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Vol. XV, July 2009

Year of Priesthood I: The Priest and the Angels

If I would meet a priest and an angel, I would greet first the priest and then the angel. The latter is a friend of God, but the priest is His representative. ~ St. John of Vianney

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

We are still looking up with admiration to St. Paul, this great missionary, powerful in words and wisdom (cf. At 9:20f; 13:9ff), faithful in the administration of the Sacraments (cf. At 19:5; 20:7), with deep pastoral sensitivity and responsibility (cf. At 15:36; 1Thess 2:7-11). But just as the angels summoned the Apostles back to the present moment after the Ascension of the Lord (cf. At 1:10-11), so also our Holy Father wants us to go forward. He leads us into the coming year with a new accent which touches us priests even more directly. He wants the entire Church to commemorate this year, the 150th anniversary of Saint John Mary Vianney’s way home to God in 1859, to the sanctification of priests. This follows in suite with the commemorations of Blessed John XXIII (Sacerdotii nostri primordia, 1959) and John Paul II (Letter for Holy Thursday, 1986). He certainly wants the whole Church to reflect and celebrate the mystery of the priesthood in general.

Consequently, we too want to concentrate this year on the priesthood and the holy angels. We will always ask for the special angelic assistance for priests, because one of the angels in Scripture described himself explicitly in these terms: “I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book(Rev 22:9). We hope to benefit through such reflections and the graces of this year, to grow in the comprehension of our vocation, to recognize God’s goodness with greater gratitude and our littleness with humble simplicity, our short comings with sincere contrition. Moreover, we wish to understand more acutely the diabolic hatred directed against Christ’s ministers in the priesthood. This in turn will increase our understanding and appreciation for the grace of “Spiritual Motherhood” which leads the faithful to join with Mary in her maternal solicitude and protection of priest, the charge which Our Lord committed to her at the foot of the Cross: “Behold, your Son” (Jo 19:27).

In this first letter we want to look at the priesthood in general and try to see how the holy angels relate to it.

What is the priesthood? - Two eloquent definitions
The priesthood seems to belong even to natural order of mankind, for priests are found in almost every nation and every religion. The history of religions observes: The priest mediates between men and God through a cultic action. This role is expressed in two words sacrificium and sacerdos.

a) The priest sacrifices—“makes sacred”. From St. John Maria Vianney we learn a deep connection between the priesthood and the sacrifice: He taught his parishioners: “If one wants to destroy religion, he begins to attack the priest, because where there is no priest, there is also no sacrifice, and because where there is no sacrifice, there is also no religion any longer.”

According this observation, the priesthood goes hand in hand with sacrifice. The priest as the mediating minister has to be taken aside first and to be reserved for the service of God. That is to say, he must make an offering to God first of himself. Then, accepted by God, he will be thus “consecrated” or “sanctified”, and also stand on the side of God and can be a “go-between”, a mediator. The word “Sacrifice” means literally “sacrum facere – making holy”, that is, the creature is taken from the world and separated for the Holy One, for God, and God, by accepting it, makes it share in His holiness and consecrates it. This is the reason, why we find the priest in almost all religions separated from other men and mediating between the people and God through liturgical functions.

b) The priest “sacer-dos”—“gives the sacred”. We find another definition in St. Thomas Aquinas; he takes it just from the literal meaning of the word priest—“sacerdos”. He says in his Summa Theologica:

The office proper to a priest is to be a mediator between God and the people: to wit, inasmuch as He bestows Divine things on the people, wherefore ‘sacerdos’ [priest] means a giver of sacred things [sacra dans], according to Malachi 2:7: ‘They shall seek the law at his,’ i.e. the priest’s, ‘mouth’; and again, forasmuch as he offers up the people’s prayers to God… (ST III, q.22, a.1c).

St. Thomas refers here to the Jewish-Christian religion. The ministry in this tradition, of course, is not a human initiative, but a divine call. It has its basis in GOD’s initiative, and underlines the second dimension of the priesthood, the mediation from God to the creatures which is expressed in the term sacerdos or sacrum-dare. Here the priest mediates from God to man in as far as he gives what is already sacred through the union with God. He gives from God Who is holy and corresponds to the people’s intention that is to make the things holy.

2. A threefold priesthood
Looking into history of Jewish-Christian tradition, we may distinguish three degrees of priesthood, the Old Testament priesthood which finds also some reflection in natural religions and the New Testament priesthood; and then the latter as a common and ministerial priesthood.

a) The Old Testament and natural Priesthood. Adam lived in a familiar way with God while he was in paradise. God made him already somehow priest of creation. He entrusted him authority and freedom, a share in His majesty: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen 2:16). And he should be like His administrator: “God formed every beast…brought them to the man…and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Gen 2:19). However, he did not mediate from God towards the woman, who was his equal, in the trial and that caused the fall of both.

