In this Year for Priests, called by Pope Benedict XVI in order “to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a stronger and more incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world,” it is fitting for Catholics – priests and laity alike – to reflect on the sacrament of Holy Orders that makes a man a priest. The nature of this sacrament defines the essence and mission of the priest, a valuable reminder in an age when the roles of priests and laity seem to overlap more and more.
Many religions, including the ancient pagan religions, have priests. In the generic sense, a priest is an intermediary between God and man, who offers a sacrifice to God on behalf of the people as an act of worship or petition. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus Christ as the eternal high priest, who, as the one mediator between God and man, offered Himself in sacrifice on the cross as the ultimate act of worship to God the Father. By definition, the Catholic priest shares in the priesthood of Christ by offering the one sacrifice of Christ in an act of worship on behalf of the faithful. Thus the Mass and the Eucharist form the core of the priest’s identity.
The priest’s particular and unique sharing in the priesthood of Christ is conferred in the sacrament of holy orders. Through the bishop’s imposition of hands and solemn prayer, the sacrament, in the words of the Catechism, “communicates a ‘sacred power’ which is none other than that of Christ.” Therefore, when the priest acts in the name of the Church – whether by preaching, administering the sacraments, or tending to the needs of the faithful – he makes Christ present to her members. That is, he acts in persona Christi Capitis, in the person of Christ, the Head of the Church.
Of course, the priest acts most prominently in the person of Christ when he says the words of Eucharistic institution at Mass. He does not speak of his own body and blood, but that of Christ’s; Christ speaks and consecrates the bread and wine through the priest. The same is true of the other sacraments. When the priest says, “I absolve you from your sins,” or “I baptize you,” he is not speaking on his own authority, but that of Christ Himself entrusted to the ministry of the Church. Since Christ is really the one who acts through the priest, the sacraments confer grace even if the priest is unworthy or lacking a desired flare. As St. Augustine said, “The spiritual power of the sacrament is indeed comparable to light: those to be enlightened receive it in its purity, and if it should pass through defiled beings, it is not itself defiled.”
From the sacrament of holy orders, then, the priest shares in the ministerial priesthood of Christ, from which he receives the power and duty to exercise Christ’s threefold ministerial mission of teaching, sanctifying, and governing. This distinguishes the priest in kind, not just degree, from the laity. According to Vatican II and Pope John Paul II, the primary vocation of lay Catholics is to bring Christ to the world, a calling that stems from their share in the common priesthood of Christ by virtue of their baptism. The ministerial, or ordained, priesthood, as a continuation of the authority Christ explicitly transmitted to His apostles, exists to serve the common priesthood by administering the word and the sacraments. Church history – and our own day – offer many examples of clergy and laity impinging on each other. Yet the two roles must not be seen as competing, nor should the importance of one be asserted over the other. Both are necessary in God’s plan of salvation.
Of course, within the Church assembly itself, some lay faithful may perform certain functions proper to them as lay Catholics (altar server or lector), and others may be specifically delegated by the Church to perform certain offices (extraordinary minister of Holy Communion). Nevertheless, these actions may not be confused or exchanged with the offices of teaching, sanctifying, and governing that follow from receiving holy orders.
Why are women not allowed to receive holy orders? Sister Sara Butler, a former advocate of women’s ordination, explains that although there are several theological arguments for reserving ordination to men only, the fundamental reason lies in the will of Christ, who chose men (and not women) to serve the Church as His apostles. The apostles, in choosing their successors, imitated Christ’s choice of men, establishing a normative practice for the Church. As the deposit of Christ’s teaching, the Church has no authority to change His will on this matter, just as she cannot change the elements of bread and wine for the Eucharist, or the need for water to administer the sacrament of baptism.
The sacraments are physical instruments used by God to transmit His grace. The Holy Father has invited us to pray for and support our priests, who confect God’s sacramental grace for us. St. John Vianney knew the critical role of the priest in the sacramental life of the faithful: “Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest.”