Reading I: Exodus 19:2-6a
Psalm: 10:1-2, 3, 5
Reading II: Romans 5:6-11
Gospel: Matthew 9:36—10:8
During the homily, a pastor who was about to retire from full-time ministry placed a pair of his shoes on the pulpit and asked, “Who will fill these shoes?” The way the retiring pastor posed the question implied that there may not be someone to fill his shoes. This was a clever tactic in calling the congregation’s attention to the consequences of the diminishing number of clergy in the Catholic Church. There is no denying that the Churches in North America and Europe have not been able to provide enough clergy to serve the needs of all the Christian faithful. Bishops now rely on priests from places that were once considered mission territory served by American and European clergy. Addressing the newly baptized, 1 Peter 2:9 cites Exodus 19:6 to affirms that as long as there are Christian faithful, there will be priests: “. . . you are . . . a royal priesthood . . . .”
Ancient Israel had a professional class of priests who were responsible for providing moral guidance and for offering sacrifices in the temple. Once the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the priests lost their institutional base. The synagogue and home became the settings for Jewish worship, and rabbis provided moral guidance in place of the priests. The Jewish people fulfilled their collective responsibility as a “kingdom of priests” by keeping the covenant—by being a moral force in the world. The Jewish people succeeded in finding a way to live in a world without a temple.
The Church’s ordained priests are entrusted with the ministry of Word and Sacrament. That ministry must go on, and the Church’s leaders are faced with the challenge of determining how best to ensure that it does. In view of the diminishing number of the ordained, the Christian faithful need to embrace their responsibilities as belonging to “a kingdom of priests” with new commitment, determination, and enthusiasm. Like the Jewish people, the Christian faithful fulfill their priestly task being a strong moral force in the world as they seek justice, reconciliation, and peace.
Is there a priest shortage in the Church? If there are Christian faithful, there can never really be a shortage of priests. The primary setting for the ministry of the ordained is in the liturgy, while the Christian faithful exercise their priesthood in the world as they live out their Christian commitment. These two ministries intersect as the Christian faithful join the ordained in proclaiming the marvelous works of God in the liturgy, while the ordained priests provide the Christian faithful with the sacraments that strengthen their commitment to Christ and the gospel. The goal of both these ministries is the same: to make visible the presence of Christ in the world.
Leslie J. Hoppe, OFM
Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies