The Priesthood: Hallowed be Thy Name

seven sacramentsLast week we considered how “Our Father, who art in heaven” is a reminder of our Baptismal dignity. Baptism makes us children of the heavenly father. But Baptism, like childhood, is only potential, looking forward with promise.

That promise looks forward, above all, to praise. We are given divine birth so that we can know the divine. We become “sons in the Son” so that, like the Son, we can become eternal praise of the Father.

Every newborn baby has a father, but does not yet know his name. The promise of earthly birth is, above all, the possibility of relationship, of knowing others in the world, above all our family, by name. The promise of our heavenly birth is that we can know the name of the holy one, know the holiness of his name, hallow his name. “Our Father, who art in heaven” bears fruit in “hallowed be thy name.”

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We can enter more deeply into this next line of the prayer by picturing a priest at the altar. He lifts up his hands in praise, he hallows God’s name. Indeed, Baptism is the door into the Church – so that we can attend the perfect praise of the Mass. We dip our fingers in baptismal water at the door, and go up to the altar; our Baptism gives us access to the place of the Priest; calling God our Father opens up the possibility of hallowing his name.

Now, in Catholic theology there are two kinds of priesthood. Baptism itself makes us priests: “Having been drawn to Him, a living Stone, indeed rejected by men, but elect, precious with God; you also as living stones are bulit up a spiritual house, a holy priesthod, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for possession, so that you might speak of the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:4-5, 9). We are all stones building up the Church, all priests, all people of praise.

And so the proper name for what we typically call the sacramental priesthood is really Holy Orders. Orders means hierarchy, leadership. It is not that the sacramental priests are the only priests – it is that they lead the priestly people in the priestly service of worship.

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If we are a priestly people, why do we need priestly “orders”? Imagining the ordained priest when we pray “Hallowed be thy name” can help us understand.

Yes, my life is called to be praise. I am called to hallow God’s name. But I need an image of that hallowing. I can think of myself at Mass best by drawing to mind the one who leads me in worship.

The sacramental order is all about making things vivid – giving us, fleshly people, clear images of the truths of our faith. We are not left to understand vaguely that we have been born again to a new Father – we see it happen, in Baptism. We understand that all of life is praise when we have special moments of praise, with special leaders in praise.

The ordained priest is, first of all, a sacramental image of our praise. He manifests in his body this truth of our faith.

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He is also a sacramental image that praise is a gift. I do not make myself a Son of God, I receive it – it is poured onto me in Baptism through the ministry of the Church, the Body of Christ. I do not rise up to God in praise by my own strength, but that too is a gift. The ordained priesthood is a gift to us, something that we cannot make ourselves. We cannot ordain priests except through the hand of the ordained, reaching back to Jesus and the Apostles. And we cannot offer perfect praise except through that sacramentally ordained ministry.

The point is not that priests are better Christians. The point is that the priesthood itself – all of our priestly service – is a gift from God. The sacramental priesthood is an icon showing that worship is a gift.

We further remind ourselves of that gift by invoking the word “name.” We only know God’s name because he has told us. Again, there is an icon of this truth in the Magisterium of the Church: God speaks to us from outside of us, through Scripture, interpreted by the Tradition, interpreted by the ordained leaders of the Church. To know God is all gift.

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Finally, it is a gift that draws us together, not dispersed to our private rooms, but gathered around the altar of praise – gathered around the ordained priest, who leads us in procession.

When we pray “hallowed be thy name,” even in our private rooms, we call to mind the ordained priest and understand how all of life is drawn to the altar of praise.

How would it change your day if you saw it pointing to the altar?

The Priesthood and Our Spiritual Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

We continue with our meditations on how each of the sacraments can serve as a metaphor of the spiritual life.

This week we consider the Priesthood. The basic image for the priesthood is the laying-on of hands and apostolic succession. When we see the priest, for example standing at the altar, we are meant to see not just that man, but the bishop, as it were, “behind” him, conferring his power. And as we imagine the bishop, we should imagine the bishop behind him, and the bishop behind him – a long line of men laying hands on one another – all the way back to the twelve apostles in the upper room, with Christ breathing his spirit onto them.

Apostolic succession is a vivid image of everything coming to us from Christ. When we imagine that long line of bishops, we see that the Eucharist comes not just from human power, but from the power of Christ, poured out on the Church. This is precisely why we confess to a priest: so that we can see it is not human power that unbinds us, but the power of Christ.

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Imagine a world where everyone was a priest, where I could confess my sins to anyone at all. The problem is, first of all, at the level of symbol. It would look to me like the power of the sacraments is a purely human power. But the priesthood is there precisely to remind us that it comes from God. Thank God he has intervened, he has come with a power greater than our power. It is that action of God that we celebrate when we look to the priest.

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Now, “priesthood” is not actually the proper theological term for what we are talking about. Technically, a priest is someone who offers sacrifice. And, on the one hand, we have to be careful to understand what we mean when we say we “offer sacrifice,” and on the other hand, every Christian is called to offer spiritual sacrifices and the sacrifice of the Mass. To distinguish our “priests” by them offering sacrifice and us not is actually an error.

Which is why the Church has never actually called this sacrament “priesthood,” but “Holy Orders.” (Though I won’t challenge you if you keep calling your priest a “priest”!) In fact, the proper word for our priests is “presbyter,” which means “elder,” and the word bishop comes from “episcopus,” “overseer.”

All of these are words that speak about hierarchy. (In fact, hierarchy is just the Greek word for “holy-order.”) There are “orders” within Christianity, higher and lower. There are elders and non-elders, and those in charge of overseeing.

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Why is Christianity so hierarchical? Why does it have “holy orders”?

First, for the reason stated above: to show that the power comes from Christ, not from us. The priest is “higher” in the sense that it is through him that Christ acts. If a priest understands that, it’s actually a radically humbling kind of “higher.” The priest is not his own: he is there, not for his own sake, and not by his own strength, but to confer Christ’s power to us. Anything else he does is out of line, an abuse of power. That’s the only reason he has a place in the hierarchy: to teach Christ’s teaching, to confer Christ’s power in the sacraments.

Second, leadership creates community. Again, imagine we were all priests, then imagine Mass: we would all be doing our own thing. To come together requires a director, a leader, a focal point. Another reason the priest uniquely has the power to make Christ present in the Eucharist is so that we will gather around one table, and pray in communion with one another. The priest is a sign both of Christ’s power and of the unity of the Church. Again, this is part of why we don’t want too many priests!

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We can practice devotion to the sacrament of Orders in two ways. One is by devotion to the sacramental order. Both by going to the sacraments themselves, which actually have power, but also by asking the priest’s blessing. In fact, he has no power except the sacraments. What we practice, though, when we receive his blessing, is precisely devotion to the power of Christ which acts through those hands.

Second, by practicing devotion to the unity of the Church. Love of parish, love of diocese, love of the universal Church comes out in our love of priest, bishop, and pope. Affection, not for his personal goodness, but for the office he holds, and the way it draws us together in communion.

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How do you practice devotion to the priesthood? How do you live out your love for the Church?