Whatever happened to that sublimity when they see thousands of priests leaving the active priesthood, as they say, to be laicized? In many countries, especially in North and South America, vocations to the priesthood are at an all time low. Large archdioceses have had as few as one ordination in four years. Some have had at least a few vocations; none have had many; but many have had almost none. Permanent deacons are being ordained in quantity, partly to supplement the dwindling ranks of the priesthood. But a deacon is not a priest. All of these and some other phenomena make the question we are asking ourselves crucially important. If the future of the Catholic Church in countries like the United States is to be assured, we need to understand better who a priest is, what his dignity is, and above all appreciate his absolute indispensability for the people of God.
First then, let us look at the priesthood in the Old Testament revelation. As we read the pages of the Old Law, going back to the early history of Israel, we see that priests were an essential part of the chosen people. Their function was to act as mediators between the people and God. A priest was, therefore, first of all a mediator. This concept has been refined, deepened, and expanded but not substantially changed from the Old Law to the New Law. He stood between the people whom he represented and the God whom he addressed.
Yet as we know in the Old Testament there were two kinds of mediators between God and the people. There were mediators from God to communicate His mind and His will to the people. These mediators were called prophets. They were from God to the people. We might call this downward mediation: from heaven to earth. There were also mediators from the people to God to offer Him the people's adoration, invoke His aid, and beg His mercy for the people's sins. These were in Old Testament parlance called priests. This was the upward mediation: from earth to heaven. Moreover, the priests of the Old Testament were not only to mediate from the people to God, they were to do so in a distinctive, indeed, unique way. They were to offer sacrifices (the plural is of the essence of the Old Law) of goats and sheep, of oxen and cattle, of bread and wine, of wheat, barley, and oats, and fruits of trees.
If the first function, therefore, of a priest was to be mediator from the people to God, his second function was to offer sacrifice. A priest, then, was a mediator who offered sacrifice. However, not everyone was allowed to exercise the priestly office. Only those specially chosen by Yahweh were permitted to offer sacrifice. When on one dramatic occasion, King Saul, as we recall, dared to arrogate to himself the offering of sacrifice, he was severely punished. It was in this context that the phrase was first spoken, "Obedience is better than sacrifice". Saul was disobedient and God was displeased with his sacrifice because, though king, he was not a priest. He was not chosen for that office.
Thirdly, then, beyond being a mediator and beyond offering sacrifice, a priest was one specially chosen by God to do the mediation and to offer the oblation to God. In a word, a priest must be divinely chosen. No one presumed to be a priest on his own. So much for a thumb nail review of some two thousand years of Jewish prophetic and priestly history.
Let us consider the priesthood in Christianity. With the advent of Christ, the priesthood of the Old Law was elevated to the height it had never before possessed. It also became the cornerstone of the Christian religion so much so that we might almost define true Christianity as the religion of a divinely revealed priesthood. Christianity is indeed priestly and the priesthood is of its essence: no priesthood, no Christianity.
This priesthood of the New Law is really three kinds of priesthood; all, however, take their origin from and depend on the Incarnation of the Son of God. There is, first of all, the priesthood of Jesus Christ. By His Incarnation, Jesus offered to His heavenly Father all the acts of His human will. Remember, a priest is one who offers. God could not offer to God. God had first to become man to make it possible for an oblation, or more accurately, a sacrifice to be offered. God had first to have a human will to make the priesthood possible.
Christ's priesthood, therefore, began in Mary's womb. He lived His priesthood during the nine hidden months within His mother, then through the many years at Nazareth, and while preaching and doing good throughout Palestine. But especially on the cross did He live this priesthood, where He united all the acts of a mortal human being capable of suffering and of death into one supreme sacrifice, by which He became the Mediator par excellence between the human race and God, our priest and pontiff for a sinful mankind. Such was Christ's priesthood in His mortal flesh on earth. But we are not finished. In fact, Christ's priesthood in a profound sense only began during His mortal sojourn which ended on Calvary. Jesus continues His priesthood even now. He had better; otherwise, we could not have a Mass.
