"No matter how much difficulties and dangers multiply in our path from day to day, a true and fervent priest must not on that account lose his way, nor fail to perform his duties, nor pause from the fulfillment of his spiritual mission for the welfare and salvation of the human family and the maintenance of that holy religion of which he is the herald and minister. For it is in labors and trials that priestly virtue waxes strong and gets purified; the blessed and all-restoring action of his divine ministry shines forth more resplendently in times of great need and amid social revolutions and transformations."
Pope Leo XIII, June 29, 1866, The Life of Pope Leo XIII: From His Personal Memoirs by Monsignor Bernard O'Reilly
My children, we have come to the Sacrament of Orders. It is a Sacrament which seems to relate to no one among you, and which yet relates to everyone. This Sacrament raises man up to God. What is a priest! A man who holds the place of God -- a man who is invested with all the powers of God. "Go, " said Our Lord to the priest; "as My Father sent Me, I send you. All power has been given Me in Heaven and on earth. Go then, teach all nations. . . . He who listens to you, listens to Me; he who despises you despises Me. " When the priest remits sins, he does not say, "God pardons you"; he says, "I absolve you. " At the Consecration, he does not say, "This is the Body of Our Lord;" he says, "This is My Body. "
Saint Bernard tells us that everything has come to us through Mary; and we may also say that everything has come to us through the priest; yes, all happiness, all graces, all heavenly gifts. If we had not the Sacrament of Orders, we should not have Our Lord. Who placed Him there, in that tabernacle? It was the priest. Who was it that received your soul, on its entrance into life? The priest. Who nourishes it, to give it strength to make its pilgrimage? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, by washing that soul, for the last time, in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest -- always the priest. And if that soul comes to the point of death, who will raise it up, who will restore it to calmness and peace? Again the priest. You cannot recall one single blessing from God without finding, side by side with this recollection, the image of the priest.
Go to confession to the Blessed Virgin, or to an angel; will they absolve you? No. Will they give you the Body and Blood of Our Lord? No. The Holy Virgin cannot make her Divine Son descend into the Host. You might have two hundred angels there, but they could not absolve you. A priest, however simple he may be, can do it; he can say to you, "Go in peace; I pardon you. " Oh, how great is a priest! The priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in Heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die, not of fear, but of love. The other benefits of God would be of no avail to us without the priest. What would be the use of a house full of gold, if you had nobody to open you the door! The priest has the key of the heavenly treasures; it is he who opens the door; he is the steward of the good God, the distributor of His wealth. Without the priest, the Death and Passion of Our Lord would be of no avail. Look at the heathens: what has it availed them that Our Lord has died? Alas! they can have no share in the blessings of Redemption, while they have no priests to apply His Blood to their souls!
The priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the Sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you. After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts. If the missionary Father and I were to go away, you would say, "What can we do in this church? there is no Mass; Our Lord is no longer there: we may as well pray at home. " When people wish to destroy religion, they begin by attacking the priest, because where there is no longer any priest there is no sacrifice, and where there is no longer any sacrifice there is no religion.
When the bell calls you to church, if you were asked, "Where are you going?" you might answer, "I am going to feed my soul. " If someone were to ask you, pointing to the tabernacle, "What is that golden door?" "That is our storehouse, where the true Food of our souls is kept. " "Who has the key? Who lays in the provisions? Who makes ready the feast, and who serves the table?" "The priest. " "And what is the Food?" "The precious Body and Blood of Our Lord. " O God! O God! how Thou hast loved us! See the power of the priest; out of a piece of bread the word of a priest makes a God. It is more than creating the world. . . . Someone said, "Does St. Philomena, then, obey the Cure of Ars?" Indeed, she may well obey him, since God obeys him.
