May 29, 2024 // Perspective

The Joys and Challenges of Conforming to the Priesthood

In the early part of June, we often have the joy of celebrating priestly ordinations. This year is no different, as on Saturday, June 1, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne, Bishop Rhoades will ordain two men to the priesthood – Deacon Oscar Duarte and Deacon Caleb Kruse. Ordination season provides an opportunity to reflect on this important question: “Who is a priest?” A priest is a man consecrated to God, to act in service to the priestly People of God, who can exercise the priesthood of Christ sacramentally in their midst.

Jesus Christ is a Priest-Victim. Jesus Christ is a divine Person with two natures: human and divine. His priests, being sacramentally conformed to Him in His priesthood, are therefore made Priest-Victims and also live in the tension of being human beings tasked with carrying the divine in a particular way – namely, through the mysteries of God that He alone can celebrate and dispense.

On the cross, Christ is offering a sacrifice to the Father for the salvation of the world: Himself. His priests are conformed to Him to offer this very sacrifice, the only sacrifice which saves. Therefore, the priest must be able to act in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the Head). But the effectiveness of the ministry of a priest is tied not only to his ability to say words and do actions in the person of Christ but to actually take on the life of Christ the Priest – that is, to learn how to offer himself as a priest-victim on behalf of the people entrusted to his care. This is the heart of what service in the Church means and the key to understanding why Christ made men sharers in His priesthood in the first place.

So, a priest is a man who is conformed to Christ in His Priestly Person – who himself must learn to offer his life as a living offering to God, for the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church. The priest must also be a man who carries the burdens of others on their behalf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the 20th-century Catholic theologian and priest, once wrote: “If … there is only one priesthood, [Christ’s] priesthood, then this ecclesial participation must be set into His form, which is that of personal love and the gift of self that goes as far as death. The instrumentality of the Catholic priest derives from the instrumentality of Christ, and this leads inexorably to the cross.”

As Archbishop Fulton Sheen puts it: “Here is the key to the priest-servanthood of Christ and that of all His priests. As priests, we are to be holy. It is not our priesthood that commits us to the world; the priesthood binds us to the Father. As victims, however, we take the place of sinners by assuming their guilt and poverty and interceding for them. Like Christ, we come within the effects of sin because we are sinners by imputation.”

What does this look like? Every time I hear confessions, I enter into a sacred space, and through the ministry entrusted to me by Christ and the Church, I “take on” in a certain way the sins that I hear confessed. This is why the Church asks her priests to do penance on behalf of the penitents they have forgiven (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1466), because being sacramentally conformed to the priest-victim who took on the world’s sin demands a special participation in the bearing of that sin.

Another example in the life of a priest includes administration and paperwork. Because the Church is an ordered society, it requires a lot of effort on the part of the priests of the Church to maintain. Within the context of ministerial priesthood, the structure of the Church is what we also represent. So, every time I have to do paperwork – be it marriage forms or organizing the collection numbers or writing letters to parishioners – this activity, too, is tied up to my ability to offer myself for the salvation of the people entrusted to my care. I am called – as are all my fellow priests – to die into the visible structures of the Church for the sake of the invisible reality – and to do it with joy!

The ministerial priesthood in the Church is a great gift – it is a gift of service for the sake of the growth of the Church, the nourishing of the People of God, and, ultimately, for the salvation of the world. Obviously, the challenge for the ordained priest is to live the depth of his call. This is the specific grace that is helpful to pray for – that our priests can be conformed as persons to the office they hold, and in this way give authentic witness to Christ’s Priesthood in the Church and in the world.

Father Mark Hellinger is Parochial Vicar at St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Wayne.

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