Last week, we talked about bishops and how they receive the fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, giving them particular and unique gifts in the areas of teaching the Faith and governing the Church. Today, we will look more closely at the second order of holy orders, the presbyterate, which is more commonly known as the priesthood. Out of the three orders, priests are the ones which we, as laypersons, encounter the most in our day-to-day spiritual journeys.
Choosing to be a priest is a bit different than choosing matrimony as one’s vocation. Comparatively speaking, there is less preparation involved with marriage and less scrutiny over one’s fitness to carry out the obligations of a spouse and parent properly. At some point in his life, a man may discern that he may not feel called to the Sacrament of Matrimony and may instead be called to the life of the priesthood, which requires more investigation. He will then enter a period of formation and deeper discernment, with the length of time varying among diocese, institutions, and orders, but typically not shorter than five years. During this time, under the proper care and guidance of the Church, the man will deepen His relationship with God, knowledge of the Truth handed down through the Magisterium, and more understanding of the obligations of a priestly vocation. However, as he is discerning his own path, the Church, represented by the overseers (professors, spiritual directors, other priests, and bishops), is going through her own discernment process of whether the man is suitable for the priesthood. This means that, ideally, once a man has made it to the reception of the sacrament, we ought to trust that he has been properly formed and that it has been determined by all involved that he is suitable for the role. “No one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders… anyone who thinks he recognizes the signs of God’s call to the ordained ministry must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church, who has the responsibility and right to call someone to receive orders,” (CCC 1578).
As an aside, I will acknowledge that there have been instances of men who were not suitable and even overtly sinful and evil being allowed to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which has caused much suffering in the Church and the world. However, for this presentation, I’m simply providing a catechetical explanation of the sacrament, rather than offering an opinion piece on specific failures in the vetting process of some of our institutions.
The priestly degree of Holy Orders is also referred to as the “co-workers” of the bishops. These men work under the direction of their bishop in his function as a shepherd and bring the tools necessary for salvation directly to the members of the flock. Priests work on the front lines of where we all encounter the Blessed Trinity by administering the sacraments, preaching the gospel, providing spiritual direction and advice, providing formation through homilies and parish programs, and being available to us on a personal level as spiritual fathers. Whenever a Catholic needs a priest, there is always one on call to help!
Like bishops, a priest must receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders from a bishop. Typically, his own bishop in the diocese where he resides will perform the ordination, but another bishop can do it with special permission. As with all ordinations, the priest will receive the laying on of hands while the bishop prays a special consecratory prayer over him, asking the Holy Spirit to bless his work as a priest (see CCC 1573). Once he has been ordained, which applies to all three degrees of Holy Orders, the priest receives an “indelible spiritual character” (CCC 1582). We all receive an indelible spiritual character when we receive Baptism and Confirmation, which mark us as children of God and can never be changed. Likewise, the priest receives a mark that means he will always be a priest. Of course, there are instances when disciplinary action strips a priest of his right to perform priestly functions. Still, his soul will always be that of a priest, which means he will continue to be a priest in the afterlife with differing implications depending on his destination.
The brief explanation of the role of priests is to join themselves to Jesus’ priesthood and be the bridge between God and man by offering prayer and sacrifice. In the days of the Old Covenant, the priests offered prayers and sacrificed animals as a sign of atonement offered to God on behalf of the people. Now, with the New Covenant, the primary sacrifice offered by the priest takes place at every Mass, where He re-presents the Sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, providing atonement for our sins. He also makes a personal sacrifice of time by participating in the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the universal liturgical prayer of the Church and takes place during multiple hours of each day. Additionally, a priest’s entire life is offered as a sacrifice as he gifts his whole self to the mission of leading souls to heaven, often under the painful cross of having to forsake other human desires.
With regard specifically to administering the Sacraments to the faithful, the priest is acting in persona christi, or “in the person of Christ.” This means that when a priest consecrates the Eucharist or gives absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it is not the priest himself working miracles or distributing grace. Rather, it is Jesus Himself doing these things through the mouth and hands of the priest. That being said, every conversation you have with your priest is not a conversation with Jesus, as this spiritual reality is only in the context of the sacraments where the laity encounter Jesus by physical means. Also, recall from last week’s overview of bishops, that a priest is not able to confer Holy Orders and he can only confer Confirmation if he is given explicit permission.
We can express gratitude to our priests for all they do for us as spiritual fathers in many ways. We can support them by sacrificing our own time to help implement formation and ministry opportunities. We can also pray for them and should remember to do so as much as possible. They are working hard to help us get to Heaven, and our prayers will help them in turn. As this also happens to be National Vocation Awareness Week, it is a good reminder that we also ought to pray for more men to hear and respond to the call of a priestly vocation. Our priests are rapidly dwindling in number without significant replacements from younger generations. The sacrifice, humility, and difficulties involved with the priesthood are things fewer men are willing to take on in the state of the world, and for a man to say “yes” to the priesthood today takes great courage, holiness, and virtue. We must pray for an increase in vocations and for these future priests to help us all encounter God on earth.
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You can find playlists of Chaplets for Priests here.