A priest is a man, taken from among men, who is consecrated by God for the sacred action of sanctification. The Catholic Priesthood was instituted by Christ at the Last Supper as a means by which those men whom He calls to stand in His place carry on His ministry in the world, through His Church. Pope Saint John Paul II once said that “A priest is a man who offers his whole humanity to God so that God might use him as an instrument of salvation.” God ordains the man to serve, as Christ came to serve, and to lead people to their greatest good, heaven. The priest does this in many ways, but the dignity and essence of the ordained priesthood resides not first in what he does, but in who he is: An Icon of Christ in the World.
Who is a Catholic Priest?
Perhaps instead of asking the question “What is a Catholic Priest?”, we should really ask the question: “Who is a Catholic Priest?” The reality of the Priesthood is seen most clearly not in what he does but in who he is. His vocation is not a career, but a calling. It is a calling to be configured to Christ and to stand in the midst of the world as a Man after the Heart of Jesus Christ.
Taken from among Men to Serve.
A Catholic priest is a baptized man who has received the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Through this sacrament, a man enters into the ministerial priesthood which gives him a sacred power to serve (CCC 1592). The ministerial priesthood, exercised by an ordained priest is given to serve the common priesthood; all the people of God are called to participate in the common priesthood (CCC 1546-1547). A priest is “a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads His Church”; therefore, it is the mission of the Catholic priest “to feed the Church by the word and grace of God” (LG, 11). As such, a priest is a mediator or ‘bridge-builder’ between God and man; he does this by participating in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, who unites God and humanity in his very being. The priest carries out this ‘bridge-building’ through teaching, divine worship and leading the people (CCC 1592).
Continuing the Ministry of Christ
A priest offers the ministry of Jesus Christ to us today. When a priest offers the holy sacrifice of the Mass, it is Christ who offers the sacrifice. When he absolves sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it is Christ who forgives. When he partakes in the mission of the Church to teach and evangelize, it is Christ who speaks through him. When he offers love, comfort and support to God’s people, Christ is truly present with them. For this reason, St John Vianney explained the priesthood in the following terms: “The priest continues the work of redemption on earth … If we really understood the priest on earth we would not die of fright but of love … The priest is the love of the heart of Jesus” (CCC 1589)
An Alter Christus
Thus, a priest is an alter Christus, which is Latin for another Christ. He is called to be a witness of Christ to the flock that has been entrusted to him as their shepherd. He is a minister of the sacraments, proclaimer of the word, teacher of the faith, and steward of the Church. The priest is meant to accompany and lead the flock entrusted to his care through this world in such a way as they can reach the eternal kingdom of heaven.
Configured to Christ, the Good Shepherd
The Priest is configured to Christ the Good Shepherd, and is truly most himself when in imitation of the Good Shepherd. Prayer enables him to recognize the sheep, those whom the Father has given him. These are, in the first place, those whom the Good Shepherd has placed on the path of his priestly ministry, of his pastoral care. They are children, adults and the aged. They are the youth, married couples, and families, but also those who are alone. They are the sick, the suffering, the dying; they are those who are spiritually close…but also those who are distant. Those who for different reasons are negatively disposed, those who find themselves in difficulties of various sorts, those who are struggling against vices and sin, those who are fighting for faith and hope, those who seek the Priest’s help and those who reject it.
Of Manifold Action
He is to be a Man of God, chosen by God, a Man of the Eucharist, a Man of the Word, a Man of Pastoral Charity, a Sign of Contradiction, and a Living Instrument of Christ.
Man of God, chosen by God
"The Priesthood is a call, not a career; a redefinition of self, not just a new ministry; a way of life, not a job; a state of being, not just a function; a permanent , lifelong commitment, not a temporary style of service; an identity , not just a role. We are priests; yes the doing, the ministry, is mighty important, but it flows from the being; we can act like priests, minister as priests, preach as priests, because first and foremost we are priests! Being before act!"
- Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, - Priests for the Third Millennium
Man of the Eucharist
"We were born from the Eucharist. If we can truly say that the whole Church lives from the Eucharist (“Ecclesia de Eucharistia vivit”), as I reaffirmed in my recent Encyclical, we can say the same thing about the ministerial priesthood: it is born, lives, works and bears fruit “de Eucharistia”(cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XXII, canon 2: DS 1752). “There can be no Eucharist without the priesthood, just as there can be no priesthood without the Eucharist”
- Pope John Paul II, -Letter to Priests 2004
Man of the Word
"We want to stress once more the very important place that preaching still has, especially in the modern Catholic apostolate and in connection with the dialogue which is our present concern. No other form of communication can take its place, not even the exceptionally powerful and effective means provided by modern technology: press, radio and television. In effect, the apostolate and sacred preaching are more or less synonymous terms. Preaching is the primary apostolate. Our ministry, Venerable Brethren, is before all else the ministry of the word."
- Paul Paul VI, - Ecclesiam Suam
Man of Pastoral Charity
"Pastoral charity is the virtue by which we imitate Christ in his self-giving and service. It is not just what we do, but our gift of self which manifests Christ’s love for his flock. Pastoral charity determines our way of thinking and acting, our way of relating to people. It makes special demands on us."
- POV 23
Sign of Contradiction
"In a culture like ours, the Priest’s life is a sign of contradiction to much of what the world imagines to be true. The priest is not a contrarian, however. His being-different is not an end in itself, an indulgence in idiosyncrasy. The priest is a sign of contradiction so that the world can learn the truth about itself and can be converted. The radical openness to serve others that should be manifest in a happy, holy priest's life is a living lesson to the world that self-giving, not self-assertion, is the royal road to human flourishing."
- George Weigel, The Priest: Icon of Christ, Enabler of Sanctity
Living Instrument of Christ
“They have become living instruments of Christ the eternal priest, so that through the ages they, can accomplish his wonderful work of reuniting the whole human race with heavenly power. Therefore, since every priest in his own way represents the person of Christ himself, he is endowed with a special grace. By this grace the priest, through his service of the people committed to his care and all the People of God, is able the better to pursue the perfection of Christ, whose place he takes. The human weakness of his flesh is remedied by the holiness of him who became for us a high priest 'holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners' (Heb. 7:26)." (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 21)