If I were to meet a priest and an angel, I should salute the priest before I saluted the angel. The latter is the friend of God; but the priest holds His place. St. Teresa kissed the ground where a priest had passed. When you see a priest, you should say, "There is he who made me a child of God, and opened Heaven to me by holy Baptism; he who purified me after I had sinned; who gives nourishment to my soul. " At the sight of a church tower, you may say, "What is there in that place?" "The Body of Our Lord. " "Why is He there?" "Because a priest has been there, and has said holy Mass. "
What joy did the Apostles feel after the Resurrection of Our Lord, at seeing the Master whom they had loved so much! The priest must feel the same joy, at seeing Our Lord whom he holds in his hands. Great value is attached to objects which have been laid in the drinking cup of the Blessed Virgin and of the Child Jesus, at Loretto. But the fingers of the priest, that have touched the adorable Flesh of Jesus Christ, that have been plunged into the chalice which contained His Blood, into the pyx where His Body has lain, are they not still more precious? The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus. When you see the priest, think of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks amongst heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers. Fearful, indeed, and of most awful import, were the things which were used before the dispensation of grace, as the bells, the pomegranates, the stones on the breastplate and on the ephod, the girdle, the mitre, the long robe, the plate of gold, the holy of holies, the deep silence within. But if any one should examine the things which belong to the dispensation of grace, he will find that, small as they are, yet are they fearful and full of awe, and that what was spoken concerning the law is true in this case also, that "what has been made glorious hath no glory in this respect by reason of the glory which excelleth." For when thou seest the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, canst thou then think that thou art still amongst men, and standing upon the earth? Art thou not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, dost thou not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! what a marvel! what love of God to man! He who sitteth on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith! Do these things seem to you fit to be despised, or such as to make it possible for any one to be uplifted against them?
Would you also learn from another miracle the exceeding sanctity of this office? Picture Elijah and the vast multitude standing around him, and the sacrifice laid upon the altar of stones, and all the rest of the people hushed into a deep silence while the prophet alone offers up prayer: then the sudden rush of fire from Heaven upon the sacrifice:--these are marvellous things, charged with terror. Now then pass from this scene to the rites which are celebrated in the present day; they are not only marvellous to behold, but transcendent in terror. There stands the priest, not bringing down fire from Heaven, but the Holy Spirit: and he makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down from on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all, and render them more refulgent than silver purified by fire. Who can despise this most awful mystery, unless he is stark mad and senseless? Or do you not know that no human soul could have endured that fire in the sacrifice, but all would have been utterly consumed, had not the assistance of God's grace been great.
For if any one will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw nigh to that blessed and pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Spirit has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated, and others nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and our salvation. For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For it has not been said to them, "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven." They who rule on earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He has given them when He says, "Whose sins ye remit they are remitted, and whose sins ye retain they are retained?" What authority could be greater than this? "The Father hath committed all judgment to the Son?"
But I see it all put into the hands of these men by the Son. For they have been conducted to this dignity as if they were already translated to Heaven, and had transcended human nature, and were released from the passions to which we are liable. Moreover, if a king should bestow this honor upon any of his subjects, authorizing him to cast into prison whom he pleased and to release them again, he becomes an object of envy and respect to all men; but he who has received from God an authority as much greater as heaven is more precious than earth, and souls more precious than bodies, seems to some to have received so small an honor that they are actually able to imagine that one of those who have been entrusted with these things will despise the gift. Away with such madness! For transparent madness it is to despise so great a dignity, without which it is not possible to obtain either our own salvation, or the good things which have been promised to us. For if no one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerate through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious?
The Dignity of the Priesthood
Idea of the Priestly Dignity
In his epistle to the Christians of Smyrna, St. Ignatius, Martyr, says that the priesthood is the most sublime of all created dignities: "The apex of dignities is the priesthood." St. Ephrem calls it an infinite dignity: "The priesthood is an astounding miracle, great, immense, and infinite." St. John Chrysostom says, that though its functions are performed on earth, the priesthood should be numbered among the things of Heaven." According to Cassian, the priest of God is exalted above all earthly sovereignties, and above all celestial heights-----he is inferior only to God. Innocent III says that the priest is placed between God and man; inferior to God, but superior to man. St. Denis calls the priest a Divine man. Hence he has called the priesthood a Divine dignity. In fine, St. Ephrem says that the gift of the sacerdotal dignity surpasses all understanding. For us it is enough to know, that Jesus Christ has said that we should treat his priests as we would his own person: "He tkat heareth you, heareth Me; he tkat despiseth you, desptseth Me." Hence St. John Chrysostom says, that "he who honors a priest, honors Christ, and he who insults a priest, insults Christ." Through respect for the sacerdotal dignity, St. Mary of Oignies used to kiss the ground on which a priest had walked.
