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Why Holy Orders? Two Catholic Perspectives


The following is a part of a seven-article series on the sacraments, written by two University of Notre Dame students. We encourage you to read both perspectives and check our website regularly for the rest of the series!

Why Holy Orders? By Mary Biese

In the sacrament of Holy Orders, God calls,[i] raises up, sends out,[ii] purifies, and sanctifies the ordained. Presented by those already ordained[iii] and by the people of God,[iv] the ordinand lays down his life[v] for God and His people,[vi] receiving from the Father[vii] the renewed gift of the Holy Spirit[viii] and the commission to imitate[ix] and conform himself to Christ, the fulfillment of Old-Testament priesthood Who offers Himself as Eucharistic sacrifice. Through Christ’s Incarnational friendship and the threefold mission of Prophet, Priest, and King, the priest, himself both called and fallen, facilitates the gift and return-gift of the sacramental economy.

Having considered and consented to the transformative sacrament of Holy Orders, the priest serves,[x] sanctifies, preaches to, sustains, unites, leads, and sets an example for God’s people. Fulfilling the Levitical priesthood[xi] and building upon that of Melchizedek,[xii] Christ’s priesthood transcends each by His Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, and Ascension.[xiii] Christ, Priest and Victim, offers Himself for His people’s sanctification;[xiv] the priest imitates this sacrifice, participating in and making present its saving power.[xv] Breaking the logic of power, of a division between divine and human, between sacred and profane, Christ by His Incarnation calls us to friendship based on obedience and action, motivated by mutually self-giving love.[xvi] In Holy Orders, God sacramentally consummates this friendship[xvii] in the celebration of the Eucharist, healing and transforming the priest (as both apostolically set-apart and a member of the fallen created order).[xviii] Through his reception of the Church’s apostolic authority[xix] and the graces of Holy Orders, the priest facilitates the gift[xx] and return-gift of the sacramental economy, offering himself[xxi] in a continual and timeless[xxii] way so as to re-present Christ’s radical proximity with us.[xxiii]

Holy Orders commissions its recipients to continue and extend Christ’s ministry[xxiv] via its handing-down of the apostles’ intimate, personal, and mystical dialogue with Christ.[xxv] The sacrament establishes the mediators of Christ’s new covenant[xxvi] in a three-fold mission[xxvii] “as Teacher,[xxviii] Priest, and Shepherd”—as Prophet, Priest, and King. As Prophet,[xxix] the priest joyfully[xxx] teaches the converted, evangelizes the unconverted, and forms others to apostolicity.[xxxi] As Priest, the ordained man sanctifies and intercedes for the people[xxxii] by administering the sacraments and communicating “the knowledge of the Father and the Son… a mysteric, sympathetic understanding of their relation to each other and to ourselves, and so a communion with them.”[xxxiii] As (a kingly) Shepherd, the priest visits the poor and sick, gathers together and tends to the wider needs of his flock, and builds up the unity[xxxiv] of his flock[xxxv] that the Trinity may make them into the house of God.[xxxvi]

God, through the graces and mission of Holy Orders,[xxxvii] calls each priest to cooperate in his own self-sanctification, in imitation of Christ’s perfection.[xxxviii] Consecrated yet still fallen,[xxxix] the priest’s inner tension remains throughout his life, calling forth a need for humility,[xl] Christ-oriented repentance,[xli] and a confessional openness to continual and life-altering dialogue with God.[xlii] To help[xliii] each priest grow in holiness and avoid falling into complacency[xliv] and other temptations,[xlv] God calls the ordained to a life of prayer,[xlvi] not substituting it with action[xlvii] but balancing the two.

Priests seek to imitate Christ’s incarnational friendship in the unity of their three-fold mission and their configuration to Christ, the Church’s Head.[xlviii] Thus they serve as a microcosm of Christ’s nearness to His people and the unity within His Bride, the Church. In Baptism,[xlix] priests anoint persons into the Trinity and the three-fold mission of the universal priesthood; in Anointing, they relieve and console the sick. Holy Orders builds upon Confirmation’s gift of the Holy Spirit. The priest, who acts as both penitent and minister,[l] lives out the Confessional stance[li] by his administration of the sacrament of Confession and his reception of said sacrament.[lii] Like Marriage, Orders heals the brokenness of its ministers.[liii] In the Eucharist, to which all the sacraments point,[liv] the priest joins himself to Christ, dispenses the Holy Spirit,[lv] and offers worship to God for the sake of himself, the Church,[lvi] and the world.[lvii]

Why Holy Orders: St. Padre Pio Saying Mass

This image of St. Padre Pio saying Mass speaks to many priestly realities. Padre Pio is saying Mass, which serves as the summit of the sacramental life in its making present Christ’s Incarnation, atonement, and friendship. He is wearing priestly garments, signifying his disappropriation and the giving-over of his entire life to working for the people, of enacting the leitourgia for their sake and for his. Pio, through his deep friendship with Christ, received the painful gift of the Stigmata, also pictured here, in which he united himself with Christ’s sufferings. Through this God configured his soul more closely with Himself, making him more into the image of Christ the High Priest. St. Padre Pio worked for the salvation of many souls before and after his death, particularly through the sacrament of Confession. Pio’s open hands in this photo signal his openness to God and the Eucharistic calling-down of the Holy Spirit. The flowers behind him and on his vestments signal the new life into which the priest is ordained and the eternal life into which he is called to lead his flock. Though on the cross behind Pio we only see the bottom half of the cross, Pio’s upper body, conformed to Christ down to his very wounds, finishes the photo’s image of Christ crucified.

