What is a priest? - The theology of priesthood

Catholic PriestAll priesthood in the Church is based on the one true priest of the New Covenant - Jesus Christ. It was Jesus as priest and victim who offered his life as a sacrifice on the cross. Technically speaking, all those who are called ‘priests’ today in the Church are not priests in their own right, they share in the priesthood of Christ. They are called to be “alter Christus” - another Christ.

Christ is not absent, with others taking his place. He is very much present, continuing his pastoral and servant leadership of his Church. He gathers us around himself in unity, brings back those who stray, heals the wounded, feeds us with the gift of himself and leads us to the green pastures of the Kingdom of God. No one replaces Jesus! Any ministries in the Church are signs and instruments of the risen Lord present and active among us still.

To be with Him in prayer

The apostles were called by Jesus to follow him, and they left everything to be with him. This 'being with Jesus' is always the first key part of any vocation, and this is true in a special way of the call to be a priest. Only once the apostles had grown close to Jesus did he send them out to others. The priest has to be someone whose personal, intimate friendship with Jesus is the very heart of all he is and does. Jesus alone is the centre of his life. The Lord asked St. Peter again and again, 'Do you trust in me?, 'Do you love me more than these others do?'. Only after our 'Yes' does he say, 'Feed my lambs, look after my sheep'.

A priest will only be 'with Jesus' if he is a man of prayerThe priest serves the deep communion of God and His people; therefore the whole life and ministry of the priest must be rooted in an intimate unity with the Lord. He is to be a true 'man of God', a genuinely spiritual person whose holiness is seen above all in his love for God and for his people. He has to be someone who truly knows the Lord, who has met him and grown to love him.

He will only be 'with Jesus' if he is a man of prayer, opening his life to the presence of the Lord who breathes his Spirit upon him. His life will be rooted in the Eucharist: it is there above all that Jesus is present so that the priest can say with St Paul, 'I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me' (Galatians 2. 20). Then others will meet their Shepherd not only in the priest's great sacramental actions but in everything he does for them and in his simple presence among them.

If a priest is to be a living image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, in his mind and heart he must be the same as Jesus himself (Philippians 2. 5). Everything we say about the ministry of the priest ‑ his servant authority, the sacrifices required, his way of life - flows from his special relationship with the Lord and the call to be a living sign of his presence and action. If he is to 'be the image of Jesus for his community, he has to reflect deeply on what the New Testament tells us about Jesus: what he came to do, how he carried out his ministry, how he lived his life.

No greater love

The priest is asked to make the entire gift of himself, to lay down his whole life as a sign of his great love for the Lord and his flock. This is not something imposed on outside on the person offering himself for the priesthood. It flows naturally from all that it means to be a priest – someone who 'signs', 'images', 'represents' and shares in a very special way the ministry of the Good Shepherd himself. A priest is asked at his ordination to make three special promises: celibacy, obedience and simplicity of lifestyle. These are similar to, but not quite the same as the solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that those joining many religious orders are asked to make.

For the man thinking seriously about the priesthood, there is no doubt that it is not an easy decision to make. Many truly generous-hearted and dedicated people still find it difficult to make a life-long commitment to all that the priesthood involves. This is especially true of the celibate way of loving asked of the priest, and the aloneness that this sometimes brings. Marriage and family life are among our greatest joys and blessings. Handing over the freedom to plan one's future in the promise of obedience to one's bishop can be a real sacrifice. The priestly ministry calls also for a poverty of spirit, which involves not only a simple lifestyle, but also the loving surrender of much of one's time and privacy.

The bishop asks the man about to be ordained, 'Do you promise me and my successors obedience and respect?' Most people see obedience as something that takes away our freedom, limiting our ability to decide for ourselves the course of our lives. For the priest, it means the opposite. Like celibacy, it is an expression of love for the Lord whom the priest has freely chosen to make the sole meaning and purpose of his life.

Jesus was the Obedient One, his whole life surrendered in love to the will of his Father. The priest is asked to live out in his own life the obedience of his Lord. He makes his own the words of Jesus: 'My will is to do the will of the one who sent me, and to complete his work'. (John 4. 34).

