not some of the priests of Jesus’ time (who knew rules and made the life difficult for people). The option is there to make the sacrement of confession the torture chambers or channels of mercy.
- Priests do things in the name of God and of the Church, but this should never be confused as an identification with Jesus. Another aspect never to forget is that he is very much part of the “People of God”.
I shared many aspects intimately related to the priestly vocation. I hope I didn’t define it. There are pointers to get a sense of it. I like to keep that free-flowing definition or a definition which is open-ended. There is a certain sense of dis-equilibrium (instability), because the vocation is to follow a God who ever comes. Definitely in that unknown and unpredictability only, faith, hope and love matter. As many say, any vocation or promises are not taken once and for all on one “fateful day”, but it is renewed constantly (if possible, everyday) which leads to the deepening of that commitment.
After Thought: This may be for those who have a philosophical inclination. There are some Church documents which speak of ontological change (or transformation) happening in the ordination. If I simplify it too much, it can be read as ordination bringing a significant transformation in the person. (In the Aristotle’s philosophy, we speak about substance and accidents constituting every being. Ontological change is the change in substance). Many church theologians may not accept that language of ontological change happening in ordination. An interesting development in this direction is by an American lay theologian Richard R Gaillardetz, who speaks of relational ontology. In simple language, it means that ordination brings a relational change or an ecclesial re-positioning. Spirit empowers the person for that new relation in the ordination, which is for the ministering of the people. Or the arrogance occurs when that re-positioning of relations for the ministry is identified as a re-positioning of “me-the person”. Though sacraments are not involved, this ecclesial re-positioning is also applicable for other officially constituted ministers (lectors, acolytes, catechists) or eucharistic ministers, pastoral/parish council members etc.
NB: I shared some ideals. I always haven’t lived it to that extent. But I would like to get your feedback on the thoughts shared…