New Testament Foundation for the Priesthood
As we celebrate this year of St. Paul, we want to understand also the priesthood in terms of the New Testament and the writings of St. Paul. What is it to be a priest? How is the priesthood related to Christ in the message of the Gospel and the teaching of St. Paul? Where do we find in the Bible the Catholic understanding of the priesthood today?
In the synod of Bishops on priestly formation in 1990, Cardinal Ratzinger briefly explains the biblical foundations in the New Testament for the Catholic teaching on the priesthood. First of all it is necessary to see that the Word of God is one; both the New and the Old Testaments are inspired by the Holy Spirit. While some Protestant circles maintain that the New Testament has replaced (and hence, abolished) the Old Testament, including the priesthood and ritual sacrifices, the Catholic teaching has always been that Christ came to fulfill, not to abolish, the Old Testament. Nevertheless, without denying the unity of the Old and the New Testaments in the history of salvation, we must say that the New Testament message is truly new. It is not new in the sense that it contradicts the Old Testament. "If we seek the true novelty of the New Testament, Christ Himself stands before us. This novelty consists not so much in new ideas or conceptions—the novelty is a Person: God who becomes man and draws human beings to Himself" (Card. Ratzinger, Address to Synod of Bishops, Oct. 29, 1990). Any question regarding the New Testament teaching on the priesthood should therefore first begin with the Person of Christ.
In the New Testament, the unique relationship of Christ to the Father shines out. Besides their unity in the Godhead, St. John clearly presents the relationship of Jesus to the Father as one who is "sent". Jesus states, "My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me" (Jn 7:16). But how can this be, since Jesus is also God? Saint Augustine explains Jesus' doctrine is "not His own" because in the mystery of the Trinity, as Son, He is entirely from the Father (receiving all that He is and has from the Father) and entirely oriented back to the Father (giving Himself entirely back to the Father). The origin of His message is, therefore, from the Father. Since Jesus has nothing of His own, and could affirm that "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30), all that the Father has is His as well. In all that He says and does, Jesus reflects this mystery of the Trinity: His eternal proceeding from the Father and His total return to the Father. "The giving back of His whole existence and activity to the Father, an act through which He did not seek His own will (Jn 5:30) made Him credible, because the word of the Father shone through Him like light" (Cardinal Ratzinger, ibid.).
In this sense, every Christian is also called to strive to reflect this Trinitarian mystery, receiving the word and will of God in faith and openness, and returning all that he is and has to God by seeking to fulfill His will in every situation. In consequence, we too will become "transparent" for God to those around us; this is how we participate through Baptism in the Priesthood of Christ, expressed today in the Rite of Baptism. This is known as the "common priesthood" of the faithful.
The Mission of the Apostles
Just as Jesus receives His mission from the Father, He in turn chooses twelve Apostles (literally, those sent), who, renouncing their own will and plans and family (cf. Lk 18:29), receive their mission from Jesus. "As the Father has sent Me, so I send you" (Jn 20:21). And as Jesus does nothing except by the Father and with the Father—"The Son can do nothing of His own accord" (Jn 5:19)—so too the Apostles depend wholly on Jesus for their apostolic works and powers: "Without Me, you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5). That is to say, this mission goes beyond their natural capacities as men, and as simple fishermen at that. "How could they of their own accord say, 'I forgive you your sins'? How could they say, 'This is My body'? How could they perform the imposition of hands and say, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'?" (Cardinal Ratzinger, ibid.) Their very incapacity to fulfill this mission requires of them a closer dependence on and communion with Jesus. All that they are and have, they are and have from HIM. And once having received from Him, they in turn can give to others. This mission to give requires a special gift and power, more than the pure transparence and the intercession of all the baptized. "Such a ministry, in which a man does and gives through a divine communication what he could never do and give on his own is called by the tradition of the Church a 'Sacrament'" (Cardinal Ratzinger, ibid.). In this case, we are speaking of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
By this Sacrament, the Apostles are set apart from the common priesthood of all the faithful and given the privilege and responsibility to share in and continue the mission of Jesus. St. Paul summarizes saying, "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor 4:1). Acting in Jesus' name and with His power, they enter into and remain in intimate communion with Him—and through Him, also with the Father. Jesus affirms their authority saying, "He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me" (Lk 10:16). It is not the Apostles who chose Jesus, it is Jesus who chose and called each of them by name. "Mission can only be received from the One who sends—from Christ in His sacrament, through which a person becomes the voice and the hands of Christ in the world" (C. Ratzinger, ibid.).
