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The Necessity of the Catholic Priesthood

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present conference is on the necessity of the Catholic priesthood. Implicit in everything that Father Gerald Fitzgerald thought, wrote and did was his deep conviction that the Catholic priesthood is absolutely and I mean absolutely necessary.

Necessary to carry on the work of Christ's redemption, necessary not just for the well-being but for the continued existence of the Catholic Church, necessary for the corresponding existence of and well-being of Christianity. And in what we may miss, most surprising, necessary for the moral survival of the human race. These convictions of Father Gerald were not his own personal or private ideas, they are part of divine revelation. Predicted by the prophets of the Old Law and made explicit by the Son of God, they are of the essence of Christianity. By way of prelude we might point out that there are vocal and influential voices being heard today being heard and being read that questions or openly challenge, the necessity of the Catholic priesthood as established by Jesus Christ. There are those who would reduce the Catholic priesthood as a merely useful institution.

Those who claim the Catholic priesthood was not established by Jesus Christ but by as rather a later second or even third century innovation of the Church.

Those who see no real distinction between the universal priesthood of the faithful of which St. Peter speaks, and which everyone receives at baptism and the ministerial priesthood received only by bishops and priests when they are ordained to the sacrament of holy orders. There are strident voices now pushing for the ordination of women on this score that the Church has been discriminating against women and that of course includes Christ. He discriminated by not ordaining them. I use the adjective strident consciously. And sadly these voices in not a few circles – not excluding some clerical circles – are being heard.

So much by way of introduction, why go into this most fundamental subject of why the Catholic priesthood – as ordained by Christ – is necessary with all the kinds of necessity we identified at the beginning?

If the importance of speaking of the necessity of the Catholic priesthood has always been worth talking about and reminding the faithful that it's part of our Catholic Faith the importance now is imperative. I have taught to too many priests, I know too many, I council too many not to know that obscurity here, confusion here is bed rock to the crisis in the Catholic Church today. That's a large statement. Let me repeat it. I believe the bedrock to the massive and I don't hesitate calling it the demonic confusion in the Catholic Church today is doubt or even denial about the necessity of the Catholic Priesthood as instituted by Jesus Christ.

Why, therefore, must we say that there can be no substitute for what Christ did at the Last Supper? In other words, why must there be a Catholic priesthood for the survival of the Catholic Church? Listen. In the times of convolution over the past centuries notably in the sixteenth century the Catholic Church disappeared where the necessity of the Catholic Priesthood was denied. There is no Catholic Church without the priesthood instituted by Christ.

To understand this necessity is to have laid the foundations for a correct appreciation of the Church’s ordained priesthood. We may think well of – we may respect – what is useful but we prize we hold onto with all the force of our being with what we think is necessary. We hold onto with our life's blood what is necessary and the priesthood is necessary for the life's blood of the Church. There is no Catholic Church – underline, encircle, emblazon the word, “NO” – there is no Catholic Church without the priesthood. It is the faith realization of the absolute necessity of the Priesthood that justifies the place, the dignity of the priest in Roman Catholicism. And why the people both torn between their faith and their experience they will respect, honor a priest no matter how humanly speaking, how dishonorable he may become.

It is this necessity that justifies the deep concern of the Church at large and of the faithful for having holy priests because then their sanctity is the visible expression of their necessity. It justifies what justifies the conviction of the necessity of the priesthood. Justifies the crusade of prayers and sacrifices by religious and the faithful for priests, for the conversion of priests who have strayed away, and for their continued and ever growing sanctification.

All of this is in one sense a prelude and in another sense the reason why I thought this conference on the necessity of the priesthood was necessary.

Necessity of the Priesthood

We now address ourselves to the heart of the issue. If the priesthood is necessary what is necessary about it? What is necessary about the priesthood is in the whole world by divine will exercised by the Son of God when He became man there are certain powers that no other human being, no matter how otherwise qualified, and let me tell you there are a lot of people that in so many ways are obviously better qualified humanly speaking than priests.

There are people who are more intelligent than priests – I know I have taught too many priests and lay people too. There are people who are holier than priests, there are people who are better qualified as leaders, leaders in society than priests. But that is not the issue, the issue is whether in their being or as one occasion in having a long conversation with the Lutheran Chaplain while teaching at the state university – we knew each other well. He had his doctorate in theology like I had mine. We talked over a period of months on what is or is there any difference between an ordained minister like himself and a Catholic priest. He did not want to admit that there was any real difference. Or better he couldn't see the difference, so finally I had to ask him. Do you know what the word ontological means? He said sure, ontological has to do with (ontos) the Greek word for being. When you were ordained as you say to the Lutheran ministry were you ontologically different than you were before? He said no! Well, I did!

