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Retreat on the Priesthood

What Is The Catholic Priesthood?

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Not too many years ago it would have been less important to ask the question, “What is the Catholic priesthood?” because anyone familiar with the Catholic Church, even though not personally a Catholic, would have had a fair idea of what a priest is. The description might have been crude, but at least there was no great doubt in anyone’s mind as to who or what a priest is supposed to be.

But things have changed. On all sides, including in some learned Catholic circles, we hear opinions that, to say the least, are not familiar to us. We are told that a priest is a social worker, or a political reformer, or an activist, or a community organizer, or a preacher, or a proclaimer of the Gospel. And even when these descriptions are not verbalized, the conduct of so many priests, some in high political office, tells the world that whatever priests used to be—men specially concerned with the Mass and the sacraments and holy things—they are now in a new age. Call it the age of sacerdotal liberation.

We, therefore, return to our question, “What is the Catholic priesthood?” As a fundamental question it needs to be answered if we are to say anything else significant about those persons whose office the Church still believes is not of human invention but of divine origin. The priesthood is simultaneously four things. It is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ. It is a state of life to which some men are called by a special vocation from God. It is an institution without which there would be no Christianity on earth today. And it is a ministry of the Catholic Church by which Christ continues His own priestly work of saving and sanctifying the souls for whom He shed His blood on Calvary.

The priesthood is a sacrament of the New Law. Until the sixteenth century, while previously there had been errors periodically infecting the Catholic Church, yet the priesthood was left substantially intact. Then in the time of the Protestant Reformation a massive attack was ranged against the priesthood in the Catholic Church, an attack so virulent that it has deeply affected Christianity ever since. To meet this challenge and to defend the sacred priesthood, the Council of Trent issued a series of solemn definitions, each one couched in the form of an anathema, condemning anyone who held certain contrary positions.

I will quote in sequence six formal definitions of the Church, each one spelling out and solemnly defining an article of the udivided Catholic faith. Anyone who calls himself a Catholic must subscribe to these definitions. Not to do so, is to sever oneself from visible union with the Church of Rome. In these days of widespread confusion about what is a priest, these six definitions should be etched in bronze.

First. “If anyone says that there is no visible and external priesthood in the New Testament, or that there is no power of consecrating and offering the body and blood of the Lord or of remitting and retaining sins, but says that there is only the office and simple ministry of preaching the Gospel, or says that those who do not preach are not priests at all, let him be anathema.”
Second. “If anyone denies that in the Catholic Church besides the priesthood there are other orders through which one must pass as to certain steps towards the priesthood, let him be anathema.”
Third. “If anyone says that orders or holy ordination is not truly and properly a sacrament instituted by Christ our Lord, or that it is a kind of human invention thought up by men inexperienced in ecclesiastical matters, or that it is only a kind of rite of choosing ministers of the Word of God and the sacraments, let him be anathema.”
Fourth. “If anyone says that orders or holy ordination the Holy Spirit is not given and thus it is useless for bishops to say “Receive the Holy Spirit”; or if anyone says that no character is imprinted by ordination, or that he who was once a priest can become a layman again, let him be anathema.”
Fifth. “If anyone says that the sacred anointing which the Church uses at holy ordination not only is not required but is despicable and harmful; just like the other ceremonies, let him be anathema.”
Sixth. “If anyone says that in the Catholic Church there is no divinely instituted hierarchy consisting of bishops, priests, and ministers, let him be anathema.”

What is the Catholic priesthood? It is first of all a divinely instituted sacrament that Christ Himself established, as the same Council of Trent explains, at the Last Supper. The Catholic priesthood is a state of life. It follows logically on what the Church teaches; that the priesthood is a sacrament that imprints an indelible character. Given that fact, it must also be to say the least, a permanent state of life that requires a special divine vocation.

Why stress this fact? Because of the large exodus of priests in countries like ours from the active priesthood. In the first ten years since the close of the Second Vatican Council the exodus in the United States has been 10,000 priests. There has never been such a massive de-sacralization of the priesthood in such a short time in the history of Christendom.

