The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 44, No 1, Jan.-Feb. 1991

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

St. Peter, in his first epistle, was writing to baptized Christians (the laity) when he referred to them as a "holy priesthood."

The second Vatican Council, in its Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, speaks in similar language:

Ordinarily when we hear the words "priesthood" or "priest", we think immediately of those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders. Yet, the quotations above refer to every baptized Christian. It will be fruitful to discuss a bit what St. Peter and the Vatican Council meant by those words, to better understand our Christian vocation.

Yet, to better understand the priesthood of the laity, which is a sharing in the priesthood of Christ, it will be helpful to consider first of all, the priesthood in general, and the priesthood of Christ in particular.


From time immemorial, the notion of priesthood has been associated with sacrifice. The most ancient and primitive of peoples had a deeply ingrained notion of a supreme being who had an influence over their lives. Consequently they sought the favor or pardon of the supreme being (or supreme beings) by offering sacrifice, a function carried out by a designated one (priest) who represented the community before their god.

By their natural religious instincts these primitive peoples saw these supreme beings as in some way having power over them, and thus they offered sacrifice to appease them, or to seek a blessing on their harvest, on their marriage, or to obtain victory in battle, etc. In the most primitive times, this priestly function was carried out by the head of the family; and in more complex communities, by the head of the community.


In addition to the natural religious instincts mentioned above, God has revealed to mankind the need to offer sacrifice, and has given extensive and minute details in the Old Testament as to how it is to be carried out. It appears, however, that there was no priestly class in the earliest periods of the ancient Hebrews. The Israelite priesthood was established at Mt. Sinai, when Moses was instructed by God to appoint the house of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi, to carry out the ceremonial precepts contained in the Law. (Ex. 28:41)

From then on, the priests exercised considerable influence in Israel, becoming its official teachers and interpreters of the Law which regulated the life and worship of the Israelites. Its members being descendants of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi, the Israelite priesthood was hereditary. Lest, however, the service be interrupted at any time in the temple, King David divided the priestly families into twenty-four classes, each class serving for a week, i.e. from Sabbath to Sabbath. Their duties necessitated a knowledge of the requirements of the sacrificial rites, the precepts to be observed, and all the rules regulating the liturgy in the temple. Only the High Priest, who became the spiritual leader of the people, was anointed. (Lev. 21:10) Sometime after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C., the High Priest became the national leader.

The priesthood of the Old Law, which filled an important role in the divine plan for the People of God before the coming of Christ, served primarily (as did the whole Old Testament) to prefigure and prepare the way for the royal priesthood of the New Testament.


Our Blessed Lord is not simply a Priest of the New Law, He is the one and only High Priest of the New Law. He is the one and only Mediator between God and man. All other priests of the Christian era share in His priesthood; all other mediators share in His mediation. For this reason St. Thomas Aquinas refers to Him as the fountainhead of the entire priesthood, for the priest of the Old Law was a figure of Him, while the priest of the New Law acts in His person. (111,22,4) Unlike the priests of the Old Law, He was not a descendant of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi, a fact that meant the abrogation of the priesthood of Aaron, and the institution of a new order of things. As St. Thomas Aquinas points out:

Too, unlike the priests of the Old Law, who had to wait until they were twenty before being admitted to the office, Christís priesthood began at the moment of the Incarnation, for then the total oblation of Himself to the Father began. As St. Paul wrote to the Hebrews:

Every act of Christís entire life on earth was an act of His priesthood, for all were offered for the redemptive purpose for which He came, all of which was consummated in the sacrifice on Calvary. There as priest and victim, He offered Himself totally in obedience to the will of the Father for the salvation of the world.

Again, unlike the priesthood of the Old Law, that of Christ "continues forever" (Heb. 7:24). His sacrifice on Calvary was of infinite and everlasting value. And now, having ascended into heaven "he is able at all times to save those who come to God through Him since He lives always to make intercession for them." (ibid. 7:25)


There are different ways of sharing in Christís priesthood. To understand this we must first consider some fundamental ideas about the sacraments through which Christ shares His priesthood with others.