Importance of the Priestly Office
The dignity of the priest is estimated from the exalted nature of his offices. Priests are chosen by God to manage on earth all his concerns and interests. " Divine," says St. Cyril of Alexandria, "are the offices confided to priests." St. Ambrose has called the priestly office a Divine profession. A priest is a minister destined by God to be a public ambassador of the whole Church, to honor Him, and to obtain His graces for all the faithful. The entire Church cannot give to God as much honor, nor obtain so many graces, as a single priest by celebrating a single Mass; for the greatest honor that the whole Church without priests could give to God would consist in offering to Him in sacrifice the lives of all men. But of what value are the lives of all men compared with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which is a sacrifice of infinite value? What are all men before God but a little dust? As a drop of a bucket, as a little dust. They are but a mere nothing in His sight: All nations are before Him as if they had no being at all. Thus, by the celebration of a single Mass, in which he offers Jesus Christ in sacrifice, a priest gives greater honor to the Lord, than if all men by dying for God offered to Him the sacrifice of their lives. By a single Mass, he gives greater honor to God than all the Angels and Saints, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, have given or shall give to Him; for their worship cannot be of infinite value, like that which the priest celebrating on the altar offers to God. Moreover, in the holy Mass, the priest offers to God an adequate thanksgiving for all the graces bestowed even on the Blessed in Paradise; but such a thanksgiving all the Saints together are incapable of offering to Him. Hence it is, that on this account also the priestly dignity is superior even to all celestial dignities. Besides, the priest, says St. John Chrysostom, is an ambassador of the whole world, to intercede with God and to obtain graces for all creatures.. The priest, according to St. Ephrem, "treats familiarly with God." To priests every door is open. Jesus has died to institute the priesthood. It was not necessary for the Redeemer to die in order to save the world; a drop of His Blood, a single tear, or prayer, was sufficient to procure salvation for all; for such a prayer, being of infinite value, should be sufficient to save not one but a thousand worlds. But to institute the priesthood, the death of Jesus Christ has been necessary. Had he not died, where should we find the victim that the priests of the New Law now offer? a victim altogether holy and immaculate, capable of giving to God an honor worthy of God. As has been already said, all the lives of men and Angels are not capable of giving to God an infinite honor like that which a priest offers to Him by a single Mass.
Grandeur of the Priestly Power
The dignity of the priest is also estimated from the power that he has over the real and the mystic body of Jesus Christ. With regard to the power of priests over the real body of Jesus Christ, it is of faith that when they pronounce the words of consecration the Incarnate Word has obliged Himself to obey and to come into their hands under the Sacramental Species. We are struck with wonder when we hear that God obeyed the voice of Josue-----The Lord obeying the voice of man-----and made the sun stand when He said move not, O sun, towards Gabaon . . . and the sun stood still. But our wonder should be far greater when we find that in obedience to the words of his priests-----HOC EST CORPUS MEUM-----God Himself descends on the altar, that He comes wherever they call Him, and as often as they call Him, and places Himself in their hands, even though they should be His enemies. And after having come, He remains, entirely at their disposal; they move Him as they please, from one place to another; they may, if they wish, shut Him up in the tabernacle, or expose Him on the altar, or carry Him outside the church; they may, if they choose, eat His flesh and give Him for the food of others. "Oh, how very great is their power," says St. Laurence Justinian, speaking of priests. "A word falls from their lips and the body of Christ is there substantially formed from the matter of bread, and the Incarnate Word descended from Heaven, is found really present on the table of the altar! Never did Divine goodness give such power to the Angels. The Angels abide by the order of God, but the priests take Him in their hands, distribute Him to the faithful, and partake of Him as food for themselves."
