On June 19, 2009 Pope Benedict XVI commemorated the official start of “The Year Of The Priest”. This year is dedicated to increasing “spiritual perfection” in priests, but it is also a time for the both the clergy and laity to reflect on the importance of the priesthood. In order to better appreciate the Catholic priesthood, let’s look at its origin, purpose and impact on our lives.
The Catholic priesthood has its roots in the priesthood of the Old Covenant. The great Jesuit theologian, Fr. John Hardon, observed that the priest of the Old Covenant was a mediator between the people and God as he would “offer the people’s adoration to God and beg His mercy for the people’s sins.” Despite being authorized to offer sacrifices to God on behalf of mankind, however, the Levitical priesthood remained powerless to bring about salvation and needed to repeat its sacrifices ceaselessly. It wasn’t until the priesthood of Jesus Christ that ultimate sanctification was achieved.
Unlike the priests of the Old Covenant, Jesus was both priest and victim. His unique sacrifice to the Father at Calvary was accomplished once for all, but is made present to us today in each Holy Mass. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), this same priestly function continues to be carried out through the ministerial priesthood without diminishing the priesthood of Christ (CCC 1545). Instead, Christ uses this ministerial priesthood to build up His Church. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas elaborates on the priesthood by stating, “Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a figure of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ.”
In his book The Priest Is Not His Own, the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen observed, “Each time the priest speaks the words of consecration, he applies Calvary and its fruits to a particular place and a particular time…The priest takes the Cross of Calvary with Christ still hanging on it, and he plants it in New York, Paris, Cairo and Tokyo and in the poorest mission in the world.” Considering this supernatural aspect of the priesthood makes it apparent that the priest is not “just another guy”. As Sheen further observes, “We become significant to our fellow men not by being a ‘regular guy’, but by being ‘another Christ’.”
In addition to offering the Sacrifice of the Mass, participation in the priesthood of the New Covenant (or ministerial priesthood) also involves administering the other Sacraments instituted by Our Lord. Have you ever stopped to think where we would be without the priesthood? There would obviously be no Eucharist, no forgiveness of sins in Confession or Anointing of the Sick. Without the priesthood there would be no Confirmation, thus limiting the growth of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. There would also be no bishops or pope to guide the Church. The priesthood allows Jesus to continue working in His Church for when a priest administers any one of the Sacraments, it is actually Christ Who is performing the action (CCC 1120).
One aspect of the Roman Catholic priesthood that is misunderstood by many in today’s society is the discipline of celibacy. While not wanting to turn this into a personal crusade for mandatory celibacy, I would be remiss in not addressing the importance of this gift to the Church. The Vatican II document Presbyterorum Ordinis did a wonderful job explaining the value of celibacy, while still acknowledging the validity of married Eastern rite Catholic priests.
While not definitively stating that celibacy is mandatory for the priesthood, the above document acknowledges the fact that it is a praiseworthy and noble practice. In his aforementioned book on the priesthood, Archbishop Fulton Sheen observed, “Consecrated virginity is the highest form of sacral or sacrificial love; it seeks nothing for itself but seeks only the will of the beloved…God has allowed creatures to share in his creation…The ambassador of Christ (the priest) is called to another type of creativeness — he begets souls.” Scriptural endorsement for the practice of celibacy can be found in 1 Cor 7:32-35. Refusing to acknowledge its value to the service of God’s people is doing a great disservice to this supernatural gift.
Celibacy is a discipline (not a dogma) of the Roman Catholic priesthood and could possibly be eliminated someday, but it frustrates me to hear the constant attacks by those who don’t understand its value. It is generally blamed (by the mainstream media) for every priestly sexual indiscretion imaginable. The desire to quickly condemn celibacy whenever a priestly scandal occurs ignores the fact that the vast majority of priests fulfill their promise of celibacy with honor and integrity. Those who take advantage of such situations to promote an anti-celibacy agenda perform an injustice against these holy men who embrace abstinence for the sake of the Kingdom.
Looking at the priesthood purely in human terms will cause much of its meaning and importance to be missed. We will have difficulty understanding supernatural concepts such as celibacy and transubstantiation (the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ). We begin to look at the Sacrament of Confession as nothing more than a “counseling session” and eventually abandon it altogether, choosing instead to “confess our sins directly to God”. It becomes too easy to concentrate on a priest’s personality flaws or lack of “stage presence” and we begin to compare priests and choose our favorite. Looking at the priesthood in Divine terms, however, helps us to keep our focus on its true meaning — and its importance in helping us to attain Eternal Life in Heaven.
The next time that you feel your priest’s homily is too long or you’re tired of him “asking for money”, take a minute and remember that, by virtue of his ordination, he is acting in the person of Our Lord. Looking at him in this way should make it easier to see past any personality defects and see, not the imperfect human, but our ultimate High Priest — Jesus Christ.