Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

The Priesthood  
From the September AD 1995
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin
Our Sacred Faith - Part VII

Pontificale Romanum, 1520:   Laying on of Hands

Tu es Sacérdos in ætérnum

    Our last installment dealt with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We move, logically, to examine the Sacrament of Holy Orders; for where there is a sacrifice, there must be a priesthood. We will see that the Priesthood represents the greatest opportunity for a man to associate himself personally and permanently with the Sacred, and likewise to communicate the Sacred to those around him—for it is in the Priesthood that an ordinary man becomes another Christ.


    As with many of the sacred aspects of our Faith, we must look for the origins of the Priesthood in the books of the Old Testament. In almost every case, God prepared His people to receive the ways of salvation in the Old Testament, by giving them an indication of the things that would come in the New. The Old Testament is filled with images or "types" of things which would become realities with the coming of Christ. For example, the Flood was a "type" of Baptism, washing man's sins away. The bronze serpent raised by Moses on a pole was a "type" of Christ raised on the wood of the Cross. The old sacrificial lambs gave way to the new sacrifice of the true Lamb of God. In the same way, the Jewish Priesthood prefigured and gave way to the Priesthood founded by our Lord Jesus Christ in the upper room at Jerusalem.

    The earliest account of a functioning priest is found in Genesis with Abel offering the firstborn of his flock to God. The same book has Abraham offering his own son to God; a sacrifice which God accepts only when a stag is found to replace the young Isaac. The sacrifice of the Passover at the time of the exodus began a series of minutely detailed sacrificial offerings. We can read about these sacrifices and the hereditary priesthood established by God in the books of Exodus and Leviticus.

    An Old Testament "type" of Christ is the priest-king Melchisedech, mentioned in Genesis xiv as a "priest of the Most High God." King of Salem, Melchisedech is of mysterious origin, perhaps symbolizing the birth of Christ without a human father. He offered a sacrifice of bread and wine for the benefit of Abraham, giving this father of the Jewish nation an everlasting "type" of the Holy Eucharist (cf. Hebrews vii). In the book of Psalms, we even find the eternal Father addressing the Christ: "Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech" (Ps. cix).

    While the Jewish priesthood differs in many ways from that of Christ, it undeniably served to educate God's people in His worship, and to make them aware of the fact that we must offer the best of what is ours in adoration and reparation for our sins. The great Old Testament "types" of the Priesthood are even commemorated in the Canon of the Mass:

    And this [the Sacred Host and Precious Blood] do Thou deign to regard with gracious and kindly attention, and hold acceptable, as Thou didst deign to accept the offerings of Abel, Thy just servant, and the sacrifice of Abraham our Patriarch, and that which Thy chief priest Melchisedech offered unto Thee, a holy sacrifice and a spotless victim.

    These priests of the Old Testament served to make clear to their people what St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Hebrews: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." Without understanding this need for sacrifice under the Mosaic Law, it would be hard indeed to understand the Sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross.

Priests of the New Law

    In Hebrews, St. Paul lays out the basic theology of the Priesthood. He explains the functions of the Jewish Priesthood, demonstrates how Christ came to fulfill that Priesthood, and how "we have all been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."

    It is vital to understand one point about which Paul was insistent: The Priesthood founded by our Lord is different from its Jewish counterpart in one essential way. The priests of the New Law do not offer a variety of sacrifices—they offer no goats, no lambs, no poured out offerings. They offer only Christ—and they do not offer Him many times over. The Priesthood of the New Law offers one and the same Sacrifice with our Lord on the Cross—there are not multiple sacrifices, but only the making present of the one Sacrifice in many times and places.

    The Sacrifice of the Catholic Priesthood is, of course, the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice of the Cross. By virtue of Holy Mass men and women throughout the world are able to take part in this primary event of their own redemption. They are able also, to eat the Flesh and drink the Blood which our Lord insisted were so necessary for salvation (John vi). "How can this man give us His Flesh to eat ... His Blood to drink?" asked Jesus' less faithful followers in scorn. Yet they are able to do just that by virtue of the sacrificial renewal effected by His Priesthood.

    The first priests were the Apostles. They had spent just under three years traveling with our Lord as He taught, exhorted, and healed throughout the country of Palestine. They studied under His guidance and tried their hands at preaching His word. More importantly, they developed spiritually; contemplating Christ in their midst, growing in His love, and learning to conform their wills to His. Above all, they were with Him on the night before He died, when He gave them bread and wine, turning these simple foods into His Body and Blood. At the same time He turned the Apostles into "other Christs," giving them the power to offer this same Sacrifice in His name.

