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The Roman Catholic Priest:

In Persona Christi Capitis


In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II presents to the Church a comprehensive explanation of the nature and mission of the ministerial priesthood. The 1990 Synod of Bishops, of which Pastores Dabo Vobis is a result, was called in order to reflect on "the problem of priestly formation in present-day circumstances." In fact, in the Exhortation, the Pope speaks about the "crisis of priestly identity" and the path which must be taken to emerge from this present day crisis. He writes, "a correct and in-depth awareness of the ministerial priesthood is the path which must be taken…in order to emerge from the crisis of priestly identity." Consequently, what John Paul II puts forward in Pastores Dabo Vobis is an orthodox understanding of who, in essence, the ordained priest is.

The focus of this paper is to explain what it means to say that the ministerial priest stands In Persona Christi Capitis (in the Person of Christ the Head). This doctrine is only understandable in light of an orthodox understanding of who the Person of Jesus Christ is. In other words, one can only understand the being of the priest if one has a proper theological understanding of the being of Christ. In order to explain this doctrine four things must be explained: the metaphysics of the Incarnation (Hypostatic Union), the Capital Grace of Christ, the Priesthood of Christ, and the sacramental consecration whereby the priest is configured to Christ.


The Metaphysics of the Incarnation

The first four centuries after Christ were a time of intense Christological debate and controversy. A multiplicity of heresies evolved. Each tried to explain who Christ was: Was he part God and part man? Was he God who just looked like a man (Docetism)? Was he God’s greatest creature and not divine (Arianism)? Was he simply a special person upon whom God’s Spirit rested (Adoptionism)? All of these were different heresies which were present in the early centuries of the Church, and all of these posed a challenge to the Church’s Faith. What was the Church’s response to these heresies?

In the third century, at a council held in Antioch the Church affirmed, against Paul of Samosata, "that Jesus Christ is Son of God by nature and not by adoption." The first Council of Nicaea (325) reacting against the heresy of Arianism, which stated that Jesus the Son was created and was of a different substance than the Father, said that "the Son of God is ‘begotten, not made, of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father.’ " The Council of Ephesus (431) arguing against the heresy of Nestorianism, which said that Christ was a human person united to the divine person of God’s Son, said " ‘that the Word, uniting to himself in his person the flesh animated by a rational soul, became man’ (Council of Ephesus). Christ’s humanity has no other subject than the divine person of the Son of God, who assumed it and made it his own, from his conception."

The most comprehensive confession of the Person of Christ was made at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Fathers of Chalcedon were reacting against the heresy of Monophysitism which said "that the human nature had ceased to exist as such in Christ when the divine person of God’s Son assumed it." The confession of Chalcedon merits citation:

Following the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; "like us in all things but sin." He was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis.

A further step was taken at the Council of Constantinople when the Fathers stated that

" ‘there is but one hypostasis [or person], which is our Lord Jesus Christ, one of the

Trinity.’ " This they did to argue against those who were making a personal subject of Christ’s human nature.

What these Councils did was to give to the Church an orthodox understanding of Jesus Christ. The Councils affirmed that he is true God and true man; that the one and same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the second person of the Trinity and is eternally begotten of the Father, became man at a moment in time. They affirmed that he exists "in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation" (Chalcedon) and that there is but one person in Christ, the divine person of the Trinity (Constantinople). The two natures of Christ share the closest union and are united in the one divine person. The human nature of Christ, which he fully assumed and became like us in all things except sin, is personalized by the divine person of the Word, the Son of God.


The Capital Grace of Christ

Having looked at the union of the human and divine natures in Christ, we can now proceed to look at one of the graces he receives from the Father and that he has bestowed upon us in the Incarnation. In question eight of the third part of his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas writes "Of the Grace of Christ, as He is Head of the Church." The Capital Grace of Christ and the benefits which we receive from this Grace are understood more fully in light of the Incarnation. The dignity which Christ gave to us by assuming our human nature is unfathomable. Because Christ became man our nature has, in a sense, been divinized. This is because the human nature of Christ is united to the divine person of the Word. Christ’s humanity is perfectly holy because of this union. Through grace "creatures are called to share in this very holiness by participation." Even though Christ is divine, "his humanity still receives grace after the manner of other human beings, even if in an entirely distinct and superior mode. This superior mode is explained by the very intimate, [that is], hypostatic, relationship that exists between the human soul of Christ and the Logos."

