The Priest, the Liturgy, and the Church

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2009 »Volume 46 2009 Number 3 »The Priest The Liturgy And The Church

By Aloysius Pieris, SJ

Aloysius Pieris, SJ, is the Director of Tulana (Dialogue Center) in Kelaniya, Sri Lanka. He earned his first PhD in Buddhist Studies, the first ever awarded to a non-Buddhist by the University of Sri Lanka. An indologist and theologian, he has been a long-time lecturer at the East Asian Pastoral Institute. A prolific writer, he has written many works, including An Asian Theology of Liberation: God’s Reign for God’s Poor.


It is impossible to discuss priesthood without situating it in the context of the liturgy which the priest normally presides over, and the church in which he exercises his priestly role. Today there is much confusion among both the pastors and the people about these three interrelated concepts. For the notions of priesthood, liturgy and the church have assumed new contours in the documents of Vatican II and they differ from their medieval versions which still linger in the minds of many. We have so thoroughly absorbed these medieval models into our inner being thanks to many centuries of their prevalence in the catecheses of the church that even some high ranking Vatican officials think that the paradigm which Vatican II has bequeathed to us is a dangerous innovation and, therefore, advocate a reform of the Conciliar reform. The truth is just the other way around. It is the almost irremovably persistent medieval paradigm that marks a departure from the most ancient tradition, whereas what the Council teaches us in its documents approximates the old sacrosanct paradigm of thechurch, the liturgy and priesthood.

I say "approximates" because remnants of the medieval configurations of the church, priesthood and liturgy can also be detected in the Conciliar documents for at least two reasons: some decrees were drafted by the so-called "mixed commissions" that could not agree without compromises, while some otherwise progressive documents were weakened, thanks to the conservative minority’s strategy of proposing amendment after amendment. After all, there is no council that does not suffer from shortcomings attributable to its human authors, as do the Scriptures themselves. Hence, the inconsistencies in the Conciliar teachings, too, have to be resolved through proper historical exegesis of the texts, as we do with the Scriptures. This is no reason to question the authority of this Council, which is the most Catholic, i.e., the most universal council in history.1 It is with this caveat in mind that I propose to spell out the paradigm shift that Vatican II has effected in each of the three aforementioned areas and allow the pastoral and spiritual implications of the Conciliar teaching on ‘ministerial priesthood’ or the ‘presbyterate’ to come out in bold relief. I intend to achieve this goal in the process of discussing the following three propositions about the church, the liturgy and the priesthood:

  1. The Church and the Hierarchy are not exactly the same thing.
  2. The Liturgy and Worship are not exactly the same thing.
  3. The Priest and Presbyter are not exactly the same thing.

Part One The Hierarchy and the Church

The word "hierarchy," which means "sacred/priestly rule(rs)," is today an official designation for the bishops, priests and deacons, mentioned in that descending order. It is, therefore, a synonym for the clerical class as distinct from the laity. But "[t]his division between the clergy and the laity cannot on any account be justified from New Testament evidence."2 Even the term, as well as the concept of "hierarchy," is conspicuously absent in the NT and in the earliest Christian literature! This neologism, so alien to Christ and his disciples, occurs for the first time in Pseudo-Dionysius as late as in the 5th century. The term proved handy to portray the graduated scale of dignity and power attributed both to the celestial beings that governed the heavens and to the ecclesiastical rulers, who had by that time adopted some of the juridical and administrative models of the secular state. This development, in the course of centuries, would end up in an ecclesiology (concept and theory of the church) where the hierarchy would be almost identified with the episcopate (see LG, ch. 2).

In the NT, on the contrary, the leadership functions of bishops (episcopoi, "overseers") and those of the priests (presbyteroi, "elders") are not clearly differentiated (cf. Acts 20:28). For they both acted as community leaders, without any difference in rank or power. But already by the second century, we see the evidence of a pyramid-formation: the bishop leads the local church and presbyters are his next in command, and the laity under the rule of both. This information is gleaned from Adversus Haereseos of Irenaeus of Lyons who lived in the 2nd century. Regrettably all recent church documents, including those of Vatican II, tend to cite Irenaeus to justify this later development and thus conclude that bishops alone hold the teaching and governing authority, being "successors of the apostles" (DV, 7; LG, 18; etc.). But what we learn from Irenaeus is more nuanced than what such documents insinuate; for his writings indicate that the ministry and the office of bishops were not at all identical with the ministry and the office of Apostles.3

In other words, the cliché that "Bishops are the [sole] successors of the apostles" is a misleading statement that calls for qualification.4 The insinuation that the Twelve Apostles were leaders of local churches as the bishops are today should be ruled out as groundless.5 For the Twelve Apostles cannot have successors strictly speaking! In the early centuries even the Bishop of Rome was never called "successor of Peter" as we do today, but Vicarius Petri et Pauli; each pope was the successor only of the previous bishop of Rome; the first bishop was not the successor but the vicar of the two apostles who, thanks to the witness they bore to the faith by their martyrdom in Rome, were regarded as the foundation (not the founders) of that See.6 From Irenaeus we learn that the same principle was applied to other bishops whose local churches traced their roots to an apostolic tradition.7