There is a change in being, a change in ontos, and in its own way as different a change in being as a child before being baptized and then is baptized. It is just not the same person. Now what is it that the sacrament orders confers on the priest that gives the priest the power to do and changes him not only in time but as faith tells us into eternity?

A priest receives the power of offering the sacrifice of the Mass. A priest receives the power to forgive sins. The priest receives the power of exercising authority in Christ's name. Eucharist, Sin, Authority. E. S. A.

Power of the Priest to Offer the Sacrifice of the Mass

First then in virtue of his ordination to the priesthood, the priest receives the power to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. It is really a composite of two powers, the power of transubstantiation and the power of oblation. The power of transubstantiation means that the substance, in Latin substancia, of bread and wine is changed hence trans. That substance is changed into the substance into the living, historical, geographical Jesus Christ. No one else on earth has that power. And the power of oblation the individual consecration separately would not constitute the sacrifice of the Mass. There must be by divine mandate there must be first transubstantiation of the bread and then the transubstantiation of the wine. And Christ's intention which is to become the priest’s intention of thus separately consecration Christ's body and blood constitutes the essence of the Mass. And the oblation that Christ offered on the cross is literally reenacted on the altar. Why? For two good reasons because on the altar is the real body and blood of Christ. And on the altar is Christ with a human will and at the heart of sacrifice is not what is offered – the heart of sacrifice is why it is offered. And Christ's human will no less offered himself in the sacrifice of the Mass just as truly as he did on the cross on Calvary. The power therefore of transubstantiation and oblation in the holy sacrifice of the mass is not – is not – a later innovation. We must believe it's our faith. That what Jesus Christ did at the Last Supper changing as St. Augustine says the bread and wine into Himself in such a way the moment He pronounced the words of consecration Jesus was holding Himself in His own hands. Where did that power come from? It came directly historically from what we call apostolic succession when Christ told His apostles "do this in rememberance of Me" the Church has declared infallibly by that act on the part of the Savior He was transmitting to the apostles who surrounded Him a share in the power He had just exercised. But let’s be clear. I repeat, there are volumes of print and a babble of voices claiming something else. Be not deceived, be not misled. We believe, we'd better believe, that the power which Christ possessed because He was the living God in human form He then had the power to communicate to others. First the apostles – they in turn then communicated the same power to their successors those on whom they laid their hands. So that by the end of the first century of the Christian era, secular unbelieving historians tell us that there were over one hundred dioceses surrounding the Mediterranean world. And by the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD there were hundreds of priests in dioceses and thousands by the beginning of the fourth century and hundreds of bishops who met in solemn conclave at Nicaea.

Power of the Priest to Forgive Sins

What is the second power that we believe that priests and only priests have received from Christ? No less, no less than at the Last Supper only the apostles not even who? Not even the mother of God, she was not ordained by her Son to carry on the power that He had and gave His apostles at the Last Supper. But secondly, No less than Christ conferred only on the apostles and only on their successors the bishops and priests of the Catholic Church did Christ confer the power of forgiving sins in His name and no one else. Faith tells and the Catholic Church has confirmed that the last thing which Christ did before He died He instituted the priesthood in order to make possible the sacrifice of the Mass the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the living Christ. So the first thing that Christ did after His resurrection. Why did He come into the world? Why was He crucified? Why? In order to merit the graces that a sinful world needs to be cleansed from its sins. Very well, the risen Savior with His wounds still fresh we might say in His risen body. Listen, the Church teaches that Christ is now in Heaven in his risen body indeed but with all the wounds He sustained during His passion and crucifixion. Isn't that great? An eternal reminder why God became man. And it was that risen Savior on the night after His resurrection having given His apostles the power to change bread and wine into His living body and blood and reenact the sacrifice of Calvary, He now gave them the second astounding power of forgiving sins in His name. Once again clarity, sharp crystal clear clarity. There are books, how well I know, learned monographs, how well I know. Oh they can talk about the sacrament of penance but they carefully avoid the word confession. When I read a statement of our Holy Father that he gave, He said I prefer the word sacrament of confession to the sacrament of penance. I almost screamed for joy and I have been using it shamelessly ever since.