I can do no better in this context than to quote from the opening paragraph of the book which you may have read, A Shepherd Without Sheep, published in the fifties by Boyd Barret, a Jesuit priest who wandered from the Church, then repented, and returned to the practice of his faith. “I have no chapel,” he said, “no altar at which to offer the holiest sacrifice; no pulpit from which to preach; there is no confessional where penitents await counsel and absolution from my lips; no baptismal font where by the sacrament of regeneration I may give to the Eternal Father another child.” But I am a priest, Christ’s shepherd, but I have no sheep.” Boyd Barret, the repentant sinner, had no doubt that he was nevertheless a priest.

As priests need to be told, and the faithful too should know, the priesthood is not an occupation; nor a job, nor an employment; it is not even a profession. It is the sublimest vocation to which God can call man. Those who respond and are ordained, remain priests forever, no matter what might happen to their minds or bodies or even to their souls.

What is the Catholic priesthood? The Catholic priesthood is that institution which is absolutely necessary for Christianity. The Catholic priesthood is absolutely necessary for the Church. Without it there would be no Christianity left on earth. Remove the priesthood and you remove the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist from the world. Without the priesthood you remove the sacrifice of the Mass, Holy Communion, the sacrament of anointing of the Sick, and the sacrament of reconciliation so needed by a sinful world. Remove the priesthood and you take away the divinely assured teaching of God’s revealed Truth from the universe. In a word, without the priesthood, Christianity would be a memory but no longer a reality. It would cease to exist on earth, in this admittedly difficult valley of tears.

Again, what is the Catholic priesthood? It is the ministry of Christ continued on earth. No class of persons in the Church have more frequently and earnestly been exhorted by the Popes to recognize their role and live up to it, than priests. No single group have had more words directly addressed to them, by the Second Vatican Council than the Church’s bishops and priest. And no wonder. The foundation of this dignity, which as we have seen is an absolute necessity, is that those who are priests are, in the profoundest sense of the word, continuing the work of Christ. They are engaged in the work that Christ began and that repeatedly He told the apostles, and through them those whom they would ordain, that what He began they were to continue.

When Pope Pius XI wrote his deeply moving encyclical on the Catholic priesthood, he addressed the priests of the world telling them that they were the ministers of Christ, instruments in the hands of the Redeemer, continuing the work of Redemption in all its world-embracing universality and divine efficacy; the work that brought so marvelous a transformation in the world. Thus the priest is with good reason another Christ, or in a way a continuation of Christ. The mystics used stronger language but expressed the same truth. In one of her dialogues, Saint Catherine of Siena was told by Christ what He thinks of priests. “They are My anointed ones,” the Savior said, “and I call them My Christs', because I have given them the office of administering me to you. The angels have no such dignity. I have given it to those men whom I have appointed as earthly angels in this life.”

We need to hear this kind of language today to remind all of us, priests and religious and the laity, what almighty God has entrusted to weak vessels of clay: nothing less than the dispensation of Himself and His gracious mercy to a sinful, wandering world.

This is the mystery of the priesthood, but there is also a scandal of the priesthood: that God should have endowed weak human beings with so much power and so much authority. It is precisely because of this, the scandal of Christ’s giving so much to such little people, that those of us who are not priests should beg the living God daily to strengthen the weakness in Christ’s priests so that they may be, not “worthy” of their office as no one is worthy of the priesthood, but that they might not impede the work of the Master who wants to save the world through them. That is why He died on the cross.

We priests need to remember this so that we may not be seduced by the world around us and not crushed by the evil spirit whose demoniac machinations, so the modern Popes say, are mainly aimed at the Catholic priesthood without which Christianity would be absent on earth. If human beings forget this, the devil does not. He knows that as the priesthood goes, so goes the Church.

Pray that Christ who ordained us priests may keep us close to Himself that we may not impede the work of salvation He has put into our most unworthy but priestly hands.

Conference transcription from a retreat that
Father Hardon gave in December, 1977 to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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