Why Holy Orders: Parce Domine (chant and hymn)

Hymn (Basilica of the Sacred Heart):

The Original Chant:

http://gregorian-chant-hymns.com/hymns-2/parce-domine.html

REFRAIN: Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people, 

lest Thou be angry with us forever.

  1. Let us bow down before the avenging wrath; let us weep before the Judge;

let us cry forth in prayer of supplication, and all fall prostrate in prayer.

  • By our sins we have offended thy clemency, O God;

pour out on us thy pardon from on high, Thou Who dost forgive.

  • Offering an acceptable time, give streams of tears to wash the sacrifice of our heart,

which joyful charity enkindles. (verse skipped)

  • Beloved searcher of hearts, thou knowest the infirmities of men;

show pardoning grace to those who return to thee.

This chant, Parce Domine, brings forth the priest’s continuation of Christ’s sanctifying work. In the rite of Holy Orders, the priest “falls prostrate in prayer.” The “us” and “our” of the chant speak to the ecclesial nature of the sacrament, both at the time of ordination and the priest’s living-out of that vocation. Keeping one’s repentance within the context of offending God and trusting in His pardon and forgiveness reminds the listener of the confessional stance with which a priest must constantly live his life, as one consecrated yet still fallen. Through Holy Orders, both the priest and the people find cleansing and sanctification; the hymn asks God for these gifts, since it is only through God’s active grace that such purification can occur within the souls of his people, the Church. The refrain echoes Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Moses’ intercession for the Israelites—both characters being types of Christ, the High Priest and ultimate Mediator between God the Father and all of creation.


[i] By so calling them, Christ claims them. Thus the apostolic office of teaching ““has a ‘mysteric’ dimension, for it issues from the life of the God who, in Christ, has claimed them body and soul as his own” Nichols, Aidan. Holy Order: the Apostolic Ministry from the New Testament to the Second Vatican Council (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1990), 7.

See also Rom 1:1, 1 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:15.

[ii] See 1 Cor 1:17, Gal 2:8.

[iii] In the Rite of ordination, the deacon calls the candidate, who, assenting, answers “Present” and goes before the bishop. Another priest presents the candidate; like in the sacrament of Confirmation, one who has already received the sacrament of Holy Orders presents the candidate for reception of that same sacrament. Rites for Ordination (newest version in English Roman Rite) 39, #11-12.

[iv] From the ecclesial community comes the request and consent to “ordain this man, our brother, for service as priest.” The Church also intercedes for the priest during the litany of saints and provides the gifts for the Eucharistic sacrifice. The priest must accept from the Church the gifts, know the import of his action, imitate the Eucharistic mystery, and model his life “on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” Rite 39, #12-13; 43, #19; 46, #26.

[v] The priest prostrates himself, symbolizing his weakness, need for sanctification, and assent to self-gift. This Aqedah, continuing the disappropriation (obedience, openness, humility, receptivity) present in the sacraments of Initiation and the sacrament of Penance, undergirds a life of prayer. The reclothing of the candidate in the Rite symbolizes this disappropriation: the white alb echoes Baptism; the stole, the giving-over of one’s life to the work of the priestly office; the (Eucharistic) chasuble, of representing Christ to the point of this representation visually taking precedence over the priest’s own singularity. Rite 43, #18; Nichols, Holy Order 112, quoting Joseph Bergin. See also Nichols, Holy Order 113 and 1 Cor 9:12-18, 2 Cor 11:7-20, Phil 4:10-11, 1 Cor 7:7, and Phil 3:10.

[vi] God joins the priest with the bishops “as a conscientious fellow worker… in caring for the Lord’s flock” Rite 42, #15.

[vii] The Father grants the dignity of the priesthood and renews the Spirit of holiness given in Confirmation Rite 25.

[viii] This gift gives the strength and support to faithfully carry out Christ’s ministry. Rite 25, 43.

[ix] God, through the sacramental grace and the priest’s enactment of his priestly duties, molds the priest into Christ’s likeness. See Rites 40, #14.

[x] “Always remember the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and to seek out and rescue those who were lost” Rite 41, #14

[xi] Christ goes beyond the consecration of the Levitical priesthood, oriented towards function, to a new orientation towards self-gift, deification, and sanctification. Whereas the Levite priest mediated between the tent of meeting and the altar of God, Christ ends this division, tearing apart the veil of the Holy of Holies as he expires on the Cross. See Lev 8-9, Gal 7:15, Rom 1:1, Mt 27:51, Mk 15:38, Lk 23:45.

