You can’t understand what a priest is unless you understand what the Church is, and you can’t understand what the Church is unless you understand who Christ is and what Christ means. The Second Vatican Council deals with this linkage of priesthood, Church, and Christ in a recurrent pattern that examines each of them under three aspects, three interrelated points of view. The three points of view are: prophet (or teacher), sanctifier (or priest), and leader (or king).
Christ is prophet, sanctifier, and leader. His mission on earth was – and is – to speak for His heavenly Father, to manifest and proclaim God’s love for His human creatures. That’s what it means to be a prophet. Christ is also sanctifier, or priest, that is, one called and empowered to serve as connection between God and the people he represents. As priest, Christ represents His people to the Father and, in turn, represents the Father to His people in the context of love and dedication that we call worship. As leader (or king, or shepherd, or pastor), Christ has the mission to bring all created reality into oneness in and under God. Christ is the ultimate source of unity between humankind and its Creator. These three aspects of Christ’s mission are obviously interrelated. Speaking for the Father and offering human worship to the Father and bringing all creation together under the headship of the Father all work together. Each aspect of Christ’s mission influences and colors the others. There is one Christ, one mission, that we look on from three different directions.
It’s the same with the Church. The Church’s mission is an extension and a continuation of the mission of Christ. Basically, the Church is a gathering of ordinary men and women called by God and sent out into the world to bring Christ’s salvation to it. The Church has a prophetic role: to manifest to the world the love of the Father in Christ. The Church as a whole – as well as each of its members – is responsible for announcing the gospel to all of humanity. The Church has a priestly or sanctifying role, too. Its vocation is to offer fitting worship to God and to bring the world into a posture of worship. It does this by participating in the sacraments as God’s people and by offering the world the holiness of God through Christ. Thus the Church serves as corporate and visible connection between the world and God. In view of all this, it’s easy to see that the Church has a unifying or leadership function as well. It is called to bring God’s world into oneness in corporate and visible response to God’s message of love.
This brings us to the ordained priesthood. Ordained ministry is a special calling within the Church to enable and assist the Church to be what it is called to be. Ordained ministers teach the Church in the name of Christ and guide it to faithfulness in belief. Ordained ministers preside in the name of Christ at the Church’s worship and, in turn, represent the people in that worship. Ordained ministers provide a center of unity for the Church as representatives of Christ. They are responsible for keeping the Church together as one. The ordained ministry in the Church, therefore, is prophetic and priestly and charged with leadership.
(It is necessary to mention here that there are three levels of ordained ministry in the Church: bishops, priests, and deacons. Deacons are called to assist the bishops and priests in their respective ministries. The bishop is the head of the local church, its chief teacher, chief sanctifier, chief source of unity. The priest is the extension of the bishop in the tasks of teaching, sanctifying, and leading in various ways at local levels. For the sake of clarity, I’ll be dealing from now on mainly with priests.)
The priest is prophet, sanctifier, and leader in a way that is different from the prophetic, priestly, and unifying mission of the Church at large. The Church at large represents and extends the saving mission of Christ to the world at large. The ordained priest, on the other hand, represents and extends the saving mission of Christ to the Church. If the Church configures Christ as lord and Savior of the world, the priest configures Christ as the head of the Church. He speaks to the Church in the name of Christ, represents the Church (with Christ) in prayer to the Father, and serves as the “in-house” leader to keep the Church together in carrying out its call to be Church.
This is not to say that the priest is in some sort of watertight compartment within the Church and totally removed from the world at large. In some situations, where the Church is in its infancy, it is the priest who has to manifest Christ to the world at large because the few members of the church are yet unable to carry out their appropriate mission. Generally, even in more developed areas of the Church, the priest serves as spokesman and representative of the Church community. In addition to that, as a baptized individual the priest also has his own individual responsibilities as a Christian believer in the world. But the primary and principal responsibility of the priest is to the household of the Church, just as the responsibility of lay members of the Church is primarily and principally to the world at large.
(A comment on lay ministry is necessary at this point. Lay ministers are laypersons who dedicate their professional life to the service of their sisters and brothers within the Church. Theirs is a particularly welcome gift to the life of the Church but an exceptional one that not everyone is called to give. It would be wrong to conclude that, if one cannot serve the Church in full-time ministry, one therefore has no task, no charge as a Catholic Christian believer. Most believers are called to carry out the mission of the Church in the secular world, and this is as real a vocation as the vocation to lay ministry or priesthood.)
One might sum this up by saying that the priest is a kind of “enabler” in the Church, one who makes things possible. He enables the bishop to be an effective chief shepherd. He enables other Church members to exercise their mission for Christ in the world. He somehow even enables Christ to exercise His prophetic and sanctifying and unifying role in this particular portion of His people.
Is the priest, therefore, different and distinct from everybody else in the Church? Yes, insofar as he has special functions and responsibilities that other members of the Church do not have. And no, insofar as the priest is still a member of the Church, exists for the Church, and makes no sense apart from the Church.
Is the ordained priest another Christ? Yes, because all members of the Church are other Christs and charged with carrying on the mission of Christ. Yes, also, because the priest’s likeness to Christ has a dimension that others do not have, that is, the likeness to Christ as head of the Church conferred on him in the sacrament of holy orders.
Is the priest “better” than others in the Church? The priest is certainly different insofar as he has a specific and particular function to exercise that others cannot fulfill and cannot do without. But it’s important to remember that the priest exists for the people, not vice versa. He is not some sort of superior being that the people are there to serve; rather, he is a specialized agent of the Lord sent to serve the people. The Church is basically a community of laypeople, and the priest is there to help them to be what they are called to be by Christ.
Is the priesthood, then, just another job in the Church? Not really. It is true that the priest has certain specific functions he is supposed to carry out, but there is also a personal permanence to the priesthood that goes beyond the various tasks priests perform. Once a priest is ordained, he is a priest forever, even if he is unable to perform any sort of priestly work, even if he decides to leave the practice of his ministry. The theological shorthand for this reality is “sacramental character.” The priest is changed into something different by the sacrament of holy orders, even as other members of the Church are changed into something different by the sacrament of baptism. The indelible nature of baptism speaks about the faithfulness of God toward those who have accepted His promise of salvation. The indelible nature of holy orders speaks about the faithfulness of Gods care for His Church community.
The priest, then, is God’s man for the Church, a permanent representative of the headship of Christ in the Church, called to a permanent mission of service to those who represent the lordship of Christ in the world. The priest is there for Christ’s people, but the people cannot be Christ’s people without their priests.