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Rituale Romanum

Holy Orders - Priesthood - Introduction

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Christ, eternal High Priest and mediator between God and men, redeemed us as a priest by offering Himself in sacrifice on the cross. And at the Last Supper, wishing to bequeath to the Church for all time an all- perfect offering to God--the sacramental reenactment of the sacrifice on the cross--instituted both the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Christian priesthood, the latter to perpetuate the former.

To all who are united with Him in the mystical body, the Church, Christ has given a share in His priesthood, a share which differs, however, in degree as well as in kind. First there is the priesthood of all Christians given in baptism and raised to a higher perfection in confirmation, by which the Christian people are empowered and privileged to have an active part in the offering of Holy Mass. In this participation they give to God the highest and most pleasing gift possible, that of the body and the blood of His divine Son, and get back from God in return the very same gift in holy communion.

But since God has made the faithful of His Church priests only in a limited sense, He has placed at their head priests endowed with the higher priestly powers of Jesus Christ. These are the priests in holy orders. In the Sacrifice of the Mass it is they who stand at the altar, representing Christ as priest and victim, and representing the people as offerers with them in the act of rendering to their Creator this all-perfect act of homage.

In offering the sacrifice of the New Covenant the Church does not offer something new, but a continuation and a representation, through efficacious sacramental signs, of Christ's saving act in His paschal sacrifice of death and resurrection. Consequently, the priests of the Church are not new mediators between God and men, but continue to act in the place of the one and only mediator, the Son of God and our Lord and Savior. Their function is to relate the unique priesthood of Christ to the general priesthood of the new people of God.

Although the highest function of the Christian priesthood is to offer worship at God's altar, and after that to carry out the related liturgical acts of administering the other sacraments, the priests of the Church participate in Christ's priesthood in another ministerial position. They participate also in the prophetic mediatorship of our Lord and His apostles, by making present God's holy word through the continued proclamation to men of the good news of salvation. Here too, as in the case of the sacrifice of the Church, there is not a new teaching, not a new revelation, not a new message which priests of the Church proclaim in their own name, but again it is the word of Christ, of the one final and definitive prophet of the Most High, being proclaimed and made present until the end of time. In fact, the priesthood of the Church would be degraded if it did not include the ministry of the word, the word of preaching and teaching. It is true, of course, that the ministry of preaching belongs in the first place to the bishop of the diocese, with whom the priests in holy orders are associated. But since the bishop practically speaking cannot carry out this important duty alone, the Council of Trent repeatedly emphasized that priests have a grave responsibility of sharing in this prophetic office of their bishop. The Sacrifice of the Mass and the other sacraments need to be accompanied by the word of the priest. And when priests utter the saving words and when they engage in the ministry of preaching they are not speaking in their own name but in the person of our Lord.

The Council of Trent has emphasized, moreover, that a priest of the Church is to resemble in all ways the Good Shepherd of the New Covenant. In imitating the Good Shepherd priests are associated with the bishop, who himself is absorbed in the charge of ruling the people and feeding the flock. And the work of ruling and feeding the flock does not stop within the sacred precincts of the house of God, it does not stop at the altar or in the pulpit, but extends outside the sacred place to other places that are to be made sacred, to the homes of the faithful or wherever there are men in need of hearing the saving truths of the Gospel, in need of the saving graces and helps that priests are empowered to bestow on them, in mind, heart, body, and soul. As the prayers, in particular the solemn preface, of the ordination rite so clearly and precisely bring out, the Christian priesthood is not only of a liturgical or ritual kind, but is charismatic and spiritual in other respects as well. The gifts conferred on a man in ordination are designed to edify the Church, edify in the original sense of that word, that is, to build up the spiritual building or kingdom of the people of God. Therefore, another conviction, of which the Church has been strongly aware from the beginning, is expressed in the prayers of the ordination rite, namely, that the full effectiveness of sacred functions is conditional upon the sanctity of those who exercise them. The graces of the Holy Spirit are given to priests not merely to ensure the sacramental validity of certain actions, but also to help them acquire a sanctity which might serve as a pattern for the Christian people.

St. John Chrysostom sums up the function of priests as the ministers of God by referring to Elias on Mt. Carmel. He describes the scene where the people of God are assembled in silence, the prophet at prayer, and fire is falling from heaven. And then goes on to say: "All these things were wonderful and amazing. But today the mysteries exceed all amazement. The priest stands there to cause not fire but the Holy Spirit to descend. He prays at length, not that fire falling from on high may consume the offerings, but that grace may descend on the community and may reach men's souls, making them brighter than silver that is tried by fire" (PG 48.642).


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