The Capital Grace of Christ is one of the graces which Christ is given from God. Christ receives this Grace from God because he is the eternally begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Aquinas says that "on account of his nearness to God His grace is the highest and first, though not in time, since all have received grace on account of His grace…" Because Christ is Head of the Church, he is the fount from which all graces flow to the Church. This grace was bestowed upon us in the human nature which he assumed. According to Aquinas, "grace was received by the soul of Christ in the highest way; and therefore from this pre-eminence of grace which He received, it is from Him that this grace is bestowed on others, – and this belongs to the nature of the head." The Capital Grace of Christ is the fount of the sacramental life of the Church. The grace given to Christ by the Father is given to each son and daughter of God who is incorporated into the Church’s life and communion through the sacrament of baptism. As we will see later, it this Capital Grace of Christ which makes possible the sacrament of Holy Orders and the sacramental consecration of the priest.


The Priesthood of Christ

Just as the members of Christ’s body are able to receive the grace that he is given, so too are certain members of his body able to participate in his very priesthood. But the question must first be asked: How is Christ a priest?

In all religions, the distinguishing mark of the priest is that he is one who offers sacrifice to God. This sacrifice is usually associated with atonement for the sins of the people. St. Thomas says, "the office proper to a priest is to be a mediator between God and the people; to wit, inasmuch as He bestows Divine things on the people, wherefore sacerdos (priest) means a giver of sacred things." The Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament is an example of this. The Levitical priests, commanded by the Law of God, offered sacrifice to atone for the sins of God’s chosen people. They offered the blood of bulls and goats, and by sprinkling this blood upon the altar and even upon the community they were rendered clean. However, the blood of bulls and goats was not sufficient to cleanse the people from the sins they committed against God and to cleanse their consciences. As it is written in the Book of Hebrews:

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of them, it can never make perfect those who come to worship by the same sacrifices that they offer continually each year. Otherwise, would not the sacrifices have ceased to be offered, since the worshippers, once cleansed, would no longer have had any consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is only a yearly remembrance of sins, for it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sins.


Jesus Christ is the fulfillment and the perfection of the priesthood of the Old Law. He became man so that he might reconcile us to God. He reconciled us to the Father in a similar fashion that the priesthood of the Old Law prefigured: by offering sacrifice. However, the sacrifice that Christ offered was the perfect sacrifice that definitively reconciled us to God. The sacrifice that he offered was himself. Jesus Christ is the perfect high priest because he is God himself. But how is it that Christ is the priest and also the sacrifice offered by the priest? On the Cross, he offered to the Father that which needed to be reconciled to him, our fallen human nature which is united to his divine person. He is both the sacrifice and the one who offers the sacrifice; he is offered and the one who offers. Again, Aquinas comes to our aid in explaining how Christ is both priest and victim.

Now man is required to offer sacrifice for three reasons. First, for the remission of sin, by which he is turned away from God…Secondly, that man may be preserved in a state of grace…Thirdly, in order that the spirit of man be perfectly united to God: which will be most perfectly realized in glory…Now, these effects were conferred on us by the humanity of Christ. For, in the first place, our sins were blotted out…Secondly, through Him we received the grace of salvation…Thirdly, through Him we have acquired the perfection of glory…Therefore Christ Himself, as man, was not only priest, but also a perfect victim, being at the same time victim for sin, victim for a peace-offering, and a holocaust.


The Sacramental Consecration of the Ordained Priest

The Church, the People of God, is a priestly people. Each member, through baptism, shares in the threefold ministry of Christ, priest, prophet and king. The Ordination Rite of a Priest acknowledges this. In the bishop’s homily he says, "it is true that God has made his entire people a royal priesthood in Christ." The rite goes on to say, "But, our High Priest, Jesus Christ, also chose some of his followers to carry out publicly in the Church a priestly ministry in his name on behalf of mankind." We have seen how Christ is a priest, but how is it that men share in his priesthood?

It must be clearly stated that there is only one priesthood, the priesthood of Jesus Christ. All other men who are ordained priests participate in the one priesthood of Christ. Christ, the High Priest, reconciled us to God by his sacrifice on Calvary. However, he willed that the effects and merits of his sacrifice be given continually to the Church. Thus, he calls men to continue his priestly ministry and to be dispensers of the divine mysteries. Aquinas says that it is the nature of Christ’s priesthood to be communicated to others:

"…A priest is set between God and man. Now he needs someone between himself and God, who of himself cannot approach to God; and such a one is subject to the priesthood by sharing in the effect thereof. But this cannot be said of Christ; for the Apostle says (Heb. vii. 25): Coming of Himself to God, always living to make intercession for us…And therefore it is not fitting for Christ to be the recipient of the effect of His priesthood, but rather to communicate it to others. For the influence of the first agent in every genus is such that it receives nothing in that genus: thus the sun gives but does not receive light…Now Christ is the fountain-head of the entire priesthood: for the priest of the Old Law was a figure of Him; while the priest of the New Law works in his person, according to 2 Cor. ii. 10: For what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done in the person of Christ.


