Jesus came into the world as a member of a Jewish family, immersed in the society and culture of his people. He lived his life as a Jew and died as a Jew. His vision was of a radically different way of living and being Jewish,with the clear goal of changing the status quo in the Jewish world.
When he realized that his life and career were over, he celebrated a Passover meal with his friends. He and his companions knew this was a meal filled with symbolism and ritual about the formation of the Jewish people.
Among other things, it was a time when a family would gather together as a part of this memorial. It is vital that we recall the meaning of sharing a meal, and the breaking of a loaf of bread with family and friends.
When food was shared, all divisions had to be put aside and a new relationship was formed. The Jewish scriptures are filled with examples of this. It was at this meal that Jesus took up some bread and broke it into pieces to share with those present. It was a symbol of how his life was drawing to an end. He was to be broken by the actions of the religious and civil authorities. He did not know how they would accomplish this, but he saw the inevitability of this. His language was symbolic: his companions were invited to share in what was to come. They all ate the same bread and later drank the same wine as a sign of their commitment to him and what he taught.
Jesus and his followers left that meal as Jews. They did not see themselves as something new. They were Jews and had just shared one of the chief rituals of their religion and culture. Later, his followers celebrated a meal together as Jesus had done that night, sharing bread and wine because that action had deep spiritual meaning for them as Jews. It did not really matter who led the ritual, it was the memory of Jesus that was important.
They were Jews living “the Way” that Jesus had shown them; a radically new way of being Jews. They did not even think about being priests. After all, the Jewish priests conducted the sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem.
One of the ways in which Jesus was remarkable was in his association with women. In the culture of that day, women were relegated to a subservient role, more the property of their fathers and later their husbands than human persons with needs and desires of their own. They could not own property and had no rights that were not given them by the males controlling their lives. Jesus dealt with women as people of intelligence and integrity. Notable is his encounter with the Samaritan woman. He spoke directly to her, treated her with dignity, and made her his emissary with her village. He cured the daughter of a woman who came pleading for healing. The first witness of his resurrection was Mary of Magdala who became known as the Apostle to the Apostles. She believed when they did not.
A few years later, in the preaching and ministry of Paul, we see the same mind set continuing. The people gathered to celebrate a meal that committed them to living “the Way.” Paul’ mission was to open this to the non-Jews who were attracted by the Jewish religious experience. But Paul took the experience of Jesus “Way” even further, declaring a radical equality among the followers of Jesus. He saw no distinctions of gender, social status, or ethnicity as he tells us in his inaugural letter to the Galatians: “In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ.” His vision was of a radical equality among Jesus’ followers, and he said it often in various ways in his letters.
As a part of his letters, he greeted the leaders among the various communities he had established, naming both men and women. In his letter to the Romans, for the only time, he speaks of the office of one individual “Phoebe the deacon” (interestingly her name was excised from the middle of a whole group of other people in our Lectionary). We recall that in Acts a group was put forward to be “deacons” to take care of operational matters in the early community. Paul makes no mention of leaders or priests or elders in the communities he writes to. He rather greets those men and women who have become the leaders of their communities, apparently at the choice of the people. The view of the early followers of Jesus was that they were united and equal in Christ.
It is after the time of Paul and the other apostles that ideas of priestly office emerge in the various communities. It is clear from our earliest history that these leaders were there to serve the people, providing affection and protection, especially of the weakest, most needy members of the community. They were chosen by the members of the various communities to stand as examples of the service they were all to provide to one another. They saw themselves as living in unity with each other in Christ, caring for each other as Jesus would do if he were present. The role of leader was open to any member of the community.
It is the sad experience of many Catholics, in many places, that the priest who is sent to serve their community expects them to serve him. He does not listen or seem to care for the people, but speaks and acts from an exaggerated sense of his own importance. Often these priests seem to think that they are the only ones who carry the message of the Church. They speak harshly and condemn others, ignoring the place of Jesus in their faith.
A priest’s authority must be linked to service, to the tender affection and protection, given especially to the poorest, weakest, the least important and most easily forgotten. Like the Good Shepherd, the priest must seek to be the servant, not the lord, of the rest. This is the exact opposite of the haughty clericalism that in many place has hurt many and wounded the Church. (at Pope Francis’ inagaural Mass)
Pope Francis tells them “Be merciful.” They need to ask themselves:
What is the place of Jesus Christ in my priestly life? Is it a living relationship, from the disciple to the Master, from brother to brother, from the poor man to God, or is it a somewhat artificial relationshipthat does not come from the heart?
Pope Francis has clearly acknowledged, as did his predecessors, that a celibate priestly caste is the creation of Church law and that it can be changed. We live in a culture that has experienced deep change. In Vatican II, the church has clearly taught that marriage is a path of sanctity, in no way inferior to, or better than, a celibate pathway. From the express faith of most Catholics, it is clear that they see no great advantage to having a celibate priestly class. Most would be more comfortable with spiritual leaders who can relate to their problems out of a shared experience of life in marriage.
After much reflection and discernment, it has come clear that we need to reclaim the earliest aspects of ministry within our Church. It has emerged in our prayer and study that the priestly office must again be one that is inclusive, open to all of the baptized: women and men, married and single.
We also need to find a way to involve all members of the local churches in the selection of leaders. They need to be called forth by each community. These leaders need to have the mind of Christ Jesus, to live and act in service to the needs of the community with which they are in service.
For the good of the Church, it is time to let go of ways of thinking about ministry and ministers that no longer serve the needs of the people. It is time to hear again the voice of the Holy Spirit as it is expressed in and through “the people of God.” Our leaders need to stand with their people and to be one with them. As Pope Francis has so eloquently said, we need to have “shepherds who smell like the sheep.” The meaning is so clear:
Our Church leaders must be called forth by the communities they serve. They must be accountable to their people. They must live by the example of Jesus.
1. What qualities/giﬅs/attributes are most important to you to see in your parish priest?
2. What role/function do you see the parish priest being most effective? What roles/functions could be assigned to parishioners?
3. Do you believe that a vocation to ordained priesthood is restricted to men alone?
4. Do you believe that there is a value in requiring celibacy for ordained ministry?
What Can I Do?
1. Become familiar with our Catholic history and heritage. Visit a variety of websites (www.corpus.org; www.futurechurch.org;www.womensordination.org; www.call-to-action.org) which contain a vast amount of information about ordained ministry.
2. Gather some interested parishioners and attend a church service conducted by a woman priest/minister. Hold a discussion about your impressions and or reactions.
3. Write to your local bishop and Pope Francis (Apostolic Palace, Vatican City State, Europe, 00120) and tell them that the Eucharist is essential and central to your faith. Demand that priests be provided rather than celibacy be required.
This resource was created by CORPUS