Let’s be clear and if there is one aspect of the priesthood along with the power of consecration and offering Mass that Father Gerald had no illusions about, it was the power of the priesthood to forgive sins. I repeat, let’s be clear this is no mere declaration of Christ's mercy for the sinner. You don’t have to be a priest, all you have to do is be able to read or speak to tell a person steeped in sin, have confidence God is merciful. So the sinner can say sincerely, thanks I need the reminder. That is not the power which the Church calls the power of the keys.

I may have already said this before there are stories that have happened in my life which bear repeating. Having been on the faculty of six Protestant seminaries. The Lutheran school of theology for seven years. This was at a Baptist seminary. I like to tell this I have in my notes stacks of nine courses in Protestantism that I have taught. You name it I have course in Protestant justification Protestant Christology. Never once was I asked by a Protestant seminary to teach them about Protestantism – isn't that neat? All my courses on Protestantism were taught on request by Catholic seminaries or Catholic Universities. So I was teaching this semester the sacraments to this group of Protestant seminarians and I should add they were getting credit for the course. This class was on the sacrament of penance – change – sacrament of confession. The president of the seminary was there, Dr. Robinson. I was explaining how the faithful are told to tell their sins or grave sins, identify the sin, and be specific about what kind of sin is it. Confess also the frequency – how often did I do it. And you may hold nothing back and the priest gives you a penance and absolution and then the penitent leaves the confessional. Then Mr. Robinson said, “May I say something to the men?” At the time they only had men studying for the ministry. Fellows he said what Dr. Hardon has just told you I know that it is hard for you to understand but Catholic's really believe, they really believe that, when the priest gives them absolution. I could hardly believe my ears when said Dr Robinson, Baptists, when the priest says that I absolve you from your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit Catholic's really believe and he said even intelligent educated Catholic's believe that they are absolved from their sins as though Jesus Himself said, as it is in the gospels "Go in peace your sins are forgiven you."

There are things you hear you never forget. I never forgot that. That's the power of the priesthood. I, I a sinner myself but gifted, though unworthily, with the power that only Christ as God could have. When a priest says I absolve you from your sins, Christ absolves.

Before I finish reflecting on this second power of the priesthood which makes it so profoundly necessary, let's make sure we also are clear about the responsibility of the penitent. Go back to Christ's appearing to the Apostles on Easter Sunday night and He began – couldn't have been a more appropriate salutation, “Peace be with you”. He told them whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them. Whose sins you do not forgive they are not forgiven. Let me repeat, the sins you do not forgive – implying what? That the priest must somehow get some manifestation of the person’s sinfulness. No manifestation, no absolution. Memorize what I am going to say. Even though as the Church over the centuries has always recognized in cases of extreme emergency, plague, on the way to battle, a sinking ship, or for me more than once a real crashing plane. We were not more than one hundred feet above the runway over O’Hare airport in a small plane. When a sudden gust of the strong Chicago wind turned the plane ninety degrees. Everything happened in the plane and everything and if the plane before landing had not tilted back before landing, someone else would be giving this conference but not I. The first thing I do and I have done it more than once I give general absolution to everyone in that plane. I just wish that there was another priest on board to give me absolution.

But barring emergency situation there must be manifestation of sins otherwise zero – no absolution. And even with general absolution it is valid only if the person who in case of emergency receives a general absolution carefully controlled by the Church’s law that person must intend in the next reception of sacramental confession. Must intend and I am speaking of grave sins to the priest in confession. Otherwise the general absolution is invalid. However this power to forgive sin uniquely possessed by the Catholic priesthood is not only in the sacrament of penance it is also in the sacrament of anointing. Go back to the letter of James – anyone sick among you, let him call in the elder. Pardon me. The Church at the Council of Trent has defined that the elders means ordained priests, nobody else. Let them pray over him and if he be in sin they will be remitted him. And the beauty of priestly anointing, if a person is in sin, is that the sins are remitted. On the same minimal condition as in the sacrament of penance all that a person has to have is faith in God and fear of God, that is it. Unlike outside of these two sacraments a baptized person can be forgiven only as we believe by making a perfect act of sorrow animated by the love of God for Himself. I might add not an easy sorrow for a person steeped in sin to obtain.