With regard to the mystic body of Christ, that is, all the faithful, the priest has the power of the keys, or the power of delivering sinners from Hell, of making them worthy of Paradise, and of changing them from the slaves of Satan into the children of God. And God Himself is obliged to abide by the judgment of His priests, and either not to pardon or to pardon, according as they refuse or give absolution, provided the penitent is capable of it. "Such is," says St. Maximus of Turin, "this judiciary power ascribed to Peter that its decision carries with it the decision of God." The sentence of the priest precedes, and God subscribes to it, writes St. Peter Damian. Hence, St John Chrysostom thus concludes: The sovereign Master of the universe only follows the servant by confirming in Heaven all that the latter decides upon earth." Priests are the dispensers of the Divine graces and the companions of God." Consider the priests," says St. Ignatius, Martyr, "as the dispensers of Divine graces and the associates of God." "They are," says St. Prosper, "the glory and the immovable columns of the Church; thay are the doors of the eternal city; through them all reach Christ; they are the vigilant guardians to whom the Lord has confided the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; they are the stewards of the king's house, to assign to each according to His good pleasure His place in the hierarchy."
Were the Redeemer to descend into a church, and sit in a confessional to administer the Sacrament of Penance, and a priest to sit in another confessional, Jesus would say over each penitent, "Ego te absolvo," the priest would likewise say over each of his penitents, "Ego te absolvo," and the penitents of each would be equally absolved. How great the honor that a king would confer on a subject whom he should empower to rescue from prison as many as he pleased! But far greater is the power that the eternal Father has given to Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ has given to his priests, to rescue from Hell not only the bodies but also the souls of the faithful: "The Son," says St. John Chrysostom, "has put into the hands of the priests all judgment; for having been as it were transported into Heaven, they have received this Divine prerogative. If a king gave to a mortal the power to release from prison all prisoners, all would pronounce such a one happy; but priests have received from God a far greater power, since the soul is more noble than the body."
The Dignity of the Priest Surpasses all other Created Dignities
Thus the sacerdotal dignity is the most noble of all the dignities in this world." Nothing," says St. Ambrose, "is more excellent in this world." It transcends, says St. Bernard, "all the dignities of kings, of emperors, and of Angels." According to St. Ambrose, the dignity of the priest as far exceeds that of kings, as the value of gold surpasses that of lead. The reason is, because the power of kings extends only to temporal goods and to the bodies of men, but the power of the priest extends to spiritual goods and to the human soul. Hence, says St. Clement, "as much as the soul is more noble than the body, so much is the priesthood more excellent than royalty." "Princes," says St. John Chrysostom, "have the power of binding, but they bind only the bodies, while the priest binds the souls." The kings of the earth glory in honoring priests: "It is a mark of a good prince," says pope St. Marcellinus, "to honor the priests of God." "They willingly," says Peter de Blois, "bend their knee before the priest of God; they kiss his hands, and with bowed down head receIve his benediction." "The sacerdotal dignity," says St. Chrysostom, "effaces the royal dignity; hence the king inclines his head under the hand of the priest to receive his blessing."
Baronius relates that when the Empress Eusebia sent for Leontius, Bishop of Tripoli, he said that if she wished to see him, she should consent to two conditions: first, that on his arrival she should instantly descend from the throne, and bowing down her head, should ask his benediction; secondly, that he should be seated on the throne, and that she should not sit upon it without his permission: he added, that unless she submitted to these conditions he should never go to the palace. Being invited to the table of the Emperor Maximus, St. Martin, in taking a draught, first paid a mark of respect to his chaplain, and then to the emperor. In the Council of Nice, the Emperor Constantine wished to sit in the last place, after all the priests, and on a seat lower than that which they occupied; he would not even sit down without their permission. The holy king St. Boleslans had so great a veneration for priests, that he would not dare to sit in their presence. The sacerdotal dignity also surpasses the dignity of the Angels, who likewise show their veneration for the priesthood, says St. Gregory Nazianzen. All the Angels in Heaven cannot absolve from a single sin. The Angels guardian procure for the souls committed to their care grace to have recourse to a priest that he may absolve them: "Although," says St. Peter Damian, "Angels may be present, they yet wait lor the priest to exercise his power, but no one of them has the power of the keys-----of binding and of loosening."