[xii] Melchizedek, greater than Abraham (Heb 7:1-10), blesses the patriarch of the Aqedah (Gen 14). Christ’s new priesthood transcends the Levitical bloodlines with apostolic succession, the intimacy of Moses with the gift of the Eucharist, and the mysterious (or lack of) origins of Melchizedek with His eternal Divinity, united to His Humanity. See Heb 3:16, 7:1-10.

[xiii] Christ’s resurrection and ascension bring to the forefront this sacrament’s eschatological orientation; both events transcend the covenants and priesthood(s) of the Old Testament. Christ’s conquering of death and promise of the resurrection of the body at the end of time provide an unprecedented and concrete eschatological reality towards which Holy Orders orients itself. Christ’s ascension emphasizes the importance of Incarnational theology and the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who guides the Church on earth. The “sacramental consecration of the apostolic ministry derives from the primordial consecration of our Lord’s own humanity in his Incarnation and Atonement” Nichols, Holy Order 11.

[xiv] Since Old-Testament-esque gifts and sacrifices prove insufficient for true cleansing of hearts (Heb 9:9, Ps 40:6), Christ gives His sacramental grace to provide endurance to us (Heb 10:19-39). He meets us where we are (see Jn 21: invitation to “come, have breakfast”) and through worship draws out the coherence of the space of conscience, purifying that place where broken relations persist. Fr. Kevin Grove, CSC’s commentary on Hebrews 9 and 10, 04/29/2021.

[xv] “Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate. In the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection, make every effort to die to sin and to walk in the new life of Christ” Rite 41, #14.

[xvi] Christ transforms the Old-Testament “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18) into the command to “love one another as I have loved you,” which means “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:12-13). In the words of Fr. Kevin Grove, CSC (05/06/2021), “Friendship has an incarnational metaphysics because Incarnation augments friendship across divine-human difference.”

[xvii] The priest serves as a constant reminder that we all can befriend Christ. The Blessed Virgin Mary serves as a model of such an intimate friendship with Christ. Nichols, Holy Order 115.

[xviii] “The ministry of priests is directed to [the Eucharistic sacrifice] and finds its consummation in it” Nichols, Holy Order 138, quoting Presbyterorum ordinis.

[xix] “Jesus’ appointment of the New Testament Twelve gives them authority within his new Covenant and community” Nichols, Holy Order 12. Some precedents for this passing-on of authority in the Rite (43-44, #20-22) are Num 11:16-30 and Ex 28. See also 1 Cor 15:3-5, Mt 18:5, Mk 9:37, Lk 9:48, Jn 13:20, Jn 17, Acts 6:1-6 (and the entire book of the Acts of the Apostles).

[xx] Memorial action gives us access to God, who stoops in the Incarnation in an extremely intimate fashion. See Heb 10:19-39.

[xxi] “The priesthood means imitation of Christ, and imitation means self-crucifixion”

Sheen, Fulton J. The Priest Is Not His Own [1st ed.] (New York: McGraw Hill, 1963) 166. All citations from Ch 10, “The Priest as Simon and Peter.”

[xxii] The Mass builds upon the historical precedents of the Old Testament and the historical Paschal Mystery, makes Christ’s sacrifice present, and prepares those present for the eschatological realities that await them in the future. See Irwin, Kevin W. Models of the Eucharist (New York: Paulist Press, 2005), Model Four: Memorial of the Paschal Mystery.

[xxiii] See Nichols, Holy Order 126.

[xxiv] The apostles’ mission “prolong[s] the primordial mission which the Son has received from the Father” Nichols, Holy Order 7.

[xxv] “The teaching activity of the Twelve… includes the communication of a more intimate, experiential understanding of the person and will of Christ, and the source of that personality and design in the being and mind of the Father” Nichols, Holy Order 8.

[xxvi] “A covenanted gift of the Father, made through the economies of the Son and the Spirit for the mediation of divine reality—as spiritual life (the priestly office), transcendent truth (the prophetic office) and all-embracing unity (the pastoral office) in the community of the new Covenant” Nichols, Holy Order 33 (see also 10). Christ orients the office towards the continuation of His work: Rite 40, #14, Lev 8:1-9.

[xxvii] Each aspect of this mission proves crucial to a priest’s vocation. These three, though distinct, must stay united, integrated, and held together. See Nichols, Holy Order 128. The sacrament of Holy Orders (bishop, priest, deacon) is likewise Trinitarian: Nichols, Holy Order 28-30, 133-138. The unity of the priest’s three roles makes his vocation unique and irreplaceable.  

[xxviii] “The gospel tradition… ascribe[s] this [teaching] capacity of the Twelve to the influence of the ‘Counsellor’, the Holy Spirit” Nichols, Holy Order 8.

[xxix] This teaching role proves not only prophetic, but priestly and kingly as well, thus bearing witness to the unity of the three: “The prophetic preacher proclaims the Gospel… as representation of Christ the Teacher; the priestly preacher ministers the Word as a mediation and sacrifice by which the hearers may be sanctified by Christ the High Priest; the kingly preacher initiates and completes the process as builder and shepherd of the community of faith by declaring the elemental facts of redemption and guarding that kerygma with the authority commissioned by Christ the King” Nichols, Holy Order 125, quoting St. John Henry Newman.

