Within the post-conciliar maelstrom of theological debate concerning the Catholic priesthood, two general positions eventually crystallized.  The first is a social-functional view which understands priesthood primarily as a service performed for the community through carrying out a function of the Church in its social dimension.  The second is a sacramental-ontological view that emphasizes priesthood as rooted in the ordained man’s being which is determined though the gift of a sacrament bestowed by Christ through the Church.

A 2006 study by Dean R. Hoge entitled “Experiences of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years” uses a similar division of the “servant-leader” and “cultic” models of the priesthood.  It notes a shift in those recently ordained toward a favoring of the cultic model.  For example, whereas 63% of the diocesan priests studied in a similar 1990 study agreed somewhat or strongly that ordination gives a priest a “new status . . . essentially different from the laity” by 2005, 89% of recently ordained priests agreed with that statement.

Depending on whom you ask, that may be good news or bad news.  Those viewing this trend as bad news typically do so because they fear that if the if the sacramental-ontological side of the priesthood is emphasized, the priest may forget that he is called not be served but to serve.

But does a theology advocating the sacramental-ontological model of priesthood necessarily lead to this attitude?  I think not.  Nor it seems, does the Pope.  In fact, as the then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger illustrated in a 1997 essay on the priesthood, a correct understanding of the ontological change conferred in ordination means that—if I may borrow the title of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s classic book—the priest is not his own.

To illustrate the sacramental-ontological character of priestly ordination, Ratzinger argues that only from the Christological center of Jesus’ relationship to the Father can the ministry of the apostles be rightly understood.  Just as the Son receives his mission from the Father, so too does he pass this mission on to the apostles.  The priestly ministry rests not on the ordained man’s own natural talents or gifts, but on the mission he receives from God.  Ratzinger contends that by calling ordination a sacrament, the Church means precisely this: the priest is not performing functions based on his own ability or preferences.  Rather in receiving the sacrament, he gives what he cannot give of his own strength and “is sent to act in the person of another, to be his living instrument.”  It follows that no human being can declare himself a priest nor can any community by its own decree elevate someone to this ministry.  Rather, priesthood can only come from the sacrament which belongs to God, which a man receives through a “gift of himself . . . [a] renunciation and forgetfulness of self.”

Ratzinger further develops this going-out-of-self movement when he discusses the apparent contradiction of the priest being ordained primarily to offer gifts and sacrifices while his “first task” is to preach the Gospel.  Ratzinger argues that these two functions do not conflict with one another:  Evangelization ultimately is sacramental since it is centered on the person of Jesus.  The very center of Jesus’ preaching is himself.  There is no “word” separate from the Word which he himself is.  This Word contains the reality of the events of the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection and so is “deed/word”, showing the mutual dependence of preaching and the Eucharist.  For the Christian preacher, this means that since the center of the Word is the person of Jesus, the preacher is not to speak about himself, but to become “Christ’s own voice, by making way for the Logos and leading, through communion with the man Jesus, to communion with the living God.”  Or as Ratzinger explains elsewhere, “The priest’s function, finally, is very simple: to be a voice for the Word (‘he must increase and I must decrease’).  The only purpose of the voice is to transmit the word and then disappear.”  The priest, in an Easter-like pattern, finds himself only by giving himself away to Christ.  From this movement, Ratzinger highlights the ontological character of the ordained ministry:

This paschal structure of the ‘not-self’ which turns out to be the ‘true self’ after all, shows, in the last analysis, that the ministry of the Word reaches beyond all ‘functions’ to penetrate the priest’s very being, and presupposes that the priesthood is a sacrament.

The ordained man is a servant precisely because his very being has been reordered by ordination so that he is a servant of Jesus Christ.  For Ratzinger, “servant” is a relational concept.  Because the priest is a servant of Christ, he is also a servant of the community.  Because he belongs to Christ, he belongs “in a thoroughly radical sense, to men” and is able to dedicate himself entirely to them.  For Ratzinger,

This means . . . that the ontological concept of the priesthood which affects the priest’s being, is not opposed to his important function as a minister to the community.  In fact, the ontological aspect creates a service too radical to be conceived in merely profane terms.

The priest’s total belonging to Christ also explains the indelible character of ordination.  Ratzinger notes that in late antiquity, the word “character” designated a permanent mark of ownership to another person.  Thus “character expresses that ‘being in relation,’ and ‘being in reference to’ another.”  Because of the priest’s indelible character, he no longer belongs to himself or is at his own disposal.  Nor can he declare on his own that he belongs to the Lord.  Rather, God must first appropriate the priest as his own.  Only then can the priest enter into the state of belonging.  For Ratzinger, this dynamic highlights the ontological-sacramental nature of priesthood while also showing that the priest at the very core is a servant, belonging to those who belong to Christ.

None of this is to say that some recently ordained priests who adhere to a sacramental-ontological view of the priesthood are not looking to be served rather than to serve.  But if that is the case, perhaps their fault lies in their moral lives, and not in their theology.

© Vincent L. Strand, 2009.

4 Responses to Onto-Servants

  1. Philip Endean SJ says:

    This is a very thought-provoking and challenging post.

    I don’t think, however, that Hoge’s typology really serves us well. What the language of ‘ontological change’ is capturing is how Christianity lives from a grace which, however much we must ‘co-operate’, is sheer gift. No sane version of Christianity denies that. But the primary location of this gift is in the Church as a whole; and if some are called to special ministries within the Church, this is only in order that the gifts of others may be affirmed and nourished, and never simply a personal privilege. The danger of the language of ontological change is that it sets the giftedness of the priest apart from the real (‘ontological’ if you must) giftedness of the community as a whole, and comes close to denying the latter. We need both of the sets of figurative language named in this post if we are to understand either correctly.

    • Nancy J Kokstis says:

      I am unlike you; I was so excited when I found out about the ontological change of priests; they are forever changed. It is not something they need to be proud of as it is what God does, not what they do.
      It reminded me of when I was baptized; even though I was just a toddler, I was forever changed by the supernatual power of Almight God. I lamented for years as I was “too young” when I was confirmed to really understand what was happening. It was not until years later that a priest told me, “Well it ‘took’ didn’t it?” Yes. It ‘took;’ as it was the supernatual work of God in me and not anything I did, but be open.
      Please do not water down what God does. .

  2. Giovanni says:

    Though I agree that we need both views to be alive and well in every Priest. One can not very well serve the “community” as the first model suggest without first knowing what his function actually is, and that we need to highlight in bold letters and that is the SACRAMENT.

  3. Every sacrament reveals the face of Christ in some way. Thus the Eucharist reveals Christ who feeds us, Reconciliation reveals Christ who forgives us, and Anointing reveals Christ who heals us. So what is it that Sacred Orders reveals? Christ who serves us. So the ontos of the priesthood is “being-for-service.” Thus the ontological change is given to the priest for the community. It is a gift to be given. Hurray for ontological change!

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