An ongoing topic of conversation on Catholica has been the role of the priest in the religious community. Even without the more recent clerical abuse scandal, the drift away from participation can probably be read as an indication that the trust in priests, or their role, has been under question in educated societies for quite some time. It is a pleasure today to add a more scholarly examination about how the role of priests has been interpreted and changed down through the centuries. This extended essay by Dr John N Collins was recently presented at a workshop in Melbourne marking the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.
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The Presbyter as Purveyor of the Word of God...
A paper prepared and delivered by Dr John N Collins to a workshop at the ACU Melbourne conference
(Sep 19-21 2012) marking the 50th anniversary of opening of the Second Vatican Council.
A few years prior to the opening of the Second Vatican Council John Bligh presented a succinct examination of the historical development of the ritual of priestly ordination. Interestingly, early in the book, Ordination to the Priesthood, when needing to clarify what priests were being ordained for, Bligh cast a brief glance in the direction that the Council would be taking in its exploration of the priesthood. Bligh drew attention to a distinction in relation to "the duties" of the priesthood. In the Christian priesthood, he wrote, there were "two sets of functions: the presbyteral functions of teaching and ruling the Church by precept and example, and the sacerdotal functions of offering sacrifice and administering the sacraments."
Two distinct functions: sacerdotal and presbyteral...
In 1956 this was a distinction not commonly made in Roman Catholic ecclesiological writings. In fact, in English the term "presbyteral" was rarely invoked. We would read and speak rather of "priestly" functions. We were also aware that "priestly" was interchangeable with Bligh's other term, "sacerdotal". The 1950s were, in fact, the era of the high tide of sacerdotalism. The interplay between these two terms, presbyteral and sacerdotal is the context within which the present paper proceeds.
The early Latin-speaking Christians, modelling themselves upon their Greek-speaking evangelisers of the first and second centuries CE, drew upon both terms. presbyter the Latin-speakers imported from Greek, where it designated "senior" or "elder" within the community and – at times – counsellor of a community leader (episkopos). Sacerdos, on the other hand, was their own Latin word, and it translated the Greek ίερεύς, a term designating the sacrificing priest of the temples and the altars.
In the New Testament the Greek term ίερεύς did not apply to any Christian individual. No apostle, no prophet, no leader (ήγούμενος), no teacher, no evangelist, no pastor, no episcopos is called ίερεύς. Only in Hebrews is Jesus himself named ίερεύς (in fact "high priest"). The term ίερεύς did not begin designating Christian functionaries until early in the third century.
In the Politicus Plato had defined "the priestly class" as those "who, as the law declares, know how to give the gods gifts from men in the form of sacrifices which are acceptable to them, and to ask on our behalf blessings in return from them."
We see this happening in the ordination of the bishop in The Apostolic Tradition. Here [iii.4] the prayer asks that the one "chosen for the episcopate" might "serve as high priest (ἀρχιερατεύειν)."More than a century later the Latin translation of this ritual will represent this high priestly role as "exercising primatum sacerdotii [sacerdotal primacy]." A little earlier, Tertullian – and, a little later, Cyprian of Carthage – evidence the beginning of the continuing Latin tradition of this sacerdotal terminology in regard firstly to the episcopate but also soon encompassing the presbyterate.
In this early shift from presbyter to sacerdos, early Christians were under the influence of two cultural currents. One flowed from the defunct Aaronic priesthood of the Torah, and the other spilled over directly from contemporary Hellenistic and civic Roman sacrificing cults.
Under the notion of priestly sacrifice third century Christians were thus aligning themselves closely with Plato's description of the essential sacerdotal function. In the Politicus (290c-d) Plato had defined "the priestly class" as those "who, as the law declares, know how to give the gods gifts from men in the form of sacrifices which are acceptable to them, and to ask on our behalf blessings in return from them."
In the expanding Latin Christian world, vernacular cultures maintained both terms, sacerdos and presbyter, and in time the terms became synonymous. In Italy today the sacerdote of the liturgy is the prete walking down the street. By the time Latin Christianity penetrated the Germanic cultures of the sixth century, the Latin term presbyter became the vernacular Priester, prêtre, priest of northern Europe. Thus, these northern priest words were already endowed with the sacerdotal connotation that had earlier accrued around the presbyter of the Mediterranean.
Defining developments up to the middle of the 20th Century...
This third century sacerdotal character of presbyter has defined how theology of the presbyterate developed up to the middle of the twentieth century.
