The Priest: Alter Christus

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Pope Pius XI summed up the identity of the priest as follows:
“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.’ (1 Cor 4:1) The priest is the minister of Christ, an instrument, that is to say, in the hands of the Divine Redeemer. He continues the work of the redemption in all its world-embracing universality and divine efficacy, that work that wrought so marvelous a transformation in the world. Thus the priest, as is said with good reason, is indeed ‘another Christ’; for, in some way, he is himself a continuation of Christ. ‘As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you’ is spoken to the priest, and hence the priest, like Christ, continues to give ‘glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will.'”   (Pius XI, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii)
The implications of priestly ordination are stunning. Anointing with the priestly character changes man in a way similar to the change wrought in material things transformed into sacraments. As St. Gregory of Nyssa stated:

“For the power that operates is mighty and wonderful are the things that are wrought by it… The bread is at first common bread, but when the sacramental action consecrates it, it is called, and becomes, the Body of Christ. So with the sacramental oil; so with the wine: even though before the benediction they are of little value, yet after the sanctification bestowed by the Spirit each of them has its particular operation. The same power of the word also makes the priest venerable and honorable by the new blessing bestowed upon him, separated from his oneness with the mass of men. While but yesterday he was one of the masses, one of the people, he is suddenly rendered a guide, a president, a teacher of righteousness, an instructor in hidden mysteries; and this he does without being at all changed in body or in form; but, while continuing to be by all appearances the same man he was before, nevertheless he is transformed by some unseen power and grace in his unseen soul to the higher condition.”( St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Baptism of Christ)

This transformation empowers the priest  acting in the person of  Jesus Christ as head of the Mystical Body  to sanctify, teach and  rule. The sacramental character confers upon him the participation in Christ’s sanctifying power;  a special fullness of the Holy Spirit’s gifts of wisdom and knowledge render him apt to teach; the gift of counsel equips him for decision-making  and prepares him to rule. Thus the priest becomes in Christ the  bridge between man and God: through his  sacramental actions reaching a climax in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the lay faithful can worship God in the way God himself has decreed; through his teaching and governing, he leads mankind to the Catholic Faith  and defends the discipline of the truth within the portion of the Mystical Body assigned to him.

The priest’s sacramental character identifies him to Christ in a way that is essentially different from the way the lay Christian is identified with Christ  through the baptismal character. “The only reason”, wrote Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei, “why the priest acts in place of the people is because he represents the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, in so far as the latter is the head of all members and sacrifices himself for them. He therefore approaches the altar as the servant of Christ, himself standing lower than Christ but higher than the people. The people, however, who in no sense represent the person of the Divine Redeemer and are not a mediator between  itself and God, can in no way enjoy priestly rights.”

“A holy priest is a savior and another Christ, taking the Master’s place on earth, representing Him, clothed with His authority, acting in His name, adorned with His qualifications, exercising His judgment on earth in the tribunal of penance. He is consecrated to exercise the highest functions Christ ever performed on earth, to continue the work of salvation. In imitation of His Redeemer he gives himself, mind, heart, affections, strength, time, all for God. He is ever ready to sacrifice his very blood and even life itself to procure the salvation of souls, particularly those of his own flock. As St. John Eudes wrote:

“He is a god, living and walking on earth; a god by grace and by participation, clothed with the perfections and attributes of God, namely, His divine authority, power, justice, mercy, charity, benignity, purity and holiness. He is a god delegated to carry on God’s noblest works, the priestly and pastoral duties, as great St. Dionysius says: Omnium divinorum divinissimum est cooperari Deo in salutem animarum –  ‘The most divine of all divine things is to cooperate with God in the salvation of souls’. St. Gregory Nazianzen asserts that the priest is a ‘god who makes gods’, deus deos efficiens,that is, Christians who are given the name of gods in Sacred Scripture.” (St. John Eudes, Le mémorial de la vie ecclésiastique)

Elsewhere, St. John Eudes stated:

“To be a priest is to be a visible god on earth. All Christians are called gods in Sacred Scripture: “I said you are gods” (St. John x, 34), but priests enjoy this prerogative in a much more eminent degree than the rest of the faithful.

“Priests are gods in power and dignity, since they are clothed with the infinite power of God. If it were not through this divine power, how could they bring God down upon the altar at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? How could they form Him in the hearts of the faithful and give the Holy Ghost to their souls? How could they forgive sin and communicate sanctifying grace?

“God gives His divine power to priests in such an exalted degree that they may effectuate many marvels that He alone accomplishes. He created this world and can create others. To his priests He gave the power to produce Christ in the Blessed Eucharist, which is indeed greater than to create an infinite number of physical worlds.” (St. John Eudes,  Le bon confesseur)