Is this asking too much? Not for the man whose ministry will be to make visible among people the undivided heart of Our Lord himself Like a couple at their wedding, the priest freely and joyfully gives himself to his Lord and the Church 'for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish', for the rest of his life. Like marriage, priesthood is a life‑time commitment. It calls for a radical giving of one's time, and of all that one has and is.

One of the most moving moments at an ordination is when the man becoming a deacon or priest prostrates himself, lying flat on the ground. It expresses his deep 'Yes' to God's call. He freely places his entire existence before the Lord, giving all that he is in selfless service. He is to be a man totally at the disposal of Jesus in his Church.

This prostration is a powerful symbol of the spirituality asked of the priest throughout his ministry. It is that of the Suffering Servant whose life is given for God's people, the Good Shepherd who becomes the Lamb of God.

Not in isolation, but in a community

A priest is a vital servant of the Christian community, but also a member of that community. The New Testament affirms the basic equality of all Christians (Galatians 3:28). There are no first and second-class citizens in the Church, but only a single family of God's sons and daughters. Nothing we say about the importance of the priest should lessen our sense of the incredible dignity and responsibility of every disciples of Jesus. Any special vocations in the Church is rooted in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation we share together - in other words, in our deep unity with the risen Jesus and our common vocation to bring him to the world. The priesthood exists not for itself, but in service of God and his people. In other words, the priesthood exists for the community of believers. No one should be chosen to be a shepherd who is not delighted to be a sheep of God's flock. The whole ministry of the priest is at the service of the Christian community so that together we can be what Jesus calls us to be.

By Baptism and Confirmation, he whole community of disciples is priestly, prophetic and royal. As a priestly people, together we offer to the Father the spiritual sacrifice of our entire existence, all that we have and are: this happens above all in the Eucharist. As a prophetic community all Christians are called to 'evangelisation', making known the Good News by what we say and do, and by the wordless witness of our presence among others. As a royal servant community, we work together for a world permeated by the Spirit of Christ in every dimension of daily life, a world in which the justice and peace of God's Kingdom embrace.

We are all these things - a worshipping, witnessing and servant community - because we are intimately united with the risen Lord. We are drawn into ministry as the one Priest, Prophet and Servant King. We are the Body of Christ, his Bride, the sign and instrument of his continuing work in the world. St Paul goes so far as to call the Church 'the fullness of Christ' (Ephesians 1:23), and it would be difficult to say anything stronger about our common calling as Christians.

Each of us has been blessed with special gifts by the Spirit for the service of Jesus and his Church. We all need each other, and Jesus has chosen to need each of us! Whatever the particular way God has 'graced' you for his good purpose - perhaps the ordained priesthood - it will be a service lived out in communion with every other member of the Church, each gifted by God in his or her own way, and you will need them as much as they need you.

One vital qualification a person needs to be a priest is a deep love for the Church community, and a love of being a member of the Church. The Christian community needs the priest to serve its communion with Jesus Christ, but the priest is always a member of that community, and rejoices in being so. He finds the Lord he represents in the people he serves, and walks with them as a fellow pilgrim on the path to the fullness of life.

The sacraments

At the heart of the Catholic faith is the idea of 'sacrament' (e.g. baptism, reconciliation confirmation) – an encounter with Jesus. Our invisible Lord makes his presence visible among us through ordinary things and gestures, in a truly human way.

Jesus works in many ways, and he is not tied down or enclosed in the sacraments. He works through each of us to teach, make holy and unite his Church, and we recognize more and more today the place of leadership by lay people in the Church. This needs to be developed and encouraged. But there is still something special about Jesus' sacramental ways of acting, and it is here that we come to the ordained priest.

The bishop is the key sacramental sign of Jesus as leader of his Church, sharing in a special way the ministry of the apostles themselves. At a priest's ordination, the bishop shares his own ministry with the man he ordains. A priest can therefore be described as a co-worker with the bishop.

Everything a priest does in his ministry flows from what he becomes at his ordination: presiding at Mass, absolving sinners, anointing the sick, proclaiming and explaining the Good News with authority, giving blessings, and his whole pastoral leadership of a local community of faith. We cannot define a priest primarily by the things he does; it is what he is that matters first and foremost. The priest does what he does because he is what he is: a priest of Jesus Christ.

