The Year of Saint Paul: A 15-Part Series – Part 15:
At the end of June, the Year of Saint Paul draws to a close, and so will this series on Saint Paul. There remains so much more about Saint Paul to study, such as his teaching on justification by grace.
The point of this series has been simply to prompt a prayerful and thoughtful reading of Saint Paul's letters. It also aimed to help us listen ever more attentively to the passages from Saint Paul when they are proclaimed in the liturgy. Above all, I am grateful to Pope Benedict XVI for his wisdom and pastoral love in dedicating this year to the Apostle to the Gentiles. In his own travels and his tireless proclamation of the Gospel, our Holy Father is like a modern-day Saint Paul.
There is one more aspect of Saint Paul's writings I'd like to treat – the priesthood. This is not an obvious Pauline theme. In fact, some would say that Saint Paul never really deals with the priesthood in his letters. That theme, it is said, can be found in the Letter to the Hebrews which most contemporary scholars do not attribute to Saint Paul. Be that as it may, it is true that Saint Paul never wrote a treatise on the priesthood nor did he make it a theme of his letters. Nonetheless, there is abundant evidence that Saint Paul understood his apostolic ministry in priestly terms. With the help of several authors, I will try to point this out in the paragraphs that follow.
I chose to treat this question for two reasons. First, if we miss or neglect the references in Saint Paul to priesthood, we will misunderstand much of what he is saying to us. Second, we are at the juncture between the "Year of Saint Paul" and the "Year for Priests," which begins on June 19, the Feast of the Sacred Heart. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Saint John Vianney. Known as the Curé of Ars, he is the patron of parish priests. During this forthcoming anniversary year, Pope Benedict invites us to focus on the beauty of the priestly vocation and its importance in the life of the Church.
What better way to begin the Year for Priests than by looking at the priesthood through the eyes of Saint Paul?
And let's begin somewhat more precisely with the "I" of Saint Paul, for he describes his ministry in personal terms – the person of Christ and his own "persona." Indeed, Saint Paul might well be seen as a primary source for the Church's teaching that the ordained priest acts in the person of Christ the Head. Without ceasing to be a unique person, the priest efficaciously reproduces the words and deeds of Christ, especially His death and resurrection, by proclaiming the Word of God, by celebrating the Mass and the Sacraments, and by manifesting pastoral charity. The "I" of the priest becomes the living, human instrument of Christ's love by which He continues to be present to His people and act on their behalf.
How does Saint Paul help us to understand that teaching? We start with an obvious fact: Saint Paul often writes in the first person. We would expect this because Paul's writings take the form of letters which he addressed to specific Christian communities. In those letters, he continues to proclaim the Gospel but also to answer questions, settle disputes, and correct error and infidelity. So, naturally, he often used the personal pronoun "I."
Sometimes, however, his use of the first person wasn't simply stylistic. Rather, in using the word "I" he identifies himself both with Christ and with the Church. To put it a bit more precisely, Saint Paul is aware of taking on a new identity rooted in the Church's oneness with Christ. For example, throughout the entire Letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul speaks in the first person but not as a casual correspondent. Instead, he speaks as the one who had formed them in Christ. "My children," he writes, "for whom I am in labor until Christ be formed in you." In fact, throughout his letters, we see that Paul's strong personality doesn't fade away but, rather, is identified with Jesus Christ whose Gospel he proclaims and whose mission he continues.
In Galatians 2:19-20, Saint Paul alludes to his calling and his transformation through his encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus: "For through the law, I died to the law that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me." Saint Paul has laid aside his former way of life as an expert in the Jewish law. Here and elsewhere, Paul also distances himself from a legalistic understanding of the Jewish priesthood. In this passage, Paul speaks boldly about a personal identification with Christ crucified as the foundation to his mission as an Apostle. He identifies himself with the sacrifice of the New Covenant which is the content of his teaching as also the celebration of Baptism and the Eucharist. Similarly, in Romans Paul tells us that he proclaims the Gospel "with his spirit" (Romans 1:9).
Paul makes it plain that his personal identification with Christ and his sacrificial offering has nothing to do with egotism but, rather, the opposite: he was called through the undeserved grace of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:10, after describing his former persecution of the Church of God, he adds, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective." Paul is aware that his ministry is effective not through the sheer force of his personality but, rather, because Christ is at work in and through him.
In another passage, 2 Corinthians 4, Saint Paul offers a dramatic summary of his ministry. In 4:7, he adds, "But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us." Here Saint Paul speaks of his frailty and thus his need to surrender all the more fully to the inherent holiness of his calling (see Dermot Power, A Spiritual Theology of the Priesthood, Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1998, pp. 77-78).
