When the present archbishop of Milwaukee, Archbishop Jerome Listecki, was bishop of our Diocese of La Crosse, he once said to the seminarians, “The priesthood is either the most useless vocation a man could ever choose, or it is absolutely essential for the life of the Church and for the salvation of the world. It all depends on how you answer the question, ‘Who died on the Cross?’ If Jesus was only a man and nothing more, then priesthood is nothing more than remembering the death of a man who died as a criminal on a cross. But if the one who died on the Cross was truly the Son of God, who gave up his life as an act of ultimate love and redemption, and then rose from the dead and called the Apostles to be mediators of this love, grace, and Covenant, then the priesthood is absolutely essential for the life of the Church and for the salvation of the world.”
There is a saying carved into the stone of our former seminary which states, “The priest is another Christ who works daily among men and bears the Gifts of God.”
Once, while teaching a class of middle school students, I asked why they thought it would be important to be a priest. One sixth grade boy raised his hand and said, “I think it would be cool to be a priest, because then you would bless the bread and it would become the Body of Christ. You bless the wine and it would become the Blood of Christ. Then you give Jesus to the people.” How well said!
In an age in which priesthood is often seen simply as a presidential function within a community, it is easy to lose the mystical dimension which is given by Christ himself.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis,” (CCC 1548).
It states further, “This priesthood is ministerial. That office…which the Lord committed to the pastors of his people, is in the strict sense of the term a service. It is entirely related to Christ and to men. It depends entirely on Christ and on his unique priesthood; it has been instituted for the good of men, and the communion of the Church. The sacrament of Holy Orders communicates a ‘sacred power’ which is none other than that of Christ. The exercise of this authority must therefore be measured against the model of Christ, who by love made himself the least and the servant of all,” (CCC 1551).
Quote: In the book, Called to Communion, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes about the nature of the priesthood: “Sacrament means: I give what I myself cannot give; I do something that is not my work; I am on a mission and have become the bearer of that which another has committed to my charge. Consequently, it is also impossible for anyone to declare himself a priest or for a community to make someone a priest by its own fiat. One can receive what is God’s only from the sacrament, by entering into the mission that makes me the messenger and instrument of another. Of course, this very self-expropriation for the other, this leave-taking from oneself, this selfdispossession and selflessness that are essential to the priestly ministry can lead to authentic human maturity and fulfillment. For in this movement away from self we are conformed to the mystery of the Trinity; hence, the imago Dei is consummated, and the fundamental pattern according to which we were created is brought to new life. Because we have been created in the image of the Trinity, the deepest truth about each man is that only he who loses himself can find himself.”
Why is the priesthood so important? Because through the hands of the priest, the very presence of Jesus Christ is mediated to all people. The sixth grade boy had it right. There is no room for entitlement nor clericalism, but only to offer oneself as a gift, a living sacrifice in love and in service.