As our eternal High Priest He worships, praises, and thanks the divine majesty in His own name and in the name of His people. But, though sinless Himself, He is head of a very sinful human family. So He intercedes before the throne of the Father for us. Being heard by the Father, He keeps sending down blessings on us from His heavenly home. This priesthood of Jesus Christ is the only one fundamental priesthood now in the Church. All other priesthoods are participations in this one. The participation takes place in two different ways. First and mainly, by those ordained to the ministerial priesthood and secondly, by all the faithful as belonging to the priesthood of the faithful.
We have, therefore, because of Christ's priesthood, first of all the ordained ministerial priesthood which we identify with the sacrament of orders. Who belongs to this priesthood? All those who are of the sacerdotal rank: priests, bishops, and the Pope at their head. When did this participated ministerial priesthood of Jesus begin? It came into existence at the Last Supper when the Savior did two things. He first changed bread and wine into Himself and already offered, the night before He died, the death He would endure. Then He told the disciples to do what He did "in commemoration of me". It is a defined article of the Catholic Faith that the ordained ministerial priesthood, the sacrament of orders, was instituted personally by Jesus at the Last Supper.
Finally, beyond the ordained ministerial priesthood, which is unique and possessed only by those who receive the sacrament of orders, there is a true although subordinate sense in which all the baptized faithful belong to the priesthood of Christ. We begin to share in the priesthood of the Savior when we are baptized into the priesthood of Christ. This sacramental character which we receive at Baptism is deepened by the sacrament of Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. It is because of this sharing in Christ's priesthood that the faithful are able to receive any of the other sacraments; without this one no other sacrament can be received. It is because of this share in Christ's priesthood that they are enabled to offer with the priest at the altar the body and blood of the Son of God to His heavenly Father, which is why it is said, "Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father."
Our enablement is conditioned by our sharing in this priesthood of Christ. Because we are baptized, we participate in the role of Christ, the High Priest; we are thus able to be victims with Jesus-victims like Jesus as man, but victims for Jesus who is God. This is the priesthood about which Saint Peter wrote. We should recall the first Pope reminding the faithful that they share in Christ's royalty because they share in His capacity for sacrifice; our King is a crowned King indeed, but crowned on earth with a crown of thorns. That is the kind of priesthood that we are all privileged to participate in. While the fact of sharing in this priesthood is an article of our faith and made possible by our Baptism, the degree of this participation, its intensity, and its fruitfulness for the good of our souls and the souls of others, depends on the willingness with which we are co-offerers and especially co-offered with the Savior.
It is almost too ambitious for words to try to exhaust the meaning of the priesthood. My first recommendation, therefore, is to spend much more time than perhaps what we have been doing in meditating on the priesthood. Where can we find material from which we can gain deep insights on God's revealed wisdom regarding the priesthood? First of all, read Saint Paul's letter to the Hebrews. Many people do not meditate much on Saint Paul, and Hebrews is not his easiest letter. In any case, the thirteen chapters of the letter to the Hebrews are the most exhausting revelation we have on the meaning of Christ's priesthood and of our share in that priesthood.
Secondly, look into the teachings of the Church. Here I would especially single out "Mediator Dei" of Pope Pius XII on the sacred liturgy. There are many beautiful and profound things about the priesthood in general in this document. There is an especially clear distinction between the priesthood of the ministry (those who are ordained) and the priesthood of all the faithful, with a long, elaborate explanation of how we faithful might more effectively live out our own baptized priesthood.
The priesthood is indeed important; without it there is no Church. Needless to say, the priesthood is challenged. The late Pope Paul VI more than once said that never in the history of the Church has the priestly office been more attacked than today. Hence, if ever the priesthood needed supportof the priests, first of all, of their fellow-priests, and of all the faithful through prayer and sacrificeit is today.
Consequently, not merely knowing about the priesthood, but praying and offering God sacrifices for the priesthood are indispensably important in our day. Undoubtedly God is allowing the shepherds to be struck and thus the sheep to be scattered. May we offer our petitions and pains to God that He might have mercy on His people by restoring His priesthood to that dignity, that importance, that respect, and that multitude of ministers of the Gospel and the sacraments, without which, as we now sadly see, millions are literally wandering about as sheep who are lost because they do not have those who, under God, should help lead them back to Him.
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