The Early Chritian Community and the role of the Priest

This article is a reprint from “Catholica” and is written from Fr. Daniel Donovan. Please join in the conversation. Your participation is welcomed. DrNick Mazza


In this conclusion to his two-part commentary on the role of the ordinary pew-sitters – the Assembly – in the life of the Church, Fr Daniel Donovan argues that the Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council returned to the early Church and its emphasis on the gathered Assembly because recognition of the risen Lord in each other is the precondition for cognition or knowing him in his sacramental presence. This is a strongly sourced, cogent argument challenging the “reform of the reform” trend in contemporary Catholicism that seems intent on undoing the insights discerned by the majority of the Church’s leaders at the Second Vatican Council.

Link to Part I

Who Presided at Eucharist in the Early Church?

Whether the Churches were Jewish or Gentile, it is clear that there was not any cultic priesthood which lead the Eucharist in the first century. There were at least three reasons that the early Christians did not require priesthood.

  • The Jewish community was “a community of priests and a holy nation” [Exodus 19: 6] and the priest represented the people in his cultic role.
  • Early Christians did not feel the need for priests as they had access to Jewish priests at the Temple before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
  • Jesus was the supreme priest [Hebrews 7-10 especially Hebrews 7:17-21]. Not until the second century as bishops took charge of a number of church assemblies was there a need for the order of presbyters (priests).

Whatever the reason, the terms “bishop, priest and deacon were somewhat fluid in the apostolic age, by the beginning of the second century they had achieved the fixed form in which they are used today to designate the three offices whose functions are clearly distinct in the New Testament.”[13] Authors such as Gunther Bornkamm and Hermann W. Beyer[14] believe that there was never one bishop/elder/pastor in any oneChurch and “they led as servants by way of example rather than as worldly lords” [Lk 22: 25-27: 1 Pt 5: 1-5: Mt 20; 25-28; Mk 10: 42-45]. Likewise the Pastoral Epistles would tend to confirm the role of the bishop within the community as a servant rather than as an office of power [1 Tim3:2 and Tit 1:7]. Not until the early part of the second century (circa 110 A.D.) in the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch does the role of “the monarchic bishop” begin to emerge.[15]

On the other hand, the early Church did not require the person who presided at the Eucharist to be ordained. In the Didache – Teaching of the Twelve Apostles[16] prophets still presided at the Eucharist [Didache 10:7] which was still celebrated in conjunction with the agape [Didache 10:1, common meal] to which Paul refers in 1 Cor 11: 20-22.[17] Fr Edward Schillebeechx[18] concludes that the New Testament did not reserve the right to preside over the Eucharist to any specific group within the assembly.[19] Edward Schweitzer reaches a similar conclusion about ministry in the early Church and the right to preside at the Eucharist suggesting that serving bishops and deacons “carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and deacons” [Didache 15:1]. Therefore it would be safe to conclude that in the Didache, the bishop does not necessarily have a liturgical function but rather his role is better understood as an “unremunerated public service” (leitourgia). Perhaps the persecutions which plagued the Church until AD 310 were the catalyst for the concentration of powers in one leader including the right to preside in the liturgical assembly?

"The Historical Development of the Sacrament of Holy Orders"

FIGURE 2: Historical development of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Graphic adapted from Paul A. Feider, (1986), The Sacraments: Encountering The Risen Lord, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press. CLICK GRAPHIC TO ENLARGE. For further explanation see [Footnote 22 (Repeat of Footnote 9 from yesterday)]

Vatican II and “the Gathered Assembly”…

In the liturgical renewal of Vatican II, the Council Fathers returned to the early Church and its emphasis on the gathered Assembly [Mt 18:20; Lk 22:23-26; 24:13-31; Jn 13:3-17] because recognition of the risen Lord in each other is the precondition for cognition or knowing him in his sacramental presence. In the Assembly each person has his or her unique function in the ecclesial act of worship in which specific roles were always undertaken by the minister in the name of the Assembly even today the dialogue before the Eucharistic Prayer between the priest and people in which the priest seeks the assent of the people for him to offer this Prayer on their behalf. St John Chrysostom (349-407) taught that if any member of the Assembly was not present at the liturgy then the sacrifice could be considered deficient because it was not offered by the whole body of Christ. The author of the post-baptismal catechesis in First Peter writes “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” [1 Pt 2:4-5].

Again the author of First Peter refers to the gathered people as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” [Exod 19: 4-6] and God will make a new covenant with them [Jer 31: 31-34]. Eucharistic Prayer III reiterates the meaning and the purpose of the gathered Assembly when it prays:

Father, you are holy indeed and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name.

This opening prayer of praise clearly states that God gathers the Assembly for the purpose of making a perfect offering to God. The Assembly is holy because it is gathered by God, the Father through the Son by the working of the Holy Spirit. The creative Spirit overshadows the Assembly (as Mary in Lk 1:35; Jesus at the Jordan [Lk 3: 22]; the gathered disciples [Acts 2: 4]) so that the “perfect offering” is the whole Christ (head and body) made to the glory of God. The Eucharist is holistic — its primary symbolism is to transform the celebrating community which is expressed as follows in Eucharistic Prayer III: “Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one, body, one spirit in Christ.”[20] The secondary symbolism is the transformation of the gifts into the sacramental presence of Jesus. As the members of the Assembly eat the body and drink the blood, they proclaim that they are the body of Christ and are prepared to serve as Jesus served [Mk 10:45], or as Eucharistic Prayer III states “may he make us an everlasting gift to you”. The people are gathered through the Spirit so that they might proclaim and celebrate the paschal mystery (mystery of faith) in word and sacrament and that they might go back into the world to be Eucharist.