Ordained a priest for 33 years, I daily contemplate the gap between my unworthiness and the holiness of my office, even as I ask God to make my weakness the instrument of his transforming love, "for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Saint Paul speaks of his ministry in other ways that demonstrate its priestly character. Take, for example, the word "ministry." In Romans 15:15-16, Saint Paul reminds his readers that his ministry came about " ...because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the priestly service of the Gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit." Here Paul uses the Greek word "leitourgon" which is translated as "minister." We readily see that the word for "liturgy," with its priestly connotations, is embedded in the Greek word for "ministry." Paul goes on to describe his work as "priestly service."
This phrase links Paul's ministry to Christ's priestly offering of himself on the Cross. Saint Paul further tells us the goal of his ministry - so that the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable. He is concerned lest they fall back into a way of life that alienates them from God and renders their offering displeasing to God.
In this passage Saint Paul is concerned with the ongoing sanctification of those to whom he preached the Gospel. Thus Paul employs here the language of Israel's worship to describe his ministry and its goal. While this is not yet a full-fledged description of the distinction between ordained clergy and laity, it nonetheless forms a basis for that teaching (see Brenden Byrne, S.J., Romans, in Sacra Pagina, Vol. 6, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996, pp. 435-436; Scott Hahn, Catholic New World, April 26-May 9, 2009, p. 16).
There remain three other references in Saint Paul which help us see that he understood his apostolic ministry in priestly terms.
The first is 2 Corinthians 5:18-21, where Saint Paul speaks of his "ministry of reconciliation" as well as his ambassadorship on behalf of Christ. This passage reads: "…All this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." Here Saint Paul tells us that his ministry is rooted in Christ's ministry of reconciliation, that is, the initiative of God to reconcile the world to himself (see also Colossians 1:20) in and through the death of Christ on the Cross (see, Romans 5:10; see Jan Lambrecht, S.J., Second Corinthians in Sacra Pagina, Vol. 8, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999, pp. 104-105).
As an ambassador, Paul speaks and acts in the place of Christ. So united was the "I" of Paul to the "I" of Christ, that he not only represented Christ but indeed made him present. Indeed, in 2 Corinthians 2:10, Saint Paul speaks of forgiving "in the presence of Christ" or even "in the person of Christ." Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible from Greek to Latin, rendered the Greek phrase "en prospero Christou" as "in persona Christi" (see Hahn, op. cit., p. 17). Fundamental to Catholic teaching on the priesthood is that the priest acts in the very person of Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church.
A second reference is 1 Corinthians 4:1 where Paul describes himself and his coworkers "...as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." The notion of steward is similar to that of ambassador. The theologian, Jean Galot, tells us that "a steward is a person who takes the place of another, who acts in another's name" (Jean Galot, The Theology of the Priesthood, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984, p. 99). Galot also tells us that the steward is not a mere functionary but is endowed with considerable authority to continue the mission entrusted to him. Paul is the steward of Christ's mission to reveal "the mystery," the hidden plan of God for the salvation of the world, which is revealed in the proclamation of the Gospel and communicated through the sacraments (see my previous column, "Mystery," December 6, 2008). There is a link between the Greek word for "mystery" and the Latin word for "sacrament." Early Latin versions of the Bible used the word "sacrament" to translated the Greek word "mysterion" or "mystery" (see L. Bouyer, Dictionary of Theology, Tournai: Desclee, 1965, p. 393). Indeed, to celebrate a "sacrament" is to enter into the mystery of God's loving plan of redemption. Thus, at the beginning of Mass, the priest will often say, "to celebrate these mysteries worthily…" And the Eastern churches still refer to the sacraments as "mysteries.
A final group of references are passages where Paul styles himself as God's co-worker (see Galot, op. cit., pp. 100-101). Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:9, "For we are God's coworkers; you are God's field, God's building." As we have seen in previous installments of this series, Saint Paul refers to the Church as God's temple. Just as surely, Paul speaks of himself as the one who put in place the foundation for the Church in the places where he visited and preached the Gospel. Paul has a priestly sense of cooperating with God in building up the Church.
This, I daresay, is what brings most priests the greatest joy.
To conclude, we now need to look at Paul's ministry from ten thousand feet. Amid all the foregoing priestly references in Paul's writings, we see the broad outline of the role a bishop or priest, namely, to proclaim the Gospel, to celebrate the Sacraments, most especially the Eucharist, and to guide God's people in the ways of holiness and truth – in a word, "to teach, sanctify, and govern." In a very real sense, Saint Paul continues to do that from his place in heaven.
We have been fortunate to spend this past year meditating on the teaching and example of Saint Paul. May he continue to inspire us as, now, under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, we turn our attention to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.