[xxx] The priest’s joy stems from his faith and his teaching goes hand in hand with his call to witness to Christ in his life. “Share with all mankind the word of God you have received with joy. Meditate on the law of God, believe what you read, teach what you believe, and put into practice what you teach. Let the doctrine you teach be true nourishment for the people of God” Rite 40, #14.

[xxxi] Heb 12:2; Nichols, Holy Order 142.

[xxxii] Nichols, Holy Order 142.

[xxxiii] Full quote: “Through the Twelve, the Son [communicates] to the whole Church not only life everlasting… but also the knowledge of the Father and the Son… a mysteric, sympathetic understanding of their relation to each other and to ourselves, and so a communion with them” Nichols, Holy Order 11.

[xxxiv] “The Twelve are to render the community of Jesus a unity… one which reflects the unbreakable unity of Father and Son themselves” Nichols, Holy Order 11.

[xxxv] Nichols, Holy Order 142. See also Heb 13:20, Jn 20:15-19.

[xxxvi] See Heb 3:1-6.

[xxxvii] Christ heals the priest through the sacrament, though this healing does not happen instantaneously nor permanently at the time of ordination; St. Peter provides an apt example of this priestly state. “Every priest… is endowed with a special grace. By this grace the priest, through his service of the people… is able the better to pursue the perfection of Christ whose place he takes. The human weakness of his flesh is remedied by the holiness of him who became for us a High Priest ‘holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners’” Nichols, Holy Order 140, quoting Presbyterorum ordinis.

[xxxviii] “A priest is ordained… not only to be perfect, but by his own life, and by the action and influence of his life in word and deed on others, to exhibit and to impress on them the perfection of our divine Lord” Nichols, Holy Order 122, quoting Manning.

[xxxix] “We drag our physical inheritance, our congenital weaknesses, our temperament and our body to the altar. The Simon element never leaves us, even when we take on the role of Peter” Sheen, The Priest 164.

[xl] This humility finds its joy and life in the hope of Christ and His help: ““The more we recognize the holiness of the High Priest, the more conscious we are of our own failings… Our sufficiency is from God” Sheen, The Priest 169, 173; see also Lk 22:62, 1 Pet 1:18-19, 2 Cor 3:5-6a. Christ “paradoxically draws priests closer to Him when they are most conscious of the distance that separates them from Him” Sheen, The Priest 170. Nichols echoes this power of recognition in the spiritual progress of a priestly soul: “These ‘growths’ of the heart and mind are based, Hedley tells us, on understanding of what Jesus Christ is to the world and the individual soul; on perception of the work of the Holy Spirit, and the need for the spiritualization of the routine of life; on a recognition of the wisdom of the words and actions of the saints, and on some idea of the purifying and elevating force of suffering” Nichols, Holy Order 118.

[xli] This repentance implies turning to Christ for strength and forgiveness and turning to the Holy Spirit in obedience. Priests themselves need the Sacraments for sanctification as well, particularly those of healing (Confession and the Anointing of the Sick). See Sheen, The Priest 165, 172; 2 Cor 7:10.

[xlii] Peter, unlike Judas, clings to hope and returns to Christ in repentance (after so wholly rejecting Him), by opening himself up to the painful, cleansing dialogue of Jn 21:15-19. Peter acknowledges that he’s failed his name in this dialogue, from which comes the re-commission of his priestly mission and (narratively) his priestly name.

[xliii] In the rite of ordination, when asked, “Are you resolved to consecrate your life to God for the salvation of his people, and to unite yourself more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself for us to the Father as a perfect sacrifice?”, the candidate replies, “I am, with the help of God” Rite 42, #15, emphasis mine. This bears witness to God’s active assistance and to the deeply personal interior movement of conversion that accompanies and undergirds exterior works. While the priest’s personal holiness does not negate the effectiveness of the sacraments he administers, a particularly holy priest can do much to augment the graces given within such sacraments.

[xliv] “He who does not advance in perfection falls into imperfection… The moment we cease to row against the stream, the current carries us down the river” Sheen, The Priest 180. For more on lukewarmness and avoiding it, see Mt 26:58, Mk 10:32, Is 5:1-7, Rev 3:16, and Mt 25:29.

[xlv] The priest must be watchful to avoid a comfortable existence by not elevating creaturely comforts over Christ’s priestly mission. The priest, like every person called to holiness, must orient his fallen desires to God, putting Him above all else and allowing Him to sanctify and raise up his desires through His grace (and particularly through His Church’s Sacraments). Sheen, The Priest 182, 184; Mk 14:54, Jn 18:18. See also Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Second Homily, “The Meaning of the Biblical Creation Accounts.”

[xlvi] Vigilant, persistent, constant prayer is “the essence,” “source,” and “constant vehicle” of ecclesiastical activity and sacerdotal spirituality, without which a man “casts himself into hell” Nichols, Holy Order 112, quoting Joseph Bergin; Nichols, Holy Order 111, referencing Rochefoucauld; Sheen, The Priest 176-177, referencing St. Teresa of Avila. See also Lk 22:40, Mk 14:3.

