Great is the dignity of our share in the priesthood of Christ and in its different ways of participating in it
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of His own…” — 1 Peter 2:9
Great is our dignity. It is one of my greatest blessings as a bishop and successor to the Apostles to ordain men called by God to the priesthood—23 to date with Father Matthew Donahue’s ordination last month. But within the rite of ordination of priests we have a reminder that emphasizes the words of St. Peter quoted above that “God has made his entire holy people a royal priesthood in Christ.” What this means, then, is that it should be the greatest blessing of the lay faithful to exercise their baptismal priesthood as members of Christ’s Body, most especially in the offering they make of themselves through the anointed hands and action of the priest in the holy sacrifice of every Mass. Such is the great dignity of God’s priestly people and that of our ordained priests who in their “office of sanctifying” help us to become more and more “eucharistic” in living our lifelong Mass.
Baptismal dignity. Too many Catholics, sadly, are completely unaware of an essential truth of their baptismal dignity that is crucial if one is to truly understand the Mass and “actively participate” in it. When you were baptized and anointed with holy chrism, you received the triple crown of our share in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king, united to Him who is “a priest forever,” who came into the world “to testify to the truth,” and is the “King of kings” forever (Hebrews 7:17, John 18:37, and 1 Timothy 6:15). Not only does this help us to better understand the truth about Christ, it also helps us to know our true identity in Him and how we are to live our lives as His “co-workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9).
Prophet and king. While we will focus our attention here upon the baptismal priesthood, we should also bear in mind the prophetic and kingly share we have in Christ as well. Like that said of John the Baptist at his birth, we, too, must be “the prophet of the Most High” and “go before the Lord to prepare His way” into the hearts and lives of others by being Christ’s voice and heart of love and mercy (Luke 1:76). And we must allow Christ an ever-greater reign in our hearts if we are to be an ever-greater bearer of His peace to others and in the world about us (Revelation 5:10).
Baptismal vs. ministerial priesthood. We must be careful in reflecting upon the “common” priesthood of the baptized to understand the essential and vital difference between it and the “ministerial” priesthood. For though there is but one priesthood of Christ that we all share in, there are different degrees of participating in it. Baptism enables the laity to participate in the sacred liturgy as members of Christ’s Mystical Body—the Church, His bride. But through the sacrament of holy orders, the priest is configured to Christ, who is the head and Bridegroom of the Church and is vested with the power to be His real and living image in the sacraments He offers. This is why the Church speaks of the ordained priest as an alter Christus — “another Christ.”
Living for the Eucharist. As the ordained priest lives for the Eucharist and exercises his priesthood most supremely in celebrating the Mass, so, too, must the faithful in the exercise of their baptismal priesthood. A priest is one who offers sacrifice. Even though Christ is our “great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14) and the principal priest of every Mass, He does not want to exercise His priesthood without us. Since our baptism unites us to Christ and to His sacrifice, the action of Christ in the liturgy is an action of the whole Christ—Head and Body! As such, Christ wants us to offer ourselves in the Mass, to be not only His co-offerers but also co-victims, “through Him, with Him, and in Him.”
Intention of our sacrifice. Though Christ’s bloody sacrifice upon the cross was offered once in time, His sacrifice is eternally offered to the Father in the heavenly liturgy of which our earthly Mass is a participation. His sacrifice is a sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving, atonement for sin, and petition—the four ends or purposes of the Mass. We should have the same intention, not only in participating in the Mass, but also in the Mass we live. And if you forget what the four ends are, you’ll find them expressed beautifully in the Gloria of the Mass.
Spiritual sacrifices. St. Peter reminds us that we are to “be built up into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:15). And what are these “spiritual sacrifices” but the offering we should make of our entire life, body, and soul, with all its joys and sorrows, our gifts and weaknesses, our crosses and sufferings, our families and vocation, our work and worries, our rest and our restlessness, our loneliness, prayers, and sacrifices—everything. Consider this particular prayer over the offerings during Mass:
O Lord, we bring to your altar these offerings of our service; be pleased to receive them, we pray, and transform them into the sacrament of our redemption through Christ Our Lord (Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time).
Incensing the gifts. This is why during the Mass when incense is used, the faithful also are incensed along with the gifts and the altar. For each of us is a holy temple, and our heart is a spiritual altar that is mystically united with the altar of the Mass in the offering we make of ourselves. This is why the priest says, “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” And in responding, we express the purpose of our offering, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and the good of all His holy Church.”
The oblation of the people. During the ordination of a priest, after the laying on of hands by the bishop and the prayer of ordination, the hands of the newly vested priest are anointed with holy chrism (which is also used for baptism and confirmation) and the bishop prays, asking Christ to “guard and preserve” the priest that he “may sanctify the Christian people and offer sacrifice to God.” The gifts of bread and wine are then processed up and presented to the bishop who then places them in the hands of the newly ordained priest kneeling before him saying:
“Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”
These words ought to be especially embraced in the hearts of the faithful, for it is the ordained priest of every Mass who receives your oblation and calls upon you to “Lift up your hearts!”
Co-offerers and co-victims. With our gifts upon the altar, something incredible happens during the consecration when the power of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon them. Christ takes what we offer, as poor and unworthy as it is in the sight of God, and sprinkles His Precious Blood upon it and joins it to His perfect sacrifice to the Father. Now, we can rejoice as the French priest, Father Raoul Plus, SJ (1882-1958), beautifully expresses in exercising our baptismal priesthood in the Mass:
Christ, the High Priest, we as subordinate priests;
Christ, the Chief Victim, we as co-victims!
But, Christ and we—total Priest, and total Victim!
Confession as a priestly act. In the offering we bring to the altar, we should remember that we are all sinners and express King David’s desire to be reconciled with God: “My sacrifice, a contrite spirit, a humble, contrite heart you will not spurn” (Psalm 51:19). While we associate the sacrament of reconciliation with the ordained priest through whom Christ pronounces the words, “I absolve you from your sins…,” there is another perspective we should have of this much neglected sacrament. As a priest is one who offers sacrifice in atonement for sin, we also exercise our baptismal priesthood by going to confession, where the Blood of Christ shed for love of us cleanses us of our sin (cf. Hebrews 9:13).
Sacrifice and sacrament. Too many Catholics think of the Mass only in respect to receiving Jesus in Holy Communion. But if we are invited to receive Jesus in the most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar in Holy Communion, it is because we have first been invited to participate in His sacrificial offering to the Father. Regarding this important truth of the Mass, Brother Bernardo Vasconcelos, a Portuguese Benedictine monk who died in 1932 at the age of 29, wrote the following:
“Those who live the sacrament of the Eucharist should also live the sacrifice, which is its principle and source…. And if they do not live the sacrifice of the Eucharist, they easily forget the active part which they should take in the holy Mass, as co-offerers and co-victims. This is such an enormous loss to their spiritual life that it is hardly surprising if they lack that special veneration and affection which they ought to have for the holy sacrifice.”
Conclusion. The counsel of Brother Bernardo should encourage us “to live the blessed Eucharist” by living “the sacrifice and the sacrament in its entirety,” and in doing so, to become the saints all of us are called to be. May it be your greatest desire, assisted by the sanctifying office of our ordained priests, to exercise your baptismal priesthood and to live your Mass as the face and hands, the heart, and the sacrifice of Christ for the love of others. As Christ is both Priest and Victim, the One who offers and is offered in every Mass, so must we be.