The Christian life consists of a progressive assimilation of the Christian into Christ Himself. As St. Paul so well expressed it, “For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ, (Gal. 3:27).” To put on Christ is to become like Him in His quality as the Son of God. And for the priest, in addition, it is to be invested with His priesthood.
The effects of the sacraments remain full of mystery. They confer sanctifying grace to everyone, that gives us the title of children of God. But three of them—baptism, confirmation, and holy orders—also imprint on our soul a mark: character.
The Sacramental Character
Grace is the germ of the supernatural life, which must enable the faithful soul to grow in this divine life. By this grace, we come to know, love, and possess God as He knows and loves Himself.
The three characters of baptism, confirmation, and holy orders contribute, but in a very different manner, to make us resemble Christ. This resemblance is fixed forever in the soul and it is indelible. This is a true consecration: the subject is set apart, reserved for God, like a church or a chalice, uniquely destined to the service of divine worship.
The Church Fathers compare this mark to a spiritual seal imprinted on the soul to consecrate the faithful: as a member of Christ through baptism, as His soldier through confirmation, and as His minister through holy orders. The character is usually accompanied by sanctifying grace, even if he were, unfortunately, to be separated from it through mortal sin.
But this character is also a spiritual power, a certain capacity to act, which varies depending on the considered sacrament.
The baptismal character permits all Christians to receive the other sacraments. This is why baptism is called “the door to the sacraments.” Without this character, the effect of the sacraments on the soul does not happen. Further, it allows for an intimate participation in the liturgy, which comes about in the celebration of all the sacraments. So, through this character, the faithful can united himself with the priest in the celebration of the Mass, and offer with him the Body and Blood of Christ. But he cannot in any way carry out the priestly functions proper to the priest.
The character of confirmation adds a new resemblance to the Children of God. It marks the disciple to make him a soldier of Christ, defender of the Church, and combatant for the faith, ready to acknowledge it, to give witness to it, and to defend it.
The priestly character achieves assimilation to Christ in it highest degree in the priesthood. Through this spiritual power he receives through ordination, the priest receives a sublime power over the physical body and the mystical body of Christ. In that way, he is associated with the eternal High Priest, and with Him, he becomes mediator between God and men.
This supernatural power enables the priest, as a minister of Christ, to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, to forgive sins, and to bring down God’s blessings upon the faithful. The character is also the source of a special grace—the priestly grace—which produces a soul that is impregnated with it, to identify in a special way with Christ as Priest and Victim.
This is why tradition has always admired the particularly close relationship between Christ and His priest. Early Christianity saw the priest as one with Christ: “He is the living image, the official representative of the supreme Pontiff” (St. Cyril of Alexandria). The adage “sacerdos alter Christus,” “the priest is another Christ” expresses this belief of the Church.
The Grandeur of Priestly Dignity
Tepid periods in the Church have coincided with the diminishment of the priesthood, especially in the eyes of the priest himself, while periods of fervor have been favored by the recognition by everyone, and the priest first, of the grandeur of priestly dignity. All it takes is browsing through Church history. The fact that the reformers and the founder of orders have very much insisted on this point is easy to observe.
The priest is great through his resemblance to Christ. This becomes manifest on three points:
1) The priest is chosen by God: “You have not chosen me: but I have chosen you” (Jn. 15:16), Christ says to priests through His Apostles. St. Paul echoed these words: “Neither doth any man take the honor [priesthood] to himself, but he that is called by God, as Aaron was” (Heb.5:1). Christ Himself did not raise Himself to the sovereign pontificate, but He received it from the one who said to Him, “Thou art my Son,…Thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech” (Heb. 5:5-6).
This choice shows itself through the graces given in childhood then adolescence, by God who wants to bring the young man to present himself one day before God, and to answer the voice of the bishop, who alone is able to judge the divine origin of this call. Each vocation is different, but all of them come from God who alone can call men to this sublime participation in the priesthood of Christ.
2) The priest also puts on the power of Christ: It is divinely constituted to provide for the religious needs of people: he “is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God” (Heb. 5:1). The priest takes the place of Christ, according to the beautiful formula of St. Cyprian. And the power with which he is vested is not a simple delegation: Christ really operates through His minister.
The priest is thereby made responsible for the sacred gifts: sacra dons, giving the sacred things. For the first part, he offers Jesus sacramentally immolated to the Father, the perfect gift that the Church on earth received so as to present it before the celestial throne. For the other part, he communicates to men the fruits of the redemption: the graces and divine pardon. This is the divine plan of which St. Paul speaks, “Let a man so account us as of the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God” (I Cor.4:1).
So great is his identification with the supreme Pontiff, that during the Mass, the priest does not say, “This is the body, the blood of Christ,” but “This is My body,” “This is My blood.” Likewise, in the confessional he speaks the sacramental formula in His name, “I absolve you.” Because the priest has the privilege of really speaking in the name of Christ. The priesthood is thus the greatest similitude that man can have to the Incarnate Word, in the objective order. This does not prevent that, in the order of grace, a soul can rise to a greater likeness to God, like the Virgin Mary.
3) Finally, just as Christ is God and man, the priest carries within a divine element and a human element. In the eyes of the world, he lives a human life, but he has a superhuman power, which belongs only to God. He spreads and communicates Jesus Christ wholly.
The Priest Is Called to Holiness
The priestly dignity is so elevated that it escapes into the priest himself. The holy Curé d’Ars said it in his catechisms: “After God, the priest is everything….the priest will only understand himself well in heaven.” This high priestly dignity carries a grave obligation for holiness.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, three motifs ceaselessly remind the priest of his duty to tend towards sanctity: his power over the body and the blood of the Son of God; his function as the dispenser of grace, which he cannot fulfill without being himself sanctified by it. The example he must give to the Christian people is that he must accomplish what he preaches to others.
Thus, Blanc de Saint-Bonnet wrote, “a holy clergy makes virtuous people, a virtuous clergy makes honest people, an honest clergy makes impious people.” Dom Chautard, in the Soul of the Apostolate took up this formula without absolutely approving of it, but he recalled St. Alphonse de Liguori saying, “The good morals and the salvation of the people depend on good pastors. If there is a good priest in charge of the parish, you will soon see devotion flourishing, people frequenting the Sacraments, and honoring the practice of mental prayer. Hence the proverb: like pastor, like parish, or, according to Ecclesiasticus (10:2) 'Those who dwell in the state, take after their ruler’(p. 40).”
The venerable Fr. Francis Libermann, founder of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary, said to his priests, “A priest who is not a saint is a monster in the order of grace.”
The most pressing invitation to this holiness is made by the Church herself in the heart of the priestly ordination ceremony. In a solemn discourse, the bishop exhorts the future priests to fill themselves with the priestly spirit. Notably, he tells them, “Be well aware of the step you are taking; and trace in your life what you will do at the altar. For you will renew the mystery of the Lord’s death there everyday.”
The priest is called to imitate the total gift of Christ to His Father for the salvation of humanity. Such is perfection for the priest, and this vocation is more than angelic. Incidentally, the ceremony makes clear the two virtues which most particularly the priest must put on: justice and chastity. Justice towards God and souls, and perfect chastity so as to be free to fully assimilate himself to Christ.