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Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 3: May 2002

Vol. X, No. 7: October 2004

The Ministerial Priesthood

Explanation of the Icon

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by Monsignor Anthony A. La Femina

"There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all".

I Timothy 2:5

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The mediator's task is to interpose between parties as equal friend of each, especially to effect reconciliation. Since Jesus Messiah is simultaneously true God and true Man, He can be the only mediator, the unique bridge, between God and mankind.

Though not every mediator is a priest, the priest is always a mediator. The priestly character broadens the mediator's office. The Epistle to the Hebrews specifies that the Lord Jesus is a priest: "We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God" (Heb. 4:14).

The Father anointed Him Eternal High Priest from the first moment of His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by reason of His singular grace of the union of His divine and human natures in His Divine Person. The Epistle to the Hebrews explains Jesus Messiah as priest by stating that He "is taken from among men and made their representative before God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Heb. 5:1).

Because our Savior came to restore a broken union between God and mankind, His sacerdotal activity necessarily has the character of atonement. His priestly mediation is twofold: ascending and descending.

The Lord achieves His ascending mediation in offering the Supreme Sacrifice of His earthly life, together with the prayers and works of His Church. He offers these for His Father's glory and for the life of the world through the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus accomplishes His descending mediation by bestowing the divine gifts of God's teaching and grace upon mankind. Sacerdos , the Latin word for priest, means precisely "giving sacred things" ( sacra dans ).

The priesthood of all believers

While the Lord Jesus is the sole Priest of the New Covenant, He made all members of His Church share by grace in His unique priesthood. His Church is "a kingdom of priests for His God and Father" (Rev 1:6; cf. 1 Peter 2:5,9).

These priests -- both men and women, adults and children -- are the "authentic worshippers" who "worship the Father in Spirit and truth" (John 4:23). The priesthood of all the faithful is called the Baptismal or Common Priesthood. The faithful receive this priestly consecration with the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation and exercise it by taking part in Christian worship "in Spirit and truth", by the reception of the other sacraments, and by the witness of their holy, prayerful and courageously virtuous lives in accord with their particular vocations (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church , n. 1546; Lumen Gentium , 10).

Ministerial Priesthood - Holy Orders

The Lord Jesus also wills to share His priesthood with His Church in another way, through the valid reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This special priesthood is called the Ministerial Priesthood. The Lord established this particular sharing in His priesthood as a service to the Common Priesthood since it is directed to the unfolding of the faithful's baptismal grace and to enable them to offer their own "spiritual sacrifices" (1 Peter 2:5) in authentic worship of the Father in union with His own Sacrifice (PO, n. 2). Thus, through the instrumentality of the Ministerial Priest, Christ Himself makes His members an eternal gift to the Father (cf. 1 Peter 3:18).

The Ministerial Priesthood has two degrees: the episcopacy (bishops) and the presbyterate (priests) (CCC, n. 1554). This ministerial sharing in the Lord's unique priesthood is the means by which He continually builds up and leads His Church. The Ministerial Priesthood differs not only in degree but also in essence from the Common Priesthood because it confers special powers and correlative duties upon bishops and priests. Whether bishops or priests, however, Ministerial Priests exercise the supreme degree of their sacred functions in the same way: by celebrating the Eucharist (LG, n. 28).

For this reason the icon presents the Ministerial Priest during this celebration. The Ministerial Priest's life and mission are so linked to the Eucharistic Sacrifice that he is called to become completely one with it in order to become, himself, a sacrifice of praise (John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano , July 20, 2001).

The Priestly Sacrifice

The Sacrifice of Calvary is always present in heaven and ceaselessly celebrated there by the Church Triumphant. This Sacrifice's heavenly presence is indicated in the icon by the living blood and water gushing forth from the heart of the Savior. However, by the Lord's express will and command, His eternalized Sacrifice is also made present on earth by the Eucharistic Celebration through the instrumentality of the Ministerial Priesthood.