Constantly, from the first generation on, Sacred Scripture reports of sacrifice. Abel and Cain offered a sacrifice to God (cf. Gen 4:3-5). So did Noah (cf. Gen 8:18-9:1), and similarly we find such men with this explicit function in all religions.

We find priestly functions of Abraham (Gen 12:6-9; 13:17-18; 22:1ff), Isaac (cf. Gen 26:23-25), Jacob (cf. Gen 28:10-22; 33:18-20; 35:1-3) and Moses (Ex 17:15-16; 20:22-26; 24:1-8). Their sacrifices had different meanings such as praise, thanksgiving or expiation (cf. Lev 1-7). We can follow the entire history and find the sacrifice, first with the fathers of the families, then in representation of entire tribes, and collaboration with the plan of God for His people.

Based on a special call, beginning with Abraham (cf. Gen 15:1ff), we observe more explicitly the mediation from God to men (cf. for Moses: Ex 3-4; the explicit call of priests with Aaron: Ex 28-29; Lev 8-10; 21-22:9) and liturgical instructions which turn out to be prefigurations of the New Covenant. The mediation from God to men in the Old Testament consists mainly in the transmission of God’s word (cf. Ex 20:22; 24:3; Deut 6:4-9; Tob 4, etc.), but also in establishing “a sanctuary, that I (God) may dwell in their midst” (Ex 25:8). Through this, and according the cooperation of the people, God called even the entire Chosen People “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation(Ex 19:6; Is 61:6).

b) Common Priesthood. Nevertheless, a totally new dimension opened with the Incarnation of the Son of God, the divine and real High Priest. When He, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), He made all real (cf. 2Cor 1:20; about the pre-figurations cf. Hb 7-10). “He gave power to become children of God…. From His fullness have we all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:12,16).

Therefore, St. Peter invites men today: “Come to Him, to that living stone…and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:4-5,9; cf. Rev 1:5-6; 5:9-10). Now, St. Paul exhorts, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Rom 12:1). All who are incorporated into Christ through the Sacrament of Baptism and faithful to sanctifying grace, share really in the priesthood of Christ, offering eternally valid sacrifices before God and participating in the mediation from God to man through the prophetic testimony of life: “Baptism gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers(CCC 1268; cf. 1270; “the baptismal priesthood”, 1669; the first of the “two participations in the one Priesthood of Christ”, CCC 1546-47).

c) Ministerial Priesthood. Besides this common call, Christ still chose from this “priestly nation” some to receive a particular consecration, namely, “to feed the Church by the word and grace of God” (LG 11) in Christ’s name (cf. CCC 1535). Christ said to them, “Go out to all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). While Christ had identified Himself already with “the least of these My brethren” (Mt 25:40), still stronger was His ministerial bond with His Apostles: “He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” (Lk 10:16). “As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you” (Jo 20:21; cf. 20:23; 21:15-17; Mk 10:43-45; cf. 1Cor 11:25).

The common participation in Christ’s priesthood is particularly marked by the fruit of personal sanctification, by the gift (offering) of one’s self to God; whereas, in the ministerial participation in Christ’s priesthood, the ministerial, sacramental offering of Christ’s own sacrifice predominates along with the concomitant mediation of Christ’s grace from God to men.

3. Angels and the priesthood
Looking to the presence of the holy angels in man’s life with God or in this priestly character of human life, we come to an understanding in the dream of Jacob: “And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Gen 28:12). It may initially surprise us that the angels who are already in heaven first ascend and then descend. This strange order is confirmed by Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’.” (Jn 1:51).

The relation of these “fellow servants” with the priesthood seems to explain a certain order. They mediate first from man to God, taking up the prayers and intentions, and then are sent by God in response. St. Raphael explains: “When you and your daughter-in-law Sarah prayed, I brought a reminder of your prayer before the Holy One…. So now God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah. I am Raphael, one of the seven who stand before the throne of God” (Tob 12:12,14-15). This is precisely the task of the priest, especially of the ministerial priesthood. Therefore, priests and angels should become a perfect pair in God’s kingdom!

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
The parallel between the ministerial priesthood and the angelic mission gives us hope that we will find more parallels between the angels and priests. Hopefully these reflections will lead us to a deeper communion with the holy angels and through them to a clearer priestly identity and more saintly priestly life, which is the goal of this year. May the Lord grant you many graces in this year.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC
ASSOCIATION OF PRIESTS
IN THE WORK OF THE HOLY ANGELS