The Twelve symbolized the New Israel, the church of Christ, on the analogy of the twelve tribes that constituted the first Israel. This nuclear church has been gathered to bear witness to Christ’s life, death and resurrection which inaugurated God’s reign on earth, and thus continue Christ’s mission. Symbolically, it envisages also the women, who were the first to meet the Risen Lord and announce him to The Twelve, and similarly subsumes all of us of all times who become the church by witnessing to his paschal mystery in the way we live it, proclaim it by word and celebrate it liturgically. What Jesus promised to and demanded of The Twelve is promised to and demanded of the whole church. If Judas had to be replaced by Matthias just before the Pentecost, it was presumably because that ‘nuclear church’ had to be symbolically (underscore ‘symbolically’) present when receiving the Spirit of the Risen Lord; for if The Twelve were literally (underscore ‘literally’) intended to be an institution in its own right, they would have established a Duodecemvirate (12 member governing body) in the Church to continue their mission! Which they did not. In other words, The Twelve could not have successors! Rather, the mission and the authority given to nuclear church (symbolized by The Twelve) were continued by various ministries of which the episcopate was but one among many! Bishops, therefore, do not "succeed the twelve apostles," who, strictly speaking, are unsucceedable, but like many other ministers mentioned in the NT, merely continue certain (not all) ministries derived from the mission entrusted to The Twelve. In other words, all ministries that fulfill the mission given to the nuclear church were performed by different categories of people endowed with different charisms, each category in its own manner and in its own field.

By the second century, however, the bishops seem to have absorbed some of these other ministries into their office and tended to ignore the rest. This is what we are forced to conclude from the way Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons speak of the episcopate. For the mission of the "teachers" (didaskaloi), the predecessors of today’s theologians, seems to have become invisible in bishop-centered churches. The section on the post-apostolic period in Eusebius’ History of the Church reads more like a biography of bishops – not all of whom seemed well disposed towards the charism and the ministry of the Teachers. Not only teachers, but so many other diverse ministries that served the nascent church and enumerated in Ephesians 4:11-13 and 1 Corinthians 12:28 suffered the same fate. An episcopal monolith was in the process of being formed already within the first three Christian centuries!

From the fourth century onwards, we see the next crucial phase of a transformation that will continue up to Vatican II, namely, the big wave of latinization and romanization to be followed by a bigger wave of feudalization in the middle ages. During the first wave, we see the imperial politics and pagan culture of Rome branding the office of the bishops and priests with its almost indelible identity-mark. As the social elite begin to exercise leadership in the church, the bishops and priests are also drawn into secular services in the civil society such as those of judges. Put on a par with the country’s dignitaries (illustres), they now receive a number of insignia, which would die with the death of the Roman empire but survive in the episcopate, e.g., a special headgear (camalaucum), special shoes (campagi), a special mantle (lorum), which is the pallium given to archbishops even today, and of course a high throne, not to mention golden rings and the privilege of being greeted with the kiss of the hand!8 The bishop, by now the most conspicuous personality in the life of the church and the main figure in the high-profile liturgies of the year, dressed in imperial Rome’s pompous paraphernalia, begins to present himself as the church clothed with power. The laity are subjects, recipients, spectators. They participate in silence in the Church that celebrated the mysteries and dispensed the means of salvation. This church is the hierarchy. The phrase "obedience to the church" comes to mean, in practice, the submission of all to the bishops as the sole successors of the Apostles.

Obviously the other charisms, which the hierarchy pushed to the margin of the church from at least the 2nd century onwards, seem to have hibernated in the periphery until they stormed back into the church in the form of monasticism, a lay movement which asserted itself as a non-clerical alternative. In the subsequent centuries, it developed as a manifold manifestation of the suppressed ministries. For it was the monks who opened frontier missions in non-Mediterranean Europe, as did the early ‘missionaries’ (the apostoloi, like Paul, Barnabas or the woman apostle Junias); it is they who taught and catechized the nations so converted, as did the early teachers (didaskaloi, such as Priscilla or Apollo); they also discerned and declared God’s Word to others as did the prophets (prophetai, like Philip’s daughters); and so on.

As the pyramidization of the church reached its zenith in the medieval Europe as a consequence of feudalization (the second wave), even monasticism, quite ironically, succumbed to that tendency. So we have since then not only a clerical elite engaged in ‘sanctifying others’ through the administration of sacraments, but also a religious elite pre-occupied with ‘sanctifying themselves’ through ascetical practices. The laity were the non-professional clients who lived at the base of the pyramid profiting by the ritual ministrations of the clergy and the spiritual ministrations of the monks. Also in the area of faith, the same elite group assisted by the emergent class of theologians determined the doctrines and dogmas which ensured the correctness of belief among the laity.

These four characteristics of the medieval church can be summed up under the following four heads:

  1. church perceived mainly in terms of the hierarchy, i.e., the episcopate;
  2. sacramental life revolving round a clerical priesthood;
  3. holiness focused on ‘perfection’ sought through the observance of evangelical councils and exemplified by the life of consecrated religious;
  4. faith understood by the laity merely as adherence to the teaching of the magisterium (bishops).

All these four elements, which kept the laity in a permanently receptive mode, acquired a new configuration in Vatican II, notwithstanding the persistence of old habits of thought in some of its decrees. If taken together, these four new orientations of the Council assume the guise of a radical innovation in comparison with the immediate past, but are, in reality, a recovery of a lost heritage when viewed from the perspectives of the nascent church. Let us take a closer look at these reformulations:

