The Identity of the Priest
– A Participation in the Priesthood of Christ
Though many people today respect and enjoy the company of their parish priests, few understand deeply the inherent dignity of the priestly state which sets the priest apart from the rest of men. Even among the clergy themselves, this part of their theological formation may have been scanty; some have fallen into crisis and even abandoned the priesthood because they did not understand their own identity, their true mission and vocation. The priest is a mediator between God and mankind; as such he shares ministerially in the divinity of Christ. This naturally sets him apart from other men. Therefore, if he fails to avail himself of the intimate friendship with Christ, he can easily become a lonely man. This, of course, calls for an adequate spiritual preparation and a faithful, persevering response.
A social ideal of the priesthood that was popular in past years also exposes priests to an ideological danger. Such men, in their democratic eagerness to approach others and be accepted as “one of the guys”, easily lose sight of the sacral character of their state and the intrinsic nature of their consecration. “Attempts to make the priest more like the laity are damaging to the Church,” Pope John Paul II warned (Holy Thursday Letter, 1986, 10). This does not mean that the priest is to remain aloof from the flock; no, “he must be very near to them, as St. Jean Marie Vianney was, but as a priest, always in a perspective which is that of their salvation and of the progress of the Kingdom of God” (ibid.). In order to emerge from this crisis in the priestly identity, “a correct and in-depth awareness of the nature and mission of the ministerial priesthood is the path which must be taken” (John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, 11). Although such a study is beyond the scope of this short letter; nevertheless, we do want to consider the essential elements of the priestly vocation, so that we may better understand and support the priests nearest to us in their sublime vocation.
The nature of the Catholic priesthood can only be understood in reference to Christ, for the priest is “a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ Himself, the one High Priest of the new and eternal Covenant. The priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest” (Pdv, 12). But what is this priesthood of Christ, what does it mean? A priest is in essence a mediator, mediating between God and man. “This is the priest’s mission: to link these two realities that appear to be so separate, that is, the world of God, far from us, often unknown, to the human being and our human world. The priest’s mission is to be a mediator, a bridge that connects, and thereby to bring human beings to God, to His redemption, to His true light, to His true life” (Benedict XVI, Lectio divina, February 18, 2010).
By the very act of becoming man, Jesus, who is the eternal “Son of God, is in His very being the perfect Mediator between the Father and humanity” (Pdv, 13). For as both God and man, He is the bridge who, while standing on the earth, reaches to the heavens, to God Himself. This priesthood of Christ accomplished its greatest work on the Cross, where Jesus in His humanity offered Himself as an oblation to the Father—as an oblation of infinite merit because it is also divine—in order to reconcile and reunite fallen humanity with the Father. In order to be a mediator or bridge, a priest must therefore also somehow belong to both spheres, to the divine and human. Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, he is introduced into the sphere of the divine, “into the being of Christ, into divine being” (Lectio divina). That is to say, while remaining a man, he is nevertheless ontologically conformed to Christ and “marked with the seal of the Priesthood of Christ, in order to share in His function as the one Mediator and Redeemer” (John Paul II, Holy Thursday 1986). “The Holy Spirit configures him in a new and special way to Jesus Christ the head and shepherd; He forms and strengthens him with [Christ’s] pastoral charity; and He gives [the priest] an authoritative role in the Church” (Pdv, 15). Because of this fundamental bond with Christ, “there opens before the priest the immense field of the service of souls” (John Paul II, Holy Thursday 1986). His entire ministry is ordered “to lead [God’s] holy people in love, nourish them by [God’s] word, and strengthen them through the Sacraments” (Preface of the Chrism Mass). “Inasmuch as he represents Christ the Head, Shepherd and Spouse of the Church, the priest is placed not only in the Church but also in the forefront of the Church” (Vat. II, Presbyt. Ord., 10).
But though the priest is objectively configured to Christ and participates in His authority by sacramental ordination, nevertheless, he must cultivate this union every day in order to strengthen and protect by God’s grace the vertical dimension of his priestly identity. Like the holy angels who continually behold the face of the heavenly Father (cf. Mt 18:10) even when they are sent by God on mission, so also the priest must always be “with the Lord”, always “abiding” in Him by continual prayer and holiness of life. Pope John Paul II points out that the priestly state “requires a greater interior holiness than is demanded by the religious state” (citing St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. II-II, 184.8). For in order to lead people to God, “a priest must really be a man of God, he must know God intimately and know Him in communion with Christ… [and] live this communion” (Ben. XVI, Lectio divina). Moreover, the priest is called to share in a special way in the prophetic role of Christ, that is to say, he must be able to hear the word of God and transmit it to men. Therefore, he needs to be exceptionally “receptive for God”, to live a stable interior silence and calm, so that the voice of God is not drowned by the noise and demands of the world around him.
