Pentecost and the Priesthood of the Faithful

Douglas P. McManaman
June 11, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

Pentecost has often been referred to as the birthday of the Church. This means that today the Church is born. The Mystical Body of Christ is born. The reason that the Church is born today is that the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, as St. Augustine was wont to point out. You see, matter is inert, that is, it is dead. It does not have the capacity to move itself from within itself. Think of a sculpture. It is not alive; it is entirely inert. But your matter and my matter is living, and a living organism is alive not by virtue of its matter--otherwise all material things would be living; rather, an organism is alive by virtue of a life principle, a non-material principle, and that principle is the soul. This is what really impressed me about biochemistry, way back in the 80s when I decided to study it: what was obvious when studying biochemistry is the complex unity, the biomolecular unity, within the living organism. Every part and every biochemical system within the organism, such as the immune system, is ordered towards the unity and integrity of the single organism. The soul is that principle of unity. Without that, you have a decaying corpse.

The Holy Spirit is the very soul of the Body of the Church. And that is why the Church is Holy--the Church is one, apostolic, holy and Catholic. It is holy not because the members of the Church are somehow holy. On the contrary, each member is sinful, flawed and profoundly limited. Rather, the Church is Holy because the Holy Spirit is the very life principle of the Church. And so the Church is not a natural organization, but a supernatural organization, a supernatural organism--a mystical body, if you will. If the Holy Spirit were not the soul of the Church, then the Church would be simply another organization alongside others, destined to eventually dissipate and become a thing of the past. But Christ said that this would not happen, that the Church would exist until the end of time.

We are related to the entire body of the Church as the cells are related to our own body. Our cells are alive by virtue of being a part of the whole; separated from that single whole, they die. And our cells are constantly being replaced. So too, we are the cells of this body, the Church, and we are alive with the grace of God by virtue of our union with this Mystical Body. We can also say that if we participate in the divine life (if we are in a state of grace), then we are members of his body--either invisible members or visible members.

In the liturgy of baptism, there is a part right after the child is baptized in the name of the Trinity, in which the child is anointed. This is the second anointing; the first anointing is with the Oil of Salvation, and here we pray that the child may be strengthened by Christ; but in the second anointing after Baptism, we anoint the child with the Sacred Chrism. The words of the rite are the following: "God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomes you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life."

In other words, each one of you has been anointed priest. We are all priests--assuming that you have been baptized; we participate in the royal priesthood of Christ (1 Pt 2, 9), and the ministerial priesthood exists precisely to serve this larger priesthood of the faithful. It is not the other way around, as many people were in the habit of believing and as many people today still think it is. This is clericalism, the idea that the Church is really the clergy, who are the experts in all things intellectual, the "dominant elite in the Church", while the laity are the "passive, subservient mass" (Russell Shaw) who exist for the sake of the clergy. Such a twisted paradigm has caused a great deal of harm over the centuries; for all of us here are anointed with the Sacred Chrism; we are a priestly people, that's our identity. We live Christ's priesthood. A priest is one who offers sacrifice. Our whole life is to be lived as one living sacrifice to the Father in the Person of Christ whose every act is a sacrificial act ordered to the glory of God the Father. The ministerial priesthood exists to serve this larger royal priesthood of the faithful. Only recently has this theological truth been emphasized; for centuries, clericalism was the norm, and it has not completely died. It keeps trying to make a comeback, especially among some of the younger clergy, ironically enough--the desire to be more than human is deeply rooted in the human heart, wounded by sin.

But each one of you has gifts that have been supernaturalized by that baptism and anointing. Our life is now ordered to a supernatural end, not a natural end. If we don't recognize our priesthood and mistakenly believe that the Church is to be identified with the clergy, then we will fail to see how our work, our gifts, our natural talents, fit in to the overall life and work of the Church. I've always found it fascinating the different gifts that people have, in particular my colleagues at school, or my students, and friends. Some have brilliant mathematical minds, some have brilliant literary minds, some have an artistic genius, some have great scientific minds, some have administrative genius, some have a mechanical disposition that is really quite remarkable. And no one has all the gifts. Those strong in one area are typically quite weak in others. A colleague of mine is mathematically brilliant, but he says he couldn't do what students are required to do in IB English. A close priest friend of mine couldn't write an essay if he tried, but he can close his eyes for 10 seconds after hearing the gospel reading and then deliver an astounding homily, without notes. I don't know how he does it; I wish I could do that, I've tried, but I can't.

God has given each one of us unique gifts for a very specific purpose within the Mystical Body that is working in the world. Our task is to allow ourselves to be served by the ministerial priesthood, to be strengthened by the Eucharist and renewed regularly by the sacrament of reconciliation so that we can do our part within the heart of the Church, which is in the world, moving the world forward to its final consummation in the Second Coming of Christ. We will only understand ourselves and the meaning of our entire life at the end, just as we only really understand a novel when we've read the last paragraph and begin to reflect upon the whole.