Q — What is the history of the priesthood?

A — This is a very interesting question but any answer hoping to be in any degree adequate would need to turn to Holy Scripture, the details of church and liturgical history, the great councils of the church, as well as documents and texts coming from the Holy See and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A very tall order! In this brief question/answer column it is possible to provide only the bare bones of an answer.

Let me begin by citing some words from the Jesuit patristic theologian Joseph Lienhard: “One of the most intriguing developments in the early church is the transition from the New Testament plurality of ministries to a more or less uniform and fixed structure. The transition was essentially completed by the middle of the second century, in almost all the churches of the Empire. There is hardly unanimity on even a single point on this topic…” He seems to me to be saying two things. First of all, in the early decades of the church there was a plurality of ministries, but plurality moved towards the threefold ministry of bishop-presbyter-deacon by about the middle of the second century A.D. Secondly, he points out that historians of the Christian tradition do not have enough formation/data to achieve unanimity on this development. We would like to have a completely clear picture, but the facts as they are simply do not permit it. The first writer outside the New Testament to witness to this threefold structure of ministry is Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (died about 110). We do not know exactly how widespread the threefold structure was at his time, but, as Lienhard says, it was pretty much in place everywhere by the middle of the second century. The normal minister of the Eucharist was the bishop, and around him he had two sets of collaborators, presbyters/priests and deacons.

As the church expanded geographically and numerically it became impossible for the local bishop to be the only celebrant of the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and so gradually presiding at the Eucharist and the other sacraments devolved to the presbyters, but always in union with their local bishop. And so there emerges the parish priest: a presbyter who is the liturgist, teacher and pastor of a detached congregation occasionally visited by the bishop. One consequence of this devolution was the view that there is no essential difference between the ministries of bishop and presbyter. The essential ministry in the church for many ordinary Christians had become the presbyterate. “What does a bishop do that a presbyter cannot, except ordain?” (St. Jerome, Epistolae 146.1). “(Bishops) are superior to (presbyters) only in the power of ordination and in this respect alone have they advantage over presbyters.” (St. John Chrysostom, Homilia II.I in 1 Timotheum 3.8).

As we move into the second millennium, a variety of factual developments, including an increase of priests within monasteries and of local diocesan clergy meant that the presbyterate/priesthood was increasingly seen in terms of the power to consecrate and offer the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood. The reforming Council of Trent in the 16th century did not set out to give a full, worked out theology of orders or priesthood. What Trent did was to defend on the basis of the church’s long tradition the theology and practice of orders that it had received: in the face of attack from the Protestant Reformers it affirmed what it regarded as the essential positions and legitimate practice.

Vatican II attempted to re-think Catholic teaching in a way that was more biblical, more ecumenical, more contemporary. Thus, the Council revived the concept of the common priesthood of the entire people of God. It depicted the ministerial priesthood as oriented in service toward the common priesthood of the baptized. The Council also spoke of bishops and priests as exercising a three-fold office: prophetic, priestly, royal, and restored the diaconate as a permanent ministry in the Church. It explicitly and deliberately affirmed that episcopacy is the fullness of orders. At the same time the Council asserted an essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained, while acknowledging that they are ordered one to the other, something expressed in the Constitution on the Church, paragraph 10. All of this is so well summarized in the section on the sacrament of holy orders found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

This is hardly an adequate history the priesthood, but it may give you a few hints about the history and about how to follow it up for yourself.