By Samuel Jian Xuan Ng, University of Texas, Austin
Catholic priests are a distinct sign of contradiction in our world today. The priest who wears a clerical collar sticks out in the crowd. But what distinguishes a priest from a layperson?
Priests serve many roles in the Church. Many are pastors at a parish, serve as chaplain to a community, serve the poor in soup kitchens, provide counseling and spiritual direction, teach at seminaries and universities, preach the word of God, and teach the faith to children and catechumens. However, these aspects of the lives of a priest do not define who a priest is. Laypeople can and do serve these myriad roles. In other words, these activities may describe what a priest does, but they do not describe who a priest is. They are accidental but not essential to the priesthood.
So, what is it that makes a priest a priest? It is the ability to offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – the saving sacrifice of Christ, the God-man, on the cross at Mount Calvary. Through the sacrament of baptism, all Catholics are part of a common baptismal priesthood which they exercise in their particular vocations through sharing “in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king” (CCC 1546-1547). However, some are “chosen from among men […] to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” (Hebrews 5:1, RSVCE) These men are set apart to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for four specific ends – adoration, petition, atonement, and thanksgiving. At a priest’s ordination, he is marked with a permanent mark that changes him ontologically and permanently. The Sacrament of Holy Orders “confers an indelible spiritual character” (CCC 1582). Nothing, including gravely sinful behavior, suspension from ministry, and laicization can remove or change this. As the Psalmist proclaims, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4, RSVCE). Priests are so closely configured to Christ that they are referred to as an Alter Christus (another Christ). When they celebrate Holy Mass or administer the sacrament of confession, they act in persona Christi, meaning in the person of Christ. Rather than saying “This is Christ’s body” during Holy Mass, the priest says “This is my body” for it is truly the person of Christ that is acting through a priest. This reality should be comforting to us for it means that the objective efficacy of the Sacraments does not depend on the personal holiness of the priest administering them; it is Christ who works through His priests.
It is disturbing that there has been a crisis of priestly identity. Fr. David Toups, author of “Reclaiming Our Priestly Character”, explains that “Immediately following the Second Vatican Council, there was confusion among priests and laity alike about the difference between the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood.” After being asked if “mandatory ‘continuing priestly education’” is the answer to the misunderstanding of the identity of the priest, Fr. Toups emphasized the importance of “‘formation’, not education”. He continues, “Ongoing formation is about deepening one’s interiority and fostering a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is about an ongoing conversion that reminds the priest who he is as a minister of the Gospel and whose he is as a son of God.”
Let us pray for priests and for a revival in the understanding of who the priest is among themselves and as members of God’s Church.