What is a Priest? The Priest as a Bearer of Mystery (Ministry Blog Series – 1)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I will be sharing a number of papers I wrote for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales. Having been a member since it was reestablished around 2007, I became the longest serving member by the late 2010s. Over the years I contributed numerous papers on various theological topics, most of which remain unpublished. This ‘Ministry Blog Series’ allows you to read at least some of those papers.

a) Facing the challenge

In recent years, the identity and distinctiveness of priesthood has increasingly been questioned. In functional terms, it has long been recognised that priests require certain gifts and talents to minister effectively. Vocations advisors and directors of ordinands will suggest texts to candidates that list these functions. Such lists can seem daunting to those exploring a call to ordination. In John Pritchard’s The Life and Work of a Priest, one of the principal texts I used to give to my own candidates when I was a diocesan director of ordinands, sixteen distinct functional roles are presented, including “creative leader”, “faith coach”, “wounded companion”, and “spiritual explorer”. Traditionally, theological models of priesthood have grown out of a consideration of such functions. By doing so, such models often forged an ontology of priesthood.

During the twentieth century, the model growing in prominence was the priest as, primarily, a pastoral care giver. In some ecclesial and theological circles, though, there was a sense of uncertainty about this model, with the question posed how much its functional roles actually differ from counseling and social work. By the time I went through the discernment process in the late 1990s, the Church had moved to regarding the principal role of a priest as an empowerer – a nurturer of the gifts of others. Before my own selection board, one priest even gave me the advice “as long as you slip in the word ‘enabler’ at least six times, you’ll sail through”! The concept of enabler certainly fits neatly into the Church in Wales’s 2020 Vision emphasis on collaboration and the flourishing of lay ministries in Ministry Areas. However, questions should still be asked about the primacy of this model. It is, after all, weak in terms of its sacramental rooting and it could lead to priests becoming glorified creative administrators or, worse still, simply talent-spotters. As such, it is difficult to forge an ontology of priesthood from this model alone.

b) Towards a new model

With such uncertainties in theological and ecclesial circles surrounding models of priesthood, it is little wonder that so many candidates struggle to articulate why they feel called to ordained ministry, despite the fact that most of them have read the classic texts of discernment and vocation. The purpose and nature of priesthood certainly needs more thought and clarity. In an issue of The Furrow in 1995, the Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Robert Barron suggests a way of viewing priesthood that has certainly assisted in my own discernment of candidates for ordination over the past few years. This model is culturally relevant and spiritually uplifting, as well as firmly rooted in tradition and scripture. It is also a model that could appeal to the plethora of churchpersonships and traditions that make up the Anglican Church in Wales. It can be summed up as the priest as “a bearer of mystery”.

Barron begins his exploration of this model by describing the fundamental loss of confidence within the priesthood in recent years. This he attributes to an underdeveloped and negative theology of ministry. As a result, priests have lost confidence in themselves and their identity. This can lead to a lack focus and orientation, with many questioning what is at the heart of their ministry. While he is writing from his own particular denominational and geographic context, the loss of joy and hope, along with the increase of pessimism and cynicism, is reflective of some areas of our own Church. Rooted in that same loss of priestly identity is the superior, and sometimes arrogant, attitude that is found in other areas of our Church, which looks down condescendingly on what is perceived as the lack of zeal and spiritual fervor of other clergy.

To counter the loss of priestly confidence and identity, Barron therefore presents an image that he believes captures the unique and indispensable quality of a priest. The term “mystagogue” was used in the early church with relation to bringing catechumens into the faith. Barron chooses this word to flesh out the priest’s role in bringing the mystery of God’s being to people’s troubled lives. In other words, the priest’s role is to notice, to announce, or to bring God’s love, hope, peace, and compassion to individuals and communities. He roots this in Thomas Aquinas’s analogia entis, whereby we come to know and experience God through his creation – we experience the otherly other Being through the very tangible being of this world.

In this model, the overriding call of priesthood is to explore and grasp the mystery and then initiate others into it – opening eyes to God’s presence, ears to God’s call, hearts to God’s love, and ways to God’s will. It is in this context that Theilard De Chardin described the priest as a “border walker”, bringing those on earth closer to the kingdom. They stand at the boundaries between the commonplace and the sacred, thus offering the possibility of relationship with the divine. Priests are, therefore, interpreters of Manley-Hopkins’s “grandeur of God”, Von Balthasar’s “patterns of grace”, and Philip Yancey’s “rumours of another world”. They hold, to use William Blake’s phrase, “infinity in the palm of their hand and eternity in an hour” and offer this to those to whom they are ministering.

c) The incarnation and mystery

This model is profoundly incarnational in its scope. Paul Tillich describes preaching as “holding up a picture of Christ”. The mystagogue’s task is related to this image – it is the art of bringing Jesus down to earth by displaying of the wonder, inspiration, and complexity of his icon. We do this through our words, but also through our lives. Meister Eckhart pointed out that the incarnation is worthless and pointless if the Word is not also born in Christians. By stating that “the Word was made flesh” (John 1.14), the Gospel writer uses the inceptive aorist Greek tense which implies an action that has started in the past but is continuing into the present. The phrase might rather be translated as ‘the Word started to become flesh’. Thus, the Word continues to become flesh, even today, as Christians acknowledge that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). The priestly calling is rooted in this and, in this sense at least, all church traditions will be able to affirm the priest as “in persona Christi”. The model of the bearer of mystery therefore allows us model ourselves on the Jesus of the gospels, bringing to our congregations as many questions as we provide answers, telling as many stories as we affirm facts, and challenging as much as we give comfort.

Yet, more than this, this ministry is a paradoxical process of being Christ to people we already regard as Christ. Cistercian Charles de Foucault regarded the recognition that all people are “the greatest treasure of all, Jesus himself” as integral to the priesthood. Likewise, in light of the radical incarnational call of Matthew 25, Alan Ecclestone went as far as to challenge his fellow priests to consider where they bow at the end of each service. They should, he suggested, be bowing where they truly believe Christ is. Rather than bowing to the altar or the host, he urged them to consider bowing to their congregations, where the real body of Christ resides and where the physical real presence is found. With the model of the priest as a bearer of mystery, then, we are compelled to see Christ in both ourselves and others, whoever they may be and however different they are to us.

d) Sacraments and mystery

This model of priesthood is also sacramental to the core. On one hand, priests become witnesses to the wonder of the traditional sacraments, leading others beyond physical matter to spiritual beauty and benefit – to see beyond bread and wine to Christ’s body and blood, beyond the font to the transformational water of life, beyond the temporary joy of a wedding day to a spiritual covenant, and so on. On the other hand, priests become living sacraments themselves. They do this by, firstly, demonstrating, through words and deeds, God’s excessive and unreasonable love and compassion. To use Philip Yancey’s words, priests need to show people what’s so amazing about grace.

Secondly, though, priests become living sacraments by bringing others into engagement with the beauty and wonder of the whole gamut of human experience – theology, literature, film, music, nature, laughter, ecology, spirituality, art, architecture, poetry, and so on. G.K. Chesterton wrote that to see the world properly one must stand on one’s head. The priest’s role is to stand on her or his head, beckoning others to do the same and so to share this distinct, awe-inspiring, and life-giving vision of the world around. It is helping others to recognise the pearl of great price in their seemingly ordinary everyday routines. Karl Rahner, himself often referred to as a ‘mystic of everyday life’, pointed out the importance of leading Christians to God’s active grace in creation, his self-communication in the midst of our everyday lives. This is, to use the words of R.S. Thomas, “the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you”. Furthermore, there is also a healing aspect to this call to, in the words of Alan Billings, “make God possible”. After all, love, compassion, wisdom, and beauty are not only mystery bearing, but also profoundly healing. Barron employs the ancient term doctor animarum (doctor of the soul) in relation to this aspect of priesthood and relates it directly to the priest’s pastoral calling.

