Priesthood: Apex of Responsibility

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Greatness Thrust upon Him

“The apex of greatness is the priesthood” wrote St. Ignatius of Antioch in his Epistle to the Christians of Smyrna.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” (Shakespeare). The man called by God to be an “ambassador for Christ” (2 Cor 5),  a man “taken from amongst men,” yet “ordained for men in the things that belong to God” certainly has an awe-inspiring  grandeur thrust upon his shoulders: “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins”(Hebs 5:1-2).

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the saints,the supreme pontiffs and Catholic writers emulate each other through the ages in speaking about the glory of the priesthood:

“The light and eye of the Church is the Bishop. It is necessary then that as the body is rightly directed as long as the eye keeps itself pure, but goes wrong when it becomes corrupt, so also with respect to the Prelate: according to what his state may be, must the Church in like manner suffer shipwreck, or be saved.”  (St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea)

“Jesus”, says Tertullian, “invests the priests with His own powers.”

“They are,” says St. Prosper, “the glory and the immovable columns of the Church; they are the doors of the eternal city…..”.

“Nothing,” says St. Ambrose, “is more excellent in this world.

” It transcends, says St. Bernard, “all the dignities of kings, of emperors, and of Angels.”

“You hold the place of Christ,” says St. Augustine “you are therefore His lieutenants.”

“Who is a priest?”, asked St. John Vianney, “A  man who takes the place of God, a man who is filled with all the powers of God.”

“If I saw an Angel and a priest, said St. Francis of Assisi, “I would bend my knee first to the priest and then to the Angel.”

“Open the eye of your intellect”, said Our Lord to St. Catherine of Siena, “and see in me the sun of justice; and you will see the glorious ministers who, having administered the sun, have assumed the condition of the sun”.

“A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart”, said St. John Vianney “is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy”. “O, how great is the priest! … If he realized what he is, he would die. … God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host”. “Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put Him there in that tabernacle? The priest.”

“And thus the ineffable greatness of the human priest stands forth in its entire splendor” said Pope Pius XI in Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, “for he has power over the very Body of Jesus Christ, and makes it present upon our altars. In the name of Christ Himself he offers a victim infinitely pleasing to the Divine Majesty. “Wondrous things are these,” justly exclaims St. John Chrysostom, “so wonderful, they surpass wonder.”

The priest is Jacob’s ladder between earth and heaven whereby souls can climb to eternal union with God. And this is shown most transparently in the Sacrament of Confession. As. St. Alphonsus de Liguori stated:

“To pardon a single sin requires all the omnipotence of God. “O God, you who chiefly manifest your almighty power in pardoning and showing mercy,” says the Church in one of her prayers. Hence, when they heard that Jesus Christ pardoned the sins of the paralytic, the Jews justly said: ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’. But what only God can do by His omnipotence, the priest can also do by saying “Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis” for the forms of the Sacraments, or the words of the forms, produce what they signify.”

“What the priest does is wonderful, for by saying “Ego te absolvo” he changes the sinner from an enemy into the friend of God, and from the slave of Hell into an heir of Paradise. Cardinal Hugo imagines the Lord addressing the following words to a priest who absolves a sinner: ‘I have created Heaven and earth, but I leave to you a better and nobler creation; make out of this soul that is in sin a new soul, that is to say, make out of the slave of Satan that the soul is, a child of God. I have made the earth bring forth all kinds of fruit, but to you I confide a more beautiful creation, namely, that the soul should bring forth fruits of salvation.’”

“The soul without grace is a withered tree that can no longer produce fruit; but when it receives the Divine grace, through the ministry of a priest, it brings forth fruits of eternal life. St. Augustine said that to sanctify a sinner is a greater work than to create Heaven and earth. And have you, said Job, an arm like God, and can you  thunder with a voice like His? Who is it that has an arm like the arm of God, and thunders with a voice like the thundering voice of God? It is the priest, who, in giving absolution, exerts the arm and voice of God, by which he rescues souls from Hell. According to St. Ambrose, a priest, in absolving a sinner, performs the very office of the Holy Ghost in the sanctification of souls.”

“We are God’s co-adjutors. ‘On priests’, says St. Gregory. ‘falls the task of giving the final decision, for by the power that they have received from the Lord they now remit, now retain, sins.’ ” St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Dignity and Duties of the Priesthood