[xlvii] Labora with no ora (see the Rule of St. Benedict) proves not only dangerous but deadly: “the very great danger to which the priest exposes himself when, carried away by a false zeal, he neglects his own personal sanctification in order to devote himself unreservedly to the external works of his ministry… [He risks] losing, if not Divine grace itself, at least the inspiration and unction of the Holy Spirit which gives such wonderful power and efficacy to the external works of the apostolate” Sheen, The Priest 178, quoting Pope Pius XI. See also Jn 18:10-11, Lk 22:51.

[xlviii] “Through the sacrament of Order ‘priests by the anointing of the Holy Spirit are configured to Christ the Priest in such a way that they are able to act in the person of Christ the Head’” Nichols, Holy Order 138, quoting Presbyterorum ordinis.

[xlix] See Rite 41, #14 for more on the priest and the sacramental economy.

[l] The priest “must assume a conscious confessional attitude… This is no abstract demand; it definitely has a practical side in the struggle against his own errors, in the sincerity in which he sees them, in his openness before God, in his contrition, in his humility when receiving the exhortation, in his joy at absolution, and in the new power he draws from the sacrament. He must surrender himself as one who is seeking to be newly formed and modeled.” von Speyr, Adrienne., Confession (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 245.

[li] Sheen points out that priests must enter into an openness to God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession and elsewhere, as St. Peter does: “Judas went to the confessional of his own paymaster: Peter, to the Lord… Peter was sorry for the sin itself because he wounded Love. Guilt without hope in Christ is despair and suicide. Guilt with hope in Christ is mercy and joy.” Sheen, The Priest 173. For more on the confessional stance, see Pope Francis’ words on marriage in Amoris Laetitia (#137).

[lii] The priest, without which the Sacrament could not occur in its concreteness and incarnation, “helps the penitent to make an integral confession… gives him suitable counsel… urges him to be sorry for his faults” in the context of Christ’s paschal mystery, and “proposes an act of penance.” He also “adapts his counsel to the penitent’s circumstances” as needed. Rites 546.

[liii] Priests “are consecrated to God in a new way in their ordination… and so are enabled to accomplish throughout all time that wonderful work of his which with supernatural efficacy restores the whole human race” Nichols, Holy Order 139, quoting Presbyterorum ordinis.

[liv] “The other sacraments… are bound up with the Eucharist and are directed towards it… men are invited and let to offer themselves, their works and all creation with Christ. For this reason the Eucharist appears as the source and summit of all preaching of the Gospel” Nichols, Holy Order 139, quoting Presbyterorum ordinis.

[lv] “At the consecration, the divine Son draws the priest each day into the unity of his own person, joining him to his deified humanity, and making him, through the Eucharistic gifts, the dispenser of the Holy Spirit” Nichols, Holy Order 114.

[lvi] This unites the once-separate sacrifices of the Levitical priesthood—for Aaron and his sons, and then for the community (Lev 9:8-24). See Eucharistic Prayer I.

[lvii] “It is, then, in union with all the baptized that the hierarchical priesthood offers the sacrifice of the Paschal mystery, and, with the collaboration of all the confirmed that, in the New Covenant, it realizes the apostolic mission of the new People of God” Nichols, Holy Order 131, quoting Père Joseph Lécuyer.

Why Holy Orders? By Pat Gouker

Through the Sacrament of Orders[1] a man responds to God’s call by submitting himself humbly to God through the person of the bishop and allowing himself to be molded into an alter Christus as a sacerdos-victima.[2] The man receives in this sacrament his great duty, his orders, to “carry out publicly”[3] the work of Christ “Teacher, Priest, and Shepherd,”[4] as workers in the vineyard, rescuing fallen humanity and restoring it to loving unity[5] in the friendship of Christ.[6] The priest crucifies himself on the reverse side of the Cross with Christ, stretching out his arms as a bridge between God and humanity. As Christ laid down His life for the salvation of the  world, so does the priest lay down his life for the people of God. The priest mediates the graces of God through the sacraments to the people and the prayers and sufferings of God’s people to Him. The priest lays down his life when he prostrates himself at his ordination, living no longer but letting Christ live in him[7]; he is no longer his own, but a servant to all, a friend who sacrifices all for all.

Called by Christ, the priest must firstly overcome his unworthiness or unpreparedness. He must heed the command of his Heavenly Mother, “Do whatever He tells you,”[8] trusting that there would be a later joy like there was at Cana after they listen to the Lord. For if Christ has called a man to priesthood, that man will be able to fulfill that call; for, he can do all things in Christ.[9] The priest humbly confesses his unworthiness to the God, shielding his face in disgrace while also feeling called to draw closer to the God[10] Who gives joy to His youth.[11] Making this confession to the Crucified Lord, the priest enters into “a constant dialogue”[12] with the Priest-Victim to whom he works to conform his life. As Christ heals the brokenness of His priest, the priest rises healed and renewed, not without the wounds of his hardships but with them present that he might ascend the altar steps a truer image of Christ Who ascended into Heaven and, by His Wounds, mediates between God and His people. This dialogue opens him up to be a true mediator between God and His people. This dialogue takes place in a most intimate fashion, made as a quite whisper from one side of the Cross to the other as Christ and priest hang suspended between heaven earth[13]; made in the whisper of the priest over the Bread of Life and the Chalice of Salvation.[14]

