To understand the term, we have to start by acknowledging that there are some parts of faith that are simply beyond human language, because God cannot be reduced to any human formulation. We use “ontological change” to try and describe the change that happens to a person when they are ordained. The Catechism uses the phrase “indelible character.” Like baptism and confirmation, the sacrament of orders cannot be undone or temporary. A priest is still also a deacon. A Bishop is also still a deacon and a priest. When a man is ordained his relationship to the community is fundamentally and permanently reordered.
Where is that in the Bible? It is in today’s gospel of the good shepherd. While Pope Francis says the shepherd should smell like sheep, he does not say the shepherd is one of the sheep. That would be a strange image, one of the sheep standing up on his hind legs and leading the flock. When one is ordained a priest or a bishop, one is called to teach, sanctify, and shepherd the people of God. It is worth noting that almost all Christians use the word “pastor” which comes from the Latin word for shepherd. Those who are ordained are transformed from mere members of the flock to shepherds, hopefully good shepherds.
Sometimes the shepherd walks behind the sheep, sometimes beside the sheep, sometimes in front of the sheep, and often he stands in the midst. But he should always remember to never get too far from the sheep in any direction. Of course the other problem is that in our democratic culture one of the uncomfortable challenges we have to face is that the Pastor cannot think of himself as “just one of the people.” If a coach begins to think of himself as just one of the players or a teacher acts like he or she is buddies with the students, there are going to be problems.
We are all equal in dignity, but our roles are different. Church is all about relationship: our relationship to God, our relationships with each other. The very existence of the concept of “ordination” is an acceptance of the belief that there is such a thing as a right “order” to those relationships. I will never say “Hola, Francisco” to the Pope or “Hiya, Barry” to the Bishop. It would be a dishonest representation of the relationship. While they are both very friendly people, they are not my friends.
Yes this grates against our post-modern American culture, but so do many other truths taught by the Christian faith. Let us pray that God will continue to call good shepherds for His flock, and daily grant the existing shepherds the grace and wisdom to teach, sanctify, and lead the People of God.