  1. Vatican II is the first Council in history to define the church non-hierarchically as the people of God,treating the bishops and priests as ministers in the church so defined (LG, 9-17). In other words, it was also the first daring attempt to offer a non-pyramidal concept of the church in diametrical opposition to the medieval ecclesiology. The church is essentially hierarchical, according to the Council, though the essence of the church is not the hierarchy but people-hood. This is the ecclesiological perspective of Vatican II and it alone should serve as the ‘hermeneutical key’ to understand and interpret certain inconsistencies that have crept into its documents for reasons given above. I say this because this ecclesiology persists as the sure foundation and the implicit rationale in all the other three areas of renewal mentioned above, namely, sacramental life, growth in holiness and experience of faith. For according to the Council, the whole people of God shares in the priestly, prophetic and royal character of Christ.
  2. The sacramental life is equally redeemed of its clericalism and ritualism in the teaching of the Council, in that it re-affirms the ancient belief in the common baptismal priesthood of all the faithful (LG, 10-11;SC, 7, 14, etc.) which constitutes the church as the Body of Christ, the priest-victim of the New Covenant. Accordingly, the entire church or God’s people is a "priestly community" (communitas sacerdotalis) celebrating the Eucharist and other sacraments, while the ministerial priesthood is given an "essentially" different role (de essentia, non gradu tantum), but not necessarily a "superior" independent role as if it were made of a godlier stuff; for both categories participate in the "one priesthood of Christ", each in its own way. The ritual role of the ministers is contrasted with the priestly exercise of the God’s people, a priestly exercise manifested in their daily life of prayer, self-sacrifice and works of charity (in short, liturgy of life ― a term not found in Conciliar documents but invented by the present writer to capture the meaning of the common baptismal priesthood as described in Lumen Gentium above).
  3. The third unexamined assumption of the medieval church, that there were holier classes in the church, was dismantled when the Council advocated the principle of the universal call to holiness (LG, 39-42). This means that there is a variety of ways in which each category of persons attains holiness according to the calling each receives from God. It is God and God alone who imparts holiness by calling someone to a particular state, and it is not the state (e.g., celibacy, or presbyterate) which is by itself holy or ‘holier than’ other states. Hence, marriage is equally holy for those called to it.
  4. In the exercise of faithtoothis Council saw its foundation in the common indefectible faith of God’s people or sensus fidelium (LG, 12), which is defined as the exercise of the prophetic role of Christ according to the anointing by the Holy Spirit, so that the "universal body of the faithful" (bishops, priests and laity all together) "cannot be mistaken in belief" (in credendo falli nequit). The "guidance by the sacred magisterium", as well as "obedience to it", is contextualized within this common participation of all God’s people in the prophetic role of Christ, i.e., in the common infallibility of all the faithful. Thus the neat distinction prevalent since the 19th century between the "teaching church" (ecclesia docens) synonymous with the hierarchy or the episcopate and the "learning church" (ecclesia discens) consisting of the rest of the people of God began to be abandoned at least in theory, and was questioned later even by John Paul II.9

Taken together, these four emphases flatten the pyramid and gives us a glimpse of "the communionecclesiology" that the Council was struggling to spell out as the ideal for the church to realize (LG, 9, 13, 15, 49, 50, 51, etc.). But it remains a mere ideal, unrealized even to this day. For millennially solidified structures resist radical renovation. An honest attempt was made in the post-Vatican II era to establish a permanently collaborative communion between the primacy of the pope and the collegiality of the bishops, between the episcopate and the presbyterium, and between the priest and laity. But the purely consultative role that the bishops play in the Synods, the priests in the presbyterium and the laity in parish councils demonstrate that this reform does not reflect the communion model. Besides, even this half-hearted reform is restricted to three levels in the pyramid: pope/bishops, bishops/priests and priests/laity! We must hope and work for that grace-filled day when laymen and lay-women chosen from each local church would join their bishops and presbyters to deliberate together on ecclesial and other matters with the Bishop of Rome in a manner that manifests adiscipleship of equals; that day, the communion ecclesiology of Vatican II will have registered a modest beginning!

But there is one glimmer of hope flickering in the church and that, too, will be soon extinguished if we fail to resist the current attempts at reversing the Council’s liturgical reforms. I am alluding to the Novus Ordo of Paul VI, where room is provided for creativity and imagination to project the communion model of the church in the way we celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments. By celebrating our future in the liturgy, we can someday make that future happen.

Part Two Liturgy and Worship

In order to project the authentic image of the church and priesthood in our liturgy, we must first of all resolve a serious confusion that issues from an over-identification of liturgy with worship. This is another instance of an inconsistency that Vatican II has tolerated. According to the hypothesis I advance here, the real reason for this oversight cannot be either of the two reasons I mentioned at the beginning of this article to account for the other contradictions and infelicitous formulations. My explanation is that in the case of the Liturgical Constitution (Sacrosanctum Concilium or SC) there is a collision rather than a confluence of two pre-Conciliar movements for reform: the liturgical and the biblical.

The liturgical movement was initiated by Dom Prosper Gué-ranger in France in the 19th century and was continued in the next century on a more advanced plane by Dom Lambert Bauduin in Belgium and Dom Odo Casel of the Maria Laach School in Germany. It exerted a strong influence on the Conciliar teaching on Christian worship, presumably because among the periti who drafted the SC and served in the Liturgical Concilium that implemented the reforms, were Dom Cipriano Vagaggini (the original drafter of the 4th Eucharistic Prayer) and Dom Salvatore Marsili (a drafter of the Instructio on the Conciliar reforms), both of whom strove valiantly to accomplish the legitimate goals of the Benedictine liturgical reform. The hypothesis, on which I base my reflection on this matter here, is derived from my personal acquaintance with these last two mentioned liturgists during those exciting days of Vatican II: Vagaggini whose guidance I sought when working on my STL thesis on Liturgy, and Marsili whose courses on the Liturgy I was privileged to follow in Venice in 1964 and in Messina in 1966.10 Later as a member of the faculty of the Gregorian University, Rome, I had the rare opportunity to test this hypothesis in my discussions with the Jesuit Hermann Schmidt, professor of Liturgy and peritus in the Council. None of these three eminent experts, however, are to be implicated in what I am proposing here.