A bridge must be of sound structure. So too, then, must a priest structure his life in prayer and constant dialogue with Christ.[15] The priest exhausts himself happily by “apply[ing] [his] energies to the duty of teaching in the name of Christ,”[16] bearing the “burden of the priesthood”[17] by “carry[ing] a whole people…on [his] back.”[18] In prayer, the priest refreshes himself at the font of life and mercy which gushes forth from the pierced side of Christ. Refreshing himself[19] at the Wounded Side of Christ, the priest finds the Wounded Hand of Christ falling on his head as it no doubt did to Thomas as he investigated the marks of charity on the Lord. This hand rests on his head as did the hands of Aaron and his sons on the sacrificial victim[20], thus making the priest prepared not just to offer, but also to become the offered. Consecrated a priest and a victim, the priest imitates the mystery of “the sacrifice which is offered sacramentally through [his] hands.”[21]

The mystery imitated by the priest contains the fullness of the Christian’s sacramental life. At his hands are people brought into God’s family through Baptism, nourished by the Bread of Angels, relieved and consoled in times of bodily and spiritual ills, joined in a holy matrimonial union, having been filled and confirmed by the Spirit. In a word, the priest imitates the mystery of God’s charity manifested in the sacraments. So, the priest dons the chasuble, representative of this charity which he ever expresses in his life’s work.[22] The wearing of the chasuble on the exterior of all other vestments represents and stresses the importance of charity in the life of the priest; the expression of charity holds the primary place on the list of the priest’s duties, for by expressing charity the priest becomes the sanctifying priest, the teacher who passes on knowledge not for his sake but that of his students, the shepherd who cares for his sheep, the physician who heals the broken, the one who serves and is not served.[23] In expressing this love, the priest carries on his shoulders the cross of humanity as a “minister of God, a messenger from another world,”[24] as he walks with Christ up to Calvary to die selflessly not for himself but for God’s people.[25] He walks into the heavenly sanctuary with the blood of the sacrifice, as both the priest and the victim, in imitation of “Christ the Victim, Christ the Priest.”[26]

These are a series of pictures of priests and seminarians with whom I am great friends. This series captures the heart of the whole of the priesthood. The priest is firstly a man of humility, willing to fall on his knees and find his strength in prayer, as Sam does in the bottom right. In that same spirit of humility, a priest promises obedience to God always through obedience to his bishop, as Dan is rehearsing prior to his ordination in the bottom left. Finally, the priesthood is about joy, even amid the servitude and victimhood to which he is called. The top left shows Epiphany night 2021, when, after our Solemn Mass, we gathered with local priests and seminarians for a dinner of laughter and amazing Italian food; likewise, after Fr. Peck’s first Solemn Mass on St. Joseph’s Day 2021, basking in the reality of the Sacrifice which he just offered, the sacrifice of the Lamb and of himself, there was nothing but joy found on our faces. A share in the priest-victimhood of Christ is a share also in His joy,

“O Christ High Priest Eternal”

Lyrics by Very Rev. Michael Heintz

This was the entrance hymn to the first Ordination Mass I was ever able to attend. The lyrics of the song were written by a friend of mine, Msgr. Michael Heintz. The lyrics present a beautiful theology of the priesthood. The priesthood finds its source in Christ; it is He that calls men unto His side to serve Himself and His Bride. The song is the prayer of a priest, or a group of priests, recognizing this call within themselves and acknowledging the command which God has given them and pledging themselves to boldly accomplish the task, with His strength, despite the strife and hatred of this world. These priests pledge themselves to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to, as priests, offer the sacrifice of themselves, the victims, for Love and with Love on the Cross.

“The Beautiful Hands of a Priest”

We need them in life’s early morning,

We need them again at its close;

We feel their warm clasp of true friendship,

We seek them while tasting life’s woes.

When we come to this world we are sinful,

The greatest as well as the least.

And the hands that make us pure as angels

Are the beautiful hands of a priest.

At the altar each day we behold them,

And the hands of a king on his throne

Are not equal to them in their greatness

Their dignity stands alone.

For there in the stillness of morning

Ere the sun has emerged from the east,

There God rests between the pure fingers

Of the beautiful hands of a priest.

When we are tempted and wander

To pathways of shame and sin

‘Tis the hand of a priest that will absolve us.

Not once but again and again.

And when we are taking life’s partner

Other hands may prepare us a feast

But the hands that will bless and unite us,

Are the beautiful hands of a priest.

God bless them and keep them all holy,

For the Host which their fingers caress,

What can a poor sinner do better

But to praise Thee who chose thee to bless

When the death dews on our eyes are falling,

May our courage and strength be increased

To see, raised above us in blessing

The beautiful hands of a priest.