The Sacrament of Holy Orders

    The standard definition of a Sacrament is "an outward sign, instituted by Christ to give grace." The Priesthood, or Holy Orders, certainly fits this definition. At ordination men are set apart from the rest of the Christian Community. Not only do they receive the graces needed to help them in this state in life, but they receive power to bring God's grace to others. They become, in a sense, vessels, or conduits of God's grace. Over the years, the central elements of the ceremony of ordination have varied, but they have always precisely determined the individual receiving the Sacrament, and the degree to which he was receiving it. Some of the medieval rites conferred the Sacrament by handing over the instruments of the office as the matter of the Sacrament; a paten and chalice containing bread and wine in the case of the Priesthood. At other times, both earlier and later, the Church used the laying on of hands for the Sacramental matter. Since a 1947 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius XII, the laying on of hands and specific prayers for the Diaconate, Priesthood, and Episcopate are mandated as the matter and form for all future ordinations.[1]

    The Sacrament of Holy Orders, like Baptism and Confirmation, imprints a "character," or "mark" upon the soul of the man who receives it. This means that with ordination, one becomes "a priest forever." No sin or unfaithfulness can blot out this character; there is no way to run away from or to abandon the Priesthood. Of course, it must be this way, for we are all sinners. There would be no way to preserve the Priesthood if it depended on perfect sinlessness and fidelity; it would have vanished centuries ago. Fifteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine explained that one doesn't even lose the priesthood by leaving the Church and taking up with heretics. (The contrary position, that sacramental acts done outside the Church are invalid and must be repeated, was condemned as heresy of Donatism by Pope Melchiades around 312 AD.)[2]

    Thus, every priest, no matter what his current or past light might be like, retains the ability to offer the Holy Mass and to confer the Sacraments. A good example of the Church's strict recognition of this principle can be seen in the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy after the French Revolution. The so-called "Constitutional Bishops," agents of the anti-religious government, had been consecrated by the apostate bishop Talleyrand, quite outside of the Church—yet many of them were allowed by Pope Pius VII to remain in office as part of the restored hierarchy. The same principle is followed with priests and bishops of the Orthodox Church (or any other church with valid Sacraments) who become Catholics—they are not re-ordained if they are to serve as priests. This is true because there is only one Priesthood, and all who possess it share in the same Priesthood of Jesus Christ.

    All those who receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders do not receive it in the same degree. Our Lord ordained the Apostles as bishops, but they knew that they were able to communicate their powers to others, either in the same or in a lesser degree. Only a while before Pentecost the Apostles consecrated Matthias as bishop to replace Judas (Acts i). A short time thereafter, they ordained the first deacons (Acts vi). Bishops receive the fullness of the Priesthood and are able to confer all of the Sacraments. Those commonly referred to as priests actually receive the Priesthood in a lesser degree, being unable to ordain other priests. Deacons receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders but are able only Baptize, Marry, and distribute the Blessed Sacrament previously consecrated by a priest or bishop. They may also preach. Below the Order of Deacons, the Church has established several non-sacramental orders: subdeacons, acolytes, exorcists, lectors, and porters. Generally, the functions originally performed by these orders are now performed by priest, or, in some cases, by laymen. For example, our modern "altar boys" take the place of those men ordained to minister at the altar in the Order of Acolytes. Those who study for the Priesthood receive these Minor Orders and the Subdiaconate before becoming deacons.[3]

Alter Christus—Another Christ

    As we have seen, the function of the Priesthood is to offer the one Sacrifice of the Cross for those who are separated from Calvary by time or space. In order to do this, and to do it with the appropriate dignity, good priests aspire to deepen the sense in which they may be known as "other Christs." Some of this comes by virtue of ordination, but much of it comes by careful imitation of the priestly character of Christ, who combined the roles of Teacher, Priest, and Victim.

    As teacher, the priest himself must strive to know the teachings of our Lord, and carefully to communicate them to his people. Most of Christ's public life, and likewise a great deal of each priests' time, was spent in helping people to understand the wonders of God's kingdom and teaching them how to achieve it. The priest, as an "other Christ," carries on the process of educating and consoling Christ's Faithful. In teaching in conformity with the traditions of the Church, the priest acts with the authority of Christ Himself.

    By virtue of the name, we know that the office of "priest" involves being an intermediary between God and man. Earlier, when we examined the Sacrifice of the Mass, we saw that there was an infinite gap between God and man, and that something infinitely good is required to make amends for the insult done to God by sin. As a man the priest is as finite as any of us, but by virtue of being an "alter Christus," he is able to step in and fill the gap. This indelible character of which we spoke somehow enables mere man to reach out to God Almighty. Indeed, when the man priest reaches out, God the Father sees only His Son Jesus Christ extending His hands to Him.