Thus, Christ bestows the effects of his priesthood and his priestly action on the Church by allowing other men to participate in his one priesthood. Just as Christ redeemed us by a priestly act of worship, so the ordained priest, by virtue of his participation in Christ’s priesthood, offers that same sacrificial act of worship on the altar. "The sacrifice which is offered every day in the Church is not distinct from that which Christ Himself offered, but is a commemoration thereof." The priest, who is a sharer in the priesthood of Christ, offers the Mass in the Person of Christ.

Thus, we now turn to how it is possible that the priest shares in the one priesthood of Christ, how it is that the ordained priest is In persona Christi. The ministerial priesthood "has its source in the Blessed Trinity… Through the priesthood which arises from the depths of the ineffable mystery of God, that is, from the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit’s gift of unity, the priest sacramentally enters into communion with the bishop and with other priests in order to serve the people of God who are the Church…" The key phrase in the above quote from Pastores Dabo Vobis is "sacramentally enters into." It is by virtue of the sacramental consecration which the priest receives in the sacrament of Holy Orders that he is given the grace to enter into the mystery of Christ’s priesthood. Again, the Ordination Rite speaks of this: "By consecration he will be made a true priest of the New Testament."

This sacramental consecration can only be understood in light of the Capital Grace of Christ. As we saw, the Capital Grace of Christ is that grace given to Christ by the Father which makes Christ the Head of the Church and thereby makes the Church holy; it is the fount of the sacramental life of the Church. Just as the members of his body receive that grace and became sharers in the divine nature through the sacrament of baptism, so do men who are ordained priests receive the grace of participating in his priesthood. Christ is the source of the sacramental life of the Church, and he is the source of the one priesthood which is bestowed on the men he calls to follow him as priests. When Christ was on earth he gave to St. Peter the authority to bind and lose, he gave to the Apostles the power to forgive sins, and he bestowed on them the dignity of the priesthood at the Last Supper. Priests are ordained by bishops because the bishops are sharers in that authority which Christ granted to the Peter and the Apostles. Priests are ordained through the laying on of hands because the bishops are in the line of Apostolic Succession, and this is only possible because Christ willed that his Apostles be sharers in his Capital Grace.

By virtue of sacramental consecration, the ordained priest does not simply become a functionary. This consecration does not set him apart to simply perform certain tasks in the Church. No, by virtue of the sacramental consecration which the priest receives, he is ontologically changed. He is configured to the Person of Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd, in a new way in his very being. "The relation of the priest to Jesus Christ, and in him to his Church, is found in the very being of the priest by virtue of his sacramental consecration/anointing and in his activity, that is, in his mission and ministry." Just as at Baptism and Confirmation the Christian is sacramentally marked on the soul, so is the man who is ordained a priest marked sacramentally and configured to Christ the Priest.

This is where an orthodox understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ helps to shed light on who the priest is in his very being. We can use an analogy: Just as the human nature of Christ is personalized by its union with the divine Person of the Word, so is the priest, by virtue of sacramental consecration, configured in his being to Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd. Thus, we are able to say that the ordained priest is In Persona Christi. John Paul speaks of this when he writes about "…the specific ontological bond which unites the priesthood to Christ the high priest and good shepherd." And again, in the same Exhortation, the Pope writes, "the priest shares in Christ’s consecration and mission in a specific and authoritative way, through the sacrament of holy orders, by virtue of which he is configured in his being to Jesus Christ, head and shepherd…"

The dignity of the priestly vocation in no way diminishes the importance of the lay vocation. Both are equal in dignity and both are called to holiness. However, there is an essential difference between the two vocations. By looking at the Hypostatic Union of Christ we have seen, albeit analogously, how the ordained priest is configured to Christ in his very being. To repeat what was said above: Just as the human nature of Christ is personalized by its union with the divine Person of the Word, so is the priest, by virtue of sacramental consecration, configured in his being to Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd. This is the only analogy by which we are able to grasp the ontological character of configuration which takes place when a man is ordained a priest.

Only by having a deep knowledge of the Person and work of Jesus Christ is the priest able to understand his own identity. John Paul says, "the priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one high priest of the new and eternal covenant. The priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest…Reference to Christ is thus the absolutely necessary key for understanding the reality of the priesthood." The priest is called to be a man of prayer and contemplation, for it is through prayer (and study) that the priest comes to a deeper personal knowledge of the Person and work of Christ. In prayer and contemplation he is sent forth by Christ to minister to his people in pastoral charity. Possessing this understanding of his own vocation the words of Pope John Paul II will echo true in the heart of the priest: "Our priestly life and activity continue the life and activity of Christ himself. Here lies our identity, our true dignity, the source of our joy, the very basis of our life."


Aquinas on the Person and Work of Christ

Romanus Cessario, O.P.

Michael Najim, Seminarian, St John's Seminary, December 9, 1999

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