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?