Priesthood of the laity

Christian worship doesn’t stop at the Church door, Greg Daly is reminded

Freedom of worship is quite different from freedom of religion, such that it’s nonsense to talk of a need to promote the former when it’s the latter that’s under threat, Papal Dame Ann Widdecombe told The Irish Catholic last week. If the teaching of the Second Vatican Council is taken seriously, however, for Catholics true freedom of worship entails not merely a liberty of liturgy but a duty to live our lives in accord with the teachings of the Church and the values of the Gospel.

Such was the import of a series of papers at the eighth Fota International Liturgy Conference held in Cork last weekend, organised by St Colman’s Society for Catholic Liturgy. ‘A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation: Aspects of the Priesthood of Baptism’ explored the scriptural roots, historical understanding, and practical application of the concept of the ‘priesthood of all believers’.


A controversial notion during the Reformation, the ‘universal priesthood’ has been an established part of Church teaching at least since Pope Pius XII, in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, related how through baptism all Christians become members of the body of Christ, bound to participate in the priesthood of Christ by giving worship to God.

The nature of this priesthood was addressed in the 1963 Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium, citing 1 Peter 2:9 on the baptised faithful being “a royal priesthood”, and the following year the Council distinguished in Lumen Gentium between the universal and ministerial priesthoods, teaching that by baptism Christians are consecrated so that they may offer spiritual sacrifices through their actions.

According to Fr Joseph Briody and Prof. Dieter Böhler in the two papers beginning the conference, 1 Peter 2:9 harks back to Exodus 19:6, in which God tells Moses that if the Israelites who have left Egypt continue to obey him and hold to his covenant, “I will count you a kingdom of priests, a consecrated nation”.

That promise follows a series of requests that the Israelites be allowed go so they could worship God, and precedes the delivery of the Ten Commandments and the exhaustive detailing of what the Israelites’ worship should entail. “Cult, liturgy in the proper sense,” the then Cardinal Ratzinger, whose writings on liturgy have inspired the Fota conferences, wrote in 1999, “is part of this worship, but so too is life according to the will of God; such a life is an indispensable part of true worship”.

Prof. Böhler, a Frankfurt-based Jesuit, examined how the original Hebrew text of Exodus 19:6 was probably intended to mean a priestly government for a sacred people. 1 Peter follows the third-century BC Greek translation, he explained, in which Israel is understood as having a threefold role as kingdom, priesthood, and sacred people, embodying the idea of Israel being a priesthood mediating between God and all humanity.

Revelation, he said, seems to follow the Aramaic rendering of the text as a juxtaposition of kingly and priestly dignities, held by the Israelites as individuals.

Donegal-born Fr Briody, who teaches at St John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, said that an individualistic interpretation of 1 Peter 2 is incompatible with how the Greek text reflects a corporate understanding of priesthood. 1 Peter 2:4-5, he says, presents Christians who set themselves close to Christ – and only those who hold fast to Christ – as “living stones making a spiritual house”, tasked as a holy priesthood with offering up “the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God”.

Arguing that priesthood is a central theme in Scripture, with Exodus 19:5-6 providing the background for royal priestly texts in the New Testament, Fr Briody demonstrated how just as the Old Testament distinguished between a priesthood shared by all the people and a divinely-willed ‘ministerial priesthood’, so too does the New Testament.

A careful reading of the New Testament, he argued, paints a picture of a hierarchically ordered people of God in which priesthood is lived in an ecclesial and liturgical context, with Revelation showing “the living out of the priesthood of the faithful in every aspect of life, from the mundane right up to martyrdom”.


Commenting on the Eucharistic current that underpins 1 Peter 2, he stressed that “the sacrifices of the common priesthood are spiritual sacrifices, that is, most especially, the sufferings, the trials of life, the daily fidelity joined to the sufferings of Christ united to the Eucharist”.

Dublin-based Opus Dei priest Fr Thomas McGovern, in a paper entitled ‘The Priesthood of the Laity: Holiness in Work, and the Challenge of the Secular’, developed this idea, drawing especially on the ideas of the Second Vatican Council, Pope St John Paul II, and St Josemaria Escrivá to consider what the realities of the universal priesthood might entail.

Explaining that “it is in the ordinary and in the routine that one is most likely to have an encounter with God”, he gave examples of Christian life in the world, especially work and family life, and said: “These are the experiences which allow us to offer our day to God, to discover his presence in the ordinary circumstances of our life.”

Another Brighton, Massachusetts-based theologian, Dr Anne Orlando, was unable to attend, but Fr Briody presented her paper on ‘The Faithful’s Sacrifice as Priestly Service in St Peter Chrysologus’, analysing how the 5th Century Doctor of the Church had built on an earlier tradition that affirmed the laity’s participation in Christ’s priestly sacrifice and service.

In the earlier tradition, she wrote, the anointing of the newly baptised, a feature of Church practice since at least the second century, had been seen as an anointing into the common priesthood of Christ, and martyrdom – which did not necessarily entail death though it always entailed suffering – had been seen as the most profound participation in Christ’s priesthood. 

St Peter Chrysologus had developed this, she argued, drawing on the injunction at Romans 12:1 that Christians should present their bodies as living sacrifices to explain how all Christians had been raised to share in Christ’s priesthood as both sacrificers and sacrificed.

Other papers explored other aspects of the priesthood of the laity, whether examining the relationship between ‘participation’ and ‘sacred action’ in the liturgy, the new movements in the Church, and the nature of the sensus fidei as understood by Blessed John Henry Newman, who believed that a holy and informed laity could preserve the faith even if the bishops strayed from it, but who feared “a great apostasy” in Western culture in which religion could be treated as sentiment, rather than as a matter of divine revelation.

If so rich a conference could be reduced to a single simple message, it might be that all Christians share in Christ’s priesthood, and so it falls to us to hold fast to Christ and serve as his hands in the world, come what may.