As a mediator between God and man, the priest is called not only to live this special union with God, to be always “with God”, he must also be completely human. Though it is often said of people, “he told a lie, but what the heck, he’s only human” or “he stole; it is only human”, this is not the true humanity willed by God. Christ came to teach man his true human dignity according to the will of God, not the fallen, wounded nature we all experience after the fall. “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. …Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. …He Who is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15), is Himself the perfect man” (Vat. II, GS 22). To be truly human means, therefore, not being sinful, but rather “being generous, being good, being a just person; it means true prudence and wisdom” (Lectio). To emerge from our sinfulness and enter into this goodness of Christ is a lifelong process for all of us, also for the priest. Therefore, we see how necessary it is for us to pray and sacrifice for the priest, to help him along the roads of holiness.
But more than just being good and generous, true humanity also involves a concern for the sufferings of our fellow man. According to the letter to the Hebrews, Pope Benedict comments, “the essential element of our being human is being compassionate, suffering with others; this is true humanity” (Lectio divina). Like Christ who had compassion on fallen mankind and took our sins upon Himself, dying to them in His Passion, a priest is also called to “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (Heb 5:2). “The priest [must] enter, like Christ, into our human wretchedness, carry it with him, visit those who are suffering and look after them and—not only outwardly but also inwardly—take upon himself, recapitulate in himself the ‘passion’ of his time, of his parish, of the people entrusted to his care… [He must] be immersed in the passion of this world and with Christ’s help and in communion with Him, …must seek to transform it, to bring it to God” (Ben. XVI, Lectio divina).
This transformation of humanity takes place in a profound way through obedience, through conformity of the human will to the divine will. “God created us and we are ourselves if we conform with His will; only in this way do we enter into the truth of our being and are not alienated. …And Redemption is always this process of leading the human will to communion with the divine will” (Lectio). The priest must be the first to live this obedience, in accepting and living out the directives of the Church and of his Bishop. “Obeying out of love, sacrificing even a certain legitimate freedom when the authoritative discernment of the Bishop so requires, the priest lives out in his own flesh that ‘take and eat’ with which Christ, in the Last Supper, gave Himself to the Church” (John Paul II, Holy Thursday 2005, 3). This obedience gives to the priest the capacity for “‘taking hold of’ human beings in order to bring them by his own example, by his humility, by his prayer, by his pastoral action into communion with God” (Lectio).
In his role as mediator, therefore, a priest must be in a certain sense “set apart for the Gospel of God” (Rom 1:1), while at the same time living in the midst of men with real concern for their weaknesses and needs. “Their ministry itself, by a special title, forbids that they be conformed to this world; yet at the same time it requires that they live in this world among men. They are to live as good shepherds that know their sheep, and they are to seek to lead those who are not of this sheepfold that they, too, may hear the voice of Christ, so that there might be one fold and one Shepherd” (Vat. II, PO 3). The priest must live always with Christ and for Christ, in order to lead the flock to Christ and through Him, to God. It is especially in the celebration of the Eucharist that the priest receives the grace and strength to live out his sublime vocation. “In a certain sense, when he says the words: ‘take and eat’, the priest must learn to apply them also to himself, and to speak them with truth and generosity. If he is able to offer himself as a gift, placing himself at the disposal of the community and at the service of anyone in need, his life takes on its true meaning” (John Paul II, Holy Thursday 2005).
But the priest cannot live out this vocation alone. He needs our help. He needs our prayers and support, even our generous help in many administrative areas that would free him for his sacred ministry, for prayer and study. In our Crusade for Priests, which in this Year for Priests has grown to 4900 persons (3600 of whom have adopted a specific priest), we want to offer our priests a chalice of strength, filled with the strengthening gift of our prayers and sacrifices. We want to become servants of the servants of God, so that they may grow ever closer to Christ, and that through their leadership and example, the entire people of God may advance in the ways of holiness and charity. We recommend all our priests especially to Mary, the Mother of priests, and to the intercession of St. Jean Vianney, that humble, self-giving model of priestly charity. May God reward you all for your generous support of priests!
© 2015 • All texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission except for personal use.