A few weeks ago, during the founding of one of the first of the new parishes in the diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, Bishop Antoon Hurkmans spoke about the place of the parish priests.
“We could ask ourselves why the priests have such a singular place in the parish. Why can’t their duties be done by deacons, pastoral workers or lay people? There are so many professionals among us who can manage and lead. There are people who have also studied theology. Why are so many tasks the prerogative of the priest? Why must there be a parish priest?
The Church is not a human club with democratic rules. In dividing the tasks within the Church it is not primarily about knowledge or ability … As head of the Church, Christ lets Himself be represented by the priest within the Church. In leading the parish, the priest is working in Christ’s name. It is even clearer that the priest acts in Christ’s name in the celebration of the sacraments.
The Church being structured in such a way, giving a very singular place to the priest in his parish, is not aimed at diminishing the faithful.”
Although the bishop does not mention it specifically, the difference between priests on the one hand and laity on the other comes from the Sacrament of Holy Orders. It does not make the recipient superhuman or somehow more capable, but it is an outward sign of an inner change: this man can now act in persona Christi as he performs his duties. This happens by mutual agreement of both the priest and Christ. Christ’s agreement is made manifest by the acceptance of the candidate priest by the bishop and confirmed by the physical laying on of hands during the ordination.
Since Christ, although not present in the same way as He was for the apostles, continues to be the head of the Church, actually giving authority and capability to that Church, He must be made visible during the very core of the Church’s life: the Eucharist. At first glance we may just see a man, but through his ordination and the life he leads, we can see a glimpse of the Person who actually offers the sacrifice on the altar: Christ.
In part it is our human nature, our need to have visual and sensory confirmation of facts, that dictates the role of the priest in the parish. He is just a man, but he represents Christ, very tangibly so in the Sacraments, when he literally is a vessel, a means for God to communicate His grace.
Bishop Hurkmans ended with a warning: “Keep them from activism. Know that the celebration of the Sunday with the Eucharist is the most important meeting of the parish.”