The point I make is that the nuanced distinction suggested in the Scriptures between the liturgy and worship, as explained below, was not quite evident in the aforementioned liturgical movement and therefore not emphasized in SC either. This accounts for the somewhat excessive claim that "The liturgy…is the summit (culmen) towards which the activity of the church is directed (tendit), and simultaneously the source (fons) from which all its power flows out" (SC, 10). Here, the activity of the church seems to stand for "the whole range of activities involved in love, holiness and apostolate" (SC, 9). The Council admits that "Liturgy is not the only activity in the church" (ibid.) but insists that all other activities, even those of love, culminate in it.

To appreciate the positive value of this teaching, which nevertheless needs to be qualified, we must recall the context in which the aforementioned liturgical movement had its origin. From about the 17th century onwards, as I have argued elsewhere, the source and summit, so to say, of spirituality was deemed to be contemplation or personal mystical prayer.11 Even the liturgical prayer, including the Mass, had by then become privatized. Parallel to this tendency among the priests, there was also an increasing proclivity among the laity to indulge in private devotions even during the liturgies. Perhaps the monks, too, were affected by this general trend.

Dom Guéranger, true to his Benedictine spirit, initiated the long overdue reform, beginning with monastic life itself, shifting the emphasis from personal (contemplative) prayer to liturgical prayer. In fact, in the Rule of St. Benedict, I do not find any mention of ‘contemplation’ or ‘mystical prayer’ that later spiritual writers would speak of as the climactic moment of spirituality. For the Rule of St. Benedict laid the foundation for a monastic spirituality based on scriptural prayer (psalmody) associated with lectio divina, i.e., listening to God’s Word in the scriptures; ‘listening’ is the biblical equivalent of obedience. Guéranger’s liturgical reforms were meant to bring this common prayer of the church (climaxing in the Eucharist celebration) back to the very centre of Christian spirituality. He had no problem at all with the then prevalent Roman Latin Liturgy, whereas Vatican II instructed the church to restructure it (SC, 21, 50-58)! For Guéranger was a rabid romanist and latinist! Hence his achievement, as I see in retrospect, was this: he dethroned the ‘experience of God’ in personal mystical prayer and installed in its place ‘the experience of God’ in the common liturgical prayer (of the medieval Roman rite, of course)’ as the source and summit of spirituality.

Dom Bauduin saw God’s salvific action in Christ being enacted in the liturgy, and therefore quite rightly identified liturgy with the Church’s priestly worship rendered to God through, in and with Christ, without as much as mentioning the common priesthood of all the faithful so clearly upheld in the NT. The Maria Laach School, led by Dom Casel, brought in another dimension to the reform movement: the concept of the ‘mystery’. It was not a wholesale import from the mystery religions of the Greeks, but primarily an appropriation of the Pauline understanding of mystery as the eternally hidden salvific intent of God, which is God Herself revealed in Her offspring made flesh and dwelling among us and redeeming us by his life, deeds, words and resurrection. The liturgy, therefore, is the ritual enactment and the ritual continuation of this mystery, thusrendering that mystery present through the rite. It is not difficult to see here an indirect influence of the pagan concept of mystery, which Odo Casel valued very much as a providential preparation for the Christian Liturgy.

Despite the over-emphasis on the ritual dimension, I see here an important aspect of Christian worship re-emerging from the remote past, namely, that in the liturgy, specially in the Eucharist, we enter God’s ‘Now’ in which Her redemptive action with us and for us from creation to consummation is experienced. There is here a recovery of the biblical notion of remembrance or anamnesis (zkr in Hebrew) which draws us into our end-time glory becoming our here and now. The liturgy properly celebrated becomes a foretaste of God as our future. It is therefore quite understandable that the liturgy is projected as the summit to which the church tends. A caution, however, is in order here. If the eschatological tension between the already and the not-yet is not maintained, we can lose ourselves in the illusion of ritually entering into a future that has not absorbed the present harsh realties that need redemption, a resurrection without the struggle that culminates on the cross. It is here that I wish that the biblical movement had been allowed to correct the liturgical renewal.

There were, of course, many other liturgical movements that complemented this Benedictine initiative. It is their combined impact on the church that made Pius XII issue the encyclical Mediator Dei (1947), which was followed by his Assisi Papers and his Liturgical reforms of the 1950s. These papal initiatives recognized and legitimized the hundred year old liturgical movement, and thus prepared the institutional church for theSacrosanctum Concilium, the first Concilar document to be approved, and that, too, without much resistance. For the church was well prepared for it. But the reforms of the Council went far beyond what that liturgical movement or the reforms of Pius XII had achieved. The reason is not far to seek. The simultaneous renewal of biblical studies took the church back to its origins! The contribution of the biblical movement was more revolutionary than it seemed at first sight. For by affirming unambiguously the common baptismal priesthood of all the faithful, who together with Christ, their Head, enact the paschal mystery in the liturgy, Vatican II had left ample room for us to draw the happy conclusion that we render authentic worship to God by living out the paschal mystery non-ritually in our day-to-day ‘liturgy of life.’

Hence, the Council’s emphasis on the liturgy as the ritually experienced highpoint in the church’s activity needs to be balanced by the biblical teaching on worship, which the liturgists, including Marsili, had only partially incorporated into their lectures and writings, ignoring the intimate nexus between worship and the commitment to the liberation of the oppressed.

The Hebrew word for worship in the Scriptures is ‘aboda, and it means ‘service’. The whole range of biblical spirituality is summed up in the phrase "worship/service of God" (‘abodat YHWH).12 Furthermore the command to "serve" (‘abad) the Lord (Josh 22:5) is interchangeable with the command to "love" (ahab) the Lord (Deut 6:5). To worship God, therefore, is to love and serve the Lord! There is a general tendency in the Septuagint to employ the Greek terms latreia (worship) or douleia (service) to translate the Hebrew word ‘aboda (worship as love and service), whereas leitourgia (whence the English ‘liturgy’) is employed, as a general rule, to translate the Hebrew sheret, which on the whole seems to point to rites and rituals performed by Levitical priests as part of the temple cult, or the pagan cults; and even in the few instances in which ‘aboda alludes to priestly cults, it is always the Greek word leitourgia that translates it.13 The conclusion is that worship, which is love and service, does not and cannot be restricted to or over-identified with its symbolic or ritual expression, which the ‘liturgy’ is. This nuanced distinction between liturgy and worship, clearly upheld in the Scriptural teaching, is abandoned in SC, 10.