Anonymous

This is a poem of unknown authorship entitled “The Beautiful Hands of a Priest”. It beautifully weaves in Holy Orders to the whole of the sacramental economy. This poem shows how the priest is a victim to his job, to his vocation. He gives up himself, his whole identity. It is not Fr. N. that is spoken of here, it is just “the priest”. The priest is identified by his vocation alone. And it is he, like Christ who is with us always. It is this victim which accompanies us always, but most especially at those key moments of our (sacramental) lives.


[1] In this paper, only the priesthood will be treated in depth. The justification for this comes from the fact that, for a large part of the Church’s history, the diaconate served primarily as a transitional state destined to end in priesthood (though the office of deacon has its own distinct role in the life of the Church). And, indeed, once ordained a deacon a man is forever a servant of the Body of Christ; this role does not disappear with ordination to the priesthood. Thus, a priest is always a deacon and a bishop always a priest and a deacon. (As shown by the bishops wearing of both the subdeacon tunicle, the deacon dalmatic, and the priest chasuble in the Extraordinary Form.) Likewise, the office of bishop is understood best only when considered in the context of priesthood. A poor excuse for a bishop would be a man who did not remember first his vocation as a priest. Indeed, the Apostles themselves would have failed in their duty if they did not remember their first and primary call as disciples of the Lord.

[2] This could be said of the baptismal priesthood received at Chrismation. Despite the similarity between the two, it must be recognized that the baptismal priesthood and ordained priesthood “differ from one another” in both essence and in degree (Lumen Gentium, n.10). “[E]ach of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial [ordained] priest, but the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, the 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 [baptismal] 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” (LG, n.10) Thus the distinction lies primarily in that the ordained priest acts in persona Christi Captias, in the Person of Christ the Head by ministering the sacraments while the baptismal priesthood of the people finds them acting such that their primary function is not to minister the sacraments but to receive them (something which ordained priests do as well, but they have the added task of ministering them).

[3] The Rites of the Catholic Church: the Roman Ritual Revised by Decree of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and Published by the Authority of Pope Paul VI. Liturgical Press, 1990. Rite of Ordination, 14.

[4] The more common phrasing for the threefold office of Christ that corresponds to these would be prophet, priest, and king, the triplex munera.

[5] Here “loving unity” has a rather complex meaning. Firstly, we may consider Cardinal Ratzinger’s anthropological thesis that to be truly human is to be related in love (In the Beginning…). Secondly, we recognize that unity here refers both to a unity among all members of humankind, but also a unity between humankind and God. Thus, this loving unity refers to God Who draws all people to himself. (Jn. 12:32). And, by drawing all people to Himself He draws them into love for He is Love and all who live in love live in Him, and He in them (1 Jn 4:16).

[6] A word here must be said about the friendship of Christ, for this friendship is the foundation of the priesthood. To the Apostles, the men whom He ordained priests, Christ says “I do not call you slaves any longer…but I have called you friends” (Jn. 15:15). Thus, priesthood demands that Christ call the man to be ordained a friend and that that man respond to this call with humility and love in return. How this friendship is capable of coming about must also be considered. The fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel lays down a definition of friendship as the willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Thus, friendship is both humble and sacrificial. In addition to this, society norms of ancient times stated that one could not be friends with someone lower than them in social status. Thus, Christ “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave…He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). Friendship with Christ is thus made possible by His Incarnation wherein he took the form of a slave, a simple human being. Now sharing in our humanity, He was able to draw us into His friendship that we might share in His divinity. Friendship with Christ is something to which all Christians are called to by virtue of their baptismal priesthood, but those called to ministerial priesthood are called to an even more intimate friendship with Christ, the reason for which can only be understood from this Incarnational perspective. The priest is meant to be the meeting place of the human and the divine, the place where humanity is draw up into God and where God descends into humanity. In the same way, the Incarnation is where the divine penetrates the human realm, where the divine breaks into humanity and where human nature is united to divine nature. Only through this Incarnational outlook can one understand what friendship with Christ means and how this friendship shapes the ministerial priesthood. And, after the Resurrection, when it “became clear that the Twelve could not carry the weight of all the apostolic activity required of them,” Christ renews His friendship with them by post-Resurrection appearances, expanding their number, and lavishing gifts upon them like the Gifts of the Spirt at Pentecost (Nichols, 13). (Prayer of Comingling from the Mass; Athanasian kerygma).

[7] Gal 2:20.

[8] Jn. 2:5.

[9] Phil 4:13.

[10] This represents what Sheen calls the “double tension” that persists inside the one called to priesthood. These tensions are “one of attraction to the divine, the other, subtraction because of one’s own unworthiness; a desire to approach the All-Holy, and a shrinking because of one’s own sense of inadequacy. This sacrament begins with Christ’s simple words to a sinful man, the words He spoke to Matthew, “Follow me” (Mt. 8:9). This sacrament reminds the ordinand that Christ came to call sinners (Lk. 5:29-32), of which he is the greatest, the least of God’s people (Confessions of St. Patrick). And yet, this sinful and broken man is raised to the rank of priest and made a shepherd after God’s own heart (Jer. 3:15), imbued with a great “dignity and mission” from the Cross (Pastores Dabo Vobis, n.13). Fulton Sheen, These Are the Sacraments (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1962), 45.

