As our Diocese once again approaches the very happy time of the year when we shall witness the ordination to the transitional diaconate and the priesthood (this year on next May 26 and 27) of the men God has chosen to be His priests and to minister to us in the coming years, it seems appropriate again to reflect on the gift and supernatural mystery of the New Testament priesthood. In the New Testament, of course, there is only one Priest, Jesus Christ, and He is, in the absolute sense, the only High Priest (Hebrews 4:14). He wills, however, to give others a share in His unique priesthood. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only His ministers."
Addressing God the Father, the Roman Preface for the Priesthood says, "With wisdom and love You have planned that this one priesthood should continue in the Church. Christ gives the dignity of a royal priesthood to the people He has made His own." The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "Christ, High Priest and unique Mediator, has made of the Church a kingdom, priests for His God and Father (Revelation 1:6; 5:9-10; 1 Peter 2:5-9). The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation in Christ's mission as priest, prophet, and king." The Second Vatican Council says, "Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are consecrated to be a holy priesthood."
Following the unbroken and constant teaching of the Church, however, the Second Vatican Council repeated the Catholic doctrine that the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood, bestowed on men through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, is different, not only in degree, but in essence from the common share in Christ's priesthood possessed by all the faithful by means of the unrepeatable Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. The Priesthood Preface goes on to say that from the ranks of His priestly people, Christ, "with a brother's love, chooses men to share in His sacred ministry by the laying on of hands. He appoints them to renew in His name the sacrifice of our redemption as they set before Your family His paschal meal. He calls them to lead Your holy people in love, nourish them with Your word, and strengthen them through the sacraments. Father, they are to give their lives in Your service and for the salvation of Your people as they strive to grow in the likeness of Christ and honor You by their courageous witness of faith and love."
The Catechism says that the common priesthood of all the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood, "while being ordered to one another, differ essentially. In what sense? While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace, a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads His Church. For this reason, it is transmitted by its own sacrament, the Sacrament of Holy Orders."
The priesthood, of course, is not simply a career or profession. It is a sublime vocation, a call from God which comes to a man through Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is a summons from heaven to one who is, as all human beings are, totally unworthy of such a special and undeserved grace. One's internal vocation, which must be discerned with prayer, years of preparatory education, and the help of skilled advisors and spiritual directors, only becomes certainly authentic when it is made external by the liturgical act of the Bishop in the ordination ceremony. The Council of Trent declared that only those can be certain they are called by God to the priesthood who are called by the Bishops of the Church.
The Second Vatican Council teaches. "Since in their own measure priests participate in the office of the Apostles, God gives them the grace to be ministers of Christ Jesus among the people. They shoulder the sacred task of the Gospel so that the offering of the people can be made acceptable through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. For, through the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the People of God is called together and assembled so that when all who belong to this People have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, they can offer themselves as a sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God (Romans 12:1). Through the ministry of priests, the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ, the sole Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). Through the hands of priests and in the name of the whole Church, the Lord's sacrifice is offered in the Eucharist in an unbloody and sacramental manner until He Himself returns (1 Corinthians 11:26)."
In The Person
One of the expressions about the priesthood that was very dear to Pope John Paul II was that of the priest always standing "in the Person of Christ" (in "Persona Christi"). Pope Pius XII said, "It is the very same Priest, Jesus Christ, Whose sacred Person His minister truly represents. Now the minister by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received is truly made like to the High Priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the Person of Christ Himself." Saint Thomas Aquinas said, "Christ is the source of all priesthood. The priest of the Old Law was the figure of Christ and the priest of the New Law acts in the Person of Christ."
In the old ordination ritual it was said that the place of the priest was to offer sacrifice, to bless, to govern, to forgive sins, to preach, and to baptize. The Second Vatican Council says, "Through the ordained ministry, especially that of Bishops and priests, the presence of Christ as Head of the Church is made visible in the midst of the community of believers." The Catechism states, "The ministerial priesthood has the task not only of representing Christ, the Head of the Church, before the assembly of the faithful, but also of acting in the name of the whole Church when presenting to God the prayer of the Church, and above all when offering the Eucharistic sacrifice. However, "in the name of the whole Church" does not mean that priests are delegates of the community." They are appointed not by themselves nor by the community, but by God (Hebrews 5:4).