Your question gets to the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ. As Catholics, we believe that there is one priesthood, the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Every baptized person shares in it. (For that reason we tend to refer to the priesthood “of the baptized” rather than “of all believers.”) The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the whole Church ‘a kingdom of priests for God the Father.’ The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his or her own vocation, in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet and king’” (CCC 1546).
In the 16th century, Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin heavily emphasized the “priesthood of all believers,” eventually rejecting the notion that Holy Orders was a separate sacrament. Ministers were seen as having received a special calling from God, but whatever priesthood they exercised derived from their baptism, not from ordination. At the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church reacted strongly against this, reaffirming that through the sacrament of Holy Orders, bishops and priests received a permanent character and the power to consecrate the Eucharist and administer the other sacraments. While Trent didn’t reject the priesthood of the baptized, it pushed it so far into the background that most catechisms didn’t even include it. I’m not surprised your teachers never mentioned it when you were growing up.
Vatican II placed a renewed emphasis on the priesthood of the baptized and stated that the ministerial priesthood exists to serve it. The laity then go forth to proclaim Christ to the world in word and deed. While the ordained and baptismal priesthood differ “by essence and degree,” both are a participation in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. Vatican II dedicated a great deal of time to the unique role of the laity in carrying out the mission of Jesus.
I didn’t really understand any of this until I was in my first parish after ordination. As a new priest, I was somewhat enamored of my vocation. It didn’t take long to realize that without the priesthood of the baptized, very little would get done in the parish and the Gospel would have no lasting impact on the world. Once I saw the commitment of the parishioners to serve the poor, care for the sick and make the Good News of Jesus a reality in people’s lives, then I understood how powerful the priesthood of the baptized really is. It is fundamental to the building up of the Kingdom of God.
Father Scott Jones is pastor of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in St. Louis.