In general, the NT, too, shows a marked tendency to avoid the word ‘liturgy’ (leitourgia) when referring to the worship of God. There are, however, a few exceptions, which actually confirm this rule. St. Paul uses the variant forms of leitourgein in a spiritual sense about three times (cf. Rom 15:16; Phil 2:17; 3:3). There is only one solitary instance where the community worship of Christians is referred to as liturgy (cf. Acts 13:2). Finally, the metaphor of the High Priest (understood in the Levitical sense) is employed to indicate the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus’ life on the cross (cf. Heb 8:2, 6). Intriguingly, in each of these cases the ritualistic sense proper to Levitical cults is emptied out of the term ‘liturgy’! Hence even in the NT the nuanced distinction between liturgy and worship is preserved.

The root meaning of ‘abad is "work" or "labor," which when performed as a "service" becomes "worship." This is the thesis that permeates biblical spirituality and makes the prophets denounce liturgies (rites and rituals) which had nothing to do with service to the oppressed (cf. Is 1: 11-17; Amos 5:21-24 ), i.e., with no concern for justice towards the exploited laborers in the fields ― the slaves, so to say. The Exodus, the key to the whole Bible, shows God’s distaste for empires that thrived on slavery. In them a leisure-class of non-working elite (rulers and their priests), who prospered on the exploited labour of others, considered themselves divine (as most emperors did) or at least closer to the divine realm on the basis of the belief that gods or the divine beings were a non-working pleasure-seekers, who had condemned humans to hard labor. This was the theo-ideology known as the Attrahasis myth (one among many) that justified this unjust social systems of slavery-based empires. In Genesis I, the Hebrew author turns this theo-ideology upside down by presenting the Creator as a Divine Being who works for six days, while the human beings are shown to have rested immediately after they were created! Hence forwards God and humans would work and rest together (see Ex 23:12; 31:17).14 Since the humans, made in God’s image, are called to be co-responsible with God for the whole creation (cf. Gen 1:26-28), even the task of tilling the ground and farming (i.e., improving on God’s creation to make it productive for the good of humankind), is also referred to in the Hebrew text as ‘ebrew text as abad (cf. Gen 2:5 and 15), for such work is service. All human work of co-creating the universe in partnership with God (from farming, cooking and pottery of that time to modern day technology) is also worship (‘abad), provided it serves (‘abad) humankind.

But the God of the Exodus, who appreciates such creative work as worship, detests "slave-labor" (also ‘abadin the Hebrew text), just as She detests the empires that create it.

And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve/work (abd) with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard slavery (abd) in mortar and brick and all manner of labor (abd), wherein they made them serve (abd) was with rigor (Ex 1:13-14).

And the people of Israel groaned under slavery (abd) and cried out for help, and their cry under slavery (abd) came up to God (Ex 2:23).

Service (‘aboda), if extracted by force, is slavery, not worship! Hence, in the confrontation between YHWH’s emissaries (Moses and Aaron) and Pharaoh (see Ex 8-10), the mind of YHWH is clearly put forth: that Israel cannot render true worship (abd) in a climate of slavery (abd)! Hence YHWH’s instruction to Moses:

You will speak thus to Pharaoh: Israel is my son, my first-born. And I say to you. Let my son go that he may serve/worship (abd) Me! (Ex 4:22-23)

Thus YHWH defines Herself as the God who delivered slaves from their bondage in Egypt, wherefore the slaves so delivered were not to worship other gods (cf. Ex 20:1-3; Deut 5:6), for all other gods create empires and slaves. True to the covenant sealed on Sinai between God and these slaves (and slaves of all times), God places the freed people in a country between two empires (Babylon and Egypt) to show the nations that where the non-dominating and liberating God rules, there is no slave labor, no empire. Note that both these oppressive slave-owing super-powers flourished in the fertile valleys and deltas of rivers: the Nile in Egypt and the Euphrates-Tigris in Babylon. Hence YHWH warns Israel that the Promised Land is not going to be fertile "like the land of Egypt, from where you have come", but a land with "mountains and valleys that drink water" (Deut 11:10-12), i.e., dependent on rain. Why? That they might never build an empire, explains Jonathan Sacks.15 God did not want to see a poor destitute class in Israel (see Deut 15:4).

Jesus who is the incarnation of this covenant between God and the slaves makes a brilliant synthesis of this central teaching of the Hebrew scriptures in his teaching and in his life. In him we meet not only God but also the slaves of all times and all places. He is born in a slavery-based empire under its edict (cf. Lk 2:1-7) and dies the death reserved for a slave under its verdict (cf. Jn 19:16). Before he died he summed up his message of ‘aboda by washing the feet of his disciples as a slave would; not however as an act of forced labor, but voluntarily as an expression of love; it was service and worship in one. In narrating this event, John the Evangelist very cleverly de-ritualizes the Eucharist, which by the end of the first century would have lost its sense of worship as service. For, in his account of the last supper (see Jn 13:1ff.) he omits the words of the institution ("this is my flesh, my blood") and inserts them in Chapter VI in the context of the controversy that arose after his service to the hungry (multiplication of loaves); and instead of those Eucharistic words, what we hear from Jesus Christ during the last supper, is his love-command as well as an echo of ‘Do this in memory of me’ applied to his foot-washing (vv. 13-16). Worship is to be re-instituted wherever liturgical rites have dominated. Worship as service is the source and summit of discipleship; all rites are subordinate to that supreme goal.

