Jesus as Model for the Common Priesthood of the People of God

The association of ‘priesthood’ with the liturgy of the Eucharist and the ministry of the Word is longstanding and valid – but Jesus was also in 21st century verbiage an ‘activist’ – a ‘whistleblower’ and a challenger of an unjust religious status quo. He roundly called out all religious hypocrisy and especially all hierarchical practices that gave superior status to an elite and kept the poor remote from God’s mercy.  It was in toppling the tables of those who sought to enrich themselves at the Temple entrance – at the expense of those who could purchase sacrificial offerings and to the misery of those who could not – that he provoked his own arrest and crucifixion.  Without this challenge there could have been no Passion and therefore no meaningful world-changing Eucharist.

It follows that if there is no vital challenge from the people of God to the injustices endemic in the world outside our church buildings, and no vital expression of solidarity with all who suffer injustice – even within the church — the full meaning of the Eucharistic liturgy will be obscured, especially for the young. 

I believe that it is indeed in the invisibility of the connection between the Mass and the challenges to justice, peace and hope posed by our enveloping 21st century society – and too often within the Church itself — that the incomprehension of younger generations lies – and their steady abandonment of Eucharistic practice. 

It is clear, for example, that young people are oppressed by specific challenges to their own happiness – in a climate of media exploitation of the human desire for ‘success’, ‘glamour’ and ‘celebrity’.  In every era there are mistaken brokers of honour and shame who exploit our human tendency to forget that in every moment, in God’s truth, no one is ever more, or less, important than anyone else.  Meanwhile our young people are oppressed by Internet trolling and delusion – and learn that the future of the Earth environment is in deadly danger from human activity. Too often the relevance of the Gospel to these challenges receives no attention whatever from ordained Mass celebrants in Ireland today.

And while at Confirmation hands have been laid on young people as a sign of their empowerment to pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, they may never in their lives be invited by their ordained pastors to express whatever wisdom may have come to them from so doing – as a means of meeting together the special challenges to their own generation. How can this indifference not convey to young people – as well as to their parents – that the Holy Spirit is either off limits to them, or a complete fiction?  How can it not be disrespectful to the sacrament itself – and to the same Holy Spirit?

And if those young people find that Confirmation brings with it no acknowledged vital role for themselves in the church, how then can they be expected to see the vital importance of the call to the ordained and other dedicated Catholic ministries?  The future of humankind calls all to personal sacrifice, and the feast of Pentecost tells us that all can be empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Homilists who can see this clearly – and speak passionately of the indispensable mission of the common and royal  priesthood of all of the baptised – will be able to communicate the relevance of the Mass to the growing crisis of the world.

Is the Gospel being preached if homilists do not passionately teach that everyone everywhere in the world is equally entitled to feel at home and valued – and that in the  Gospel of simplicity and wisdom lies the only hopeful future?  In such a world we would truly be loving one another as Jesus loves us – and that world would be what Jesus proclaimed: the Kingdom of God.  Unless this can passionately be stated in our Catholic liturgies – and incarnated in our ecclesial relationships – the relevance of the Gospel to the sufferings of those outside, as well as inside, the church must be obscure if not entirely hidden.

The heroism of Jesus surely lay in his direct challenge to religious and social injustice, even more than in his initiation of a sacred ritual.  If this is forgotten how can the latent heroism of every young person in every walk of life be harnessed to the cause of the Kingdom of God, and how can a culture of clericalism be avoided – a culture that gave, and may still give, a dangerously unbalanced power to ordained but sometimes immature men?

I believe that:

  • it is in upholding, in word and action, both inside and outside the church, the sacred dignity of every human person that the common priesthood of the People of God is activated;
  • this calls all of God’s people to active resistance to every slight, insult, injustice or indignity visited on any other person – inside as well as outside the church, and on any electronic medium or device;
  • it is only through Eucharist and prayer that this attitude and ministry can be firmly maintained, against every challenge to it from those who seek a supremacy or monopoly of any kind – of wealth, race or colour or supposed moral or official  superiority;
  • it is to meet all challenges to this way of thinking and acting that the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate for the Defence, are on offer to all who ask – from the time of Confirmation onward;
  • it is in these sacrifices – those things we give up or endure for the sake of those who suffer unjustly – that we, the unordained yet priestly people of God, prove our understanding of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 
  • this is God’s call to heroism to all of us, from Jesus, founder of the Church, in whatever role or space we occupy. 
  • It is for these many journeys of risk, discovery and adventure – the personal sacrifices we are all called to — that the Eucharist is food.
  • In this call to sacrifice, courage and simplicity an environmentally sustainable lifestyle will also be found.
  • Jesus never called anyone to a secondary role in his church: it is only through the actions and witness of the priestly people in the world that the meaning of the Eucharist can be conveyed to that world.
  • Without this understanding of the heroic call of the Gospel to all, the Mass liturgy and homily will also necessarily lack inspirational meaning for the congregation – and especially for the young.
  • It is the too frequent absence of this understanding in the Mass homily that leads so many of the young, in the years immediately following Confirmation, to find the Mass ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant to our lives’.
  • In a renewed relationship of complementarity and mutual respect between the ordained and unordained – founded on these understandings – will lie the recovery of the ordained ministry and the Church.

Along with two others, this document was formally presented to the Conference of Irish Catholic Bishops on October 1st, 2019, by the Steering Group of the Association of Catholics in Ireland. 

The Common Priesthood of the People of God and the Renewal of the Church

It was Catholic parents and victims of clerical abuse who taught Catholic Bishops to prioritise the safeguarding of children in the church.

A Suggested Strategy for the Recovery of the Irish and Western Catholic Church

Recovery of the church depends upon acknowledgment of the indispensable role of the common priesthood of the lay people of God and the abandonment by bishops and clergy of paternalism and clericalism – the expectation of deference from lay people rather than honesty and integrity.

Sean O’Conaill (19/07/2019)



1719 days have elapsed since October 1st, 2019, when this analysis of the problem of large scale absence of youth from Mass in Ireland was presented to the Conference of Irish Catholic Bishops at Maynooth, by the Association of Catholics in Ireland. As yet, although the document has been acknowledged and made part of the conference deliberations – in preparation for the 2021-24 Vatican Synodal process – no comment upon it by the conference has yet been received by ACI. If you support the argument advanced here, please consider contacting the Irish Bishops Conference to say so.

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