    We are best able to see the priest as an "other Christ" when he imitates his Lord as a victim for the sins of mankind. There is no mistaking that this was the most important part of Christ's plan of redemption, and, consequently the most important aspect of a holy priest. To be willing to offer Christ in sacrifice while refusing to join Him on the Cross is hypocritical. As we look back over the centuries we see a long line of holy priests who have sacrificed themselves in a thousand ways: they have given their time and physical energies; they have curtailed the pleasures of friends and family to devote themselves to their people; they have abandoned riches and personal comforts to spread the word of the Gospel; they have disregarded their health and even their very lives in the service of God. Since the eleventh century most Latin Rite priests have been bound by the discipline of celibacy; there hasn't been a married pope since the ninth century; and no one may marry after ordination to the Subdiaconate. The Church sees nothing wrong with marriage but proposes the sacrifice of celibacy as a way of being a victim for sin with Christ. The families of those priests permitted marriage before ordination often share in some way in the victim status of their priest father.

    While not all priests are good priests, we still must respect their sacramental likeness to our Lord. We should pray frequently that all priests will be led closer to the Christ-like ideal of teacher, priest, and victim.

Mary: Mother and Model for Priests

    No, more effective, model for priests is available than Mary, the Mother of all priests. And no priest can do better than to dedicate his priesthood to her, and to emulate her in the conduct of his ministry:

    Is not the priest another Christ? Did not every human cell in the body of Christ come exclusively from the body of Mary?

    Does not the priest offer the immaculate victim for the sins of mankind? Did not Mary stand at the foot of the cross, a widowed mother, offering her only Son for sins that she did not commit?

    Does not the priest offer himself as victim with his Lord? Was not Mary slain by the sword of sorrow that pierced her heart?

    Who has a better right to speak or more correctly utters the words, "This is my body. This is my blood.... flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone"?

    Is it then possible to be a priest without imitating Mary? Surely not!

Summary: From the Roman Pontifical:

    "The office of the priest is to offer sacrifice, to bless, to govern, to preach, and to baptize. Truly it must be with great fear that you ascend to so high a station: and care must be taken that heavenly wisdom, an irreproachable character, and long continued righteousness shall comment the candidates chosen for it.

    "It is for this reason that the Lord, when commanding Moses to select from the whole people of Israel seventy men to assist him, and to impart to them a share in the gifts of the Holy Ghost, added this direction: 'Take whom thou knowest to be elders among the people.' Now you have been typified by the seventy men who were elders, if, observing the Ten Commandments of the Law by the help of the sevenfold Spirit, you will be men of virtue, mature in knowledge as well as in work.

    "Under the same mystery and figure, the Lord chose in the New Testament seventy-two disciples and sent them two by two, to go before Him, preaching. Thus He wished to teach by word and deed that the ministers of His Church should be perfect in faith and practice; that they should be grounded in the twin virtue of charity, namely, the love of God and the love of neighbor.

    "Therefore, endeavor to be such that, by the grace of God, you may be worthy to be chosen as helpers of the Catholic bishops who are signified by Moses and the twelve apostles. Truly wonderful is the variety with which the holy Church is endowed, adorned, and governed. Its ministers are men ordained to various orders, some bishops, others inferior in rank, priests, and deacons, and subdeacons: and out of many members distinguished as to dignity the one body of Christ is formed.

    "And so, maintain in your deportment inviolate purity and holiness of life. Understand what you do, imitate what you administer. Inasmuch as you celebrate the mystery of the death of the Lord, you should endeavor to mortify in your members all sin and concupiscence. Let your teaching be a spiritual medicine for the people of God and the odor of your lives a delight for the Church of Christ. May you thus build up, by preaching and example, the house, that is, the family of God, so that your promotion may not be a cause of damnation for me, nor the reception of so great an office for you, but rather of reward.

    "May He by His grace grant it to us. Amen."

-- Pontificale Romanum: Admonition of the Bishop to those about to be ordained priests.


1. In simple terms, the "matter" of a Sacrament is a material thing or physical action that designates the recipient and the nature of the Sacrament, while the "form" refers to the accompanying words which make the nature of the Sacrament more specific.

2. Parish Bulletin, "Q&A," April 1995, page 6, on "Donatism."

3. The Subdiaconate is non-Sacramental but is ranked with the higher or "Major Orders," probably because with this order a man gives up the right to marry and takes on the obligation of praying the Divine Office.


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