Conclusion: The suggestion made in SC, 9 and 10 (taken together) that all the activities including ‘acts of love’ and apostolic labor find their source and summit in the liturgical celebration is understandable from the strictly monastic perspective that characterized the Benedictine movement. Given also the apostolic spirituality that the Council upholds, thanks to the biblical renewal that animated its thinking, we might as well advocate the converse: The ‘liturgy of life’ or the day-to-day non-ritual involvement in the paschal mystery permeated by love and service (‘abad) especially towards the needy, i.e., the exercise of the common priesthood as well as the victimhood of God’s people, is the source and summit of both personal prayer and liturgical action.

Part Three Priest and Presbyter

The new paradigms of the church and worship are apiece with new paradigm of ministerial priesthood, which the Council had merely begun to articulate in two separate documents devoted to it: the Optatam Totius(Optot) and Presbyterorum Ordinis (PO). The Council, let me repeat, only began a process which needs to be continued. For the former document (Optot) uses the cultic term sacerdos to refer to the priest-ministers, contrary to the usage in the NT, whereas the second document (PO) stays closer to the NT usage by consistently referring to the ministerial priests as presbyteri and rarely as sacerdotes. There seems to have been a learning process within the Council itself. For between these two documents there were several other decrees that the Council drafted, discussed, debated on and voted in: on education, non-Christian religions, revelation, laity, religious freedom and missionary activity. Thus we see a transformation in the Conciliar understanding of the ministerial priesthood within the Council itself. In facilitating the reception of Vatican II (‘reception’ being a technical term for appropriating the teaching of a council by the whole church), we must continue this learning process begun by the Council and go further along the trajectory marked by it; for Vatican II is a renewalist Council rather than a reformist Council (such as Vatican I or Trent was) and, therefore, serves us a point of departure rather than a point of arrival.16

Let us therefore adhere to the tradition of distinguishing between sacerdos (priest) and presbyter (elder or community leader), as the NT does and as the Council begins to do in PO. The term sacerdotes stand for ministers who are primarily if not exclusively ordained to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice. They are the performers of the liturgy. In all European languages, this meaning is expressed by the terms such as priest(English), Priester (German), prêtre (French) and prete (Italian), all of which are etymologically derived from its Greek ancestor, presbyter, but semantically unrelated to what ‘presbyter’ signifies in the NT.

The word ‘priest’ today corresponds, not to the presbyter but to Latin sacerdos, which translates scriptural term hiereus in Greek and kohen in Hebrew. It is a designation for a cultic priest who offers sacrifices to a Deity, such as were the Levitical priests of the Hebrew Scriptures or their gentile counterparts. This is the sense in which the Conciliar document Optot uses the Latin word sacerdos when referring to the ministerial priest, as mentioned above! But the indubitable fact is that the NT accepts only one cultic priest, hiereus(sacerdoskohen) and he is Jesus Christ, together with his whole Body, the entire church. In the letter to the Hebrews, Christ is the High Priest: archiereus, Greek for kohen gadol of the Jews. We are co-priests and co-victims with him in the cultic sense. Hence, what we call ministerial priests in today’s parlance were never known as sacerdotal ministers (hiereis) in the NT but as presbyters (presbyteroi). Vatican II’s PO seems to encourage us to adhere to this NT usage. And that is the precedent I follow here.

Presbyteroi is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew hazqerim, "the elders", who in the Old Testament, served as community leaders. Like the bishops (episcopoi, discussed in Part One ), the presbyters of the NT, too, exercised a leadership role in the local communities and were never regarded as cultic priests such as were the Levitical priests of the Jews and the pagan sacerdotes of Rome. However, this leadership was always a ministry, that is to say, a service to the community. There was, therefore, from the inception of the nascent church, a tradition of commissioning someone to the leadership ministry, i.e., ordaining someone to the presbyterate through a symbolic gesture such as the imposition of hands. Thus, the common baptismal priesthood (the one and only cultic priesthood, which the presbyter shares with all the faithful) receives aministerial character when he is commissioned or ordained as a presbyter. This makes the presbyter ‘essentially’ different from the priestly community, and not merely in degree. He is not more of a priest than others but he has a priestly identity of his own as an ordained minister.

Hence, the presbyter’s role in the liturgy was stamped by his leadership ministry for which he is ordained. The same leadership which he exercises over the local church qualifies him also to preside over that same church when it assembles for worship. The presbyter is the president of the liturgy. This office of leading a priestly community of Christians in their worship was diametrically different from the solo performance of Rome’s pagan sacerdotes in their rites, facing their lifeless deity on an altar, with their backs to a non-sacerdotal populace kneeling behind them! (We know from where the Tridentine liturgy copied this style of worship!) But the boast of the earliest Christians in Rome (echoed by Felix Minucius as late as the 3rd century) was that they had no altar or temple but a table in a home. God-in-Christ was not found in graven images on altars erected in shrines but amidst Her royal, priestly and prophetic people, seated with them around a table as their host, their guest and their food! The presbyter was a minister serving at this table.