The Eucharistic Sacrifice joins as one the Church Militant with the Church Triumphant in the unique Sacrifice of both their liturgies. The instrumentality of the priest in making this Sacrifice present on earth is illustrated in the icon by the blood and water coming from Christ's side and being offered to the Eternal Father by the hand of the priest. The Ministerial Priesthood is so connected to the Eucharist that this priesthood cannot be correctly contemplated outside of the Eucharistic Mystery. Only through and in the measure of an authentic knowledge of the Eucharist can the supernatural nature of the Ministerial Priesthood be sufficiently grasped.

The Holy Spirit is pictured in the icon above the priest since the priest brings about the Eucharist (Sacrifice - Sacrament - Presence) through the power of the Spirit.

Our Lord instituted His Ministerial Priesthood for the purpose of realizing the new worship "in Spirit and truth" about which He spoke to the Samaritan woman (John 4:19-24).

The icon attempts to illustrate what mystically takes place in this worship during the only part of the Eucharistic Celebration wherein Christ personally intervenes: the Consecration of the Mass.

At that time the Ministerial Priest, fulfilling the express command of Christ ("Do this in memory of me"), acts, not in the name of Christ nor in His place, but in the Person of Christ ("This is my body my blood").

The priest speaks the consecratory words "in specific sacramental identification with the Eternal High Priest who is the Author and Subject of this Sacrifice, a Sacrifice in which, in truth, nobody can take his place" ( Dominicæ Cenæ , n. 8).

In celebrating the Holy Sacrifice the priest is sacramentally and wondrously brought into the most profound sacredness of Christ's Person, and made part of it.

This sacramental identification with the Eternal High Priest enables the Ministerial Priest, as the Lord's consecrated instrument, to lend the Lord his intelligence, will, voice and hands so as to offer through his very ministry the Sacrifice of Redemption to the Father.

The Ministerial Priest is "the sacramental representation of Christ the Head and Shepherd" (John Paul II, L'OR , Dec. 5, 2001). This is to say that the Ministerial Priest is a divinely written icon of Christ the Priest (cf. CCC, n. 1142). His sacramental identification with the Eternal High Priest is indicated in the icon by the Greek Letters "IC" (Jesus) and "XC" (Christ) on the extremities of the priest's stole. These letters are used in icons to identify only the Person of the Lord Jesus.

Ascending mediation

In his ascending mediation, the Ministerial Priest offers to the heavenly Father, together with the Lord's unique Sacrifice, the prayers and sacrifices of God's People that are symbolized by the smoking golden thurible of fragrant incense in the priest's hand (cf. Ps 141:2; Rev 5:8; 8:3,4). There, through a personal life of prayer and penance united with the Sacrifice he offers, he entreats the Father's mercy for himself and all those souls whom God has providentially confided to His priestly vocation. It is the Lord's will that the Ministerial Priest, while offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice, carries within his heart the prayers and sacrifices of all God's People before the Throne of God.

Descending mediation: Mercy, Love

In the exercise of his descending mediation the Ministerial Priest distributes the sacred gifts of the heavenly Father's merciful love. The Ministerial Priest is the instrumental cause of the production of the supernatural effects of those sacraments that require his priestly character for their administration. There at the Throne of Mercy the priest obtains graces that accrue to the Universal Church and other graces to be transmitted during the exercise of his ministry in the administration of the sacraments, in blessing, praying, preaching, teaching, counseling, caring, etc.

The icon illustrates the nature of the Ministerial Priest's descending mediation by the blood and water gushing from the side of Christ, which, when leaving the hand of the priest, become red and white rays that flow down upon the world below.

These rays are inspired by the writings about Divine Mercy of Saint Faustina Kowalska of the Most Blessed Sacrament, the first canonized saint of the present millennium.

Pope John Paul II gives a basic notion of mercy, whether divine or human, in his Encyclical, Dives in misericordia , when he teaches that love must condition justice so that justice may serve love.

Love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the norm of justice. The relationship between justice and love is manifested precisely in mercy. And thus God mercifully deals with sinful humanity in the gift of His only Son, in whom He gives us every other blessing.

