Circular Letter: Fall 2023
Living our Priestly Vocation with the Holy Angels
In the Work of the Holy Angels, the Lord places before us three figures, the child – the priest – and the Angel. By this He also means to tell us we are to be childlike, priestly, and “angelic” before God – and we are to be all three at once. In the last Circular Letter, we contemplated the child and spiritual childhood before the Lord, how to walk in simplicity, docility, purity, trust and joy with the Lord and the Angel. In this letter, we want to look at the priest and holy priesthood before the Lord, both the hierarchical priesthood as well as the universal (common) priesthood of the laity, how we can live this “priestly reality” more consciously and fruitfully. While the child walks in simplicity and cheerfulness, the priest
…walks on the path of discipline of will, of mortification and penance, of zeal for the salvation of souls. The Angel carries the light in the lead, [he is] the mediator of knowledge and grace, help and strength. Mary unites them all: the child and all youth, the priest and his large congregation, the Angel and all those watched over by the Angels, the small and the great. (Mother Gabriele Bitterlich, Lenten Letter 1957)
With Mary, therefore, and in the light of the holy Angels, we want to meditate on the meaning of holy priesthood, and on how to support our priests while living our own priestly calling in the battle for souls.
The priest stands between God and man. Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas defines the priest in terms of mediation. The priest mediates the gifts and holy things of God to man, “wherefore ‘sacerdos’ [priest] means a giver of sacred things [sacra dans]”. In the other direction, the priest also mediates between man and God, in that he lifts up the prayers and sacrifices of the people to God and, “…in a manner, makes satisfaction [expiation] to God for their sins” (Summa Th., III, 22, 1). Thus, in the Letter to the Hebrews we read, “Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5:1; cf. 8:3). At the essence of the priesthood, therefore, is standing between God and men, and the offering of gifts and sacrifices to God in the name of others.
Sharing in the unique priesthood of Christ
Christ Himself is the Eternal High Priest, the One Mediator between God and men. As the God-man, He is the principle and source of all grace from God to men. As Eternal High Priest, He offered Himself on the Cross as sacrifice and victim for the reconciliation of man with God, thus establishing a New Covenant of supernatural love between God and man in His Blood. But, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, “the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation [among creatures] which is but a sharing in this one source” (Lumen Gentium, 62). That is to say, Christ continues His priestly ministry in and through His Church (both men and Angels). For through faith and Baptism, we are incorporated into Christ, made members of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. As His Body, we are, so to say, “Christ”, participating in and exercising His one, unique priesthood throughout the ages. Thus, the Catechism teaches, “The whole Church is a priestly people. Through Baptism, all the faithful share in the priesthood of Christ. This participation is called the ‘common priesthood of the faithful’” (CCC 1591).
In and through Christ, the baptized are made holy and worthy of offering spiritual sacrifices for the glorification of God and the salvation of souls. By self-discipline and leading a holy life, by prayer and sacrifice, and by bearing witness to Christ in the world through word, example and works of charity, the faithful exercise their common priesthood and Christ’s threefold office of priest (interceding, sacrificing for souls), prophet (bearing witness, teaching, charity) and king (self-discipline, obedience to God’s law) (cf. CCC 901 ff.). “Persevering in prayer and praising God, [they] should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them” (Lumen Gentium, 10).
The ministerial priesthood: serving with love
At the service of the laity, however, Christ chooses from among His faithful certain men, to be sacramentally ordained and “configured to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit”, in order to serve as instruments of His mercy. These ordained men, Bishops and priests, act “in the name and in the person of Christ the Head” of His Mystical Body, “in His triple office of priest, prophet and king” (CCC 1591, 1581). Thus, the ordained minister or “hierarchical priesthood” makes “Christ Himself present to His Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of His flock [kingly office], High Priest of the redemptive sacrifice [priestly office], Teacher of truth [prophetic office]. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in the person of Christ the Head” (CCC 1548). Thus, “by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, [the priest] 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” (Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 39). “Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a figure of Christ, and the [hierarchical] priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ. (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 22, 4c)
The common priesthood of the faithful as members of the Body of Christ, and the hierarchical priesthood representing Christ the Head “differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, …[but] are nonetheless interrelated” (LG, 10). For though the ministries differ according to one’s state of life, the mission of the Church is yet one. Thus, “the ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the Sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity” (ibid.).