Power of the Priest to Exercise Authority in Christ's Name

The third power of the priesthood which makes it absolutely necessary. The power of exercising authority in Christ's name. Remove the priesthood from the world and you have removed the divinely instituted authority on Earth to teach divine truth, to rule and to govern the people of God and to sanctify mankind. There are two kinds of authority in the Catholic Church. The distinction is seldom made. There is authority called ordinary authority and there is what is called delegated authority. Ordinary authority is not the common authority or everyday authority. Ordinary authority is the authority that comes from ordination. Vested first in the Apostles always under Peter and the successors of the apostles under the successors of Peter. Everyone else in the Church has delegated authority.

Let me go further, does this authority vested in what we call the magisterium which is adherent in the successors of the Apostles ordained as the apostles were always under the bishop of Rome. Is that authority only, only over those who are I don’t just say Catholics but baptized Christians? NO! Does this priestly Episcopal hierarchical authority obtain for the whole human race? Yes, in everything which pertains to salvation. Let me repeat, the ultimate authority on Earth now over five billion human beings in everything pertaining to salvation, on what God wants men to do to be saved. How they are to obey God, what laws are just and what human laws are unjust and therefore because they are not just they are not binding on the consciences of not just Catholic's but on any human being on Earth. Is there any authority on Earth to make that judgment? Yes! Yes! Yes! And that authority is vested in the priesthood that Christ instituted exercised by the successors of the apostles under the Roman Pontiff.

We've said much more during this understandably lengthy conference. There is so much to say. Are there certain very practical implications. Yes, I have seven in all [that] are part of the extraordinary charism of a man called Father Gerald Fitzgerald.

First implication given not just the importance of the Catholic Priesthood but its divinely ordained imperative necessity. We should understand the Catholic Priesthood and the first ones that should understand their priesthood are bishops and priests themselves. There should be no identity crisis in the Catholic priesthood.

Second implication promote vocations to the priesthood the Church’s strength depends on the strength in mind and strength in will of her priests. As Father Gerald often said like priests like people. Good priests make good people. Promote vocations to the priesthood.

Third implication respect the priesthood because priests can be, how well I know, pathetically human. To see behind the rags morally speaking of a priest who has gone wrong to see behind him and within him a man who Christ Himself ordained and conferred on him the powers we have described.

Fourth implication. Pray, Pray for Catholic Priests that they may live up to their high calling that unlike Judas, they may not betray their Master. Prayer for priests should be the daily and I mean not only once a day more than once a day. First priests should be praying for priests, Religious and members of the millions of the Catholic faithful. How we desperately need, we priests, your prayers.

Fifth. Sacrifice for priests. A priest is one who is to sacrifice. The hard part of the priesthood is not the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass. It is the self-sacrifice that a priest is called upon to make and the more priestly a priest is the more the people of God will use him, will wear him out. Our own Saint John Regis, died hearing confessions, great. We priests are to die standing up and never say enough. But for us to have the grace of so sacrificing ourselves we need the merits of your sacrifices.

Sixth implication assist Catholic priests. This covers an ocean of implications. By definition even though vowed to poverty is to live a poor life. Help, assist, provide services for a priest is not to be a businessman. For me over the years how grateful I am for people in various walks of life. He won't mind me even mentioning his name, Dr. Dolehide, Thanksgiving day I was robbed in the Bronx lost everything I had including all of my medication some of which I need regularly. When I got to Chicago I called up Dr Dolehide and told him what happened. He traveled at least 20 miles from southern Chicago came to where I was staying at eleven fifteen at night with medications. Needless to say he both provided the prescription and he paid for it. Sixth implication assist priests.

Seventh implication encourage priests. We are not only just as human as everyone else, but the evil spirit – how shrewd the devil is – he knows if he can weaken the commitment of a single Catholic priest he has in effect weakened and maybe destroyed the faith of thousands. Given our very human nature we deserve, we deserve to be criticized but please God the main criticism will come from the Christ who ordained us. Having vowed ourselves to a life of celibacy we do not have the natural encouragement that a husband or Father has in the family.

Please God what we've said at such length of the necessity for the Catholic Priesthood would not have been said in vain.


Lord Jesus, Great high priest, you have instituted the sacrament of the priesthood in order to continue Your saving work until the end of time. Help us priests to remain faithful to you dear Jesus. Even to our Calvary, as You were to Yours.

Inspire your faithful to realize on faith how necessary we are for their salvation and sanctification so that the faithful we have served and we might enjoy your eternal heavenly priesthood. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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