The descending mediation of the Ministerial Priest involves the distribution of all those gifts coming, precisely, from our Father, who is Infinite Love and Mercy.

The rays signifying God's merciful gifts are depicted in the icon by the red and white rays that come from the blood and water of the Lord's side flowing into the hand of the Ministerial Priest.

Once in the hand of the priest, the blood and water become the red and white rays of Divine Mercy. The red rays signify the blood of our Savior that is the undeniable proof of the heavenly Father's merciful love for all persons without exception. The red rays also signify the Eucharist as the life and nourishment of souls.

The white rays indicate the Holy Spirit, who makes souls holy and pleasing to God in a special way through Holy Mass and all the sacraments, but especially through the forgiveness of sin in the Sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation (Penance).

Pope John Paul II teaches that because the priest is the minister of Christ's Sacrifice and of His mercy, the priest is indissolubly bound up with the two sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation ( L'OR , July 20, 2001).

Saint Paul regarded himself as a servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1). He also affirmed that he possessed his ministry through God's mercy (2 Cor. 4:1). In this vein the Congregation for the Clergy proclaims to every priest: "Priest of God, you embody the Mystery of Mercy!"

In fact, the Ministerial Priesthood is God's merciful gift because it is a privileged channel of His merciful love, not only for the Church but also for the entire human race. The Ministerial Priesthood brings mankind the inestimable gifts of Infinite Mercy. They are inestimable because "without mercy souls become as parched land on which the desert relentlessly encroaches, devouring hope, and the human heart resembles a lonely and dark cave" (Congregation for the Clergy, May 13, 2001).

God is Infinite Mercy; and He desires that we practice mercy (Mt 9:13; Hosea. 6:6). In the Eucharistic Sacrifice the priest presents to all mankind both the Source of the Infinite Mercy that God is, and the School of the mercy that God desires we practice in our lives.

The priest brings good news

The priest is portrayed in the icon with golden shoes decorated with precious stones to reflect the words of Saint Paul: "How beautiful are the feet of those who announce good news" (Romans 10:15; cf. Is 52:7). It is precisely God's mercy that the priest brings to mankind on behalf of the Church in his service of evangelization.

"To evangelize" means "to announce good news," and this good news is concretized in the Person of Jesus Messiah, who is God's Infinite Mercy incarnate.

However, in bringing the Lord Jesus to mankind, the priest, as minister of His Church, must also bring the Church with him. Jesus is indissolubly espoused to His Church and is its head as any head is part of its body. If evangelization is to be authentic, the evangelizer must keep in mind that the Catholic Church is God's universal sign of salvation. This is to say the Church is the sign of Jesus Christ Himself, who is, in Person, our salvation.

In the icon the seraphic figures of the four evangelists come forth from the Throne of God (Ezk. 1:5-7,9,10,12; Rev. 4:6-8). Only persons on earth need evangelization, and the Ministerial Priests carry out this evangelization as their "priestly service of the gospel of God" (Romans 15:16).

The Ministerial Priest fulfills his teaching office as part of his descending mediation and at the explicit command of the Lord Jesus: "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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the world" (Mt. 28:19, 20).

Pope John Paul II teaches that "the priest is not the man of his own personal initiatives; he is the minister of the Gospel in the name of the Church. His apostolic activity takes its origin from the Church and returns to the Church" ( L'OR , May 16, 2001).

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Prayer for Priests

God our Father, you reveal your omnipotence in the superabundance of your mercy, poured forth into the world through the sacred wounds of your Son and our Redeemer.

We ardently pray that your sacred ministers may be clear reflections of your mercy. May they, with every word and deed of their life, illumine humanity, disoriented by sin, and bring it back to you, who are Love.

We ask this, Father, through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen

by Monsignor LaFemina

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Monsignor LaFemina, a canonist, theologian and iconographer, served on the staff of the Pontifical Council for the Family. His posters and prayer cards may be ordered from: Diocese of Charleston, 119 Broad St., Charleston, SC 29401.

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