Who is the Priest?


Father Roberto Cano F.S.S.P.


Let a man so account us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. I Cor. 4, 1

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.


On this the 4th Sunday of Advent, the Church who is bother Mother and Teacher, through the Sacred Liturgy wishes to direct our minds and hearts to ponder the great mystery and gift of the Catholic priesthood.  In this past week, the Church has celebrated the Ember days, which as you know, are days of penance and abstinence.  In fact, the proper texts of this Sunday’s Mass are predominately taken from the Mass of Ember Saturday.   And this is with due reason.  This is because in Rome since the 3rd century it was the tradition to confer ordinations to the sacred priesthood, the major orders of diaconate and subdiaconate and the minor orders.  The Ember days of December were always used for ordinations due to their proximity to the feast of Our Lord’s birth in order to communicate to the faithful and to those receiving the orders that ordination to the priesthood is truly the birth of another Christ, an alter Christus.  In other words, our fathers in the Faith, understood ordination to the priesthood as a continuation (in a certain sense) of the Incarnation because it is the priest who continues the work of the Redemption here and now through his sacerdotal ministry.  It is only fitting, then, to say some words about the Catholic priesthood and its great dignity. 

In order to understand the nature of the priesthood, we must first speak about the virtue of religion.  What is it?  Religion is that moral virtue by which man pays due honor to Almighty God.  And like with all things that involve man, there is an internal and external aspect to this virtue since man is composed of both soul and body.  Devotion and prayer are the interior acts of religion and sacrifice is the most important external act of religion.  By this act man shows his utter dependence upon God and that he is subject to Him.   And this is where the priesthood becomes so essential!  For there can be no sacrifice without the priesthood and no true priesthood without sacrifice.  The priest, as the latin word sacérdos denotes, is the granter or the one who bestows sacred things.  Therefore let us be clear, where there is religion there must be a priesthood.  In the words of Pope Pius XI, of blessed memory, “The human race has always felt the need of a priesthood: of men, that is, who have the official charge to be mediators between God and humanity, men who should consecrate themselves entirely to this mediation, as to the very purpose of their lives, men set aside to offer to God public prayers and sacrifices in the name of human society. For human society as such is bound to offer to God public and social worship. It is bound to acknowledge in Him its Supreme Lord and first beginning, and to strive toward Him as to its last end, to give Him thanks and offer Him propitiation. In fact, priests are to be found among all peoples whose customs are known…They may, indeed, be in the service of false divinities; but wherever religion is professed, wherever altars are built, there also is a priesthood surrounded by particular marks of honor and veneration” (ACS, 8).  And so, the One, True God has established one, true religion and in doing so a priesthood that will endure forever.  That priesthood, dear brethren, is no other than the Catholic Priesthood.

The question still remains: Who is the priest?  St. Paul tells us in his magnificent definition, “Every high priest taken from among men, is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb. 5, 1).  The priest is a man like any man in this church, however, he has been set apart from ordinary men and his being has been raised to a higher dignity.  Essentially, the priest is a mediator between God and man.  As a mediator there must be something that he offers to God and something that he returns to man from God.  On account of his priestly ordination and the subsequent character that is imprinted on his soul, the Catholic priest has the power to offer the same sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, however, in an unbloody manner.  A power bestowed only to priests and not even to angels who possess a higher nature.  At every Mass, it is this sacrifice that the priest offers not only on his behalf, but that of the whole Church.    It is in the Mass that the fruits of the Redemption are applied to men and from which countless graces are bestowed upon our souls.  Who amongst us can truly comprehend the value of a single Mass?  This should tell us, then, with what honor and reverence we should esteem the office of the priest.  For we know by faith, when the priest offers the Mass with valid matter, form and the intention to do what the Church does Christ truly, really and substantially becomes present on the altar regardless the personal sanctity or lack thereof of the individual priest.  A truth, dear brethren, that the saints understood all too well.  It was said of St. Teresa of Avila that she would kiss the very ground where the priest would walk because she understood that from the hands of the priest the treasures of Heaven where made available to her.  And who can forget the example of St. Francis of Assisi?  This humble deacon who taught his fellow friars to greet and give deference to the priest first, even if they were to meet an angel and a priest at the same time.  Since, although, the angel has the higher nature the priest has the higher dignity as it is only he, by God’s power, who can make present the Body and Blood of Christ and forgive sins.  Lest we think that these are mere exaggerations we should always keep in mind that any respect or reverence we pay to the priest, first and foremost, should be directed to the Person who he represents, that is, Jesus Christ.  And whatever admiration or affection we may have for the individual priest is simply secondary and non essential.  The great beauty of this ancient rite of Mass is that the priest in a certain sense is forced to put his personality and personal preferences aside.  As the manner of offering the Mass is quite detailed and precise, it requires the priest to conform himself to the rite, rather than manipulating it with innovations to conform the rite to his own “liturgical style.”  There are certain reverences such as the kissing of the hand, bows and incensations made to the priest during the rite of Mass because he acts in persona Christi capitis, that is, in the very Person of Christ the Head.  There is not a single bow, genuflection, strike of the breast, sign of the cross or word in the Mass that is done in vain!  In fact, they are all means to direct the priest’s prayer to God and to conform the priest to Christ the High Priest and Victim of every Mass.   