When St. Michael comes to a dying Christian who invokes his aid, the holy Archangel can chase away the devils, but he cannot free his client from their chains till a priest comes to absolve him. After having given the order of priesthood to a holy ecclesiastic, St. Francis de Sales perceived, that in going out he stopped at the door as if to give precedence to another. Being asked by the Saint why he stopped, he answered that God favored him with the visible presence of his Angel guardian, who before he had received priesthood always remained at his right and preceded him, but afterwards walked on his left and refused to go before him. It was in a holy contest with the Angel that he stopped at the door. St. Francis of Assisi used to say, "If I saw an Angel and a priest, I would bend my knee first to the priest and then to the Angel." Besides, the power of the priest surpasses that of the Blessed Virgin Mary; for, although this Divine Mother can pray for us, and by her prayers obtain whatever she wishes, yet she cannot absolve a Christian from even the smallest sin. "The Blessed Virgin was eminently more perfect than the Apostles," says Innocent III. "It was, however, not to her, but only to the Apostles, that the Lord intrusted the keys of the kingdom of Heaven." St. Bernardine of Sienna has written: "Holy Virgin, excuse me, for I speak not against thee: the Lord has raised the priesthood above thee." The Saint assigns the reason of the superiority of the priesthood over Mary; she conceived Jesus Christ only once; but by consecrating the Eucharist, the priest, as it were, conceives Him as often as he wishes, so that if the person of the Redeemer had not as yet been in the world, the priest, by pronouncing the words of consecration, would produce this great person of a Man-God. "O wonderful dignity of the priests," cries out St. Augustine; "in their hands, as in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, the Son of God becomes incarnate."
Hence priests are called the parents of Jesus Christ: such is the title that St. Bernard gives them, for they are the active cause by which He is made to exist really in the consecrated Host. Thus the priest may, in a certain manner, be called the creator of his Creator, since by saying the words of consecration, he creates, as it were, Jesus in the Sacrament, by giving Him a Sacramental existence, and produces Him as a victim to be offered to the eternal Father. As in creating the world it was sufficient for God to have said, Let it be made, and it was created-----He spoke, and they were made-----so it is sufficient for the priest to say, "Hoc est corpus meum," and behold the bread is no longer bread, but the body of Jesus Christ. "The power of the priest," says St. Bernardine of Sienna, "is the power of the Divine person; for the transubstantiation of the bread requires as much power as the creation of the world." And St. Augustine has written, "O venerable sanctity of the hands! O happy function of the priest! He that created [if I may say so] gave me the power to create Him; and He that created me without me is Himself created by me!" "As the Word of God created Heaven and earth, so," says St. Jerome, "the words of the priest create Jesus Christ." "At a sign from God there came forth from nothing both the sublime vault of the Heavens and the vast extent of the earth; but not less great is the power that manifests itself in the mysterious words of the priest." The dignity of the priest is so great, that he even blesses Jesus Christ on the altar as a victim to be offered to the eternal Father. In the sacrifice of the Mass, writes Father Mansi, Jesus Christ is the principal offerer and victim; as minister, He blesses the priest, but as victim, the priest blesses Him.
