The priest as an image of Christ

| Father Nick VanDenBroeke | January 11, 2017 | 1 Comment

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There is great hope in the future of the priesthood! Last year, there were 548 men ordained priests in the U.S. Eight of these men were ordained for our own archdiocese. This number has been growing since the year 2000, when only 442 men were ordained priests, but it is still down dramatically from the year 1965, when 994 men were ordained priests.

Please continue to pray for more priests. However, praying for them is not enough; we must also encourage young men — perhaps your own children or grandchildren­ — to consider discerning a call to the priesthood. A survey of priests said that, on average, four people encouraged each of this year’s ordination class to consider a vocation. In other words, it is important that young men be encouraged not just by one person, but by several people to consider the seminary.

The most influential people who encouraged most men to join the seminary were parish priests, friends, parishioners and mothers. Sadly, almost half of the priests ordained last year said they were discouraged by at least two people from entering the seminary.

We must be encouraging, not discouraging, of our young men considering a call to the priesthood, lest we steer them away from what for many is a great joy. A large-scale survey conducted a few years ago determined that priests are remarkably happy, are less likely to be depressed or to suffer “burn-out” than people in other careers, and are largely at peace with the demands of the priestly life, including the requirement of lifelong celibacy. Stephen Rossetti published the findings in his 2011 book “Why Priests are Happy” (Ave Maria Press).

That priests are truly happy is really important to hear, because I think there can be conflicting thoughts in our minds saying, on the one hand, “We need priests if we are going to have the sacraments,” and on the other hand, “I wouldn’t want my own son/friend to become a priest because the priesthood is a sad, lonely and unsatisfying existence.”

That might be what our culture would like everyone to think, but that simply isn’t true. Data show the opposite, that priests are truly happy and satisfied.
And I can personally testify to the fact that I love being a priest, and I would encourage any young man who had thoughts of priesthood to look into it further.

Journalist John Allen Jr. summed up the findings of the priest survey with these words: “It would all boil down to this. The priests of this country obviously love serving you and ministering to you, because otherwise there’s no way to explain why they’re basically happy, in the teeth of a culture which constantly tells them they’re not supposed to be.”

As Archbishop Harry Flynn has said, “If I had 100 lives, I’d live every one of them as a priest.”

Bridegroom of the Church

In talking about the priesthood, we might begin by talking about what a priest does. But before we do that, we need to talk about what a priest is. A priest is not defined primarily by what he does, but by who he is. The Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus Christ is our “great high priest” (4:14). And the Church teaches that “the priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest” (“Pastores Dabo Vobis,” 12).

The priesthood is a sacramental presence, that when the priest acts, Jesus Christ acts. This is why priests are men. In November, a journalist asked Pope Francis if women priests were a possibility. The pope said “the last word is clear,” pointing to St. John Paul II’s “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” (1994), which states that only men can be admitted to the priesthood.

A study of St. John Paul II’s theology of the body is very helpful in this regard to understand the importance of Jesus becoming incarnate as a man, not as a woman. Christ could only become incarnate as a man because of his being the “image of the Father,” his being the “Bridegroom of the Church” and the way he initiates the gift of life giving love in us, the Church. This teaching states that as the priest acts in the person of Christ, he does so specifically as the bridegroom of the Church. And only a man can assume the role of husband, thus only a male priest can stand in sacramental representation of Christ the bridegroom.

As baptized Christians we are all equal, but equality does not mean we are identical. This underlines a fundamental difference between a Catholic understanding of priesthood and a Protestant understanding of a “minister,” where the person has a job of leading the people, but does not actually stand in the person of Jesus Christ himself. This is why it can’t be argued that Catholics should change our teaching on an all-male priesthood because some Protestant denominations have women as ministers. It is fundamentally different.

When a man is ordained a Catholic priest, a mark, or a character, is put on his soul, which identifies him with Christ the priest. This is why the priest speaks in the name of Christ when celebrating the sacraments. He says, “I baptize you …,” “I absolve you …,” and “This is my body … .” The priest cannot say these words just because he’s really talented, or because he wants to claim the authority of God, for “who but God alone can forgive sins?” (Mk 2:7). No one could claim such authority simply as a human being, only through the power of Christ.

The Second Vatican Council document “Lumen Gentium” says: Through priests “our Lord Jesus Christ, the supreme high priest, is present in the midst of those who believe” (21). So a priest does not act in his own name, but in the name of Christ, who is the source of our joy.

Father VanDenBroeke is parochial vicar of Epiphany in Coon Rapids. This column was excerpted from his series on the priesthood that covered topics including the identity of a priest, priesthood in Scripture, priestly celibacy, the fatherhood of the priest, and women and the priesthood. The series is available at http://www.epiphanymn.org/bulletins-and-homilies.

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Category: The Local Church

  • Paula Ruddy

    I value the role of priest in the sacramental system of the Catholic Church highly. Through baptism we all share in the priesthood of Jesus and join with the ordained priest especially in the great transformative public prayer of the universal church, the Mass. It is an awesome responsibility to lead an assembly in that prayer. Nick VanDerBroeke doesn’t talk about what a priest does, however. He talks about what a priest is. Isn’t he a man authorized by the church to serve the community well as a sacramental minister? That would be a noble identity. Instead of that identity, the metaphors Nick VanDenBroeke uses–bridegroom of the church, mark on his soul– may make his role more meaningful to him and separate him from other Christian ministers, but they are not necessarily meaningful to the people he serves. There is no problem with his investing his life with meaning, and it is a very good thing that most Catholic priests are happy. His metaphors become a problem only when priests who view themselves that way present themselves as deserving of special reverence for the mark on their souls and do not perform well as sacramental ministers. I wish he had written about what it takes to perform well as a sacramental minister.