The priesthood of Melchizedek and the priesthood of the faithful

“You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.” So reads the famous verse from Hebrews Chapter 5 and in the Responsorial Psalm in the readings for today’s Mass.

And as Vatican II emphasised in Lumen Gentium §10, the whole Church – all Christians – share in this priesthood of Christ.

Christ the Lord, High Priest taken from among men, made the new people “a kingdom and priests to God the Father”. The baptised, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light.

As we saw in our reflection for 8 January, one of those Council Fathers, who did the most to promote this understanding, was the Jocist bishop, Emile-Joseph De Smedt.

But how does this priesthood of all Christians relate specifically to lay people?

Bishop De Smedt responds:

In the vast field of the apostolate there are areas wherein the hierarchy is not directly involved, and which pertain directly to the laity. We are here speaking of secular life, both public and private. By means of the faithful, Christ introduces into this sphere Christian principles, a Christian atmosphere, a Christian way of making use of temporal goods and means. This is the vocation and the specific mission of the faithful who live in such surroundings.

This, he says, echoing Cardijn, is “the apostolate that is proper to the layperson.”

This, however, prompts a series of questions from Bishop De Smedt:

But how will they acquit themselves of this task? Will they fulfill it as it should be fulfilled? In other words, will they be sufficiently able, enterprising, persevering, and will they follow methods that are in conformity with the spirit of the gospel? Will the results they achieve be adequate? The pastors of the People of God cannot be indifferent to all these problems.

And he offers his own answer to this question too:

Jesus wishes to make use of the organisation of the Church so as to ensure that everybody does his duty, that his members perform their tasks perfectly. Consequently, pastors, who are preoccupied with the climate that prevails in our modem world, and realising the unique part that lay people can play in the sanctification of the profane have addressed themselves to the more generous among the faithful, saying: “organise yourselves and help one another so that a growing number of Christians may become aware of the demands of their priestly role. You yourselves must become responsible apostles wherever you live.”

This, Bishop De Smedt explained, was the work of movements such as the Young Christian Workers (YCW) and other “Specialised Catholic Action” movements.

As he concluded:

In all instances it will be the action of Christians who have understood that the kingdom of Christ will not come on earth and society will not become Christian unless dedicated lay people help one another to act like Christians worthy of the name, making their Christianity incarnate and rendering the general atmosphere more favourable to the requirements of the life of Christ among His People.


What understanding do lay people today have of their own “priesthood of the faithful”?


How important is this?


What could you do personally, or with your peers, your parish do to foster this understanding?


Stefan Gigacz

Read More

Mass Readings for 15 January (USCCB)

Emile-Joseph De Smedt, The priesthood of the faithful (Paulist Press, 1961

Emile-Joseph De Smedt (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Lay people as priests, prophets and kings

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the feast of the arrival of the three kings, the three wise men of tradition, who became known to history as Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar.

They are also known for having brought Mary, Joseph and Jesus the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Moreover, as Philip Kosloski has written, these gifts had a very important symbolic meaning:

The gold represents Christ’s kingship; frankincense, a sweet-smelling resin used in worship, his priesthood; and myrrh, an ointment used in burial, foreshadows his death.

The three gifts can thus be seen as symbolising Jesus’ three roles (tria munera) as king, priest and prophet, an idea that became very important for Cardijn and the YCW.

In his pioneering 1953 book, Jalons pour une théologie du laïcat (Lay People In the Church: A Study for a Theology of the Laity), French Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, who had preached retreats for YCW leaders during the 1930s and worked closely with many YCW chaplains and leaders, developed this idea, emphasising that lay people as well as priests shared in this triple ministry of Jesus.

And in 1961, in preparing for the Second Vatican Council, Belgian Bishop Emile-Joseph De Smedt, another prominent promoter of the YCW and a close collaborator of Cardijn, made the same point in a pastoral letter later published in English as The Priesthood of the Faithful.

Bishop De Smedt, whose sister Livine was a fulltimer for the Flemish VKAJ (Girls YCW) explained it as follows:

The priestly work of the faithful consists of:

Life in union with Christ offering sacrifice in the midst of his people;

Life in union with Christ teaching in the midst of his people;

Life in union with Christ ruling in the midst of his people.

The apostolic work of pastors stands:

In the service of Christ offering sacrifice in the midst of his people;

In the service of Christ teaching in the midst of his people;

In the service of Christ ruling in the midst of his people.

Congar, De Smedt and other theologians worked hard and successfully to introduce this concept into the Vatican II documents. As a result, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium stated that the whole Church, including all lay people share in this kingship, priesthood;

31. The term laity is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church. These faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ; and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.

And §2 the Decree on the Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem, makes this even more clear:

The laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world.

They exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelisation and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardour of the spirit of Christ.

Serve, educate and represent

But, practically, however, how can lay people act as prophets, kings and priests in their ordinary, daily lives?

Cardijn himself provided the answer to this. The YCW, he wrote, “is at once and inseparably a school, a service, a representative body.”

It is thus:

A school of lay apostolate in their life, their environment, within the mass of their comrades.

A service of lay apostolate in their life, their environment, within the mass of their comrades.

A representative body of lay apostolate in their life, their environment, within the mass of their comrades. A practical school, a school of training, in which they learn to see, to judge, and to achieve the apostolic value of their whole life, in all its aspects, its details, the most humble and daily ones, at home, in their district, in their street, in the factory, in the office, on the way to work, in meal-times and breaks, in their leisure, always and everywhere, in their courtship, their engagement, their marriage; not a theoretical school, or a purely doctrinal school, but a school in which they exercise themselves, and work out and perfect their own training; an essentially active and acting school, with its enquiries and activities imparting a social sense, a social spirit, a social conduct, in a much more gripping way than any lessons and lectures which leave the listeners passive and inactive; a school which reveals to them the beauty and the grandeur of their humble life as young workers, which exalts them and creates in them and in the whole of their life that indispensable unity which gives them with strength of conviction and character, pride in their Christian, apostolic and radiating life; a school which transforms their life of young workers into a lay priesthood and a lay apostolate, whose fruitfulness astonishes and delights those who witness it.

In other words, for Cardijn, lay people participate in Christ’s triple ministry by

a) educating others (a prophetic role),

b) serving their peers (kingship or leadership as service) and

c) representing them (acting as priestly intermediaries).

And the YCW teaches young workers how to achieve this through the see-judge-act.

Let’s try it ourselves.


How do I serve my peers in my daily life?

How do I help educate them?

How do I advocate on their behalf or represent them?


Do you see any ways of doing this better?


Decide on a concrete action this week in which you will endeavour to educate, serve and advocate for your friends, peers and colleagues.


Stefan Gigacz


The Epiphany of the Lord, Readings (USCCB)

Philip Kosloski, Why did the Magi bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? (Aleteia)

Lumen Gentium (Vatican)

Apostolicam Actuositatem (Vatican)

Peter De Mey, “Sharing in the threefold office of Christ, a different matter for laity and priests? The tria munera in Lumen Gentium, Presbyterorum Ordinis, Apostolicam Actuositatem and Ad Gentes,” in The Letter and the Spirit: On the Forgotten Documents of Vatican II, ed. Annemarie Mayer, Peeters, 2018, 155-179. (Academia)