Many people talk about the priest as acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. But so do all the baptized. They act in the person of Christ in various ways, as Paul emphasizes. There is one body of Christ with many different members. There is one Holy Spirit, who gives to the different members of the church many different gifts, all intended to enable all the members to make their proper contribution to building up the church to its fullness and maturity (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11, 22-30; Eph. 4:7-13). Jesus said that we are branches of himself, the vine, so that we share his life (John 15:1-17). How then could we not act in the person of Christ?
Also contributing to the misunderstanding of the priesthood is the general monasticizing of the whole church. The monk is one who flees from the worldin the classic Latin phrase, fuga mundi. Legitimate in itself as a concrete way of being a member of the church, this monastic approach unfortunately came to dominate Christianity in both theory and practice. Although one could not simply and totally flee out of the world, Christian perfection was portrayed as requiring as little participation in worldly affairs as possible.
A serious consequence for priest-pastors was a sort of schizophrenia. Their education and formation were in the monastic mode, but their ministry required them to operate in a worldly mode. Two pastor friends of mine illustrate this very well. One repeats constantly: I hate all this administrative stuff! As the other pastor scurries about, he proclaims: They didn’t tell us about this in the seminary! And he is correct. They certainly did not!
Seminary education and formation were geared much more to making us spiritualholy men, little monks, abstaining from the worldrather than secular priests, active and participating in the world. In practice, this flight and abstention from the world was never fully practiced. After all, Trappists make and sell candy and cheese, and Benedictines make and sell coffins. But it was the dominant ideology that pervaded the whole Catholic church (priests, religious, laity) and complicated the lives of all the Catholics living their faith in the world.
A final and very misleading factor is the very word priest itself. As Daniel Donovan noted in a survey of contemporary theological interpretations of the priesthood, about the only constant was reluctance about the term priest (What Are They Saying About the Ministerial Priesthood? Paulist Press, 1992). Priest is simply not the best term to describe what those called priests are and do. A few years ago I saw in a church vestibule a poster recruiting vocations to the priesthood. It proclaimed: And what does the priest do the other six days of the week? This illustrates very well the inadequacy of the term priest. It has become too much of a liturgical term to describe the nature of the ordained member in the church.
Unfortunately we still speak of the sacrament of the priesthood, but that is not correct. The proper term is the sacrament of holy orders (in Latin, Ordo). The history of this term hints at the proper role of those called priests. For a long time in Europe, society was arranged into orders. How just the actual arrangement may or may not have been is not of concern to us here, only that the term was used to describe the arrangement or orderliness of society. There was also a longstanding arrangement of major and minor orders in the administrative cadre of the church. However reliable theologically and however effective pastorally this may have been, it manifested a concern for the orderly life of the church.
The term holy orders is preferable because it at least hints that the precise job of the ordained, the priest-pastor, is to care for the order, the orderliness of the church. There are two dimensions to this order: the general, everyday life and organization of the church and the special ritual, liturgical celebration of this orderliness, especially in the sacraments and most especially in the Eucharist. It is not that the priest has no priestly dimension at all, but such a dimension does not tell the whole story and can be misleading.
Concern that the church should be orderly is not new. It was already a great concern of St. Paul. In one of his earlier letters he emphasized that our God is not a God of chaos and anarchy, but a God of order and peace (1 Cor. 14:33). Elsewhere he excoriates those unruly and meddlesome busybodies who disturb the orderly life of the community (Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:11; 1 Tim. 5).
We should recall that in the New Testament the term priest is normally reserved to Christ and to Christians in general (1 Pt. 2:9). It is not applied to individual members of the church or to a particular function or office. If not priest, what is the best term to describe what the priest is and does? Without doubt it is a term that has been with us from the very beginning of the church, episkopos. This Greek word is familiar to us in English, after a long and tortuous etymological journey, as bishop. Literally it means someone who looks overa supervisor, superintendent, overseer (I am reluctant about the last term, since it is so redolent of slavery). Other possible translations include to watch over, to be a presiding elder, guardian, president. One I like very much is to be careful that, to see to it that. The ordained person is someone who is publicly authorized and empowered to see to it that the church is an orderly community, supportive of those already members, attractive to those not yet (1 Cor. 14:22-25).
Five other New Testament terms describing what the priest is and does are listed in a separate box. They all indicate that the ordained member of the church is in today’s terms a manager. I once made (at least tried to make) this point in a talk to diocesan priests. Afterward one said to me: Bob wants us to be managers, not pastors! But then what is a pastor/shepherd but a manager of sheep?
Of the New Testament terms, I like proistamenos the best. It can be translated the one who stands in front of/before. In contemporary terminology, it would mean that the ordained member of the church is really a foreman. This term does not have all the dignity and prestige of manager or C.E.O., but it does emphasize that the priest, bishop and pope do not stand over, but in front of the people. This would certainly please Jesus, Peter and Paul, who exhorted all members of the church, especially the managers, not to lord it over others (Mt. 20:24-28; 1 Pt. 5:1-4). Indeed, Paul goes so far as to refer to himself as a co-worker with the people for their happiness (2 Cor. 1:24).
Manager and other contemporary terms may not sound as romantic as shepherd, especially since we are so familiar with the picture of the Good Shepherd with the cute little lamb draped around his shoulders. On the other hand, shepherds hardly enjoyed a romantic reputation at the time of Christ. They are included in at least three rabbinic lists of occupations forbidden because of their immorality. The term manager does have an apostolic and honorable ancestry. Paul emphasized that the bishop must be a good manager (proistamenos) of his own household, for if a man does not know how to manage his own house, how can he take care of the church of God? (1 Tim. 3:4-5).
Manager is an extremely honorable term in contemporary culture. I sometimes watch CNBC, the financial news channel (my seminary education included nothing about the world of finance and commerce except for exhortations to avoid greed). When people ask the experts about the advisability of buying a certain stock, the only decisive factor is always phrased thus: You can always buy good management!
Peter Drucker, the great guru of management theory, has proclaimed: In this century the managers of our major institutions have become the leaders in every developed country. The old leadership groups, whether the aristocracy or the priesthood, have disappeared entirely or have become insignificant. Even the scientists, the priesthood of the post-World War II period, have lost much of their prestige (Management Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, 1974). Under these circumstances it can hardly be deemed demeaning to be called a manager.
If priest-pastors are managers, precisely what do they manage? It is the union and communion of the church, its public and peaceful order.
Near the end of his career, the German theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., proposed a similar approach to the priesthood, emphasizing that the priest is properly a pastor. The priest-pastor is the Beziehungsperson of the local church (the parish) to the greater, universal church. Beziehung comes from the German verb that means to relate to. Rahner explains that the precise job of the priest-pastor is the relationships of the church. For example, the pastor is to care for, see to it that the relationships within the parish are in good shape and that the relationship of this parish to the greater church (the diocese and the universal church) is likewise flourishing. The priest-pastor’s job is to preserve and promote the unity of the church. This understanding of the priest-pastor corresponds to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s understanding that the bishop’s task is to be a bond of unity. The papacy’s principal task is to create such a balance between the universal church and the local churches (On the Universal Church, America, 4/23/01). Thus episcopacy is the preferred description of the office and ministry of holy orders in the church.
How this management is carried out in practice will be different for local pastor, bishop and pope. These three instances clearly differ in the scope of their responsibility. The pope’s is the whole world; a local pastor’s may be only a few blocks in a big-city Catholic ghetto. On the other hand, the pastor can have a more intense personal relationship with his people than the pope can have with a billion Catholics.
Unfortunately, Catholics tend to pay too little attention to the first pope’s performance in this regard. It is even more striking, then, that a Protestant theologian should emphasize that Simon Peter did more than any other to hold together the diversity of first-century Christianity (James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 1977). No more fitting summary can be found than that of a Benedictine theologian teaching in Rome, who commented on that office and ministry traditionally known as shepherd/pastor: In fact, they do all the things which are necessary for the good order (recto ordine) of the church community (Magnus Loehrer, De Ecclesia, Rome, 1966).
All this may sound vague and hazy. However, too often when priests think of themselves as managers, they think of someone who buys toilet paper, worries about leaks in the church roof and is exercised by the price of hot dogs for the school cafeteria. Some managers have to do such things, but not the priest-pastor manager.
In one sense, the priest-pastor does not have to do any one particular thing. He does have to see to it that whatever needs to be done is actually done. He has to see to it that the needs of the people are met and that their abilities are cultivated so that they can, all in their own individual, proper ways, make their appropriate contributions to the building up of the whole church (1 Cor. 14:20).
How this is done in practice will differ greatly from parish to parish, diocese to diocese, throughout the universal church. Vatican II encouraged inculturation in regard to the liturgy. The same principle applies to the general pastoral theology and care of the whole church and the administration and management required by it. Just as the essence of the Holy Eucharist remains the same, however it may be ritually celebrated, so does the essence of the ordained office remain the same, however it may be pastorally practiced. Whatever the practice, in principle the priest remains the manager of the orderly life, both pastoral and liturgical, of the church. This is in keeping with the nature and practice of priesthood from the very beginning, no matter how obscured this has been for various reasons, including the inadequacy of the term priest itself. In biblical terminology, a priest is really a bishop, and in contemporary terminology, a bishop is a manager.
Had this understanding been more explicitly operative in the history of the church, at least some of the problems experienced by priests today could have been prevented. Inadequate understanding of one’s position necessarily complicates not only one’s performance, but also one’s self-esteem. Recall the poster mentioned above: And what does the priest do the other six days of the week?
The proper understanding of the priest-pastor as manager would also be conducive to another improvement in the life and performance of the priest and of pastoral care in general. A serious failure in the pastoral care of the church has been and remains the lack of adequate accountability and supervision of the priest personnel. A few years ago I mentioned this to a classmate who is also one of my best friends. I emphasized the negative effect on pastoral care and the members of the church. He agreed, but immediately emphasized the equally negative effect on many priests. To which I could only say amen. At a recent seminary reunion, he mentioned that a classmate was thinking of retiring soon. He wondered whether that classmate realized how much good he had done, how great had been his performance. The answer is easynot if he depended on the system to inform him of this.
I freely concede that a change in name and terminology does not guarantee a change in policy and practice. I also acknowledge that there are good and bad managers, good and bad management systems, and good and bad evaluation systems. But maybe the worst is simply the absence of such. It is time to recognize that priests are other Christs precisely as C.E.O.’s in the pastoral care of the orderliness of the church. That is their vocation. That is their job.
Models of Priesthood
kubernesis: leader, pilot, captain of a ship
presbyter: ambassador, envoy, delegate, elder
hegoumenos: guide, leader, governor, teacher
poimen: shepherd, pastor, to tend/look after a flock
oikonomos: steward, administrator, entrusted with, responsible for
proistamenos: ruler, manager, leader, official, ringleader, captain, president, steward, governor