The ministerial priesthood, though participating in the authority of Christ, is nevertheless a service of love, ordered to the sanctification of the Mystical Body, the Church. “The exercise of this authority must therefore be measured against the model of Christ, who by love made Himself the least and the servant of all” (CCC 1551). The ministerial priesthood is therefore not to be approached in a spirit of ambition for power or recognition (thus, the misunderstanding behind those seeking the ordination of women), nor does the person choose this way for himself. It is a call from God, who chooses whom He wills. To accept this privileged call from God is most often a hard battle for young men, for they are conscious that to follow Christ faithfully can only be at the cost of great personal sacrifice: the renunciation of marriage and family, a life of total dedication to the service of others instead of following one’s own inclinations, dreams and desires. The proper response can only come from his greater love for God, a dying to self, and zeal for the salvation of souls. How grateful we must be to our priests, who have accepted this call for our sake! Yes, certainly for God first, but also to serve us!
Loving intercession rather than criticism
Moreover, this special call from God does not guarantee a life free from the struggle with sin. For God chooses men beset with weakness and the marks of original sin just like the rest of us. These very men (not Angels!) are endowed with the authority and power of Christ and Christ is made present in them. Yet, as the Catechism explains,
The power of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee [the efficacy of Christ’s presence in] all the acts of ministers in the same way. While this guarantee extends to the Sacraments, so that even the minister’s sin cannot impede the fruit of grace, in many other acts the minister leaves human traces that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel and consequently can harm the apostolic fruitfulness of the Church. (CCC 1550)
Thus, though the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the laity, this very humanness of priests calls for the support and exercise of the common priesthood of the faithful, most notably in sacrifice and prayer, in service to the ministerial priesthood! The Church is one, and each member supports the other in his own way, according to his calling. While the holiness of the Church is closely related to the holiness of her priests, the holiness of priests depends to a great extent on the prayers of the lay faithful; it begins with you and me. Each one must take on the responsibility for the other, learning to forget self in service of the other. St. Paul exhorts us, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Therefore, instead of criticizing our Bishops and priests, or even the Holy Father, we want to bear our share of the burden, supporting them through prayer, loving silence and sacrificial readiness. Our model is Mary. Mother Gabriel writes in a Way of the Cross,
How just would have been Mary’s complaint against the Apostles, against her own People! Yet, we know only her silence and her love. She was so united with Christ, even in His Passion, that His sorrow was her sorrow, and His forgiveness was her forgiveness…. Oh that we too might stand in this holy discipleship of the Son with His Mother and become fountains of mercy. (For the sake of Holy Poverty, 9th Station)
Priestly souls are those who stand in between, who offer themselves in order to merit forgiveness, conversion and peace for others. They sacrifice self out of love for God in their zeal for the Church and for the salvation of souls. Even when we are tempted to become angry over the scandals in the Church, especially among priests and Bishops, we are called not to judge, but to intercede, to sacrifice ourselves for their sake, to become, like Mary, souls of mercy. In the Old Testament, we read of the example of Moses. When the Israelites had worshiped the golden calf, God said to Moses, “Let Me alone, then, that My wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation” (Ex 32:10). But Moses interceded, pleading with God, offering himself in expiation for the sin of the people. “Ah, this people has indeed committed a grave sin in making a god of gold for themselves! If You would only forgive their sin! If You will not, then strike me out of the book that You have written” (Ex 32:31). What selfless love is revealed here in the heart of Moses as a type of Christ. It is echoed in the priestly heart of St. Paul, “I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh” (Rom 9:2-3). Of course, the loss of our own souls could never glorify God, but the prayer shows the depths of the priestly love, the love of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to go after the lost sheep.
