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What is the Catholic Priesthood?

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The subject of our present conference is what is the Catholic Priesthood.

Not too many years ago it would have been less important to ask the question what is the Catholic Priesthood. It would have been less important because anyone familiar with the Catholic Church not 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 was supposed to be.

But things have changed on all sides including some learned Catholic circles we hear opinions that to say the least are not familiar. We are told that a priest is a social worker or a political reformer or an activist or a community organizer or preacher or a proclaimer of the Gospel. And even when these descriptions are not verbalized the conduct of so many priest, some in high political office tells the world at least in America that what ever priest used to be, men specially concerned with the Mass the sacraments and holy faith. They have entered into a new age. Call it the age of sacerdotal liberation. I know, I've taught priests for many years. We therefore return to our question what is the Catholic Priesthood? As the fundamental question that 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 where there had been errors periodically infecting the Catholic Church some grave errors yet the priesthood was left substantially intact. Then in the time of the Protestant reformation a massive attack was waged against the priesthood in the Catholic Church. And it's affects were 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 formed of anathema. Condemning anyone who held any certain contrary positions. I thought at some length whether I should do it this way. And I thought that I should. I will therefore quote in sequence six formal definitions of the Church each one spelling out and solemnizing defining an article of the undivided 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 wide spread confusion about what is a priest these six definitions should be etched in bronze. I quote them.

First, if anyone says that there is not a 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 and 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 in experienced 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 by Holy Ordination the Holy Spirit is not given and thus it is useless for the bishop to say receive the Holy Spirit, or if anyone says that no character 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 is 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 not divinely instituted hierarchy consisting of bishops, priests and ministers let him be anathema.

So much for the definitions. What is the Catholic Priesthood? It is first of all a divinely instituted sacrament that Christ Himself instituted 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 as they say the active priesthood. In the first ten years since the close of the second Vatican council the exodus in the United States was ten thousand priests. The most devastating, I don't say in the history of our country, there has never been such a massive desacralization of the priesthood, in such a short time in the history of Christendom.

I can do no better in this context but to quote from the opening paragraph the book which you may have read, "A Shepherd without Sheep," published in the fifties by Boyd Barret (?) the Jesuit priest who wandered from the Church and then repented and returned to the practice of his faith. “I have no chapel”, he says, “no altar on which to offer the Holiest sacrifice, no pulpit from which to preach. There is not confessional where penitents await council and absolution from my lips, no baptismal font whereby 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”, unquote Barret.(?) Boyd Barret the repentant sinner had no doubt that he was nevertheless a priest.

The priesthood, as priests used to be told and the faithful should know this too. The priesthood is not an occupation; it is not a job; it is not an employment. It is not even a profession. It is the most sublime vocation to which God can call man. And those who respond and are ordained remain priests forever no matter what may happen to their mind or body or even their souls.

We repeat our question. What is the Catholic Priesthood? The Catholic priesthood is that institution which is absolutely necessary for Christianity. That's a large statement that the Catholic priesthood is absolutely necessary for the Church. So that without the priesthood there would be no Christianity left on earth. Remove the priesthood and you remove the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in the world. Remove the priesthood and you remove the sacrifice of the Mass from the world. Remove the priesthood and you remove Holy Communion from the world. Remove the priesthood and you remove the sacrament of reconciliation from a very sinful world. Remove the priesthood and you remove the sacrament of anointing from the world. Remove the priesthood and you remove the divinely assured teaching of God's revealed truth from the world. 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.

Once more we ask what is the catholic priesthood? Our final answer is that it is the ministry of Christ continued on earth. No class of persons in the Church have been more often or been more earnestly exhorted by the Popes to recognize their role and to live up to it than priests. No single class of persons had more words addressed directly to them by the Second Vatican Council than the Church's bishops and priests. And no wonder the foundation for this dignity which as we saw is an absolute necessity is those who are priests are in the profoundest sense of the word, continuing the work of Christ on earth. They are engaged in the work that He began and that time and again He told the apostles and to those who they would ordain what He began they were to carry on.

When Pope Pius XI wrote a lengthy and deeply moving encyclical on the priesthood, he wrote to the priests of the world and told them the priest is the minister of Christ – an instrument in the hands of the Redeemer. He continues the work of redemption in all of its world embracing universality and a divine efficacy the work that rote so marvelous a transformation in the world. Thus the priest is with good reason another Christ.

For in some way he is the continuation of Christ. The Mystics use stronger language but expressing the same truth. In one of her dialogues St Catherine of Sienna 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 angel himself, has no such dignity, for I have given it to those men whom I have appointed as earthly angels in this life."

I have a short epilogue. We need to hear this kind of language these days. To remind all of us priests, religious and the laity what the Almighty God has entrusted to weak vessels of clay. Nothing less than the dispensation of Himself and of His mercy to a sinful wandering and weary world. If that's the mystery of the priesthood and it is, there is also the scandal of the priesthood. That God should have endowed, what adjective could I use, weak human beings with so much power and so much poverty. But it is precisely because of this – what I call the scandal of Christ's giving so much to such little people that those of us who are not priests should beg daily the Living God to strengthen this weakness in His priests so that they might be – I don’t say worthy of their office – no one is worthy of his priesthood but that they might not impede the work of the Master who wants to save the world – that is why He died on the cross – but through them. We priests need to hear such language so that we might not be seduced by the world around us and not crushed by the evil spirit whose machinations – so the modern folks are saying – whose demonic machinations are mainly aimed at the Catholic Priesthood, because if as we have seen without the priesthood there cannot be Christianity left on earth. If human beings forget this, the devil does not. He knows as the priesthood goes so goes the Church. Pray that the Christ who ordained might keep us that we might not impede the work of salvation He has put into our most unworthy but priestly hands.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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