The mode of participation of the Assembly…

James Dallen provides four verbs which indicate the mode of participation of the Assembly in the four parts of the Mass: GATHER, LISTEN SHARE, SENT. The graphic below will serve to illustrate a more inclusive and Catholic explanation of the community action and role of the whole Assembly in the Mass.

"The Historical Development of the Sacrament of Holy Orders"

FIGURE 3: A more inclusive and Catholic explanation of the community action
and role of the whole Assembly in the Mass.

  1. The visual has three concentric circles. Circles in themselves are symbolic in representing God’s action because circles do not have a beginning or an end. The outer circle represents the “working of the Holy Spirit” in the history of Israel; and in Jesus’ life; death, resurrection and the Church. The arrow heads on the circles signifies energy or the dynamic activity of the Spirit.
  2. The second circle represents the created world and human culture. Sacraments draw upon the created gifts of God to become the visible symbol of the invisible grace of God so the Church anoints with oil, baptises with water, eats and drinks bread and wine, etc., to facilitate the encounter with the risen Lord. Also, cultures and human meanings assist understanding “fruit of the earth and work of human hands … become our spiritual food and drink”. The Spirit’s dynamic energy and power is not confined to the Church but also drives human cultures and their institutions. The early Christians were able to draw upon the cultural practices and workings of their times to catechise their converts.
  3. The inner circle represents the Assembly. There are two arrows at the bottom of the figure, the left arrow represents God’s initiative gathering the Assembly through the Son by the working of the Holy Spirit. The people are gathered from their work and life in creation and culture and gather to be the “spiritual sacrifice” the perfect offering to the glory of God. Note Jesus is present [Mt 18: 20] when the Assembly GATHER at the Introductory Rites. Their union with and in him is “the perfect offering”. At the Liturgy of the Word, the people LISTEN. Jesus is always present in his word as “he carries out the mystery of salvation, he sanctifies us and offers the Father perfect worship.”[21] SHARE in obedience to Jesus’ command, Do this in memory of me, the gifts of bread and wine are presented to the priest who will lead the Assembly in the Liturgy of the Eucharist (taking, blessing, breaking and giving/receiving) through the exchange of gifts the people share in Jesus’ self-giving to the Father and for his people and bonding them in the new covenant in his blood. Their “Amen” at communion professes their identity as the “body of Christ” and their responsibility to be Eucharist in their lives and to work for the “coming of God’s Kingdom” for all peoples. In the Concluding Rite the Assembly is SENT: returns to their lives in the world. Christ is present in the sending. The right arrow balances the “gathering” [Mt 20: 18] with “sending” [Mt 28: 20], the rhythm of Christian life as the people, the Church (ekklesia) becomes the sacrament of God’s salvation in the world [Jn 3: 16].


Lumen Gentium coverVatican II structured its Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (LG) with Chapter 2 on the people of God prior to the chapter on the hierarchy because it was reasoned that before a person could be a member of the hierarchy, he must first be a member of the people. In doing this, the Council restored the traditional importance of the Sacraments of Initiation. Through baptism/confirmation and Eucharist the person is incorporated into the people of God and becomes a member of the body of Christ. These sacraments are not only the foundation for membership of the Assembly but are the doorway to valid reception of the other sacraments, even Holy Orders. Therefore before a person can assume a position of leadership in the Assembly he/she must be a member of it.

Secondly it would appear that leadership in the Church developed gradually, over the early centuries. From the fluid leadership of the years following Jesus’ ascension the established ministries of bishop, priest and deacon developed. The community chose members [Acts 6:3-4] who were prayed over with the imposition of hands to fulfil community ministries “to equip the people for the work of ministry” [Eph 4:12]. By the second century, the bishop and clergy had been confirmed in liturgical role within the community.

Thirdly the clergy and the sacrament of Holy Orders (bishop, priest, deacon) were not over the community or a privileged class but were rather servants and models of the Christian life for the people [Lk 22:25-26; Heb5:1]. Throughout the history of the Church whenever there is a resurgence of clericalism there is a corresponding de-emphasis on the dignity of God’s people and their participation in God’s mission.

Fourthly, and most importantly, the Holy Spirit is the bond of unity within the Church making it “a perfect offering to God”.

Fr Daniel Donovan
22 Aug 2011


2 Responses to The Early Chritian Community and the role of the Priest

  1. Phrogge says:

    Nick, the whole idea of the priest serving as a representative of the community was brought home vividly to me while I was at the American Catholic Council Conference in Detroit. Several folks approached me and ask if I would, as a representative of the Christian Community, celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with them. One person even said as someone chosen by the Community. It was a great experience and a deepening awareness of my responsibilities in and to the Christian Community. There was no feeling of power, only a sense of service.

    There is a clear parallel with celebration of Eucharist.

    Jim Sheil
    Avon, OH

  2. […] The Early Chritian Community and the role of the Priest ( […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: