HERE IS A COMMON turn of phrase that I have often heard from brother priests. It’s a sort of heart-warming sentiment that sounds very pious and inviting at first. I find myself, however, wholeheartedly disagreeing with it.
This is roughly how the saying goes. The priest will say, “Many times during my priesthood, I have gone to visit people in their homes and in hospitals and in hospice centers. I may have thought that I was going there to minister to them. But, during the course of the visit, I discovered that it was really they who were ministering to me.”
I am neither a curmudgeon nor a clericalist. I recognize and have experienced the very thing these priests are trying to express. More often than I could ever recount, I have been inspired by the faith of the homebound; the perseverance in hope of the sick & dying; the honesty & humility of penitents; the trusting vulnerability of the addicted; the genuine gratitude & remarkable generosity of the poor; and so many other examples of courageous Christian witness.
Yet I still take issue with this particular phrasing. There is, after all, no such thing as “lay ministry”; the laity may engage in a particular apostolate, but the word “ministry” specifically refers to the evangelical work of a deacon, priest, or bishop. “Ministry,” without a doubt, has become one of the most misused and abused words in ecclesiastical vocabulary. Liturgical musicians, for example, often refer to “music ministry,” when it would be better to refer to the apostolate (or the work) of sacred music.
There is no contesting the fact that priests need not only to be ministers, but also to be the recipients of ministry. But this ministry can only come from another sacred minister. So many things in recent times (especially in the liturgical realm) have confused and blurred and obscured the authentic, Catholic notion of ministry. One thing that strongly supports the real meaning of the term, however, is the corrected translation of Et cum spiritu tuo in the Third Edition of the Roman Missal.
The USCCB website acknowledges that the response “And with your spirit” is addressed only to an ordained minister because “spiritu refers to the gift of the spirit he received at ordination.” The same web page explains further:
The dialogue is only used between the priest and the people, or exceptionally, between the deacon and the people. The greeting is never used in the Roman Liturgy between a non-ordained person and the gathered assembly.
That ordained ministers have received a unique configuration to Christ is not a novel interpretation of sacramental theology. The reservation of this classic Roman dialogue for use between priests & people supports this understanding. Notably, a layperson leading a Communion service does not use this dialogue. Why? Because he or she does not possess the gift of the Spirit specific to sacred ministers. “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4).
Every priest will acknowledge that he is constantly inspired in many & various ways by the laity, but it would be inaccurate to describe this as ministry. Lest I be accused of lodging a complaint without proffering a solution, let me propose a better way of expressing what so many priests want to express. Would it not be better to say that priests can be “edified” by their people, rather than “ministered to” by them? “Edify one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Romans 14:19).