There are three sacraments which can be received only once (Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders), and the reason why they can be received only once is because each of these sacraments imprints an indelible character on the soul, that cannot be destroyed or effaced in this life or the next. "And therefore, after this life,", says St. Thomas Aquinas, "the character remains both in the good - to their glory, and in the wicked - to their shame." (111,63,5,ad 2) This sacramental character is a spiritual faculty or power to share in the priesthood of Christ. It is a power enabling one to take part in the public worship which Christ offers to His Father through the Church, especially the Mass and the other sacraments.

  1. The Ministerial Priesthood:
  2. In order to perpetuate the priestly work He came to do, as Mediator between God and man, Christ established His Church and gave it a priesthood that would be a continuation of His own.

    At the Last Supper, the night before He died, Christ instituted the ritual sacrifice and the priesthood of the New Law. Changing bread and wine into His own Body and Blood, He offered to the Father for the sins of mankind, His Precious Blood that would be shed the following day, and His Body that would be so torn and bruised during the Passion. He then said to His apostles: "Do this in memory of me." He thereby gave to them the power to effect that same change, to offer that same sacrifice.

    Shortly after His resurrection he gave them the power to forgive sins. (Jn. 20:22) And before His Ascension into heaven, he gave them the mandate to preach His gospel and baptize in the name of the Divine Trinity, making disciples of all nations. (Mt. 28:19-20) Thus they were to continue His priestly redeeming mission. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." (Jn. 20:21) These powers were granted to His Church in such a way that they would be handed down to their successors through the sacrament of Holy Orders, in which the ordained priest, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, is marked with a special character, and is so configured to Christ the Priest that he can act in the person of Christ the Head of the Mystical Body. (Vat. Coun. 11, Presb. Ord. 2)

    Although the ordained priest is a representative of the community in offering their prayers to God (through the Sacrifice), and in bringing Godís gifts to men (through the Sacraments), he is not a representative of the community in the sense that he is chosen by them, or receives his powers from them. He is chosen by Christ (through the grace of vocation, and by the acceptance of him by the Church), and his powers come from Christ through the Church He has established.

  3. The Priesthood of All the Baptized:
  4. The sacramental character, of which we have been speaking, is received initially at Baptism, giving the power to all the faithful to participate in the Sacrifice of Christ, not as someone who passively looks on, but as one who actively participates in that which Christ does. As Pope Pius XII explained in his encyclical on the Mystical Body:

    The sacramental character of Confirmation brings added power and obligation, enabling the faithful to share in the priesthood of Christ in a more perfect way:

    In the fact that Christ exercised His priesthood offering Himself to His Father for us, we should see in our participation of His priesthood an invitation to offer our lives to the Father, not through physical immolation as Christ did, but by offering "spiritual sacrifices". The second Vatican Council speaks often of this:

The recent Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church explains so well these "spiritual sacrifices," that is worth while quoting at length:

Such, then, is the priesthood of the laity derived from the sacrament of baptism, as distinguished from the ministerial priesthood derived from the sacrament of Holy Orders. We have a parallel to this priesthood of the laity in the Old Testament. Israel, a figure of the Church, was also called "a kingdom of priests, a holy nation." (Ex. 19:6) The Israelites were consecrated to God in a special way by the covenant which God established with them as His chosen people, set apart from other men for the worship of God. Yet, the individual Israelites were not priests in the strict sense, and were not allowed to offer sacrifice in the temple, a function, as we saw, that was reserved to the descendants of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi.

These considerations on the priesthood of the baptized, and the capacity it gives to each one to share in Christís sacrifice, and to offer "Spiritual sacrifices" of all that one does in union with Christ the Priest, should make us recall and respond to the plea of our Blessed Mother at Fatima, so concerned about the souls of her children:

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