This powerful conclusion to Dr John N Collins' essay examines the Vatican II impulse to reach back to the insights of St Paul in discerning the role of the priest in the modern world. This paper was recently presented at a workshop in Melbourne marking the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.
The Presbyter as Purveyor of the Word of God – Part 2
A paper prepared and delivered by Dr John N Collins to a workshop at the ACU Melbourne conference
The Second Vatican Council's discussions on priesthood...
Four hundred years later, with the convocation of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the Roman Church turned its own attention once more to what the reformers had dismissed as 'the papal priesthood (sacerdotium)'.
The Council's first teachings on the presbyterate were formulated in Lumen gentium 28. Here, presbyters (so designated) share in the ministry of bishops but do not possess the pontificatus of bishops (translated priesthood at vatican.va); nonetheless presbyters are 'united with the bishops in sacerdotal dignity'. Further, through the sacrament of order, in the image of Christ the eternal high Priest (sacerdos), they are said to be consecrated – in line with the Tridentine claim – as 'true priests [veri sacerdotes] of the New Testament'.
As noted above, the New Testament leaves us no evidence of any 'veri sacerdotes' among the first communities. In the conciliar phrasing we do note that the purpose of these sacerdotes is not as simple as the title might suggest. Their task is threefold: to preach the gospel, to shepherd the faithful, and to celebrate divine worship. Their distinguishing characteristic, however, remains unquestionably sacerdotal, this finding its highest expression in the Mass, where they act 'in the person of Christ' and unite the prayers of the faithful with 'the sacrifice'.
At the same time, in their pastoral activity, priority is given to 'preaching the gospel', to 'announcing the divine word to all' – this being named 'the first duty/primum officium' (PO 4) – and, in sustaining their own spirituality, to meditating on the Word.
When we place this role description within the vast and novel ecclesiological scenario which Lumen gentium opened up – to the delight and surprise perhaps of the whole 'People of God' – priests themselves had reason to be disappointed, indeed, disillusioned – at finding only one paragraph sketching out their place in that grand scheme.
After all, if the Council was going to realise its initial vision, that vision would be implemented in the main only through the pastoral activities of these very priests. This innovative Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, however, which was promulgated on 21 November 1964 only one year before the projected closure of the Council, was leaving the church's presbyterate to face the Council's enormous task of reception and implementation with only a small handset of familiar tools: the Mass, their sermons, the administration of other sacraments, along with earnest exhortations to be solicitous in the provision of pastoral care.
Meantime, word was out that a document devoted specifically to their own order was being developed only under difficulty. At the close of the first session of the Council in December 1962, plans had been laid for a series of documents of a largely practical nature (to do with spirituality, learning, property, remuneration, vocations, distribution of clergy) under the title On the Clergy (De clericis). In the course of the second session in 1963, the inadequacies of this approach were exposed, and a more theological approach was advocated under the title On Priests (De sacerdotibus). Before the third session in 1964, further revision produced On Priestly Life and Ministry (De vita et ministerio sacerdotali), and on 13-15 October 1964 this was the subject of the first conciliar debate on the presbyterate. These discussions, however, issued only in a massive negative vote against reception of the prepared document (1,199 against, and only 930 for).
The bishops' own interventions do not make inspiring reading, however. They include numerous calls for a more inspiring vision of priesthood, as in intervention no. 9 of the 101st General Congregation: speaking in the name of 112 Brazilian bishops, Gomes dos Santos proposed that a rewritten schema should present 'a true depiction of sacerdotal ministry in accord with the picture of a fully renewed church'; similarly, but from another axis in the theological sphere, Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht insisted on a reworking to make up for the failure to present 'an adequate representation of the priesthood (sacerdotium)'. Both demands drew applause. In his Journal of the Council, Yves Congar noted how the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes delivered a long 'ferverino on priesthood', but asked himself, 'What use was it???' – at the same time confessing how 'indifferent' he found the document itself, and 'What a bore!!!' he found the interventions.
In March and April 1965 a totally new schema was prepared under yet another title De ministerio et vita presbyterorum (On the ministry and life of presbyters). Distributed in advance of the Fourth and final Session, it was debated in October, and, after modifications, on 7 December, the eve of the Council's closing ceremony, its promulgation was almost unanimously approved (only 4 non placet).
