This Sunday, the Church continues to observe Ordinary Time. During this portion of the liturgical year, the Gospel is re-proclaimed and believers are invited to recommit themselves to Jesus Christ and his saving message of love and mercy.

This portion of Ordinary Time also marks the 15th anniversary of my priestly ordination. As married people mark their wedding anniversaries, so priests observe their ordination anniversaries. In each vocation, it’s a time for celebration and reflection.

In reflecting on the priesthood, I realize how many different dimensions there are to its mystery. While such a mystery includes many spiritual and ecclesial levels, it also involves a very pastoral one. While it’s a noble task to reflect upon the beauty and power of the ministerial priesthood, it does little good unless there is the additional discernment of what the Lord Jesus wants us to do with it. With every gift, there is a mission.

This year, as I consider fifteen years of priestly service, the mission component of my vocation is the most pressing thing on my heart: Am I doing all that the Lord Jesus wants of me? Am I leading other believers to do all that the Lord wants them to do?

These thoughts have led me to recognize a less emphasized aspect of the priesthood. While the theological and ascetical realities of the priesthood are essential and helpful in their own ways, there is also a communal, lived aspect of the priesthood. Regrettably, in my experience, this is oftentimes overlooked or dismissed.

As a priest, my priesthood is very much shaped and defined by my life and ministry among the people to whom I’ve been sent. My interaction with them, and our different – but shared – following of the Lord Jesus, assists me to see whole portions of the Lord’s priesthood that I would have otherwise missed.

Of all the titles and designations that are given to the Catholic priest, therefore, I think we can reflect upon its mystery, and its lived context, and recognize the Catholic priest by the additional title of “chief disciple,” as simple and as challenging as it is. I’m not sure if the title is being unknowingly taken from someone else. I don’t recall reading or hearing it from anyone else. Certainly, the teaching is there. The priest is to be the spiritual father and shepherd of his people, etc. But I don’t know of such an explicit statement of the priest as a chief disciple.

In my own thoughts, I find the title helpful as an encapsulation and rallying cry of what the priest is called to be in the midst of God’s people.

Oftentimes, priests can become so caught up in the affairs and maintenance of the Church that their own priesthood is removed from the basic call to discipleship. There can be an attentive priest who is a lousy disciple of the Lord.

Pope Francis has emphasized this principle throughout his pontificate. It’s possible to be a member of the clergy, a cardinal, bishop, and priest, and not be a Christian.

The priesthood makes the most sense within Christian discipleship and when it is actively lived within a community of other Christians. The call to the priesthood has always been grounded upon the first call to discipleship. If the two are separated, then we end up having churchmen who have no faith. We run the risk of having consecrated men who serve the Church of a God whom they no longer know.

The priesthood relies upon what Saint John the Evangelist calls the “first love.” Every priest, and every Christian believer, is called back to the initial “yes” they first gave to the Lord Jesus. It’s that moment when all the grace of the sacraments were fanned into a flame and the person chose to follow the Lord, to die to themselves and seek a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One. It is the basis of all personal reform and renewal. It is the death of any clericalism in the priest and the source of renewed vigor and energy.

It’s in this context that the role of the priest as a chief disciple makes the most sense. He is the chief disciple only because he bears the responsibility of living out his own discipleship, as well as modeling discipleship for his people, and teaching and forming them to be true disciples of the Lord.