Collaborating with the Angelic hierarchies
While the hierarchical priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful are interrelated and complement one another, there are still others who participate in the priestly mediation of Christ: the holy Angels! St. Thomas writes,
Hierarchical power appertains to the Angels, inasmuch as they also are between God and man, as Dionysius explains (Coel. Hier. ix)…. Now Christ was greater than the Angels, not only in His Godhead, but also in His humanity, as having the fullness of grace and glory. Wherefore He also had the hierarchical or priestly power in a higher degree than the Angels, so that even the Angels were ministers of His priesthood… (STh III, 22, ad1).
Thus, Angels are also mediators of grace from the one source, Jesus Christ, but in a way different from both the ministerial and the common priesthood. The ministry of the Angels complements them both in a holy symbiosis among all the members of the Church. For while the minister preaches the word of God to the lay faithful and mediates sacramental graces in the power and person of Christ, the Angels prepare the hearts of the faithful to receive both the word and the sacramental graces with the proper dispositions. The greater or lesser effect of the graces received depends upon these very dispositions of the heart! Thus, while the priest works outwardly through sacramental signs, the Angels work from within, touching hearts and opening them for the saving work of Christ.
Further, the Angels also help the lay faithful to live their priestly calling to mediate graces to others, to intercede and sacrifice for souls. In the Opus Angelorum, we call this the way of expiation, which we offer especially for the sanctification and salvation of ordained priests. “He who would follow Me,” Jesus teaches us, “let him deny himself, take up his Cross and follow after Me” (Mt 16:24). Our Guardian Angel in particular mediates to us the light and strength to deny ourselves in the imitation of Christ Crucified, to recognize and accept the Cross which Jesus is asking us to bear, in both the little and the great trials of life. The more we call upon the Angel and ask him to lead us, the more he can open our eyes to understand the Cross in the supernatural light of God. It is a call to die to self and our natural inclinations, desires and insights, even our own ideas about holiness, in order to live for God alone in the total surrender of faith. St. Paul teaches this priestly zeal by his own example.
For [Christ’s] sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith (Phil 3:8-9).
The more we live our priestly vocation with the help of the holy Angels, the more we will be united with Jesus and share in His selfless love from the Cross and in the Eucharist. And the more efficacious will our priestly power of intercession for others become.
Thus, in the little annoyances of daily life, in difficult situations, in unpleasant encounters with persons, the Angel whispers, “Accept it in silence, thank the Lord for this opportunity for grace, transform it into love – “For love of You, O Jesus!” – and offer it to God like Mary beneath the Cross, for the conversion of this or that soul, for the good of priests, etc.” Accept, thank, transform and offer. This is the teaching of Mother Gabriele in the little way of expiation. The sword of suffering, accepted and transformed, opens our own heart for love and the hearts of sinners for God. The Angels can help us to this zeal for souls, to works of charity, to seeing and jumping in wherever we see a need, material or spiritual. They can wake us in the night, or bring certain persons to mind who are in need of prayer. It is the little way of expiation, the little sacrifices, hidden before the eyes of the world, but of great value before God in the light of the Angels.
Useful instruments in the hands of the Angels
Conversely, through faithfully living out the common priesthood, we too can help the Angels in their holy ministry and battle for souls. When we lay our sacrifices and prayers into their hands, they receive a much greater influence over souls and strength in the battle against the powers of hell. Is it not evident that the battles of our times and in society today are becoming more and more spiritual, posing a fundamental choice, good versus evil, for or against God? Accordingly, the battle between the Holy Angels and the fallen spirits is becoming ever more intense. The conscious collaboration with the Holy Angels in the battle for souls is at the very heart of the Opus Angelorum. Through inspirations, lights and warnings, they want to train and educate us to a resolute determination to strive for holiness, to zeal for souls and the support of priests, to sacrificial readiness and a humble spirit of service. Most of this is realized in the little things of daily life: not having the last word in an argument, helping an elderly or sick person, an act of forgiveness, a smile, a flower, patience with an irritable person, not complaining over work or co-workers, charity in all. All these exterior works of virtue express and increase our union with God. For “the sacrifice which is offered exteriorly signifies interiorly the spiritual sacrifice, by which the soul offers itself to God, according to the Psalm (50:19), ‘My sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit’” (STh II-II, 85, 2). Thus by our little victories over self, united with the merits of Christ, we fulfill our priestly function and become a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom 12:1), we grow in charity and help the holy Angels in their saving mission.