The conciliar document is now known as the Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, but the significance of the shift from the sacerdos term to presbyter is not what that shift may suggest to some, namely, a shift away from an emphasis on the sacerdotal character of the presbyterate to a uniquely presbyteral character. A response to a requested clarification pointed out that sacerdotal terms appeared occasionally in the text when the matter applied to the bishop as well as to the presbyter; presbyteral terms, however, were invoked in matters exclusive to those within the presbyteral order.
The more significant shift in understanding at Vatican II...
More significant for an understanding of the decree is the shift from the historical context in which Trent discussed the priesthood to the 20th century context in which Vatican II approached the same topic. In the 1560s the context was an increasingly violent confrontation vis-à-vis Protestant hegemonies boasting their own ecclesiology and church order. By contrast, the 1960s presented a context of the Roman Church searching for a deeper understanding of itself for the purpose of giving more effective expression to its mission in the world.
In accord with this, in moving from Trent to Vatican II, while we recognise a continuity in the understanding of the presbyteral order as a sacerdotal function, we also have to align this inherited understanding with major developments in ecclesiology across those centuries.
A large part of such a changed context is announced in the introduction to the decree Presbyterorum Ordinis [#1]:
Priests (presbyteri) by sacred ordination and mission which they receive from the bishops are promoted to the service of Christ the Teacher, Priest (sacerdos) and King. They share in his ministry (ministerium), a ministry whereby the Church here on earth is unceasingly built up into the People of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. [PO #1]
The threefold office of Christ mentioned here is itself a concept imported from Calvin, and at once it dramatically broadens the mission imparted through ordination far beyond that designated above in the Summa Theologica, namely, 'ordained to the consecration of the Eucharist'.
The first chapter of the Decree then goes further by setting the context of the presbyterate within the concept of 'the whole Mystical Body' sharing in 'the anointing of the Spirit' whereby 'all the faithful are made a holy and royal priesthood (sacerdotium)'. This is a priesthood lived out in daily lives, avocations, and social responsibilities as 'an acceptable offering ... sanctified by the Holy Spirit' [PO 2]. This 'special and indispensable role' of the laity 'in the mission of the Church' had already been proclaimed in Lumen gentium  as well as examined and endorsed in the decree 'On the Apostolate of Lay People (Apostolicam activitatem)'. In engaging lay people in this mission by, significantly, 'the sacred duty of preaching the Gospel' presbyters are themselves exercising their own part in the apostolic mission as 'co-workers of the episcopal order' [P0 2].
Of particular interest is how the decree identifies the precise ministry (ministerio) by which presbyters are to engage those to whom the mission takes them: the ministry is to effect, namely, 'conscious, free, and grateful acceptance of God's plan as completed in Christ and their manifestation of it in their whole life.' [PO 2] As we read further of 'the first task (primum officium) of presbyters' being 'to preach the Gospel' [PO 4] and 'to teach not their own wisdom but the Word of God' [ibid]. we are to bear well in mind that what always and essentially is intended as the outcome of the presbyteral activity is a 'conscious, free, and grateful' experience of the central Christian mystery within the recipients.
A moment's reflection reminds us of the attraction but also of the challenges presenting themselves from such a committed engagement to communication.
Outcomes of this kind remain, nonetheless, of 'paramount importance' in relation to the liturgy of the Word during Mass, which aims to stimulate 'sacrificial sentiments' (vota) as well as physical reception of the Eucharist on the part of the recipients.
Reaching back to the insights of St Paul on the priestly role...
The ideal of such conscious reception of the Word of God, prompting more intimate participation in the liturgical action, has closer connections than many realise with what we can come to know of the process Paul engaged himself in during his own founding mission to the Corinthians.
This is not the time to explore Paul's conception of his evangelising role. We do know that in his leading reflection on his role Paul designated the role as diakonial/'ministry' [2 Cor 4:1] and himself and his collaborators diakonoi/ministers of Christ [1 Cor 3:5].
There are still those who see in Paul's adoption of these terms indicators of a sense of lowly submission to his calling and of a self-emptying dedication to the needs of his clientele. And indeed just such evaluations of his language, originating in the 1930s, occasioned a seriously disorientating change of direction in the development of theology of ministry across the last half of the 20th century.
