On the Priesthood – Part 1

23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Cor 11:23-26)

Do this in remembrance of me.

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

This directive of Jesus at the Last Supper, with the comment by St. Paul, is understood to mean these acts are to be perpetuated throughout time. How to do these acts is a matter of disagreement between traditional and reformed Christians; however, traditional Christians (Catholics, Orthodox) understand that Jesus gave something to the Apostles alone which enabled them to do what Jesus did here. That something we call ordination, which the Apostles handed on to future bishops and priests, who, in turn, are also enabled to do this thing Jesus did at the Last Supper. That ‘thing’ is to take ordinary bread and wine and transform them into Jesus’ Body and Blood.

From this directive of the Last Supper, we understand a special grace given to priests, a charism, that enables them to carry out Jesus’ directive. As Jesus is God, what He says becomes real, so we understand that when He says, “Do this…,” the Apostles will actually do what He did and not merely reenact a symbolic representation of what Jesus did. And such a charism must not die with the Apostles, so St. Paul above clarifies that this will be done until the Second Coming of the Lord.

If anyone shall say that by the words: ‘Do this for a commemoration of me,’ Christ did not ordain the Apostles priests, or did not enjoin that they and other priests should offer his body and blood, let him be anathema. (Council of Trent, Session 22, canon 2)

Now let’s take a brief tangent:

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father… 16 And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (Jn 1:14, 16-17)

Here John emphasizes a characteristic of Christ: He is full of grace and truth. And we receive the same from Him. Grace and truth become, therefore, the things we receive from Jesus. Truth means, of course, the objective knowledge of God, through the preaching of the Gospel. Grace, as we know, is the gift of God: His own Divine Life shared with us. These are the two things every Christian craves, and we crave nothing else.

But how do we receive these two things we crave? They are given to us through the priests, who are the stewards of God’s household. This was “the Great Commission” given to the Apostles as Jesus’ last words to them:

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Mt 28:16-20)

Jesus, speaking to His Apostles alone, gave them their final directive: Baptize and teach. By ‘baptize,’ we understand to mean all of the sacramental means of grace; therefore we see here Jesus – the fullness of grace and truth – commanding His Apostles to go and share that same grace and truth. This is the answer to ‘how:’ We receive grace and truth through the Apostolic charisms of administering the sacraments and of preaching the Faith.

Now let’s take this tangential information and revisit our original text regarding the ordination of the Apostles at the Last Supper. The Apostles and their successors were enabled to administer sacramental grace, which includes effecting the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, and to preach the Gospel with spiritual power. Administering the sacraments and delivering the Gospel truth makes them stewards of God’s household, distributing the wealth of the Father to His children. Effecting the Body and Blood of Jesus, which at the Last Supper was given in the context of His crucifixion (the supper of the Lamb), is not the act of a steward, however, but of a sacrificing priesthood. This is why we call them priests.

There is a general complaint about our priesthood: that our priests and bishops are the authoritative leaders of the Church, who lord it over the faithful and force their wills upon us. Moreover, this leadership role is denied to women and we have a mere patriarchy. Our answer is yes, our ordained ministers have authority and yes, they can only be men. But the spiritual authority of God, delegated to His priests, is not the same as we see in secular, political leaders; it only pertains to teaching truth and administering the sacraments. Priests are not leaders, they are stewards, servants of God’s children. I admit that many priests have gone beyond their role and assumed some secular elements of leadership; this has given the impression that priestly authority is the same as secular authority. But this is an aberration. In fact, these spiritual gifts which define priestly authority are specifically our sources of God’s Life shared with us. It is because God shares His Life with us that we call God our Father, because that is essentially what a Father does: pass on his life to his children. So the priests, who are images (icons) of God in His Fatherly role, are chosen male, to clearly image this very gender-based concept of the transmission of life. (For a deeper dive into this topic, see this essay.) The true authority of Christianity is grace and truth, and nothing else.

Such is the Catholic doctrine, as gleaned from Scripture. In part 2, let’s look at more examples of this priesthood from the New Testament.