The ancient Platonic definition of the sacerdotal role still clearly resounded in the era immediately prior to the Second Vatican Council. The dominant and protracted scholastic tradition supporting this sacerdotal dimension had itself been further deeply penetrated by the Neoplatonic cosmic vision embodied by pseudo-Dionysius in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy and other writings. These works, first made available in Latin in the 9th century by John Scotus Eriugena, located sacerdotalism in "the mediation of divinity to terrestrial beings through the heavenly orders of angels and the terrestrial orders of the church." To theologians of the 12th-13th centuries, Dionysius was one of the great authorities. Thomas Campbell reported the view "that if the writings of Dionysius had been lost they could be reconstructed almost entirely from the citations of St Thomas [Aquinas]."
Across the whole millennium leading towards the Reformation the Dionysian Neoplatonist framework for the role of the Christian sacerdos/presbyter/priest positioned the priest firmly within the cultic dimension. And since the cult was precisely the sacrifice of the Mass, this liturgy and the administration of sacraments associated with it were the sole preoccupation of the priest and the main expectation of the priest in the eyes of the people.
A vivid illustration of the people"s expectation is provided from September 1417 by Margery Kempe in one of her responses, under interrogation, to the Abbot of Leicester:
Sirs, I believe in the sacrament of the altar in this way: any man who has taken the order of priesthood, be he ever so wicked in his way of life, if he duly says the words over the bread that our Lord Jesus Christ said … I believe that it is his very flesh and his blood…
Scholastic theology of the highest order endorsed this tightly fashioned perception of what the priest was ordained for. In the third part of the Summa Thomas Aquinas posted the question, "Whether the Eucharist is the greatest of the sacraments?" After noting four objections against such a claim, Thomas supported the claim by citing in the first place, significantly, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius:
… Dionysius says (Eccl. Hier. iii) that "No one receives hierarchical perfection save by the most God-like Eucharist." Therefore this sacrament is greater than all the others and perfects them.
After elaborating briefly on this, Thomas concluded:
…all the other sacraments seem to be ordained to this one as to their end. For it is manifest that the sacrament of order is ordained to the consecration of the Eucharist [sacramentum ordinis ordinatur ad Eucharistiae consecrationem.]
Even as late as 1947 the medieval Neoplatonist format within which Thomas Aquinas thus spoke of the priesthood was not entirely lost to view. In the papal encyclical Mediator Dei of that year, Pius XII provided the following descriptions of those who receive the sacrament of priestly order: the "indelible 'character'" which the sacrament imparts indicates "the sacred ministers' conformity to Jesus Christ the Priest (sacerdoti)" and qualifies them to perform "those official acts of religion by which men are sanctified and God is duly glorified in keeping with the divine laws and regulations". To this Dionysian motif of divine law, Pius XII added the hallmark of the Dionysian doctor of the scholastic theologians:
For they alone [the priests] … have entered the august ministry, where they are assigned to service in the sanctuary [augustum ingressi sunt ministerium, quo sacris destinantur aris], and become, as it were, the instruments God uses to communicate supernatural life from on high to the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. 
To have disturbed this sacerdotal order in 1517 was no small thing. To eradicate it and yet retain the sacrament of Eucharist was an astonishing achievement on the part of Martin Luther. Without the priest/sacerdos the medieval face of society would no longer be recognisable.
Economic historians tell us that in 1377, the year of a poll tax in England and nearly a generation after the Black Death, the lay population (above 14 years of age) was 1,355,555; additionally there were clergy numbering at least 30,641: some missing clergy were mendicant friars – they were apparently not at home when the king's men came around.
The fact that the clergy were counted separately is itself eloquent of their status and of their place apart in society; more striking, however – and indeed difficult to credit, is the statistical outcome: the ratio of clergy to laity requires us to think of one member of the clergy for 44 lay people. Thus, one among any 20 men might be a priest.
Such a ratio says little, however, about pastoral practice. Quite apart from parish priests and regular clergy, large numbers were chantry priests, another large number acted as chaplains to pious and civic guilds. The chantry priests and chaplains were living on stipends provided by wealthy founders; the chantry stipendiaries were tied to daily Mass for the repose of the souls of the deceased and to leading other forms of prayer for these.
By way of illustration: Ashburton in Devon was a small town. Of the top 30 most highly populated towns in 1377, London was first with a population of about 23,000; the thirtieth on the list was none other than famed Winchester: this prime bishop's seat registered no more than 1440 residents over 14 years of age.
In this light, a town like obscure, although ancient, Ashburton probably harboured only a few hundred residents. Until 1547, however, when King Edward VI legislated for the dissolution of chantries and guilds, income from chantry and guild foundations provided livings in Ashburton "at any one time" for up to seven stipendiary priests.