Christ, the great High Priest in the Eucharist
The priestly service of the Church finds its greatest expression and efficacy, however, in the Liturgy – the seven Sacraments and the Divine Office – most especially in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. For in each liturgical act, “Christ indeed always associates the Church with Himself in this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is His beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father” (Sacrosanctum Concilium=SC 7). Every liturgical celebration is a priestly act of Christ united with His Body, the Church. Therefore, it “is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree” (ibid.). Especially in the Holy Eucharist, by the ministry of the priest, the priestly Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is made present.
Because His priesthood was not to end with His death, at the Last Supper ‘on the night when He was betrayed,’ [He wanted] to leave to His beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which He was to accomplish once for all on the Cross would be re-presented [made present!], its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit. (CCC 1366, citing Trent)
Through the ministry of the priest, who exercises the priestly power of Christ the Head, the faithful can participate in the priestly offering of Christ on the Cross. For “the Church which is the Body of Christ participates in the offering of her Head. With Him, she herself is offered whole and entire. She unites herself to His intercession with the Father for all men” (CCC 1368). Thus, the exercise of the common priesthood of the lay faithful is most perfectly and efficaciously fulfilled by the conscious participation in the Holy Mass, where united with Christ’s infinite merits, we can offer ourselves to the Father for all mankind! At the offertory, we can lay all on the paten and in the chalice: our prayers and works, our trials and Crosses, our praise and thanks, our loved ones and intentions, our very selves. All will be united with and transformed by the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, united “with His total offering” made present in the Holy Mass, “and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with His offering” and His merits (cf. CCC 1367).
From the Liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way. (SC 10)
How important it is for the Church that we draw down these graces from the pierced Heart of Christ in the Holy Mass as often as possible, yes, even daily. This is the highest exercise of both the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the laity.
In the Holy Mass, moreover, we are united not only with Christ in His eternal offering to the Father and with the Church here on earth, but also, heaven is opened to us and we praise and sacrifice to God with all the Angels and Saints. For the earthly Liturgy is but a participation and foretaste of the eternal Liturgy, which is continually and at every moment celebrated in heaven, “where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle” and where “we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army [the Angels!]” (SC 8). In the Holy Mass, therefore, the whole Church, militant and triumphant, men and Angels, is united with Christ, her Head and Spouse, in His priestly service before the Father. “In the catacombs the Church is often represented as a woman in prayer, arms outstretched in the praying position. Like Christ who stretched out His arms on the Cross, through Him, with Him, and in Him, she offers herself and intercedes for all men” (CCC 1368).
Mary, our Mother in the order of grace
Mary is the most perfect type of the Church as Bride, in the offering of self in a covenant of love and maternal intercession. Dying to self with every “fiat” to the word and will of God, she was wholly transformed and united to Christ in a spousal covenant of love and surrender to the will of the Father. In and through Christ, she became the universal principle of salvation for the Church, our “Mother in the order of grace” (LG 61). For from the Incarnation to the Cross, “she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Savior in giving back supernatural life to souls”, and will continue her maternal and priestly mediation until the consummation of the world (cf. ibid. 61-62). She teaches and helps us to pronounce our ‘yes’ to sacrifice and in trial, drying our tears with her veil, such that when she lifts it, the Face of Christ will be reflected on our face. For in every victory over self, we are “transformed from one degree of glory to the next” (2 Cor 3:18).
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