My own involvement in trying to realign theology of ministry with Paul's convictions and thus expose the high status of his conception of ministry has preoccupied me since my linguistic research into the Greek διακον-terms in the 1970s. My engagement intensified after the publication of my semantic study of διακονία in 1990. My article in the journal Ecclesiology, January 2012, probably provides as full an account of ministry as diakonia that an enquirer at this level is likely to need.
Leading aspects of the semantic profile of the diakon-terms in first century discourse about communication include the following:
Such characteristics of First Century usage of diakon-terms – indeed also of earlier classical and later patristic usage – are recognisable in Paul's correspondence with the Corinthians, and this recognition leads to conclusions regarding Paul's ministry like the following. They are taken from a lecture at the International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Vienna in 1990:
In bringing our familiarity with [ancient] usage to the writings of the Christian Paul, we can immediately recognize that in using diakon-words he was not taking up language off the streets or indulging in neologisms or drawing on some in-house jargon or borrowing the sectarian argot of rival propagandists; rather, he was dipping into a rich tradition of language and selecting terms appropriate for what he had to say. These words were indeed from the store of the literate, the learned, the rhetoricians, the poets. They were words of acknowledged quality and character, capable of expressing subtleties of the kind his mysterious encounter with revelation evoked, at the same time as they breathed a nobility engendered from a long association with language about gods and their messengers to earth. We can be sure that Paul has chosen his words well.
...in 2 Corinthians, 2:14-6:13 ... Paul's use of these words is more nuanced under the demands of his talk of revelation. That Paul here speaks with great sensitivity of the process whereby he and believers are caught up into revelation has often been expounded. Throughout, Paul's appeal is to the experience of revelation that the Corinthians have enjoyed: if they will look into their own hearts they will know that God is revealed there and that the only way this revelation came was through his diakonia. The writing here is full of sensual imagery: aroma and brightness. While the brightness is the end result of revelation possessed by the believer, the aroma says something of the process: God's word, held and proclaimed by the diakonos, is pervasive. It is not the word of argument, but convinces by the presence of the Spirit as the word carries into the heart. The role of the diakonos in this is to be the word's purveyor, its passage or medium. Thus, Christ's letter at 2 Cor 3:3 is not a message Paul had brought from a community of believers in Jerusalem or Antioch and delivered to Corinth: this would be peddling the word. Rather, Paul is trying to make the Corinthians aware that the letter is from on high to the heart. Because he is speaking ek theou from God, he is only God's diakonos, and the word he has spoken becomes a word of revelation between the believer and God. [...]
The diakonia of the Spirit, the diakonia of righteousness, the diakonia of reconciliation [2 Cor 3:8, 9; 5:18] has not operated unless the people have the Spirit, become God's righteousness [5:21], and rejoice in their reconciliation. Making revelation real in this way is the role of the diakonos, God making the appeal through the diakonos [5:20], and the diakonos putting no obstacle in the way [6:3]. Then is his an unimpeded ministry, a pure diakonia, a mediation without fault [6:3], and he commends himself in the way that diakonoi of God should, for these are known by their fidelity to their task, by their labours, kindness, truth, and in the power of God revealed [6:4-10].
It was much more important for Paul to be known as a diakonos of God than as an apostle. As an apostle, one needs credentials, and credentials can be challenged. The authenticity of God's diakonos, on the other hand, speaks for itself: it is the Lord who speaks.
If such is the nature of the ministry engaged by Paul in his mission to the Corinthians, I would suggest we have much to learn in regard to the instruction within the Decree Presbyterorum ordinis concerning 'the first task of presbyters' being 'to preach the Gospel' [PO 4]. That instruction was issued in the light of expectations about how the teaching should be received by the faithful: this was in a process described as a 'conscious, free, and grateful acceptance of God's plan as completed in Christ and their manifestation of it in their whole life'. [PO 2]
Today's pastors could well envisage themselves hesitating before taking up such a mandate. Alternatively, they might see in just such a mandate – and in the permanent record they hold of Paul's own total commitment to it – an invitation to bypass problems pervading contemporary literature about the crisis of identity in the priesthood.
John N Collins. Submitted to Catholica 30 Sep 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2012John N Collins