The priesthood – the sacerdotium – was, in sum, big money.
Chaucer's portrait of the priesthood...
From the decade after 1377, we have Geoffrey Chaucer's gentle portrait of the parish priest among the pilgrims setting out for Canterbury. For practical reasons I quote from the verse translation by David Wright:
And there was a good man, a religious.
He was the needy priest of a village,
but rich enough in saintly thought and work.
And educated, too, for he could read;
Would truly preach the word of Jesus Christ…
For unpaid tithes he'd not excommunicate,
For he would rather give, you may be sure,
From his own pocket to the parish poor…
It's shame to see (let every priest take note)
A shitten shepherd and a cleanly sheep…
He never let his benefice for hire
And left his sheep to flounder in the mire
While he ran off to London, to St Paul's
To seek some chantry and sing mass for souls,
Or to be kept as chaplain by a guild…
He was a shepherd, not a mercenary.
The irony of Chaucer's sympathetic portrait of priesthood at the end of the 14th century would have been lost on no one: "let every priest take note", as our translator puts Chaucer's advice.
Trent takes note...
In due course the Council of Trent did take note. Its 22nd Session of 17 September, 1562, focused on the awesome responsibility of the clergy arising from the Council's uncompromising doctrinal statement upon the Mass as sacrifice. Ten months later, the 23rd Session turned the focus upon the kind of minister created by the Sacrament of Order. Its first canon stated in part:
If any one saith, that there is not in the New Testament a visible and external priesthood [sacerdotium] … but only an office and bare ministry of preaching the Gospel … let him be anathema.
Clearly, Trent's meticulously fashioned statements – of the highest doctrinal authority – were designed not only to rebut Protestant innovations but also to protect the tradition of the centuries, namely, the sacerdotal character of the presbyter.
Trent formulated its doctrine some 45 years after Luther's initial protest, and some 15 years after his death. One of Luther's rallying cries in 1520 had been: "It is the ministry of the word that makes the priest and the bishop." And already by 1566, swathes of central Europe had embraced what a new and self-constituted church resolutely defined as – to borrow Trent's phrase – "an office and bare ministry of preaching the Gospel".
The voice on this occasion was The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, and the core of its long statement on ministry reads as follows:
the priesthood [sacerdotium] … is common to all Christians; not so is the ministry [ministerium]. Nor have we abolished the ministry of the Church because we have repudiated the papal priesthood [sacerdotium papisticum]…. for this purpose are the ministers of the Church called: to preach the Gospel of Christ to the faithful, and to administer the sacraments.
Introducing the text of this Confession, Jaques Courvoisier reported the importance attributed to it by the historian of the Swiss reformation, Abraham Ruchat. For Ruchat the Confession of 1566 marked "the end of a first stage, that of the Reformation properly so-called, and the beginning of a new, when the churches, having taken root in their respective homelands, move on to develop on a solid foundation."
In the conclusion to this essay tomorrow, Dr Collins explores the discussion on the nature of priesthood examined at the Second Vatican Council and the developments since...
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John N Collins. Submitted to Catholica 30 Sep 2012
 John Bligh, SJ, Ordination to the Priesthood (London: Sheed and Ward, 1956), p.17.
 Such titles and designations occur at 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11; Heb 13:7, and elsewhere.
 See the account in G. O'Collins and M. K. Jones, Jesus Our Priest: A Christian Approach to the Priesthood of Christ (New York: OUP, 2010), pp. 45-56.
 G. Dix and H. Chadwick, The Treatise on The Apostolic Tradition of St Hippolytus of Rome, 2nd rvsd ed.  (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 5.
 ibid. In drawing on the The Apostolic Tradition, I am drawing attention to early third century Greek usage but am making no inferences about the history of the document outside of its generally agreed date or about the community in which it originated. The last twenty years have seen extensive discussion centring mainly on the work of Allen Brent. His historical account can be traced in his A Political History of Early Christianity (London: T&T Clark, 2009), and much else can be consulted online under his name.
 See Jean Tillard's survey of "The rise of a "sacerdotal" vocabulary for describing the ministry in What Priesthood has the Ministry?, Grove Booklet 13 (Bramcote, Notts.: Grove Books, 1973), pp. 20-28.
 R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972), p. 161.
 Thomas L. Campbell, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite: The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1955), p. xxi.
 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 110. I have modernized the English.
 English text of Summa Theologica III.65.3 consulted 220812 at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4065.htm; Latin at Y. Congar, "La sacerdoce du Nouveau Testament: Mission et cultel" in J. Frisque and Y. Congar, eds, Les prêtres: Décrets 'Presbyterorum Ordinis' et 'Optatam totius' (Paris: Cerf, 1968), 233-256.
