What is a priest? A priest is one who offers sacrifices on behalf of a group as an act of worship to God. As long as human beings have roamed the earth, there have been priests. We see them in the most ancient days of the Old Testament. Adam was a priest, as were the Patriarchs – Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Originally, in the Biblical tradition, the father of the family was the one who would make sacrificial offerings to the Lord on behalf of his family as a priest. The sacrifice could be grains and cereals, but was often a blood sacrifice of an animal, offered on an altar and then burned as an act of thanksgiving or atonement for sin. In the Book of Exodus, when the people rebelled against the Lord by worshipping a golden calf, it was the Tribe of Levi alone that remained faithful. For this reason, the priesthood was then limited to the men of the Tribe of Levi, who alone could offer sacrificial offerings to God on behalf of the rest of the Israelites. This was the origin of the Levitical priesthood that eventually took responsibility for the Jerusalem Temple. In the time of Christ, the Temple was the only place where one could offer sacrifices in accordance with Jewish law, and they were offered day and night. Some historians have speculated that during the Passover celebrations, up to a million animals would have been sacrificed in a single day in the Temple. These Temple sacrifices came to an end with its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D., but if you have ever met someone with the last name Cohen (which means “priest” in Hebrew) or Levi, it is likely that they are descendants of the Jewish priestly class associated with the Temple sacrifices.
Interestingly, Our Lord was not a member of the Tribe of Levi. He was born into the Tribe of Judah, which was not a priestly tribe. But Jesus is a priest. Indeed, He is THE priest, for He offered the perfect sacrificial offering to God on our behalf. Unlike the priests of the Temple, and all the priests that came before Him, Our Lord is not only the One who offers the sacrifice, He also is the sacrifice that is offered. Christ is both priest and victim, offered not in the Temple but on the cross. His great sacrifice, offered once 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, would be perpetuated through time by a new priesthood that He established the night before His sacrifice. Christ instituted the new priesthood at the Last Supper when He told the Apostles to “do this in memory of me.” Since then, those who have been ordained priests of Jesus Christ have made present again at Mass the sacrifice of Christ. They are able to do this because they have received the sacrament of Holy Orders, and have been configured in a special way by their ordination to Christ the High Priest, which also gives them the power to forgive sins. Bishops, who are successors to the Apostles, have received the fullness of the priesthood and also have the power to ordain new priests, so that future generations of Catholics might be sanctified and strengthened by the ministry of their priests.
We say that the priest offers the Mass in persona Christi – in the person of Christ. When He speaks the words of consecration, He is speaking as Christ Himself. He stands as Christ before God the Father, with the baptized faithful united to him in the offering. Thus, the members of the congregation are able to unite themselves to the sacrificial offering of Christ to the Father through the priest who stands in the person of Christ. As one conformed to Christ the High Priest, the ordained priest not only sanctifies the people through the sacraments, but he also has a special authority as a teacher of the truths of the Faith and as the leader of the community. These are special graces that come with the sacrament of Holy Orders, but how well they are exercised and used very much depend on the virtue of the man ordained. It is important for the faithful to pray for their priests and also for the young men that the Lord is inviting to serve Him and His people as priests, that they be happy and healthy men who are filled with desire to be holy priests.
A common question that people ask is why the Catholic priesthood is restricted to men. The reason for the all-male priesthood is not due to an understanding of women as being inferior to men or deficient in their humanity. Men and women are equal in their humanity and in their dignity. Christ shares a human nature with all of us – male and female alike. But God entered His creation as a man, and in the entire history of Biblical priesthood, priests were always men. In the ancient world there were priestesses in other religions, but never in the Hebraic religion. Moreover, Christ chose men to serve the Church as Apostles, who were His first priests, and throughout the history of the Church, only men have been ordained to priesthood. These are significant facts about our history and tradition, which led St. John Paul lI to conclude definitively in 1994, after lengthy debates among prelates and theologians, that it appears to be the will of God that His ministerial priesthood be all-male, and that the Church does not have the authority to do otherwise.
But why would this be God’s will? One cannot say for sure, but Sacred Scripture does provide some indications. Throughout both the Old Testament and New Testament, God likens Himself to a bridegroom and refers first to Israel and then the Church as His bride. This “nuptial mystery” sheds light on God’s will regarding the all-male priesthood. As a baptized member of the Church, the priest is associated with the Bride of Christ. But as one who has been ordained to the ministerial priesthood, he is also associated with Christ the Bridegroom. The Incarnation of the Lord God gives deep significance to the human body and how we relate to each other as men and women. This relation between man and woman is an image of the relation between God and His People, Christ and the Church. It is something that is made visible in the man who stands in the place of Christ as His priest, in relationship to the Church who is the Bride of Christ.
Finally, it is not only Bishops and priests who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders – Deacons receive it too. While Priests are conformed through their ordination to Christ the High Priest, Deacons are conformed through their ordination in a special way to Christ the Servant. Although they cannot offer Mass or hear confessions, Deacons may preach, preside at Eucharistic Benediction, serve at the altar during Mass, as well as serve as the ordinary minister of baptism. They, like priests, promise at their ordination to pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day on behalf of the Church. We must keep our Deacons in prayer along with our priests, that they might be faithful servants of Christ Jesus by faithfully serving and praying for the Church.