What then is it that he becomes? A Priest is a living sacramental sign and instrument of Jesus Christ as Head and Shepherd of his Church. He is a ‘walking sacrament’ or ‘living icon’ of Jesus as Teacher of his disciples, High Priest of his priestly community. The priest is Christ’s ambassador, his authorized representative among his disciples. The Lord entrusts him with his own continuing ministry. He puts his trust in the one he chooses, and makes him a steward of his presence.

The Second Vatican Council summed up the meaning of this special and vital ministry in its Decree on the Priestly Ministry and Life. The priest 'shares in the authority by which Christ himself builds up, makes holy and leads his body' (art. 2). He is so configured to Christ the Priest that he can 'act in the person of Christ the Head' (art.2). Priests 'become living instruments of Christ the eternal priest', representing in a special way the person of Christ himself (art. 12).

It is in the celebration of the Mass that the sacramental nature of a priest’s ministry is most evident. At the altar the priest repeats the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “This is my body, this is my blood” and Christ becomes present under the appearance of bread and wine. The priest at the altar acts in the person of Christ the Head and offers that one sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. It is certainly fair to look at the celebration of Mass as one of the key things that a priest does.

A Celibate way of Loving

The Church's requirement of priestly celibacy has been much debated, but there are no signs of any change being made. It would be unwise for anyone to offer himself for the priesthood in the hope that one day it might all be different!

But why is the priest asked to sacrifice the intimate love of a wife, the wonderful joy of a family of his own, God's great and beautiful gift of sexual intercourse? Is it just a Church law, an imposition, a painful sacrifice to be accepted obediently but reluctantly?

Jesus was celibate. This was a sign of his total dedication to his mission from his Father. He was single‑minded and single-hearted in his commitment to his vocation. His celibacy was certainly not an escape from 'real life' or a refusal to love. It was an expression of his total and all‑embracing love for God and his people. This is the key reason why the priest is celibate: he makes visible among us the celibate love of Jesus Christ.

In the community of the faithful committed to his charge, the priest is Christ present. Thus, it is most fitting that in all things he should reproduce the image of Christ and follow in particular his example, both in the his personal life as well as in his apostolic life.
(Pope Paul VI, Priestly Celibacy, 1967, art. 31)

Celibacy is one of the ways in which the priest takes on the undivided heart of Jesus himself. It is a challenge to love at the deepest level, a love without limits and open for all, a love that makes present the gentle power of the love of God. Celibacy is an opportunity to be really free in one's service of others. When lived in love for Jesus Christ, it gives the priest an inner freedom to cherish God's people with the love of the Good Shepherd. It leaves him totally open and available for those he serves, and free to move to wherever he can best be of service.

The call to be celibate in no way involves thinking less of marriage. Many priests would love to be married and to have children of their own. Only a person who would be really happy and fulfilled as a husband and father is able to sacrifice marriage and family life in a truly Christian sense. Nor should celibacy turn a priest into an unloving and crusty bachelor. It should leave him free to care for the Church community entrusted to him with the deep and exclusive love of a husband for his wife.

The heart of the priest, in order that it may be available for this service, must be free. Celibacy is a sign of freedom that exists for the sake of service.
(Pope John Paul II, Letter to Priests, Holy Thursday 1979, art. 8)

The celibate has to make space in his heart for many and not just for one. It is natural for us to want the space in our hearts to be filled by one other person. But the priest and religious must make space for all. We have to love everyone. That is the heart of the effectiveness of our ministry. With prayer goes discipline whereby we say 'no' to ourselves, no tin a negative and inhuman way, but in order to say 'yes' to other people.
(Cardinal Basil Hume, Light in the Lord, Page 35)

Of course, there will often be pain in celibacy. Our society finds it strange and the pressures are tremendous, but Jesus' celibacy did not mean he was denied the joy of loving and being loved by people close to him, nor will it for the priest who allows his celibacy to make him truly God's 'man of love'.