Elevation or the Post Occupied by the Priest
The greatness of the dignity of a priest is also estimated from the high place that he occupies. The priesthood is called, at the synod of Chartres, in 1550, the seat of the Saints. Priests are called Vicars of Jesus Christ, because they hold his place on earth. "You hold the place of Christ," says St. Augustine to them; "you are therefore His lieutenants." In the Council of Milan, St. Charles Borromeo called priests the representatives of the person of God on earth. And before him, the Apostle said: For Christ we are ambassadors, God, as it were, exhorting by us. When He ascended into Heaven, Jesus Christ left His priests after Him to hold on earth His place of mediator between God and men, particularly on the altar. "Let the priest," says St. Laurence Justinian, " approach the altar as another Christ."
According to St. Cyprian, a priest at the altar performs the office of Christ. When, says St. Chrysostom, you have seen a priest offering sacrifice,consider that the hand of Christ is invisibly extended. The priest holds the place of the Savior Himself, when, by saying "Ego te absolvo," he absolves from sin. This great power, which Jesus Christ has received from His eternal Father, He has communicated to His priests. "Jesus," says Tertullian, "invests the priests with His own powers." To pardon a single sin requires all the omnipotence of God. "O God, Who chiefly manifestest Thy almighty power in pardoning and showing mercy," etc., says the holy Church in one of her prayers. Hence, when they heard that Jesus Christ pardoned the sins of the paralytic, the Jews justly said: Who can forgive sins but God alone. But what only God can do by His omnipotence, the priest can also do by saying "Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis;" for the forms of the Sacraments, or the words of the forms, produce what they signify. What the priest does what is wonderful, for by saying "Ego te absolvo" he changes the sinner from an enemy into the friend of God, and from the slave of Hell into an heir of Paradise. Cardinal Hugo represents the Lord addressing the following words to a priest who absolves a sinner: "I have created Heaven and earth, but I leave to you a better and nobler creation; make out of this soul that is in sin a new soul, that is, make out of the slave of Satan, that the soul is, a child of God. I have made the earth bring forth all kinds of fruit, but to thee I confide a more beautiful creation, namely, that the soul should bring forth fruits of salvation."
The soul without grace is a withered tree that can no longer produce fruit; but receiving the Divine grace, through the ministry of a priest, it brings forth fruits of eternal life, St. Augustine says, that to sanctify a sinner is a greater work than to create Heaven and earth. And hast thou, says Job, an arm like God, and canst thou thunder with a voice like Him? Who is it that has an arm like the arm of God, and thunders with a voice like the thundering voice of God? It is the priest, who, in giving absolution, exerts the arm and voice of God, by which he rescues souls from Hell. According to St. Ambrose, a priest, in absolving a sinner, performs the very office of the Holy Ghost in the sanctification of souls.
Hence, in giving priests the power of absolving from sin, the Redeemer breathed on them, and said to them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose sins you shall forgive, they are foygiven, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. He gave them his own Spirit, that is, the Holy Ghost, the sanctifier of souls. and thus made them, according to the words of the Apostle, His own co-adjutors: We are God's co-adjutors. "On priests," says St. Gregory. "it is incumbent to give the final decision, for by the right that they have received from the Lord they now remit, now retain sins." St. Clement, then, had reason to say that the priest is, as it were, a God on earth. God, said David, stood in the congregation of the gods. These gods are, according to St. Augustine, the priests of God. Innocent III has written: "Indeed, it is not too much to say that in view of the sublimity of their offices the priests are so many gods." VI. Conclusion. How great, then, says St. Ambrose, the disorder to see in the same person the highest dignity and a life of scandal, a Divine profession and wicked conduct! What, says Salvian, is a sublime dignity conferred on an unworthy person but a gem enchased in mire? Neither doth any man, says St. Paul, take the honor to himself, but he that is called by God, as Aaron was. For Christ did not glorify Himself that He might be made a high priest, but He that said unto Him: Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten Thee. Let no one, he says, dare to ascend to the priesthood, without first receiving, as Aaron did, the Divine call; for even Jesus Christ would not of Himself assume the honor of the priesthood, but waited till His Father called Him to it.
From this we may infer the greatness of the sacerdotal dignity. But the greater its sublimity, the more it should be dreaded. "For," says St. Jerome, "great is the dignity of priests; but also, when they sin, great is their ruin. Let us rejoice at having been raised so high, but let us be afraid of falling."