[11] This comes from the Juventutem, or Psalm 42 which priests would recite prior to beginning the Mass in the Extraordinary Form.

[12] This dialogue is crucial, according to Adrienne von Speyr in her book on confession. Dialogue, she suggests, causes a radically opening up, the development of a radical vulnerability between the speakers. Certainly, this vulnerability allows the priest to willingly allow himself to be changed. But this opening up also allows the priest to become a conduit for God’s grace. So empty and open is the priest that he can effectively act as a channel through which can flow God’s grace to His people. Sheen, These are the Sacraments, 46.

[13] Sheen uses the image of the priest as Jacob’s Ladder in the second chapter of The Priest Is Not His Own. Sheen, Fulton J. The Priest Is Not His Own. Ignatius Press, 2005.

[14] In the Tridentine Mass, the Consecration takes place as the priest, leaning over the bread and the wine whispers over them, effectively breathing his spirit into them and saying, as Sheen suggests, both “This is My Body” and “This is my body” Sheen, The Priest Is Not His Own, 21). In the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the priest still bows profoundly as says the words of consecration over the elements, presumably with his face close to them. Yet another instance that reminds the priest that he is offering himself, it may be fruitful to note, is the elevation of the chalice wherein he can see his own reflection in the chalice.

[15] It is through His constant dialogue that priests participate in the legacy of the Apostles. Indeed, it was through dialogue with the Lord that the Apostles received the priesthood which has been passed down from them to their successors, the bishops, and through them to priests. Through this constant dialogue, Jesus first “entrusts to the Twelve the worship or cultus of the new Covenant.” Then he gives them a teaching role by making them “accredited recipients of its message…[for] who hears the Twelve hears Jesus.” And finally, He gave them authority, a “power…to be exercised in humility, in a spirit of service, [but which is, all the same] a genuine governing authority, ordered to the unity of God’s people and its faithfulness to his plan” Nichols, Aidan. Holy Order: the Apostolic Ministry from the New Testament to the Second Vatican Council. (Dublin, Ireland: Veritas Publications, 1990), 6-8

[16] Rite of Ordination, 14.

[17] Citing the pre-Vatican II rite of ordination to the priesthood, Sheen uses this quote. Sheen, These are the Sacraments, 48.

[18] Num. 11:11.

[19] The priest first refreshes himself at the font of life and mercy when he is washed in Baptism by the blood and water which gushed forth from Christ’s side. He then daily refreshes himself when he is nourished by the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ made present in his hands when he offers the Holy Sacrifice.

[20] For descriptions of the Levitical offerings see Lev. 3:2. Furthermore, it should be noted that the ordained priest offers an unbloody sacrifice does Melchizedek. For this reason, is a “priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4). Like Abraham, the priest must be an example for God’s people, willing to sacrifice the greatest of his earthly loves for the sake of his love of God. And yet, trusting in God’s plan, he will find that the sacrifice is made easy for God Himself will provide the sacrifice, not taking from the priest that which gives him so much joy and happiness, as God did not take from Abraham his son, but instead provided a ram for the sacrifice. This greater sacrifice is, of course, God’s own Son, Who at one and the same time is a “holy, blameless, undefiled” Priest and Victim (Heb 7:26). Drawing on the Levitical priesthood, Christ offers, with an Abrahamic willingness and selflessness, a bloody sacrifice and by presenting that sacrifice to the Lord in the Heavenly Sanctuary procures salvation for all the world. Yet, this sacrifice, was like Melchizedek’s, strange and unlike anything that had come before it. As Melchizedek offered bread and wine rather than an animal, so did Christ offer a non-traditional sacrifice by offering Himself rather than an animal estranged from Himself. Thus, Christ conforms His Sacrifice to that of the Levitical sacrifices, but He draws about other priestly acts throughout the ages. Transcending time, Christ draws all of these aspects of priesthood into His one, eternal, High Priesthood.

[21] Rite of Ordination, 14.

[22] Sheen proposes that there is a “double ceremony of the chasuble” in the rite of ordination. Of course, this is according to the pre-Vatican II rite of ordination, but the twofold meaning of charity in the donning of the chasuble remains, though it is not as easily seen. The first ceremony of the chasuble is the putting on of the folded chasuble in preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist, as Christ ordained His Apostles priests at the Last Supper. The second ceremony takes place just after the consecration, the unfolding of the chasuble, representing the post-Resurrection power given to the Apostles to bind and loose sins, to forgive.

[23] This works off of the triplex munera of Christ (and the priest) as priest, prophet (teacher), and king (shepherd). It also adds the role as imitator of the Divine Physician.

[24] Sheen, These are the Sacraments, 52.

[25] The idea of the priest carrying with him the whole of humanity comes from the final paragraphs Sheen beautifully writes on the Sacrament of Holy Orders in These are the Sacraments. Though too long to recount here, the last five paragraphs describe the priest as a priest-victim who sees no case as hopeless. Rather, he “carries with him all the woes and wounds of the world,” becoming “a speaking crucifix,” thereby serving completely Christ’s mission in total conformity to Him (52).

[26] “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing.” Translated by Robert Campbell. 1849.

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