Celibacy is a sign of love, a powerful expression of the priest's total dedication of himself to his Lord. If you decide generously to offer yourself for the priesthood, your willingness to be celibate will be a key sign that your heart is set on God and his Kingdom, and that you are really serious in saying to Jesus and his Church, 'I am all yours'. Only God can give you the grace to accept and live a truly celibate life, and only a deep love for God and his people will make sense of it all!

Every follower of Jesus is asked to 'renounce himself and take up his cross' and follow the way of the Lord (Matthew 16. 24). There is a radical 'leaving behind' involved in all discipleship (Matthew 8. 18-22; Luke 5. 11, 28). The Apostles themselves left everything to follow Jesus, and any call to ministry will always involve something of the same.

No one can be a 'living icon' or 'walking sacrament' of the Good Shepherd who is not prepared to give himself as a loving sacrifice. At the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday each year, the bishop asks his priests:

Are you resolved to unite yourself more closely to Christ, and to try to become more like him by joyfully sacrificing your own pleasure and ambitions to bring his peace and love to your brothers and sisters?

He could equally ask the same question of any man offering himself for priestly formation. It sums up perfectly what is asked of the priest.

Does all this talk of sacrifice make you even more hesitant about becoming a priest? Perhaps like the rich young man in the Gospel (Mark 10. 17-22), your face falls and you are tempted to go away sad. But if you are someone who feels that Jesus himself has chosen you to be his priest, that he is calling you to be close to him in a special way and to share his own ministry, then you will be strengthened by knowing that the Lord now looks steadily at you and loves you (v. 21).

Peter asked Jesus, 'What about us? We have left everything and followed you'. Jesus promised him - and you - that anyone who gives up home, family and possessions for him will be repaid a hundredfold, 'now in this present time 'as well as in the world to come (Mark 10. 28-30). We know from the Gospel that giving ourselves does not mean losing ourselves. It is precisely in giving that we receive: 'Anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it' (Matthew 10. 39).

Poor for God's People

Jesus came in poverty, the Poor One of God. He became poor for our sake, to make us rich out of his poverty (2 Corinthians 8. 9). The Beatitudes express perfectly the inner life of Jesus (Matthew 5. 1-12). He was truly poor in spirit, totally detached from anything that would hinder his service of the Kingdom of God. The priest is called to live the Beatitudes so as to be a living sign of Jesus. He is to store up treasures for himself in heaven rather than on earth (Matthew 6. 19-21). He should not be too concerned about his material well-being, his living conditions, his food or income. A simple I lifestyle, lived in love for the Lord, makes him free for God and available for God's people, especially those who are poor in any way.

Clerics are to follow a simple way of life and avoid anything which smacks of worldliness. (The Code of Canon Law canon 282. 1)

Lord, I am not worthy

As you read about and reflect on what it means to be a priest, you may well feel unworthy, unsuited and apprehensive about all it would involve. This is natural so don't worry about it. No one is ever worthy of the priesthood. The apostles themselves were a very mixed bag, with their own weaknesses and doubts. You probably echo Simon Peter's words to Jesus as you sense him calling you to some special service: 'Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man' (Luke 5. 8). But Jesus called Peter all the same. What matters is not how you feel, but that Christ is calling you.

But how can an ordinary man, with all his weaknesses and failings, be a 'living image' of Jesus Christ as Head, High Priest and Shepherd of his Church?

All ministry is the free gift of God who delights in choosing the weak to be servants of his presence. It is not for us to ask, Why me?'. God chooses whom he wishes. I am not chosen because I am better than others, or more worthy than they. Like God's people in the Old Testament, we are special because we have been chosen, not chosen because we are special! The priest is no less in need of salvation, forgiveness and healing than any other disciple. It is the Holy Spirit who unites the priest to Jesus Christ in a special way at his ordination, and the priest is totally dependent throughout his ministry on the continual outpouring of the Spirit of God.

A priest is a man of God’s pardon, an instrument of forgiveness to others, but he is also a sinner, in need of forgiveness and renewal himself. Therefore a priest needs to be a man of humility, realizing that in his weakness the Lord calls him to do wonderful things, and that he does these things, not on his own merits, but through the power of God working in him.