The New Testament, therefore, clearly expresses the authority of the Apostles as ministers and representatives of Christ in the world, as those who take on and continue His mission. They play a unique and essential role in the life of the Church, having received directly from Christ His authority and mission to forgive sins, to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice and unite men with God. But does this ministry continue after their death? Where do our Bishops and priests get their authority today?
The Priesthood Today
St. Paul and St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, make it very clear that the "elders" (presbyters or priests) and "overseers" (Bishops) carry on the mission of the Apostles with the same authority given by Christ. This means that not only did the Apostles receive their mission and authority from Christ, but also that they had the authority to pass this mission on to their successors. St. Paul says to Timothy who was set over the Church of Ephesus, "I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands [episcopal ordination]; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control. …Share in suffering for the Gospel in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim 1:6-9). And to Titus, St. Paul makes it clear that the Bishops he ordains also have the authority to ordain others: "This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders [presbyters] in every town as I directed you" (Titus 1:5). Addressing the presbyters, St. Paul further states, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [Bishops]. Be shepherds of the Church of God which He bought with His own Blood" (Acts 20:28). This text shows that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Bishops and presbyters (priests) receive the power to exercise their ministry; it is a gift of God, not the free choice of man, and hence, not just a task but a Sacrament. St. Peter writes,
So I exhort the elders [presbyters] among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed: Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. (1 Pet 5:1-4)
Calling himself a "fellow elder" or "co-presbyter", St. Peter indicates that his mission and authority had been handed on to others, that not just the Apostles, but also the Bishops and presbyters received from God the mission of Christ. Further, speaking of Christ as the "chief Shepherd" in this text, and earlier in the same letter as Christ the "Shepherd and Bishop of your souls" (2:25), St. Peter indicates that the authority of Christ is also transmitted to the successors of the Apostles, that is, to the Bishops and priests. For this reason he says they are to "tend the flock of God that is your charge".
Our Relation towards Bishops and Priests
We see, then, that the priesthood as understood by the Church today does certainly have a foundation in the writings of the New Testament and in the Tradition of the early Church. Our reverence for Bishops and priests is based not on their personal attributes, natural talents or gifts, but on their dignity as representatives of Christ. For this reason, we do not treat our priests as "one of the guys", but as "servants of Christ" and spiritual "fathers in Christ" (cf. 1 Cor 4:1, 15), living among men and bringing us the word and grace of God.
Yet in order to remain faithful to his dignity and vocation, the priest must continually foster and cultivate his union with Christ. St. Gregory the Great states of holy priests, "If they do not return inwardly to the heart, and bind themselves in love for their Creator with the bonds of holy desires, the tongue goes dry. But they do always return inside through love, and what they pour forth in public as they work and speak, they draw in secret from the fountain of love. They learn through love what they proclaim through teaching" (Homily on Ezechiel, Bk I, hom. 5).
We want to pray for our priests, that they may live up to this sacred calling, being ever conscious of their dignity, but at the same time, of their human frailty. We must pray that they may always remain intimately united to Christ, for only through an intimate union with Him do they receive the strength, inspiration and power to serve God's people selflessly.
With what reverence and gratitude we should pray for our priests, who give up their lives in order to be, for our good, "Christ among us"! How much we want to support our priests who bear the burden of Christ, the burden of the Church and souls! Let us always remember them, therefore, in our prayers and sacrifices. It is a sacred vocation, but when lived faithfully, one of the happiest and most blessed. For as Pope Paul VI explained to newly ordained priests:
The priest is no longer for himself; he is for the ministry of Christ's Mystical Body. He is the servant, an instrument of the word and of grace. The proclamation of the Gospel, the celebration of the Eucharist, the remission of sins, the exercise of pastoral activity, the life of faith and worship, and the radiation of charity and holiness are his duty, a duty that reaches the point of self-sacrifice, of the cross, as for Jesus. It is a very heavy burden. But Jesus bears it with His chosen one and makes him feel the truth of His words: "My Yoke is easy and My burden light" (Mt 11:30).
(Pope Paul VI, Message to Newly Ordained, November 28, 1970)
May God bless each and every priest and bring them consolation and joy in their service of souls!
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