 Text (no. 43 of the English translation) accessed 180812 at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/index.htm (the Latin is from the Latin page at vatican.va).
 S. Broadberry, B. M. S. Campbell, B. van Leeuwen, "English Medieval Population: Reconciling Time Series and Cross Sectional Evidence", 27 July 2010, p. 16, accessed 220812 at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/academic/broadberry/wp/medievalpopulation7.pdf
 Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, p. 455. Town statistics from ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_towns_and_cities_in_England_by_historical_population (220812). Nearly a century later, in 1464, Edward IV granted "to John Paston the elder, Esquire, to have licence lawfully made, to make and found a college of seven priests … in Flegg in Norfolk, for the soul of Sir John Fastolf knight…", J. Fenn and Mrs Archer-Hind, eds, The Paston Letters Written by Various Persons of Rank or Consequence during the Reigns of Henry VI", etc., Everyman's Library no. 752, vol. 1 (London: Dent; New York: Duttons), Letter 230, p. 249. Similarly, letter 121 (prior to 1459), p. 130: "And,, Sir, I told my brother Paston, that my Lady Abergavenny hath in diverse abbeys in Leicestershire seven or eight priests singing for her perpetually, by my brother Darcy's and my uncle Brokesby's means, for they were her executors…. And for the surety that he should sing in the same abbey for ever, they had manors of good value bounden to such persons as pleased the said brethren, Brokesby, and my brother Darcy, that the said service should be kept."
 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales. A verse translation by David Wright (London: Folio Society 1998; originally OUP, 1985), pp. 13-14. Compare the original as edited by F. N. Robinson, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 2nd ed. (London: OUP, 1957), p. 21-22 (General Prologue, lines 477ff.):
A good man was ther of religioun,
And was a poure person of a toun,
But rich he was of hooly thought and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche…
Ful looth were hym to cursen for his tithes,
But rather wolde he yeven, out of doute,
Unto his poure parisshens aboute…
And shame it is, if a prest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep…
He sat nat his benefice to hyre
And leet his sheep encombred in the myre
And ran to Londonn unto Seinte Poules
To seken him a chaunterie for soules,
Or with a bretherhed to been withholde…
He was a shepherde and noght a mercenarie.
 Translation from http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch23.htm (220812). Denzinger reads: "Si quis dixerit, non esse in Novo Testamento sacerdotium visibile et externum … sed officium tantum et nudum ministerium praedicandi Evangelium… anathema sit."
 The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Luther's Works, vol. 36, ed. Wentz, Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1956), p. 115.
 Cited from the translation in The Book of Confessions, being Part I of The Constitution of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 2nd ed. (New York: Office of the General Assembly, 1970), no. 5.153. The French text of 1566 (the Latin terms supplied in the citation above are from footnotes there) is a translation of Heinrich Bullinger's Latin text of his own statement of faith which formed the basis of the Confession; the French for the final phrase "papal priesthood" is "la prestrise telle qu'elle est en l'eglise Romaine"/"the priesthood as it is in the Roman church"; see La Confession helvétique postérieure, Introduction and Notes by Jaques Courvoisier (Neuchatel/Paris: Delachaux & Niestlé, 1944), p. 105; on Bullinger see pp. 9-11.
 Book of Confessions, no. 5.156
 Courvoisier, La Confession, p. 8.
John N Collins, S.T.L., B.S.S., Ph.D., Dip.Ed. has a long-standing interest in Christian ministry: its theological roots, 20th century transformations, its ecumenical dimensions, and contemporary possibilities for renewed forms of ministry. These interests arose from his doctoral thesis in New Testament Studies at University of London King's College. A related interest is Religious Education, in which he was engaged for over 30 years. Over the last decade he has collaborated on issues affecting the modern diaconate with German and Nordic Lutheran diaconal institutes, with the Church of England/UK, and, currently, with the Roman Catholic dioceses of Brisbane and Newcastle, and with the archdiocese of Melbourne in its new diaconal programme. He teaches at the Yarra Theological Union courses "Theology of Ministry Today" and "The changing shape of Christian Ministry c. 50-400 C.E." His publications include: Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources [1990; re-issued 2009], Are All Christians Ministers? , Deacons and the Church: Making connections between old and new , 'Re-interpreting diakonia in Germany' [Ecclesiology 5/1 January, 2009], 'A German Catholic view of Diaconate and diakonia' [New Diaconal Review 1/2 May 2009].
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©2012John N Collins
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