Lamenting, St. Gregory cries out: "Purified by the hands of the priest the elect enter the Heavenly country, and alas! priests precipitate themselves into the fire of Hell!" The Saint compares priests to the Baptismal water which cleanses the Baptized from their sins, and sends them to Heaven, "and is afterwards thrown into the sink."
The Last Supper- Fra Angelico
The Seven Clerical Orders of the Priesthood
In the Latin Church, there are seven clerical orders, all mentioned together 1 in the Historical record by Eusebius (b. A.D. 260) in the 43rd Chapter of the 6th Book of his "Church History." The lowest 5 are ecclesiastical in origin; the higher two are of divine origin. The seven orders are, in descending rank:
The 3 Major or "Sacred" Orders:
The 4 Minor Orders:
A man who is to become a priest first receives the "tonsure" -- i.e., he is received into the clerical state by being given a surplice and having hair shorn away at the crown of the head (over the last 400 years or so, the hair-shearing has passed out of use due to Protestant persecutions). With the tonsure, he becomes a cleric, but still has not received the Sacrament of Orders.
The tonsured cleric is then ordained to each of the Orders above, one at a time, receiving the power of each office, and ascending up through the ranks until he is raised to the dignity of the priesthood, at which time he receives the fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Those of the Minor Orders are not obligated to pray the Divine Office or bound to the rule of celibacy (but if they marry they lose their office); however, once the Major Orders are entered into, there is no going back, and from the level of deacon on up, the actual Sacrament of Orders is received. Deacons receive partial fruits of the Sacrament, priests receive the totality of the Sacrament, with only Bishops having more authority.
The elevation of men to the dignity of the priesthood.
Holy Orders is the Sacrament by which men become priests and are given a sacred power (sacra potestas) to act in total sacramental identification with Christ (i.e., to act in persona Christi) in order confect Christ's Body and offer it up to the Father at the Mass for the remission of sins; to forgive sins through the Sacrament of Penance; to solemnly baptize; to preside during the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony; to offer Unction to the dying; to preach; and to otherwise teach, guide, and sanctify their sheep. With -- and only with -- the permission of his Bishop, he may be delegated to offer the Sacrament of Confirmation, but to the Bishop alone is reserved the power to ordain other priests (though a priest may be delgated to ordain men to the sub-diaconate and the minor orders).
As in Baptism and Confirmation, the Sacrament of Holy Orders leaves an indelible mark on the soul of the recipient and can never be repeated once validly received; once a priest, always a priest (even if a priest is laicized and removed from his office, this mark remains).
The recipient of the Sacrament must be a baptized, healthy male, at least 25 years of age, who has a vocation from God, a strong Catholic faith, intelligence, a good moral character, and a life marked by sanctity. He must be committed to living a celibate and chaste life, and to prayer (especially the Divine Office, which he is obligated to pray), and must have been properly formed in seminary.
Traditional priestly formation, lasts for 6 years and includes a thorough study of Latin, liturgy, liturgical chant, philosophy, Theology, Church History, moral Theology, dogmatic Theology, and Canon Law. During the first year, they receive the cassock; during the second, the tonsure; during the third and fourth, they are ascend through the minor orders; in the fifth, they are ordained to the sub-diaconate and then the diaconate; and after the sixth, they are ordained priests. The seminarian's days are heavily scheduled, much like a monk's, with daily Mass, the Divine Office, classes, private study, and community devotions.
Not all priests work in dioceses. Typically, those who do are called "secular priests" or "diocesan priests," and most of these work in parishes and, so, are also called "parish priests." Secular priests make promises of chastity and obedience to the local Ordinary (no promise of poverty is made). Other priests belong to religious orders (e.g., the Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, etc.) and offer Mass for the people of their religious order. These men are called "religious priests" (though sometimes a "religious priest" might work for a parish in some cases). Religious priests make the solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the superiors of their religious community that all members of their Order make.