But the temptation to "act like Romans when in Rome" was so strong that the presbyters of the subsequent era assimilated many elements of pagan sacerdotalism. Already in a revealing passage from 18th Homily on Corinthians II, cited often by liturgists,17 St. John Chrysostom cautions the church not to encourage a clerical monopoly of the liturgy, reminding the people that the Eucharist is a common prayer of the whole church and that the presbyter does not begin it without receiving the consent (amen) of the people. There are many such indications of a healthy resistance to presbyters trying to appropriate for themselves the cultic role of the whole church and to exercise an exclusive sacerdotal function on behalf of the masses of silent lay-worshipers. Thus even as late as the 5th century we see the church fighting against this trend through Canon 6 of the Council of Chalcedon, which anathematized ordinatio absoluta, i.e., ordaining a presbyter exclusively for offering the Eucharistic sacrifice. For the traditional custom was that if and when, for any reason, a presbyter had no community to lead, he had to return to a non-presbyterial state. That process was not "laicization" as we know today in canonical parlance, for the clerical-lay distinction (unknown in the NT) had not yet been "canonized" (i.e., legalized) as would be later in the medieval church. But with the development of the presbyterate into a separate cultic priesthood, the church appropriated from Roman paganism what it had earlier refused to borrow from the Jewish culture.

The Tridentine liturgy, with its remote origin going back to circa 5th century, can serve us today as an archaeological site where we can study many elements of ancient Rome’s pagan ritualism and sacerdotalism that had seeped into Christian worship. The gentile fastidiousness in formulating prayers with juridical correctness in order to ensure what was known as gravitas romana (Roman seriousness) in their prayer-formulae has been detected by historians in such words as adscriptam, ratam et rationabilem featuring even in the reformed Tridentine Canon! The heathen obsession with the ritual effectiveness of such prayers when uttered with scrupulous accuracy hides behind the former ecclesiastical ruling that any deliberate omission of even a word in the Roman Canon was a grave sin. The gentile dependence on the class of cultic intermediaries (sacerdotes, pontifices) to bridge the distance between the distant and daunting deity and the ordinary masses of people as well as to cushion the awesome impact of divine manifestations, has also left its mark in the way the old Latin Mass used to be performed as a solo act of the sacerdotal intermediary standing between God and the people!

But the ancient Christian tradition was of an entirely different nature. The early church’s worship was not encumbered by pseudo-mysterious solemnity in words or studied grandiosity in gestures; rather it breathed an air of a cordial informality among the worshipers and a reverential intimacy with the Father of Jesus, who welcomed spontaneous outpouring of prayers and the improvisation of even the Eucharistic prayer, as we learn from The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus; the presbyters and the people were free to express the mind of Christ, the High Priest, when they addressed their maternal Father, as can be inferred from the prevalence of four different versions of the Eucharistic words of Jesus and the two versions of the Our Father in the NT itself. The lament of the traditionalists that in the Post-Vatican II liturgy there is a lack of reverence and mystery (communion in the hand, peace-sharing in a climate of warm exchanges, dialogue sermons, laity in the sanctuary, etc.) can be traced back to the millennial habits acquired from Rome’s pagan ritualism and sacerdotalism, so well captured and transmitted through the Tridentine liturgy. Vatican II desired to redeem both the liturgy and the president of the liturgy from such deviations. "Let the rites radiate a graceful simplicity!" pleads the Council (SC 34).

Hence, the presbyter in the Post-Vatican II era has a herculean task to perform. In the first place he has to think of himself as a presbyter called to lead a community of priests, rather than the priest among the laity. This requires a change of mentality, which is the meaning of metanoia, the Greek word for conversion. For this conversion to take place in the presbyter himself, we must first remove from our theology of priesthood the anti-Scriptural language of power and domination, potestas ordinis et iurisdictionis, inherited from paganism, and in its stead, reinstate the model of the servant-leadership of Jesus.18 Let us recall that the classical treatise on "priesthood," widely read and hailed during the Pre-Vatican II era, waxed eloquent on the "dignity of the priesthood" but was deafeningly silent on the servanthood of the presbyter.19 The nexus between serving and worshiping, upheld and taught in the Scriptures, as demonstrated above (Part Two) needs to be made evident in the way the presbyter leads the worshiping community.

In the OT, Moses chose to be a servant leader (cf. Ex 14:31), rather than follow the gentile tradition of the war-leader becoming the king after a successful liberation campaign; even a king in Israel had to consider those in his charge as brothers and sisters rather than subjects; and a leader was forbidden to accumulate power (cf. Deut 17:16-17).20 Jesus continues to uphold this model in his own life and teaching. Though as a descendent of David, he was misunderstood as a political messiah-king, he resisted the temptation to acquire power derived from possessions (see Mk 1:8 and parallels) and chose to be the suffering servant rather than a triumphant ruler, enjoining that among his disciples the leader must be the servant unlike among the gentiles in the Roman Empire (cf. Mt 20:25-28). He illustrated this servant-leadership model in the way he behaved like servant while presiding over the first Eucharistic liturgy (see Part Two).

Power is associated with and dependent on (accumulated) wealth, which Jesus named Mammon, the anti-God. Already during the period of pastoral letters, long before Constantinian era, some bishops and presbyters were craving for both money and power; and St. Peter rebuked them for it and exhorted them to be caring shepherds (cf. 1 Pt 5:1-6). Perhaps the root cause of this unhealthy phenomenon seems to have been the growing dependence of presbyters on the wealthy householders who provided their spacious homes for liturgical assemblies and supported the early missions, and also the fact that unlike in Palestine, the first converts in the diaspora were an urbanized Greek-educated elite.21 The ministry to the rich is a necessary risk. While exhorting them to place their means at the disposal of the community, we should not be so obliged to them as to allow them to use their benefaction to buy power in the church. The friendship with Jesus, as Luke describes, converted the rich Zacchaeus, who consequently became less wealthy as he shared his money with the poor and restituted what was misappropriated. But when the presbyters associate with the rich, it is the presbyters who get converted to the ways of the well-to-do. Whether this species of community leadership has an inbuilt potentiality for accumulating wealth and power is a serious matter to be considered when discerning the motives of candidates to that ministry and also when recruiting and forming them. The vocation boom in the Third World has to re-assessed along this line of thought.

