Always a Priestly People, Never a Priest

‘Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.’

Philippe de Champaigne, “St. Augustine of Hippo,” ca. 1650
Philippe de Champaigne, “St. Augustine of Hippo,” ca. 1650 (photo: Public Domain)

If you leave out the sermon, during which the attention span of even the most pious will now and again flag, there is a moment in every Mass where the meaning of what is going on is often lost sight of. This is most unfortunate because, by doing so, we lose a distinction essential to an understanding of the Mass as Sacrifice, indeed, as the central drama of human history.  It is the moment just before the Offertory Prayer when the priest invites the entire congregation to join him in asking God to accept and approve the sacrifice he is about to offer up: 

Pray, brethren (he exhorts us),
that my sacrifice and yours
may be acceptable to God,
the almighty Father. 

Those four words, which I’ve deliberately italicized, are there to remind us that there are in fact two sacrifices going on, one of which is more necessary than the other. Not to know that, or to attend to what one knows, risks losing the distinctively Catholic character of the Mass.

How can this be? It is because there are two priesthoods at work here, the cultic and the communal. Of the two, the first is supremely important. It is not only prior to all else, it remains absolutely indispensable to the maintenance of the Church’s worship. Remove the sacerdotal dimension, the routine exercise of which enables us to receive the Bread of Life, and everything collapses, leaving us bereft of God. We might as well jettison the Roman Church altogether and go off in search of the one in Geneva or Germany.

The point is, God cannot break himself to become our bread unless there be a lawfully ordained priest empowered by him to confect the meal. Only those men chosen by God to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries through the imposition of hands passed on uninterruptedly from the first Apostles of the Lord, to whom the words of consecration were first entrusted, are entitled to speak those same words, “DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.”

It is the cultic priesthood, in other words, that produces the Eucharist. And it is only Christ who may accomplish in his priest what the priest then sets out to accomplish in the Church. All that he does, therefore, to use a long-established Latin formulation, is done in persona Christi. He is not merely the representative of those who come to Mass, although he is called upon to speak to God on their behalf; and his power does not emanate from them, even as its exercise is for their eternal benefit. Because only God can raise up a priest, to whom he is pleased to communicate the most sacred power of all, which is to take ordinary bread and wine and transubstantiate them into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Earthly elements are thus signposted by grace to become heavenly food. It is God, then, whom we are given and never mind the disguise he wears to hide his appearance. That wonderful Eucharistic hymn, Adoro te devote , perhaps the most exquisitely wrought of all that St. Thomas Aquinas left us, makes this beautifully clear: 

Seeing, touching, tasting are in Thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.   

Take away the Eucharist, which is both source and summit of all our devotional lives, and we are straightaway cut off from Christ. And while none of us can make the Eucharist ourselves, however much we may long for it, the priest can. And he is uniquely ordained to do so. Giving and getting God are the highpoints of both his life and ours. 

We must not suppose, however, that because of the sacred and august office of the priest, those privileged to serve are somehow superior to the rest of us. “The priest is not,” writes Henri de Lubac in The Splendor of the Church, a book on which more than a few of my students have found nourishment, “in virtue of his priestly ordination, more of a Christian than the ordinary believer; the Order he has received is for the sake of the Eucharist, but the Eucharist is for the sake of everyone. All are called, as from this present world, to the same divine life; and that is what makes all one in the same essential dignity …”

And in what does that dignity consist? In cleaving to Christ, who, thanks to the grace of Catholic priesthood, draws us closer to him that we are even to ourselves. It is from the depths of that intimacy, sustained our entire lives by the grace of the sacrament, that we may someday board the rocket ship propelling us straight into the arms of God. This is why the priestly seal is so special, so indissolubly different, and that its sheer ineffaceable importance merits our respect. “Those who are invested with it,” de Lubac adds, “whatever the human circumstances of their appointing, participate in the Church’s mission to engender and maintain the divine life in us, and this by a delegation from God himself.”  

This is not to suggest that the rest of us are no more than idle spectators at a sporting event, who feel themselves lucky just to be watching the action from the side but, having effectively been forced from the field, are left with nothing else to do. So what part do we play? 

“Each of us is anointed unto priesthood,” St. Ambrose reminds us, “but it is a spiritual priesthood.” But one to which has been given the inestimable privilege of offering to God, as St. Augustine put it, “the unspotted sacrifices of piety on the altar of the heart,” and so bring it about that each of us “carries his holocaust within him and himself applies the flame to it.”  

Whether we be Priest or People of God, the same challenge confronts us all, which is, as the poet Claudel so memorably put it, “to be always worthy of the flame consuming you.”