The Rite of Ordination as follows (taken from the Catholic Encyclopdia):
All the candidates...present themselves in the church with tonsure and in clerical dress, carrying the vestments of the order to which they are to be raised, and lighted candles. They are all summoned by name, each candidate answering "Adsum". When a general ordination takes place the tonsure is given after the Introit or Kyrie, the minor orders after the Gloria, subdiaconate after the Collect, the diaconate after the Epistle, priesthood after Alleluia and Tract. After the Tract of the Mass the archdeacon summons all who are to receive the priesthood. The candidates, vested in amice, alb, girdle, stole, and maniple, with folded chasuble on left arm and a candle in their right hand, go forward and kneel around the bishop. The latter inquires of the archdeacon, who is here the representative of the Church as it were, whether the candidates are worthy to be admitted to the priesthood. The archdeacon answers in the affirmative and his testimony represents the testimony of fitness given in ancient times by the clergy and people. The bishop, then charging the congregation and insisting upon the reasons why "the Fathers decreed that the people also should be consulted", asks that, if anyone has anything to say to the prejudice of the candidates, he should come forward and state it.
The bishop then instructs and admonishes the candidates as to the duties of their new office. He kneels down in front of the altar; the ordinandi lay themselves prostrate on the carpet, and the Litany of the Saints is chanted or recited. On the conclusion of the Litany, all arise, the candidates come forward, and kneel in pairs before the bishop while he lays both hands on the head of each candidate in silence. The same is done by all priests who are present. Whilst bishop and priests keep their right hands extended, the former alone recites a prayer, inviting all to pray to God for a blessing on the candidates. After this follows the Collect and then the bishop says the Preface, towards the end of which occurs the prayer, "Grant, we beseech Thee etc." The bishop then with appropriate formulŠ crosses the stole over the breast of each one and vests him with the chasuble. This is arranged to hang down in front but is folded behind. Though there is no mention of the stole in many of the most ancient Pontificals, there can be no doubt of its antiquity. The vesting with the chasuble is also very ancient and found already in Mabillon "Ord. VIII and IX." Afterwards the bishop recites a prayer calling down God's blessing on the newly-ordained. He then intones the "Veni Creator", and whilst it is being sung by the choir he anoints the hands of each with the oil of catechumens...
...The bishop then hands to each the chalice, containing wine and water, with a paten and a host upon it. This rite, with its corresponding formula,.. [signifying] the power which has already been received, is not found in the oldest rituals and probably dates back not earlier than the ninth or tenth century. When the bishop has finished the Offertory of the Mass, he seats himself before the middle of the altar and each of those ordained make an offering to him of a lighted candle. The newly-ordained priests then repeat the Mass with him, all saying the words of consecration simultaneously. Before the Communion the bishop gives the kiss of peace to one of the newly-ordained. After the Communion the priests again approach the bishop and say the Apostle's Creed. The bishop laying his hands upon each says: "Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." ...The chasuble is then folded, the newly-ordained make a promise of obedience and having received the kiss of peace, return to their place.
It is customary for those who attend the priest's Ordination and/or first Mass to kiss the palms of his hands which have been consecrated by holy oils. Palm-kissing at either time results in an indulgence of 100 days under the usual conditions. An indulgence of 7 years, under the usual conditions, was traditionally received for piously attending a priest's first Mass -- the indulgence having been plenary if the one attending is related to the third degree to the newly-ordained priest. Indulgenced or not, kissing a newly-ordained priest's hands is the traditional practice. To do so, kneel on the left knee (or bow profoundly if kneeling is not an option) and kiss the palm of each hand.
1 Eusuebius, born in A.D. 260, is actually quoting a letter written by St. Cornelius to the future Pope St. Fabian. Pope St. Fabian was martyred on 20 January, A.D. 250, so the reference to the 7 Clerical Orders is older than that date. After the martyrdom of Pope St. Fabian, St. Cornelius became Pope until he, too, was martyred in A.D. 253.
Text Courtesy of Fisheaters