And yet, for reasons I have already insinuated above, it is not the theologian in his classroom or a pope through encyclicals, but the presbyter in the liturgical assembly who can bring about an attitudinal as well as a structural transformation among the faithful by ritually enacting the new paradigm of the church, worship and priesthood in the liturgy. For the liturgy is the most effective instrument of catechesis that the church possesses, and it is the presbyter who wields it most. It is in the liturgy that Sunday after Sunday the model of the church and priesthood, right or wrong, is ritually dramatized until it settles down in the collective unconscious of God’s people. Hence the candidates to the presbyterate should be given an intensive biblico-liturgical formation, over and above mere courses on the bible and the liturgy, so that they may learn to eschew external symbols and patterns of ceremonial behavior redolent of the fallen empire that killed Jesus, and that they may acquire the skills needed to create an assembly-centered liturgy where the entire priestly community feels that they are being served rather than been herded by the presbyters who project themselves as the star performers of a stage play. At least in Asia, we are happy to note that many indigenous liturgies that celebrate this ‘communion model of the church’ and educate the people to anticipate a ‘domination free’ and de-clericalized ecclesial life have come into vogue since Vatican II.22

Hence this postscript: the aforementioned paradigmatic change must be effected on a wide scale before the question of the ordination of women to the presbyterate (which had received a nihil obstat from the pontifical biblical commission that Paul VI appointed to study the question) can even be discussed in the Catholic church, where a conspiracy between clericalism and androcracy has closed the doors to a minimum participation of even laywomen in the life and liturgy of the church!23 Furthermore, when trying to solve the current pastoral crisis caused by a disproportionate dearth of presbyters in many countries, the ecclesiastical decision-makers, who zealously appeal to the fact that the first presbyters and the bishops were all males, should not forget that the same presbyteroi and episcopoi were also married!




1. The pastors from all the continents of the globe had their say in this Council, and for the first time in the history of councils – unlike most previous councils some of which were exclusively and others for the most part dominated by Europeans!

2. D. Power, "Power and Authority in Early Christian Centuries," in That They Might Live: Power, Empowerment and Leadership in the Church, ed. M. Downey (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 31.

3. Ibid., 30.

4. J.-M. R. Tillard, The Bishop of Rome (London: SPCK, 1983), 93ff.

5. Raymond Brown, "Episcope and Episcopos," Theological Studies 41 (1980): 325.

6. Tillard, 60.

7. Power, 30.

8. See B. Hud, "Liturgy and Empowerment: The Restoration of the Liturgical Assembly" (quoting Theodor Klauser), in Downey, 136.

9. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994), 175.

10. Peter McCartin, who has also studied under Marsili, had produced a summary of the latter’s course on liturgy in Tjurunga, An Australian Benedictine Review, in five installments: (April 1974), 93-107; (September 1974), 67-75; (May 1975), 89-96; (October 1975), 17-30; (May 1976), 59-72. I acknowledge gratefully that in discussing the liturgical movement here, I have complemented my notes with his more comprehensive presentation.

11. A. Pieris, God’s Reign for God’s Poor: A Return to the Jesus Formula (Kelaniya: Tulana Research Center, 2nd Edition, 1999), 8-13.

12. ‘Abodat rather than avodat is preferred in Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, Theologisches Handwörterbuch zum Alten Testament (München: Kaiser Verlag/Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1976), Band II, s.v. ebed, under IV, 3, p.193.

13. See R. Meyer, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1967, reprint 1977), 219-221.

14. See Bastian Wielenga, Biblical Perspectives on Labour (Madurai: Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, 1982), 31ff.

15. J. Sacks, Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), 139.

16. For a discussion of this approach to Vatican II, see A. Pieris, "Vatican II: A Crisigenic Council with an Unwritten Agenda," East Asian Pastoral Review 42, Nos. 1-2 (2005): 7-24. Reprinted in several other journals in English and Spanish.

17. E.g., see Hud, "Liturgy and Empowerment," 135.

18. Bernard Cooke, "Charism, Power and Community," in Downey78-81.

19. Wilhelm Stockums, The Priesthood (Herder Book Co., 1938; reprint Rockford Ill: Tan Book Publishers, 1974, 1982), Chapter 3, "The Sublime Dignity of the Priesthood," 43-63.

20. Shirley Wijesingha, "Radical Dimension of Biblical Justice and Re-establishing Global Justice," Dialogue (NS) 35/36 (2008-2009): 189.

21. For a discussion of this problem based on the observations of scholars, see my "Gender and Class in the Nascent Church and Early Christianity: A Comparative Study of Two Experiments," Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection 72, No. 7 (July 2008): 485-501.

22. See my "A Liturgical Anticipation of a Domination Free Church: The Liberating Story of an Asian Eucharist," in Vision for the Future: Essays in Honour of Tissa Balasuriya, ed. B. Silva, et al. (Colombo: Center for Society and Religion, 1997), 69-82; reprinted in The Month (November 2000): 428-435; Italian version in Adista (Roma), no. 48 (21 June 1999)2-8; reprinted as "The Asian Way to Celebrate the Eucharist," Worship (July 2008): 314-328.

23. For a further discussion of this issue, see A. Pieris, "Ci sono due cose, Santitá," Luigi de Pauli & Luigi Sandri, eds., L’agenda del Nuovo Papa. Dai cinque continenti ipotesi dopo Woytila, Editori Riuniti, 2002 [193-217], especially 212-215; reprint in English, "Two There Are, Your Holiness: Suggestions for the Next Pope’s Agenda in Line with John Paul II’s Invitation in Ut unum sint,East Asian Pastoral Review 41, No. 3 (2004): 288-309, especially, section VI.

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