To truly live out this model, though, priests themselves need time and space to connect with God and to engage with, and theologically reflect on, wider culture. The pace of modern ordained ministry, much of which is either non-stipendiary or encompasses the demands of diocesan or provincial roles alongside parish work, rarely allows enough time for study, contemplation, and prayer, thus making St Paul’s command to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:16) seem a mere aspiration to most clergy.

e) Laity and mystery

With the Church in Wales embracing the healthy process of commissioning and licensing lay people for various roles, it is imperative that we ensure that the priestly role is not devalued. Embracing the model of the bearer of mystery may help give further life and purpose to priestly ministry, as well as to our ordinands and ordination candidates. Priests should certainly never be placed on a spiritual pedestal or elevated over and above the laity. No parts of the body should be elevated above the body itself (1 Corinthians 12). However, there has to be something unique and distinctive about priestly ministry. The concept of priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5) reflects that all Christians share something of the role of Mystagogue, but to the priest this is more than a role or function. Through ordination, it becomes a way of being.

In a further article, in Seminary Journal, Barron tries also to forge a distinctive role for the laity, based upon Papal Encyclicals Lumen Gentium and Apostolicam Actuositatem. Lay people are regarded as subversive world-transfigurers. While the priest explores and proclaims the mysterious communion of Trinitarian love, the layperson brings the power of that communion to bear on their families, their social lives, and their workplaces. While there is much to commend in this image, Barron’s theology of lay ministry continues to be rather hierarchical and one-dimensional. Alongside a priesthood that is lived out in numerous ways, we must affirm countless different lay ministries, all of which are distinctive and important. This allows an organic complementarity between laity and priesthood, where no church ministry is elevated, but each and every call is recognized as unique and distinctive.

f) Bearer of mystery

In reality, there is no ideal model for which we can forge an ontology of priesthood. However, Barron’s model of the priest as bearer of mystery does provide us with a model that is both relevant to our times and rooted in the past. It also has the potential to inspire those who may feel the oars of priesthood have been lost on the shores of our rapidly changing culture. Furthermore, while Alan Billings notes that models of priesthood down the years have very much been defined and embraced by distinct church traditions, this model has the benefit of being accessible to all backgrounds and traditions.

Indeed, John Wesley once described himself as a preacher who set himself on fire and allowed people to watch him burn. This is at the root of this model of priesthood. The primary function of the priest, writes Barron, is not to preach, minister, or counsel. In fact, no function can define or confine priesthood. Rather, a priest is someone who is set on fire to the depths of their being by the mystery of God and then beckons others to draw near and be warmed or set alight by the flame.

Bibliography

Robert E. Barron, “The Priest as Bearer of the Mystery”, in The Furrow Vol. 46, No. 4 (April 1995), pp. 203-209

Robert E. Barron, “Mystagogues, World-Transformers, and Interpreters of Tongues: A Reflection on Collaborative Ministry in the Church”, in Seminary Journal (Summer 1994), pp. 10-13

Robert E. Barron, Bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic (Sheed and Ward,  London 2004)

Robert E. Barron, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age (Image, New York 2017)

Alan Billings, Making God Possible – The Task of Ordained Ministry Present and Future (SPCK, London 2010)

Charles de Foucauld, Charles de Foucauld: Modern Spiritual Masters (ed. Robert Ellsberg; Orbis, Maryknoll 1999)

Michael Mayne, The Enduring Melody (DLT, London 2006)

John Pritchard, The Life and Work of a Priest (SPCK, London 2007)

R.S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (Phoenix, London 2004)

Philip Yancey, What’s so Amazing about Grace (Zondervan, Grand Rapids 2002)

Philip Yancey, Rumours of Another World: What on Earth are We Missing? (Zondervan, Grand Rapids 2003)