What is the Priesthood?

chalice.jpgA modern parish church in Singapore features two tables facing the congregation: the table of the word, where the presiding priest reads the Gospel and in his homily breaks the bread of the Scriptures, and the table where the Eucharist is celebrated. Placed at the center of the sanctuary in that Singapore church, these two tables indicate two key functions of priests as preachers and teachers and as leaders in worship. 
Priests mediate teaching from God and lead the assembly in worship.

stole.jpg Throughout his lifetime, Cardinal Newman applied to ordained ministers, to all the baptized and to Christ himself the roles of "priest, prophet and king (pastor/shepherd)." These roles may be distinguished but never separated.
As kings or pastors, priests lead those who have assembled for worship or liturgy.
Gathering the baptized for "liturgy," as early Christians used the word, referred both to worshipping together and to meeting the material needs of those in distress.
"Liturgy" involves both worship and the service of those who suffer, both the altar and the soup kitchen.
It is in both settings that priests are called to be kings (or shepherds) and liturgical leaders.
Priests have often been described as acting "in the person of Christ." Those who cite this classical axiom

 

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Ordination of Fr. Renoir
Dalpizol, M.S. in Brazil

should, however, recall its complete form. Priests "act in the person of Christ, the head of the church." The role of priests is embedded in Christ and his community, in that living relationship between Christ and his body, the church.
During his whole lifetime, and not merely at his death, resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit, Jesus acted as priest, prophet and king.
-- As king or shepherd, he gathered and built up a community of disciples.
-- As prophet he preached the kingdom of God and taught what the coming of that kingdom involved here and hereafter.
-- As priest he healed the sick and forgave sinners.
Occasionally, artists portray Jesus wearing priestly vestments on the cross. Often he is pictured in a priestly way at the Last Supper. Unquestionably the first Holy Thursday and Good Friday proved to be defining moments in the exercise of Jesus' priesthood.
Nevertheless, the years of his public ministry had already shown Jesus acting as a priest -- a kingly and prophetic priest.
The full scope of the priesthood exercised by Jesus shows us the full scope of the priesthood of his ordained ministers too. They act as priests not only when they put on vestments to preside at the altar or administer the sacraments but also when they visit the sick, teach the good news of the kingdom, feed the hungry and engage in other pastoral ministries.
Wherever and however they exercise their ministry for the good of the body of Christ and the world, ordained priests are visible signs of the invisible Christ who through his Holy Spirit is always present and dynamically active.

In a real sense, there is only one priest: Christ himself. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1545) quoted the words of St Thomas Aquinas: "Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers."

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Ordination of Fr. Renoir
Dalpizol, M.S. in Brazil

The ordained priesthood draws all its meaning and vitality from Jesus himself, the great high priest.
The axiom about priests acting "in the person of Christ, the head of the church," derives from what St. Paul wrote about acting "in the presence of Christ" (2 Cor 2:10).
We would do well, however, to speak of priests acting "in the person and the presence of Christ" -- always for the body of Christ that is the church.
Such a Christ-centered vision of the ordained priesthood reminds us also of how Christ himself was utterly vulnerable in exercising his priesthood. Calvary cast its shadow over his whole ministry of preaching, healing and community-building.
The New Testament book that explores at depth his priesthood, the Letter to the Hebrews, reaches its highpoint when it portrays Christ who endured the terrible pain and shame of the cross and has now taken his place at the right hand of God (12:2).
Christ's self-giving and self-sacrificing love belongs essentially to the job description of those who share in his priesthood through ordination to the ministry.
For the church and the world, priests commit themselves to a life and a work that is deeply vulnerable and always under the shadow of the cross.

(Jesuit Father O'Collins has authored or co-authored 53 books. In March 2010 Oxford University Press will publish "Jesus Our Priest: A Christian Approach to the Priesthood of Christ," which he is co-authoring with Michael Keenan Jones.)
They bring the word of God to the people and bring the assembly to share in Christ's self-offering of his body and blood. By communicating the word, priests act in a prophetic fashion, and by leading the worship they act in a priestly fashion. It is expected that Cardinal John Henry Newman, an English convert and theologian highly influential upon English-speaking Catholicism, will soon