What follows is an important teaching that help have greater clarity and avoid confusion and disappointments.
Christ has three functions: he is King, therefore as the Good Shepherd he leads his Church and each member of his Church. He is Priest, therefore he offers each baptised to God the Father. He is Prophet, he leads each member to perfection. Each quality and function in Jesus and therefore in the Church his bride can be seen and understood in a more developed way. For instance: being prophet is seen as the one who says the truth and teaches it.
Now these qualities and functions in Jesus and in the Church have implications in our understanding of the Church. Of course, in order to understand Her, we shouldn’t separate her from the Lord. She is his bride, she is his body and he is the head. We can very easily say that the Church has not only three functions or missions but she has like three categories of persons where each of these three functions is better fulfilled.
The Church sharing the kingship of Jesus has this function of leading: we have the Bishops and the Pope. Usually each Bishop has a Diocese, and in it we have Parishes. So the entire planet is divided in Dioceses.
The Church shares Christ’s function of being “Priest” and therefore we have the Parishes in a given Diocese. Each parish has one or more priests leading it. The function of the Priest is to offer the foundations of Christianity, the sacraments of the initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist), the sacraments of healing (confession and the anointing of the dead), and the sacrament of the journey and fecundity (Marriage). Before these sacraments, the Priest offers the kerygma, the first announce of Jesus. And with the sacraments of initiation he offers Catechesis, or at least is in charge of it. Catechesis involves of course adult formation (or adult catechesis).
The Church shares Christ’s function of being “Prophet” and therefore has this mysterious section dedicated for the call for Perfection. If we go back to St Antony the great and watch him hear Jesus’ call to follow him more closely, we can call this section and function of the Church: the desert! Not that it has necessarily a material desert but it implies a special call for perfection, i.e. to follow Jesus more closely and aim for union with Him and Perfection of Love.
Each section of the Church has a specific function, but each of the three have a share in the three functions of the Church. The difference is that one is more prominent and gives the direction for the function. In this sense any Bishop is all together, in Christ: Prophet, Priest and King, but as a Bishop, he sharing in a more accentuated way Jesus’ kingship and therefore his mission is to take care of the Diocese. Plus, in the very case of the Bishop we need to say that he has the duty to lead the two other functions of present in his diocese: Priestly and Prophetic, i.e. Parishes and Desert.
Do we have anything in the Scriptures that supports this view? Indeed, there are many indications but one of them has is in a very clear way and therefore sheds an important light: it is the story of the young rich man seeking or offered perfection. Let us read the text first:
“Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Matthew 19:16-22)
As one can easily see, Jesus never starts by saying: “come, follow me”. He doesn’t offer perfection from day one! He goes progressively. He asks first for the foundations: “keep the commandments”. One has to ensure first that the Commandments are fulfilled. Jesus doesn’t do a shortcut, doesn’t skip the steps.
In the Church, we have two areas who help in a more specific way achieve each task: lay the foundations in a solid way, then once this work is achieved, the person is ready to hear better the Call to follow Jesus, the call for a more perfect life.
If one wants, we can see it as one long journey, divided in two parts. The one and only journey has the goal of reaching Perfection of Love, but one has to follow the stages of growth. First practising the Commandments, having an ordered life, receiving catechesis. And when we say “Catechesis” we should be thinking of eating and digesting the living contents of the actual Catechism of the Catholic Church! This is a milestone. Once this teaching is alive in us, we can talk about the call to follow Jesus more closely.
We can use the drawing below to show, in a dynamic way, the two main functions of the Church: Parish and Desert. Both are under the main function: Vigilance and guidance of the Bishop. We can picture the entire journey of growth to reach perfection in stages of growth (1 to 10 in the drawing). In order to do se we can even use the journey as described by St Teresa of Avila in her book “the interior Castle”. She is doctor and master of Perfection but she teaches the entire journey, including the first three stages (the first three mansions) who belong to the Parish. She never mentioned any of the functions of the Church because she was addressing her teaching to each person taken individually. Indirectly she sheds an amazing light on the Church itself, its functions.
As we can see on the drawing, we have first in the three initial steps to make sure that we are living according to the commandments of God abiding by them. It is only then that we can hear well and correspond better with the call to follow Jesus more closely in order to reach the Perfection He came to offer.
The divide between the two stages of the Journey is very well underlined by St Mark in his account of the rich man showing something unexpected to the lay eye: “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). The secret of this new step is not only to have fulfilled the Commandments from his youth (Mark 10:20: “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”) but to ripe this new love coming from the Master, which is the discrete but nonetheless powerful call to follow him more closely in order to reach perfection.
Nobody speaks initially about perfection, but rather about “keeping the commandments since I was a boy”. Nobody will speak either about perfection without allowing the Master to be the First to look at, and love. “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21)
Council Vatican II reminded us that all Baptised are called to holiness, to perfection. We then thought that we could take a shortcut, avoiding the fulfilment of catechesis, adult Formation, and finally Jesus’ gaze and love.
The Call for holiness is not a cheap call, it has conditions, both human and divine. The general help of the Grace of God is given to each one of us to help us fulfil the 10 Commandments, from our youth! To receive the initial Catechesis. We can’t shortcut these steps.
More to that, once we hear Jesus’ Call to follow him more closely on the journey toward perfection of the love, i.e. having crossed the “red line” on the drawing, we need a superior help from the expert “Desert” or Prophetic function of the Church.