For centuries, the ordination ceremony made it clear that priests must be men armed by virtue and holiness, who “conserve in…. conduct the integrity of a chaste and holy life” (Quoted in Michel Andrieu, ed., Le pontifical de Guillaume Durand) , utterly identified with the heroic Christ whose sacrifice they would be privileged to mystically enact when they ascended the steps to the sacred altar:
“Become conscious of what you do; imitate what you handle; so that, celebrating the mystery of the death of the Lord for the sake of all men, you take care to mortify your body keeping it from vices and concupisences. Let your teaching be a spiritual medicine for God’s people; let the fragrance of your life be the delight for the Church of Christ; so that by preaching and example you may build up the house, that is, the family of God; that neither we for advancing you, nor you for undertaking so great an office may deserve to be damned by the Lord, but that we, rather, may merit reward. May He grant it to us by His grace.” (Quoted in Michel Andrieu, ed., Le pontifical de Guillaume Durand)
Thus, the priest is called to unite himself to the heroic Christ of the Sacrifice who gave his body for the salvation of mankind. As alter Christus (another Christ), the sacramental image of the Savior, his soul is sealed by a sacred character. He alone has the authority, derived from Christ through the successors of the apostles, to intercede for the forgiveness and expiation of sins. His hands are no longer those of a layman: they have been consecrated with sacred oil so that he may enter into the sanctuary and be close to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
Accordingly, his role is unique and indispensable. He alone is needed for the Sacrifice of the Mass to occur. He enters the sanctuary, ascends the altar steps, and faces towards the altar, towards God since he is the one called by ordination to stand at the head of the people as their representative, the mediator between them and the Omnipotent. His role as mediator entails a vibrant sense of his moral responsibilities as spiritual father. For he has heard not only the call of God but the call of God’s people: “Come with us, and be to us a father and a priest…. And the priest’s heart was glad; he…went in the midst of the people” ( Book of Judges 18:19-20). The people behind him have become his spiritual sons and daughters ‒ and “spiritual” is just as real as “biological”! As spiritual father he is called to fulfill the masculine and spousal role of procreator, provider, and protector.
As procreator he is called to populate Heaven by making over his person into the mystical but ever so real continuation of the person of Christ, the one and only savior of mankind who communicates to men the supernatural life that is absolutely necessary to attain eternal salvation. “The priest so far from losing the gift and duties of fatherhood by his law of celibacy, rather increases them immeasurably. For although he does not beget children for this passing life on earth, he begets children for that life which is heavenly and eternal.” (Pope Pius XII, Menti Nostrae) He introduces the new life into souls at baptism; strengthens it through the other sacraments and at the mystical reenactment of the source of all sacramental life, the Sacrifice of Calvary.
As provider he makes available both the “Bread of Life” (Jn 6:35) “so that one may eat of it and not die” (Jn 6: 50) and “the words of eternal life” (Jn 6: 68).
But the priest must also be protector. The Ancient Rite makes it quite clear that when he stands at the altar at the head of his people he represents Christ as vir ‒ and Christ for medieval men, whether knights or priests, was the supreme model of virility. Writers of those centuries make this transparently clear. For instance, the fourteenth-century poem The Vision of Piers Plowman portrays him as the formidable warrior who rode to battle to fight the forces of Hell for man’s salvation. The eighth-century poem The Dream of the Rood [Cross] states that on Calvary “the young warrior stripped himself – he, God Almighty – strong and stout-minded; he mounted high gallows, bold before the throng, resolved to loose man’s bonds”.
As he stands in seeming isolation at the high altar absorbed by his duties the priest communicated a clear subliminal message to all present. His personality is utterly in the service of the King. He must crush any latent tendency to exhibitionism and narcissism, and indeed the ritual aids him to accomplish this by ceaselessly subordinating his persona to his role as the mystical representative of the Redeemer. Relentlessly, through the prayers it imposes on him to say privately, before, during, and after the sacred action, the Ancient Rite sets up a high standard of character. Its ethos emphasising the Mass to be the Sacrifice of Christ and the priest as Alter Christus configured the priestly life as sacrificial. Asceticism for the sake of mystic identification with him whom they represent has to be woven into the fabric of priest’s daily life. Priestly fatherhood and its flipside, celibacy, is a mystic ideal made possible by sacramental power and grace-imbued self-mastery.
Prayers dating from around the year 1000 urge the priest vesting before Mass to commit himself to spiritual warfare: “Place, O Lord, the helmet of salvation upon my head, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil”. The rite alerts him to his need of this combat-readiness by having him recall the fact that he is a sinner. Before ever he mounts the steps to the altar, he bows low, humbly acknowledging his sinfulness by praying the Confiteor and almost the only time that the ceremonial allows him to be audible during the sacred Canon is when he states that he is “indignus famulus tuus”.