Nor is he simply the presider at the liturgy, the leader of the assembly, or the preacher of God's word though he's all those things, as well.
Every Catholic priest is an icon of Jesus Christ and acts in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”). At every Mass, we not only remember the Last Supper and Christ's sacrifice on the cross, we also live them again in the present, and God becomes flesh and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In other words, the Mass, through Jesus Christ who acts in his priest, is always much more than a ritualized memory of something that happened a long time ago. It's a living sacrifice, a mystery and a sacrament – a sign of God's continuing, tangible presence among us.
Priests have been chosen from among men by Jesus Christ, and we remember this as we pray in the Preface of the Chrism Mass: “He appointed them to renew in his name the sacrifice of redemption as they set before your family his paschal meal. He calls them to lead your holy people in love, nourish them by your word and strengthen them through the sacraments.”
As the one who offers the sacrifice, the priest has an indispensable role within the Mass. Elements of the Mass help us see and remember this role. We don't ever want to diminish the importance of the priest because doing so only undermines the faithful's real participation in the liturgy.
When the bishop or priest begins Mass, he wears special garments. No other minister will wear the priestly stole and chasuble. The stole signifies his authority to lead the people of God in worship. The loose-fitting garment over the stole is a chasuble and it has a long history. When the priest approaches the altar, the very first thing he does is kiss the altar. In keeping with an ancient tradition, kissing an object shows a reverence for what or whom it represents. The altar symbolizes Christ; it is also the place where the sacrifice of Calvary takes place anew. So in kissing the altar, the priest greets his friend and Lord, for whom he has given over his life and for whose service he has been ordained. At the same time, presiding over the assembly, he acts for all believers in showing the Church's love for her spouse, Jesus Christ.
The priest then goes to the celebrant's chair. The chair has a long tradition of being a sign of the “teacher” and “leader.” The priest's chair is always set apart from the assembly to note this distinction. The priest's role in leading his people is manifested as he stands, prays and speaks from the chair. While the local bishop who is the principal teacher of the diocese may sit and preach from the chair, the priest stands to manifest his collaboration in service to the bishop.
In the Mass, the priest prays inaudibly three times. After reading the Gospel, at the washing of hands, and just before his reception of holy Communion, he prays in humility that he be prepared interiorly to be a worthy minister of the sacred mysteries.
At the presentation of the gifts, the priest will say, “Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father…” The perfect sacrifice of Christ, freely made in obedience to his Father, is made present by the priest as he offers the bread and wine. According to each one's disposition, the assembled faithful are given the opportunity to unite the sacrifice of their own lives, both their joys and sorrows, with that perfect sacrifice.
As the celebrant of the Mass, the bishop or priest makes Jesus Christ most present to us by his person, his actions and especially his speaking the words of Jesus. The priest “resembles Christ” most clearly in the Eucharistic Prayer when he repeats the words of Jesus, in the first person, “This is my body, This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”
The actions which occur at the altar, on the corporal the square white linen centered on the altar cloth are all actions which belong to the priest. You'll notice that when a deacon is present, after he prepares the chalice, he hands it to the celebrant and does not simply place it on the corporal. It is the priest who offers the sacrifice and speaks the words of consecration.
It is the priest alone who speaks the Eucharistic Prayer. It is he who speaks for and unites the people of God in asking for the coming of the Holy Spirit who will transform the gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. After the consecration, he asks that the assembled faithful also may be united and become the body of Christ.
At the time of holy Communion, it is the priest (who may be assisted by the deacon) who leads the breaking of the bread, which is now the body of the Lord, and who pours the precious blood if necessary into additional chalices and then hands these vessels with the sacred body or precious blood to the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion from the table of sacrifice.
This small gesture of “handing over” enables all of us to see that it is the ordained minister who is responsible for the presence of the Lord among us in holy Communion. That's why it is also appropriate that it is the priest (and secondly, the deacon) to repose the Eucharist in the tabernacle if an amount of the precious body remains after distribution of Communion.
The very last thing the celebrant (and deacon) does before leaving the sanctuary is to kiss the altar. As we began, so we finish with a sign of love for the privilege that we have participated in through the hands of the priest.
Whatever his virtues or sins, hopes or sufferings, every priest is called by God to be a precious gift to His people. How well he succeeds depends first on how deeply he loves God. But it also depends on us. The task of every Catholic is to support, encourage and guide our priests with the witness of our own lives and power of our prayers.
Archbishop Chaput serves in the Archdiocese of Denver.
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