What Does It Mean to Be a Priest of Jesus Christ?

There is no human explanation to account for the institution of the Catholic priesthood.

The Holy Sacrifice
The Holy Sacrifice (photo: Shutterstock)

What does it mean to be a priest? Is there some distinguishing mark that separates those who are priests from others who are not? And since there are so few nowadays who choose to become one, what changes ought there to be in order to make the job more attractive? Should the Church abandon celibacy? Invite married men to apply? What about women? Why keep half the human race from joining the club? 

If anyone’s keeping count, there were seven questions in that paragraph. But only the first really matters, the answer to which will pretty much put to rest the remaining six. So, what does it mean to be a priest?

It means, quite simply, the Holy Eucharist, without which there is nothing. It means the Bread of Life, with which to feed millions of men, women and children on planet earth. It means the fulfillment of God’s promise to be with us in the most intimate and efficacious way until the end of time. A promise on which only an ordained priest has the power to deliver. And thus guarantee the certainty of our consuming the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Jesus Christ. 

It is by divine decree alone that these things happen. There is no human explanation to account for the institution of the Catholic priesthood. And, besides, how else will the Incarnate Lord condescend to come among us, if not by breaking himself to become our food? So, unless there is someone there to confect the meal, none of us can eat, leaving our hearts bereft of the very nourishment on which they most depend. That is what priesthood gives us — the Real Presence of Christ in the world. Sealed with Christ’s own identify, the priest is thus empowered to act in the very person of Christ (in persona Christi) for the world’s salvation.

There are two things happening in the rite of priestly ordination, which are both necessary to the meaning and reality of a man becoming a priest, another Christ (alter Christus). The first is the dedicatio, or resolution of will whereby a man freely and wholly removes himself from the common life of other men, vowing himself to the exclusive service of Almighty God. “Do not be conformed to this world,” enjoins the Apostle Paul, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:20).

If it be the will of God that a man give himself totally to Christ, in service to the Church for those whom Christ died on the Cross, that he be made worthy of the sacrifice God is asking of him, then in the very act of so configuring his life to God, a dedicatio that is both lasting and profound will be required. It will be a gesture of self-emptying no greater than which can be imagined, nor exacted of any other man. Indeed, a kenosisexceeded only by Our Blessed Lady herself. “She who,” as Bernanos so memorably insists, “is younger than sin.”

For a votive offering such as this, one that cries out for an oblation of self, aspiring no less than to the freedom and purity of Our Lady’s own perfect surrender, God will not refuse. And here we come to the heart of the meaning and reality of ordination — namely, the consecratio itself, the second of the two things happening in the ordination of a priest. Which is accomplished, not by human resolution but, to use the language of the Second Vatican Council, “by God himself through the ministry of the bishop laying hands upon the candidate for priestly life and service.” Here is God’s complete acceptance of his servant, felt in the deepest desire and delight of his heart, shown in his reaching out to affirm the fact of his dedication. Which he thereupon certifies in an act of solemn consecration.

As a result of this twofold act, a man is given an entirely new ontology, one which reaches right down to the bottom of his being, transforming him into a persona sacra, or sacred person, empowered therefore to assist Christ in making sacred the world he first entered to redeem.

If the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries — which is to say, Holy Mass — constitutes not just “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed,” but also “the fount from which all her powers flow” — citing the relevant text from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Article 10) — then there has simply got to be someone there to direct the traffic. How else are earth and heaven to be joined if not through priestly mediation? Unless Christ were to identify himself in this clear and indissoluble way with the person of his priest, the Sacred Mysteries do not take place. 

There are two reasons for this, says St. Thomas Aquinas. First, because the Eucharist is the most sublime of all the sacraments, comparable in its prominence to the bread we eat, it necessarily possesses “a dignity so high that it cannot be enacted except in the person of Christ himself.” Second, and following therefrom, it is the only sacrament in which the words of the priest are spoken in such a way that it is as though Christ himself were speaking them. This is made clear to us, says Thomas, “by the fact that the priest in the actualization of this sacrament does nothing else but pronounce Christ’s own words.” A man appears to be holding bread in his hands, yet in saying, “This is my Body,” it is really Christ himself pronouncing the words. That during this short space of time, the one who speaks and acts does so in persona Christi.

“It is in the Eucharistic cult,” declares the Council in its signature document on the Church (Lumen Gentium), “that the ordained exercise in a supreme degree their sacred functions.” Yes, it is true, we all are called to make our offerings, to give to God “the unspotted sacrifices of piety on the altar of the heart,” as St. Augustine urges us to do. Which is why every Christian “carries his holocaust within him and himself applies the flame to it.” But the priestly sacrifice is different. At the pivotal moment of the Mass what he does can only be done by the power of Christ. He may pray in persona omnium, but when he consecrates it is always in persona Christi. 

To hold Christ in his hands, to speak and act as though he were Christ himself, what greater glory is there in this world? There is nothing to rival the attractions of holy priesthood. And for that very reason, there will never be a shortage. Christ will see to it.