The priest, however, is not only a mediator, but also a minister or steward to put it in the words of today’s Epistle.  That is to say, that all the power that the priest possesses over the Real Body of Christ in the Holy Eucharist and the Mystical Body of Christ (the Church) has its source from above.  It is not something that he gives to himself.  We should recall that even the sacred humanity of Christ was bestowed with this gift of the priesthood.  As St. Paul tells us in the epistle to the Hebrews, “Neither doth any man take the honor to himself, but he that is called by God, as Aaron was.  So Christ also did not glorify himself, that he might be made a high priest: but he that said unto him: Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.  As he saith also in another place: Thou art a priest forever , according to the order of Melchisedech” (Heb. 5, 4-6).  In other words, to become a priest one must first be chosen or elected by God before even daring to assume such an office.  This is why Christ could say to the apostles and to all priests, “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you” (Jn. 15, 16).   All too often in our day, the priesthood is seen as a job or career and unfortunately this heretical notion has even crept into the minds of some of the clergy.  But this is a grave mistake because the priesthood is a vocation, a sacred calling which entails a supernatural mission- which is no other than the salvation of souls!  It is clear then, that with such a lofty calling and mission the priest has a tremendous responsibility before Almighty God to make an account for those souls entrusted to his care.  As a saint once remarked: the path to Hell is paved by the skulls of priests’.  Strong and terrifying words, but nevertheless true!  We cannot fail to forget that the Church is a hierarchy and if the shepherds who have the charge to bring souls closer to Christ by their teaching and example are far from Him, how then, will the flock avoid being eaten by the ravenous wolves of temptation and sin?  The priest, dear brethren, continues the work of the redemption by applying its fruits to souls through the administration of the sacraments.  And if by negligence he fails to generously do so, in a certain sense, he is depriving souls of God’s graces and the converse is just as true.  If a priest generously dedicates himself to administering the sacraments then he provides souls with a great opportunity to receive an abundance of graces as did the holy Cure of Ars and St. Padre Pio.

Much more could be said about the priesthood, about its dignities and duties, however, this is not meant to be a theological lesson on holy orders but rather an exhortation to us all—to honor and love the priest for he is another Christ.  Just as the hemorrhaging woman in the Gospel wished but to touch the hem of Our Lord’s garment to be healed, so too the faithful can come to God’s ministers, his priests, and like that garment be healed through them.  Nevertheless, let us keep in mind, that although the priests carry the great treasures of Heaven with them they are frail vessels of clay.  And like Moses who needed his arms supported by others to defeat the army of Amalec, so too the priests need the prayers of the faithful to support them in the apostolate.  Many a great order such as the discalced Carmelites and confraternities of faithful have dedicated themselves to this great work—the sanctification of the clergy.  In fact, this is why the Fraternity of St. Peter has founded such a confraternity in order for the faithful to pray for the priests of our Fraternity and vocations to it.  That call to fasting, penance and vigil which the Ember days invoke for the sanctification of the clergy remains with us today and let us not forget it.  Please pray for your priests here and throughout the world and consider joining this confraternity to help reach its end—holy priests for Holy Mother Church.  I conclude with those memorable words of St. John Vianney concerning the sacred priesthood, “What is a priest?  A man who holds the place of God-a man who is invested with all the powers of God…The priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the sacraments to himself.  He is not for himself, he is for you.  After God, the priest is everything…The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.  When you see the priest, think of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen