A Defence of the Catholic Priesthood
by Michael Davies
1979 AND 1993

Appendix VII
Sacrifice and Priesthood in the Catholic Church

The text of a conference by Prof. I. P.M. van der Ploeg, D.P., given at Vaals in the Abbey of Saint Benedict to an international reunion of priests, 25/6/1975:

I have been asked to speak to you today on the doctrine of the ministerial priesthood in the Catholic Church, as it is taught us by that same Catholic Church. The doctrine of the priesthood is very wide, for the priest's functions are many. He is ordained to offer sacrifice, administer the Sacraments, be a shepherd of souls, preach the word of God. There is no question of dealing with all that now, even in summary. We wish to consider what is most essential in the priest, how and why he is called "priest," the translation of the Latin word "sacerdos."

It is clear that the very idea of priesthood comes to us, from the historical and even the doctrinal point of view, from the Old Testament, where the priest is called kohen. There was a hierarchy among the priests. At the moment when the new economy of salvation, brought by Jesus Christ, took the place of that of the Old Testament, there were in Israel a high priest, priests and Levites. We now know from scientific study of the Old Testament that the organization of the priesthood, as it was on the threshold of the Christian era and for several centuries before, was the fruit of a development. The history of that development, difficult to fix especially for the stages it has gone through, is not at the moment our concern. We are speaking of the Israelite priesthood only in relation with the Christian priesthood; and what matters, therefore, is the priesthood of the Old Testament as the nascent Church found it and for which she substituted her own.

In spite of the historical fact that the Old Testament priesthood had a history which is at the same time a chronicle of development, there are very old texts which already show the amplitude of the priest's function. In Deut. 33:10, we read in the blessing of Moses on Levi, in the passage dealing with the Levites: "They teach Thy judgments to Jacob and Thy laws to Israel; they make incense rise to Thy nostrils and put the holocaust on Thine altar." According to this text, the Levites have a double function: they teach and they sacrifice. In the course of time the second becomes the principal function, if it was not that already. In Our Lord's time, the doctors of the law were not necessarily priests or levites; it even seems that most of them were not. In Judaism at present, which is deprived of sacrifice, the rabbi has for a long time been taking the place of the priest-teacher, while the function of the kohen (the former priest) is limited to pronouncing the sacred words of blessing on the community at the end of meetings in the synagogue.

According to the current idea, the priest is defined by the sacrifice: he is the man, taken from among the rest, appointed to offer a sacrifice to the Divinity in the name of a community. That definition contains several elements of which the chief are the acts of sacrifice and mediation. However, it is not necessary that there be mediation: one can offer sacrifice just for oneself. Moreover, it is not necessary to be a priest in order to sacrifice. Abraham sacrificed in many places; he is sometimes called "prophet" but never "priest." But to be a priest without there being sacrifice is not possible. Here care is needed. In the study of comparative religion there are many problems of priesthood and sacrifice. But it is not under that aspect that we ask what is the meaning of the Christian priesthood and sacrifice. We deal with this problem or, rather, this fact of faith, starting from the Faith itself and therefore also from its sources, Scripture and Tradition, presented to us by the Magisterium of the Church and interpreted by it.

The Priesthood in Scripture

In the New Testament, only the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks explicitly of the priesthood of the New Law. That Epistle has been attributed by tradition to Saint Paul; but about that there was great hesitation (to say nothing else) in the West from the second century to the fourth. Doubts were cast not only on the apostolic authenticity of the Epistle but also on its canonicity, the two things being thought to be connected. When she added it in the last place to the corpus of the Pauline Epistles, the Church expressed not only her faith in its canonicity but also her acceptance of its doctrinal value by which (apart from other arguments) it deserves to be given a place with the other Epistles of the great apostle. Its doctrine is part of the very foundation of Catholic and Apostolic doctrine.

Now it is precisely this Epistle which presents us with the doctrine of the priesthood of the New Law. That doctrine we know. According to the inspired author, there took place, in the economy of salvation, a transference of the priesthood of the tribe of Levi to Jesus Christ, the only High Priest of the New Law, Who offered Himself to the Father once and for all in the sacrifice of the Cross, sacrifice in which He is at one and the same time Priest and Victim. There, in a few words, is the doctrine of the Christian priesthood as it is put before us by the New Testament.

By that doctrine the words "priest" and "sacrifice" take on eminently Christian meanings, and we must start from them in speaking of the priesthood of Christian priests and of the sacrifice of the Mass. That is very important, and it closes the road against those who want to approach the doctrine of the Christian ministerial priesthood and of the sacrifice of the Mass starting from ideas of the priest and of his sacrifice which they find elsewhere. All the same, that is not entirely false, for, to speak of priests and sacrifice, one must have a general notion of them. But it is none the less true that it is from the affirmations of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews about the priesthood of Christ, outside which there is no Christian priesthood, and about the uniqueness of His sacrifice, that we must begin our effort to understand the ministerial priesthood and the sacrifice of the Mass, relating them to Jesus Christ.

Let us return to the Epistle to the Hebrews. We find there these words, which are almost a definition: "Every high priest is taken from among men and is ordained for men that he may offer up gifts (dora) and sacrifices (thusias) for sins" (5:1). Or again: "Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices" (8:3). That is clear, and it is that which constitutes the very essence of priesthood as the Church understands it.

As for sacrifice, the Epistle teaches very clearly that Jesus Himself, high priest for ever "according to the order of Melchisedech" (5:6), is at the same time priest and victim; His sacrifice is the voluntary act by which He offered Himself to the Father by letting Himself be killed by men, for the salvation of the world. That sacrifice was offered only once, to take away the sins "of many," and it does not therefore need to be repeated, like the sacrifices of the old law. Jesus entered once into the sanctuary (Heaven) having obtained eternal redemption by His own blood (9:12). That is the great doctrine of the Epistle.

When the New Testament speaks in other texts of the Christian "priesthood," it is in a very different sense. It treats of what is now called "the priesthood common to the people of God." One such text is found in the First Epistle of Saint Peter, where the Apostle tells his readers that they are "a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices ('pneumatikis thusias'), acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (2:5). A little further on he calls them "a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people, that you may declare the virtues of Him Who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light" (2:9). In the Apocalypse of Saint John, the author tells us that Jesus Christ "has loved us and washed us from our sins in His Blood and has made us a kingdom and priests for God His Father" (1:5-6). He repeats in substance the same words in the text of a canticle sung in Heaven (5:9-10), adding that they "will reign on the earth" (5:10). Towards the end of the work the author returns to the theme, emphasizing that those who will take part in the "first resurrection" "will be priests of God and of Christ with Whom they will reign for a thousand years" (20:6).

All these texts speak of the privileged position of those who are saved by the Blood of Christ, and the words "priest," "reign" and "kingdom" are not to be taken in the ordinary and literal sense. They recall the Old Testament from which they have been taken, notably Exod. 19:6 and Isa. 61:6. These two texts speak of the great privilege of Israel, the one people chosen out of all the others, the only one called to draw near to its God, the one God, to serve Him in a very special way. Just as the priests, chosen from among the Israelites, draw near to God to serve His altar, so the whole of Israel, chosen from among the people of the earth, serves the God of Israel by doing His will. That position is transferred, in the New Testament, to the new people of God: the Church and the faithful. These latter are the new elect. They are therefore called "priests." They are brought together in a "kingdom" where all "reign," that is to say, they are invested with an almost princely dignity, which ranks them above all others. According to Saint Peter they should offer "spiritual sacrifices," that is, praise God and glorify Him with good works.

The New Testament, then, speaks explicitly of the priesthood and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and also of the priesthood and the sacrifices of the faithful. Amongst those who are called "priests" (hiereis, plural of hiereus) in the technical sense, the sacred ministers of the New Testament are not included. The Council of Trent teaches us that at the Last Supper Jesus ordained His Apostles priests and gave them power to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, but neither the word "priest" nor the term "sacrifice" is to be found in the Gospel narratives. The full meaning of the texts in question is fully certain only within the tradition of the Church. We shall come back to it.

The Acts and the Epistles several times mention the episkopoi and the presbuteroi (from which our word "priest" is derived), who are entrusted with important functions in the community of the Church; but they are not given the title of "priest." That title is reserved, in the literal sense, to Christ; but in the metaphorical and spiritual sense it is reserved to the faithful.

We know that Protestantism denied, and still denies, the institution of a ministerial priesthood by Jesus Christ. It could hardly do otherwise: having rejected the authority of the Church, above all her magisterium and consequently her tradition, Protestantism withdrew behind the rampart of the Bible; logically it rejects anything which is not there clearly expressed, and therefore the ministerial priesthood as the Church understands it.

We Catholics, however, accept Holy Scripture as an integral part of the living tradition of the Church; it is by her that we know it, it is by her that it is interpreted, it is she who teaches what the letter of the Bible does not say or does not say clearly enough (Con. Vat. II, De Revelatione, 8). For Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Apostles have transmitted to us many things concerning the Sacraments which have not been recorded in Holy Scripture (S.Theol. III, 72, 4 ad 1). It is above all in the doctrine of the Sacraments that he appeals to Apostolic tradition, which he rarely does elsewhere.

The Priesthood in the Early Church

The nascent Church did not wish to give to her sacred ministers the name "priests," so as to avoid all misunderstanding. The old law of sacrifices having been abolished, a new economy of salvation had begun. It was not immediately desirable that the ministers of the new Law should be called "priests," still less "Levites," for those names were reserved for the priesthood of the old Testament. Outside Israel the word "priest" even had a pagan flavour. But the Church soon perceived the deep parallelism existing between the ministers of the two economies of salvation. In the second century we already come across the word sacerdos for the Christian priest, even summus sacerdos for the bishop, in the writings of Tertullian (160-after 220), who speaks of sacerdotalia munera, sacerdotale officium, being exercised in the Christian Church. Saint Cyprian (200/10-258; bishop in 248/9) knows the tripartite division of the ministers of the Church into bishops, presbuteroi, deacons; and to specify the first two categories he also uses the word sacerdos. To explain that, it seems unnecessary to have recourse to the parallelism Old Testament
-----New Testament; in Latin, presbyter was still a foreign word, and sacerdos was not. But if, early on, the presbuteroi began to be called sacerdotes, that, even so, proves that the term was well suited to their function. In the Churches of the East the words hiereus, hierosune (priest, priesthood), etc., appear very early to designate the ministers of the New Testament, bishops and priests. In the Apostolic Constitutions, an apocryphal work of Syrian origin (c. 380), we read that, as Moses had instituted a high priest, priests and Levites, the Lord instituted in His Church Apostles-----James, Clement and others-----who all instituted "presbyters," deacons, subdeacons and rectors. The analogy with the priesthood of the Old Testament is clearly expressed (VIII:46,13). The author continues with an even clearer expression: "He who by His nature is the first pontiff (archiereus), Christ, the only Son, did not snatch the honour for Himself but was instituted by the Father; becoming man for our sake and offering to God His Father the spiritual sacrifice (thusian) before the Passion, He commanded only us to do that, though there are other men with us who have received the faith, but it goes without saying that it is not because a man has received the faith that he has already been instituted priest (hiereus) or has received the dignity of pontiff (archieratikes axias). After His Ascension, we ourselves (i.e. the Apostles), offering according to His command a pure and unbloody sacrifice, chose bishops and presbyters and seven deacons" (VIII:46, 14-15). A little further on the author tells his readers that Stephen, the first deacon, was never seen to do what did not belong to his ministry as deacon, "offering the sacrifice or laying hands on any one" (VIII: 46, 16).

There already is the whole doctrine of the priesthood of the ministers of the Christian cult, just as it will later be proposed, repeated rather, by the Council of Trent. The ministerial priesthood is there connected with that of Christ and there is an unbloody sacrifice which only priests can offer. Although the Apostolic Constitutions were written in the 4th century, probably in Syria, the author presents their doctrine as already old, as coming from the Apostles. He could not have done that had it been a complete innovation. It is true that the synod "in Trullo" (the Quinisextum, 692, not received by Rome) rejected the Apostolic Constitutions as "falsified by the heretics" (the author was Arian), but still it did make chapter 47 of book VIII its own, the so-called "Apostolic Canons" of which the second speaks of the sacrifice (thusia) which the bishop or the presbyters offer "on the altar of God."

Two eastern Fathers well known for their writings on the priesthood are Saint Gregory Nazianzen and Saint John Chrysostom. The first (320/30-390) was ordained priest by his father, bishop of Nazianzus in Cappadocia (Asia Minor), against his will. Yielding at first to the entreaties of the community, he soon withdrew from his new ministry by flight. To justify that, he wrote his "Apologia for my flight to Pontus," in which he set out the duties of the priest, especially his pastoral duties. In this exposition, the first of its kind in the East, bishop and priest are often given the name hiereus. Much better known is the celebrated work of Saint John Chrysostom (344/54-407), Peri Hierosunes, "On the Priesthood," in six books, written about 396. The work is pastoral and has had an enormous success down to the present day. For Saint John, the hiereus, the priest tout court, is the bishop. In Book III, chapter 4, there is a sublime passage which treats of his sacerdotal ministry. "Although the priesthood," he says, "is exercised on earth, its place is with the heavenly institutions. It is the Holy Ghost Who established it and Who wished that men of flesh should exercise the ministry of Angels. The priest therefore should be as pure as if he dwelt in Heaven with the Angelic powers. In the Old Testament, the adornments of the high priest struck fear into the Israelites; but we must say with the Apostle: "What, in that, was glorious is glorious no longer, because of the glory which excels" (2 Cor. 3:10); and the author continues: "When you see the Lord lying immolated (tethumenon), and the priest standing before the sacrifice (toi thumati) and praying, and all become red with this Precious Blood, do you think you are still on earth among men? Do you not, rather, feel lifted up to Heaven? . . . O admirable vision!  o love of God for man! He Who is enthroned in the heights with the Father is at this moment touched by the hands of all!" "At the sacrifice of Elias on Mount Carmel"-----it is still Saint John Chrysostom
-----"fire fell upon the holy sacrifice. With us, the priest brings down not fire but the Holy Ghost; grace comes down upon the sacrifice and sets on fire the souls of all. It is a terrible mystery; no human soul could endure that flame of the sacrifice if God did not help with His powerful grace."

A third author, this time from the West, who has treated at length of the ministry of the pastors of the Church is Saint Gregory the Great (540-604; Pope 590-604), in his Regula Pastoralis written in 590 when he was elected Peter's successor. It is addressed to the bishop of Ravenna. Like the two preceding works, this also is pastoral in character; the holy Pope is setting out his own programme as Pastor of the Church.

The meaning of the texts quoted is clear; but others are sometimes less so. When the Fathers and the old ecclesiastical writers speak of the Christian priesthood and sacrifice, one must always be careful to ask in what sense they use those words
-----in the literal, or in a metaphorical and "spiritual" sense. Great circumspection is required when it is a question of finding Catholic doctrine with certainty. That is why some hesitate to quote in this context the famous text of the Didache, chapter 14 (which seems clear enough, but which is short), where the celebration of the Eucharist is called a sacrifice (thusia) by which the famous prophecy of Malachy (1:11) is fulfilled. Reluctance to interpret such a text has its roots in the Old Testament. After the exile there was an increasingly marked tendency in the people of Israel to give to prayer, above all the prayer of praise, a value equal to or even greater than ritual sacrifices. The great majority of the Jews, many of whom lived in exile, in the Diaspora, could assist at the temple sacrifices only rarely in their lives, or perhaps never. But the more pious had the custom of praying several times a day, turned towards the temple; and for them that sufficed: for them prayer took the place of sacrifice.

Saint Paul speaks of "the sacrifice (thusia) and the liturgy of our faith" (Phil. 2:17): that is faith itself, living in works. The material gifts of the Church of Philippi which Epaphroditus had just brought to the apostle in prison are called "an odour of sweetness (a sacrificial term, cf. Exod. 29:18, 41), a sacrifice (thusian) which God receives and finds acceptable" (Phil. 4:18). The apostle writes to the Romans: "I beseech you therefore, brethren . . . to offer your persons a living sacrifice (thusian zosan), holy, pleasing to God; that is your spiritual worship" (ten logiken latreian humon) (Rom. 12:1). To the Hebrews: "By Him (by Christ) we offer to God a sacrifice of praise (thusian aineseos), that is to say, the fruit of lips confessing His name. As to deeds of kindness and the sharing of goods . . . it is in such sacrifices (thusiais) that God takes pleasure" (Heb. 13:15-16). The First Epistle of Saint Peter exhorts the Christians, called "a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people" (1 Peter 2:9) "to offer up spiritual sacrifices (pneumatikis thusias) acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5); according to the author the whole of the Christian life should be a worship pleasing to God.

In the light of these texts from Holy Scripture there is clearly a difficulty in deciding the exact meaning of chapter 14 of the Didache and of certain other words of writers of Christian antiquity. The unexpected novelty of the new economy of salvation was not expressed at once in perfectly clear and unambiguous language
-----which should surprise no one. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Church became more and more aware of the whole content of the revealed truth entrusted to her by her Lord and God. As regards the Christian priesthood, this awareness was achieved very quickly, in a concordant and harmonious way. The texts quoted from the Apostolic Constitutions and from Saint John Chrysostom are proof of that. Is more required? The sacrificial character of the Eucharistic celebration is nowhere more vigorously affirmed and emphasized than in the old liturgy of the Nestorian Church which prefers to be called "The Church of the East" tout court. That affirmation is repeated throughout the ceremony. When the anaphora begins, the priest, instead of saying "Let us give thanks to the Lord," as in the other liturgies, sings aloud: "A sacrifice is offered to Almighty God." An anonymous commentator on this liturgy, writing in the 11th century, does not want more than one priest to celebrate ("concelebrare") at the altar, because there the priest is taking the place of Christ Who is the only High Priest of the New Testament. The Eucharistic liturgy is called not only qurbana, a word which could be translated strictly by "offering," but also debheta, a word which means a bloody sacrifice and which carries us back to the sacrifice of Our Lord on the Cross. The witness of the "Church of the East" is of special importance because that Church very early declared itself independent of the others (in 424, under Persian influence) and developed after that in isolation. If the doctrine of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist is there so plainly asserted, it is because there we have an authentic Christian doctrine contained in the deposit of revelation.

The Priesthood and the Council of Trent

Let us now make a leap ahead and speak of the Council of Trent. For centuries, and all through the Middle Ages, the Church remained in peaceful possession of the doctrine of the priesthood and that of the Eucharistic sacrifice. The Protestantism of the 16th century brought that peace to an end. By their revolt against the Catholic Church, Luther and the other reformers rejected the magisterium of the Church and put the Bible in its place: sola scriptura. They rejected as well-----and that was logical
-----the Divine origin of her hierarchy and the sacramental character of her priesthood. They denied that the bread and the wine are substantially and totally changed into the Body and the Blood of Christ and that the Mass is a true sacrifice. The Catholic Mass was even one of Luther's bêtes noires, and he fought against it all his life. Faced with such extensive disagreements, the Church had to affirm her age-long doctrine; and that she did in the Council of Trent.

When they dealt with the priesthood and the Eucharist, the Fathers of the Council pronounced first on the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass, in a dogmatic declaration dated 17th September 1562: "So that the ancient, complete, and in every way perfect faith and teaching regarding the great mystery of the Eucharist may be retained in the Catholic Church, and with the removal of errors and heresies may be preserved in its purity, the holy, ecumenical and general Council of Trent lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, instructed by the light of the Holy Ghost, teaches, declares and orders to be preached to the faithful what follows concerning the true and only sacrifice of the Eucharist" (D-S. 1738). Thus begins the teaching of the Council on the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In the first place it recalls the doctrine of the priesthood of Christ taught by the Epistle to the Hebrews and then that of the Last Supper when the Lord gave His Church a visible sacrifice to represent the bloody sacrifice offered on the Cross, the memory of which has been perpetuated through the centuries. It recalls the institution of the Apostles as priests of the New Law at the Last Supper, the new Pasch of the Church which the priests immolate under visible signs in memory of the death of the Lord. And it adds: "In this Divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass there is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner the same Christ Who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the Cross" (D-S. 1743). The Synod teaches that the Mass is truly propitiatory; it gains grace, the gift of repentance, and the remission of crimes and sins, however great they may be. "For the victim is one and the same (una enim eademque), the same now offering by the ministry of priests Who then offered Himself on the Cross, the manner of offering alone being different (sola offerendi ratione diversa)" (D-S. 1743).

Of the nine canons following this declaration we note the first three:

1. "If anyone shall say that in the Mass a true and real sacrifice (verum et proprium sacrificium) is not offered to God, or that this offering (offerri) is only in the fact that Christ is given us to eat: let him be anathema.

2. If anyone shall say that by the words: 'Do this in commemoration of me' Christ did not institute the Apostles priests, or did not ordain that they and other priests should offer His Body and His Blood: let him be anathema.

3. If anyone shall say that the sacrifice of the Mass is only one of praise and thanksgiving, or that it is a mere commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the Cross, and not propitiatory; or that it profits only him who receives Communion and ought not to be offered for the living and the dead, for sins, punishments, satisfactions and other necessities: let him be anathema." (D-S. 1751-1753).

A year later, on 15 July, 1563, the same Council promulgated its text of the Catholic doctrine of order (the priesthood): "The true and Catholic doctrine . . . to condemn the errors of our time" (D-S. 1763). There we read: "Sacrifice and priesthood are by the ordinance of God so united that both have existed in every law. Since, therefore, in the New Testament the Catholic Church has received from Christ the holy, visible sacrifice of the Eucharist, it must also be confessed (tateri etiam oportet) that there is in that Church a new, visible and external priesthood into which the old has been translated. That this was instituted by the same Lord our Saviour, and that to the Apostles and their successors in the priesthood was given the power of consecrating, offering and administering His Body and Blood, as also of forgiving and retaining sins, is shown by the Sacred Scriptures and has always been taught by the tradition of the Catholic Church" (D-S. 1764). That doctrine is also affirmed with anathema in the canons which follow, the fourth of which states that in Holy Orders a character is imprinted (D-S. 1774). In that teaching the Council repeats in part what it had already taught concerning the Sacraments in general: "If anyone shall say that in three Sacraments, namely Baptism, Confirmation and Orders, there is not imprinted on the soul a character, that is, a certain spiritual and indelible mark (signum quoddam) . . . let him be anathema" (D-S. 1609).

The doctrine of the Council of Trent has the great merit of being clear, unambiguous, definitive. It is presented as the Catholic doctrine of all time; it demands our complete and unconditional assent. Apart from the Council of Trent the Church has never pronounced with its solemn and infallible magisterium on the ministerial priesthood and the sacrifice of the Mass which is indissolubly united with it. Until the Council of Trent there had been no need to do so; after the Council she felt no need, as the Council had expressed itself so clearly and so solemnly. It is important to notice that Trent pronounced first on the sacrifice of the Mass and only afterwards on the priesthood, in words partly the same. It is above all the sacrifice of the Mass which determines what the priest is. The power of offering it was given at the Last Supper-----doctrine which we have already met in the Apostolic Constitutions.

When Pope Pius IV formulated and promulgated the so-called "profession of faith of the Council of Trent" (1564, at the closure of the Council), he was careful to bring into it explicitly the doctrine of the Mass and the Eucharist (D-S. 1866); the priesthood is mentioned as one of the seven Sacraments, which cannot be repeated without sacrilege (D-S. 1864). The long formula of the profession of faith of the Council of Trent was superseded in 1967 by a shorter one (published in Acta Ap. Sedis, 20-12-1967, p. 1058). After the Credo of the Mass, it runs: "Firmiter quoque amplector et retineo omnia et singula quae circa doctrinam de fide et moribus ab Ecclesia, sive solemni iudicio definita sive ordinario magisterio adserta et declarata sunt, prout ab ipsa proponuntur, praesertim ea quae respiciunt mysterium sanctae Ecclesiae Christi, eiusque Sacramenta et Missae Sacrificium atque Primatum Romani Pontificis," "I firmly accept and believe each and all of the affirmations and declarations of the Church with respect to the doctrine of faith and morals, whether made by her solemn judgment or by her ordinary magisterium, as they are proposed by her, especially what concerns the mystery of the Holy Church of Christ, her Sacraments and the sacrifice of the Mass as well as the primacy of the Roman Pontiff." The doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass is thus explicitly mentioned therein, and it is no other than that of the Council of Trent.

The Priesthood in the 20th Century

Since the beginning of this century there have been several pontifical and conciliar documents which treat of the Catholic ministerial priesthood. Their content is above all pastoral. The principal ones are these:

1. Apostolic exhortation Haerent Animo to the clergy by Saint Pius X, 4 August 1908. It was published by the holy pontiff on the occasion of his golden jubilee as a priest. It is wholly pastoral. After the usual introduction and an exhortation to holiness for the priests, Saint Pius X impresses on them that the priest represents Christ as His delegate who has to win men for the doctrine and the law of the Lord; he must therefore practise holiness, and that above all (maxime) as His minister in the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass. The whole exhortation to the clergy is a call to the holiness demanded by the sacred ministry of the priest, who is shepherd of souls, and who administers the sacraments and offers to God the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

2. Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii of Pius XI, 20 December 1935. The encyclical begins by recalling that, since his elevation to the summit of the Catholic priesthood, the Pope has been striving to promote the education and the formation of future priests. The dignity of the priest comes from the power he has received over the Body and Blood of Christ which he offers on the altar, as well as his power over His Mystical Body by the administration of the other Sacraments, among which absolution from sins has a special place. The pontiff then speaks of the duty of priests to be holy; he gives particular mention to their celibacy; and, in the third part of the letter, he treats of the preparation for the priesthood of those who feel called to Holy Orders. The Encyclical, as is right, does not fail to stress the intimate and essential union which exists between the priest and the sacrifice of the Mass. He recalls the central position of sacrifice and priesthood in the law of the Old Testament, saying that the majesty and glory of its priesthood derive from the fact that it prefigures the Christian priesthood and sacrifice.

3. Encyclical Mediator Dei of Pius XII, 20 November 1947. This document deals with the sacred liturgy of the Catholic Church and treats at length of the nature of the Eucharistic sacrifice and of the priesthood both ministerial and "common" (of the faithful). The doctrine of the Council of Trent is quoted and explained at length.

4. Apostolic exhortation Menti Nostrae of Pius XII, 23 September 1950. This exhortation to holiness for priests is a real gem; its doctrine far surpasses in profundity that of earlier documents of sovereign Pontiffs. At the beginning of the first part, the Pope recalls the doctrine of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Priests, he says, are the ministers of the Divine Saviour, firstly and above all to offer to God the holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist. Representing the Person of Christ in that Sacrifice, and consecrating the bread and the wine, which are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, they can obtain from that source of supernatural life infinite riches of salvation and all the means they need for themselves and to accomplish their ministry among the faithful. The priest should sacrifice himself with Christ, he should unite himself with Christ, suffering in his interior and exterior life. The exhortation insists on that: the sacrifice of Christ, with which the sacrifice of the Eucharist is one, must be the centre of priestly life. The underlying idea is clear: the priest has been ordained firstly to offer the sacrifice; that is the first reason for his being what he is, a reason full of profound meaning and spiritual riches. No other document of the ordinary magisterium better brings sacrifice into relief as the fundamental reason for the priest's existence.

5. Encyclical Mysterium Fidei of Paul VI, 3 September 1965. It treats of the doctrine of the Eucharist and speaks at length of the sacrifice of the Mass. The Pope quotes a text of Saint John Chrysostom, from one of his homilies (Enc. no. 38; Saint John Chr., P.G. 62, 612) which speaks of the unity of the sacrifice offered in the Church, whether it is Peter or Paul who offers it or the priests of today. The encyclical deals with the ministerial priesthood only indirectly or in passing.

6. Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis of Vatican II, 7 December 1965. This decree is pastoral, as the whole Council wished to be; but in it are to be found such passages as this: "Priests (presbyteri) must teach the faithful that in the sacrifice of the Mass the Divine Victim is offered to the Father." It is said also that priests (always called presbyteri) ordained by the bishop participate in a special way in the priesthood of Christ. In the celebration of Mass they offer the sacrifice of Christ in a sacramental way (sacramental iter) (all that is in no. 5).

7. Encylical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus of Paul VI, 24 June 1967. This very important document is at once doctrinal, historical and pastoral. In the doctrinal part Paul VI explains how and why it is fitting that priests should observe celibacy. The encyclical says also, with good reason, that the Christian priesthood, which is new, can be understood only in the light of Christ, Pontiff over all, eternal priest, supreme, Who instituted the priesthood of His ministers as a true communication of His unique priesthood (no. 19). The ministerial priest participates in the mission of the eternal Mediator and High Priest.

In these documents we meet always the same doctrine, taught unfailingly, and deepened in an extraordinary way in the Exhortation of Pius XII. That doctrine is explicitly present from the earliest times, and it has never been obscured. In the Catholic Church the image of the priest of Jesus Christ was never degraded to make him like a Protestant pastor, simply a preacher or a social worker. That has been reserved for our day.

That doctrine about the priest, in which the offering to God of the sacrifice of the Mass is the first and most necessary duty, is of prime importance in our time when it is tending to be obscured. The obscuring of this doctrine is matched by an obscuring of the idea of God, which is invading even the Church and affecting some of the clergy. For some of them, the article of faith that God, omnipotent Being and totally distinct from this world which He freely created and which must therefore serve Him, is no longer a very living truth; the idea grows weaker and even disappears. The result is that prayer, above all the prayer of adoration, tends to disappear. But sacrifice is par excellence the act of religion by which man manifests his subjection, his total dependence, before God. He bows profoundly before Him, adores Him, asks pardon from Him for his sins, and makes acts of reparation and satisfaction. That is already true of man's sacrifice. But the sacrifice of Christ is infinitely more: it is the act of perfect adoration, perfect thanksgiving, perfect satisfaction and reparation, perfect prayer. To be able to value and celebrate Mass as is fitting, it is necessary to be deeply imbued with that truth. But our contemporaries are less and less so imbued, for their attention moves away increasingly from God to turn to the world and its delights, often so deceptive and in any case fleeting. That is one reason why there is so much insistence on what is called "the meal-element" in the "eucharistic celebration," which becomes a community, or even a family, gathering in which adoration has no great place. The Divinity of Christ is less and less confessed by our contemporaries, even those who still call themselves "Catholics," and His humanity (if it is thought about at all) is put fIrst. The result is that the priest, the man made for the offering of sacrifice, more and more loses the reason for his existence, and his importance. Holy Communion, participation in Christ sacrificed for us, becomes an act signifying union with the others rather than with Christ, Who is scarcely or not at all thought about once He has been received. All that holds together-----it is the logic of (false) ideas realized in acts. It is the logical consequence of the "humanization," the "secularization," of the priesthood. But our ministry is not "human" in that sense, it is essentially supernatural; our priesthood is a participation in the priesthood of Christ Himself and it originates only from Him. It is not governed by human laws or the manners and customs of the day, least of all of a day like ours, but by the law of Christ alone Who is the same yesterday, today and for ever. May the priest, poor sinner that he is, never forget his high dignity which brings him close to the Angels and puts him at the service of the men of God.


In the preceding pages we could have fully quoted and discussed St. Justin, St. Irenaeus, St. Cyprian and a good number of other Fathers and ecclesiastical authors, in whose writings the doctrine of sacrifice (and therefore of priesthood) is clearly referred to the Eucharist. But we could not do this in our lecture because of the time we had at our disposition. We had to make a choice among texts which needed little or no interpretation. The doctrine of priesthood and (eucharistic) sacrifice is as old as the Catholic Church.

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