Did you know that . . .
- There are approximately 410,000 Catholic priests in the world, serving nearly 1.2 billion Catholics.
- In the United States, there are more than 40,000 Catholic priests serving more than 65 million Catholics.
- The number of Catholics in the Western Hemisphere continues to grow while the number of priests continues to shrink.
- The median age of priests in the United States is over 60.
These are not the most encouraging statistics, are they? It seems that the church is losing priests at a time when it is gaining members. But did you also know that each and every one of us has a priestly calling? We may not be able to consecrate the bread and wine at Mass or hear confessions, but each one of us in our own way is called and consecrated to share in Jesus’ priestly ministry. Let’s take a look at what this means.
Ordered to One Another. The Fathers of Vatican II taught that within the church, bishops are given "the fullness of the sacrament of orders," meaning that they share fully in Jesus’ priesthood. Their calling is to preach the gospel in their dioceses and to take care of the people in their churches. Naturally, a bishop does this in many ways, but above all his calling lies "in the Eucharist, which he himself offers, or ensures that it is offered" (On the Church, 26). In union with their bishops, priests also have a unique role to play: "They are consecrated in order to preach the gospel and shepherd the faithful as well as to celebrate divine worship" (28).
But in addition to those who are ordained, lay people are called to a priestly life as well. God wants each and every one of us to become mediators of his presence in the world. Together with our priests, we too share in the ministry of the word and the ministry of the sacrament.
In the ministry of the sacrament, the Council taught that as we join our consecrated brother at the table of the Lord, we all recall and embrace Jesus’ final, priestly sacrifice for our sins. As Vatican II taught, the priest "makes present the eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people." But at the same time, "the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist" (On the Church, 10). Together with the priest, we present the body and blood of Christ to the Father. And together with the priest, we receive every grace and blessing that is promised in the Eucharist.
As far as the ministry of the word, we also have a vital role to play. Once we have been fed and strengthened by Jesus in the Eucharist, we are commissioned to bring his presence out to the world around us. Just as a priest is called to act in the person of Christ on the altar, we are called to be Christ to the world. Just as Jesus was a man of action: preaching, teaching, loving, and healing, we too are called to action. We can’t always bring people to the tabernacle of the church, so we need to become tabernacles ourselves.
A Fragrant Offering and Sacrifice. Day in and day out, Jesus exercised his priesthood in prayerful, loving ways. He was always surrounded by people, and he never avoided those in need. And we should do the same thing. As St. Paul wrote, we should be "imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God" (Ephesians 5:1-2).
Whenever we tell someone about Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are performing a priestly work. We are offering them the life we have received, as if we were giving them communion. When we give food and clothes to the poor, when we care for the sick, when we visit the elderly, we are following Jesus, who sacrificed his life for us. As we intercede for other people—whether in our homes, in a hospital room, or outside an abortion clinic—we are mirroring the great high priest who "lives forever to make intercession" (Hebrews 7:25).
Sacrifices like these are more than just kind, charitable acts. When we do all these things in union with the Lord, relying on the Spirit’s power and wisdom and not just our own, we are actually sanctifying the world! We are making God present to his people, bringing Jesus into the corners of the world that an ordained priest cannot normally reach.
So keep an open heart and an alert mind. You’ll find countless opportunities to minister in your everyday life. Think about Jesus. In every encounter and situation he faced, his primary question was, "Father, how can I reveal your love and your presence?" No matter what kind of job we have—secretarial, business, nursing, teaching, farming, or factory work—we all have plenty of chances to exercise our priesthood. At times, it may mean nothing more than a word of comfort or hope given to a suffering friend. Other times, you may see an opportunity to offer to pray with someone or even bring them to the Lord. There is so much spiritual hunger in the world, while we are being fed every time we celebrate Mass. If we all decided to give away even a bit of what we have received—if we all decided to take up our priestly calling—imagine how different this world could be!
In the Same Way. In addition to ministering to the world, we can all act as priests in our homes. Jesus taught that there is no greater love than laying down our lives for one another (John 15:13). There is no greater love than doing what Jesus himself did by giving up his life so that we could be redeemed. And nowhere is this love called for more powerfully than in the family. In fact, St. Paul told the believers in Ephesus that marriages should be marked by a love similar to the way Jesus "loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her" (Ephesians 5:25-26).
Just as Jesus sanctified the church, just as a priest sanctifies his people, so husbands and wives can make each other holy as they serve each other in love. This can happen in little ways, such as helping each other with chores, just as it can happen in the more dramatic events of life like taking care of a terminally ill spouse.
We can fulfill our priestly calling with our children as well. When we tell them about the Father’s love for them and when we teach them to keep God’s commands, we are performing a ministry of the word for them. When we teach them how to pray and when we pray with them, we are performing a kind of ministry of the altar for them, opening up the way to God and enabling them to experience his presence.
This can sound easier in theory than it is in practice—especially when we consider the way the world prizes independence, self-fulfillment, and material prosperity. But again, as with marriage, we can begin with the small, everyday events of life and build from there. For example, through the affection that we parents show to each other as well as to our children, we can teach our family to love and give themselves to each other. Our witness of forgiveness, kindness, and generosity to the people in our lives can speak just as powerfully as the words we use when we teach our children. In fact, without this foundational witness of love, our words risk falling on deaf ears and hard hearts.
To Make the World Holy. Jesus became a man so that he could sanctify the world, making a priestly offering of his own life. He offered up his life in sacrifice for us so that we could be redeemed from sin and reconciled with our heavenly Father.
But Jesus’ sacrifice has done more than pour out grace and blessings upon us—wonderful though this is. Because he has united us to himself, he has commissioned us to join in his priestly ministry. Each one of us has been consecrated as priests, both in the world and in our families. Each of us has been called to lay down our lives as Jesus did, helping to free other people from sin so that they too can become sanctified in Christ.
So during this Year for Priests, let’s all try to lives as "priests for our God" (Revelation 5:10). Let’s all fix our eyes on Jesus, our great high priest and the mediator of a new and eternal covenant. If we hold fast to the new life we have in Christ, we will find countless opportunities to bring the light of that life to everyone we meet.