Eamonn Keane
The priesthood
By Fr Peter Joseph
February 27, 2011

(Introductory note by Eamonn Keane)

As widely reported in the media, 144 Catholic theologians from Germany, Austria and Switzerland published an open letter on February 3, 2011 in which they called on the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to change its teaching and discipline on various matters. In calling for greater inclusiveness in the Church, they suggested that women can enter the ranks of the ordained priesthood and said that the Church should not "shut out people who live in love, loyalty and mutual support as same-sex couples or remarried divorced people."

The first point to make in response to the remarks by the German-speaking theologians reported above is that the Catholic Church does not "shut out" same-sex couples or the divorced and remarried from its ranks. It does however take Jesus' admonition to avoid sin seriously and calls on those in a state of objectively grave sin not to receive the Eucharist. The first reason it does this is because the Catholic Church takes Sacred Scripture seriously in that it condemns both adulterous and homosexual acts as gravely immoral. The second reason it does so is because the choice to live in an adulterous or active homosexual relationship has a public dimension and may be the occasion of scandal to others. Having said this, the Church simultaneously encourages people in such situations to continue to participate in the rest of the Church's life and to have frequent recourse to the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Penance.

The program for Church reform advocated by the German-speaking theologians referred to above is expressive of a failure to discern what may be called the "marital symbolism" stamped on our human nature in God's good creation of man as 'male and female' and the implications of this real symbolism for the sacramental doctrine and life of the Catholic Church. This failure has given rise amongst so-called 'progressive' Catholics to a litany of objections to certain aspects of the Church's teaching , particularly its teaching on sexuality and marriage, as well as its doctrine on a male-only ministerial priesthood and its prohibition against the reception of the Eucharist by the divorced and remarried. It is striking that we will often be able to predict what a Catholic theologian will hold on all of these matters once we know what he or she holds on any one of them. Why is this so?

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) pointed out that objections to the Church's teaching such as those outlined above are rooted in a faulty vision of man. This faulty vision is, he said, "Closely associated with the inability to discern a spiritual message in the material world." [1] He added that men and women of today cannot understand that "their bodiliness reaches the metaphysical depths and is the basis of a symbolic metaphysics whose denial or neglect does not ennoble man but destroys him." [2] For those whose vision of man is based on such a faulty anthropology which fails to recognise in the "being" of the human person the handiwork of the Creator, there is "no difference whether the body be of the masculine or the feminine sex: the body no longer expresses being at all." [3] Consequently, the difference "between homosexuality and heterosexuality as well as that between sexual relations within or outside marriage have become unimportant." [4] Likewise divested of "every metaphysical symbolism," said Cardinal Ratzinger, is the "distinction between man and woman" which is to be "regarded as the product of reinforced role expectations." [5]

The points made above regarding how we understand the real but complementary differences between men and women and their relationship to human flourishing have a profound bearing on how we should understand the meaning and mystery of the sacraments of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church believes that Christ instituted seven sacraments through which he communicates his divine life to us and binds us together in the unity of his Church. These seven sacraments are Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation/Penance, Confirmation, Holy Orders, Matrimony and the Anointing of the Sick.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Sacrament of Holy Orders "is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time" (n. 1536). This sacrament can only be conferred on men and it is vital to the life of the Church since it is only ordained priests who can pronounce the words of consecration in the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass whereby bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Given the widespread misunderstanding regarding the origin and nature of the ordained priesthood both inside the Catholic Church itself and beyond, a problem that has been exacerbated by the clerical sexual abuse scandals of recent times, I thought it would be worthwhile to produce a series of articles on the priesthood. As the first in the series I publish below an article authored by Australian theologian Fr. Peter Joseph titled The Priesthood. The article was first published by the Catholic Adult Education Centre in Sydney in 2009 as INFORM 120: Faith & Life Matters. I am grateful to the editor of Inform for giving me permission to reproduce the article here in my RenewAmerica column. It is the first time it has been published online.

The Priesthood

Shepherds of the flock

Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed a Year of the Priest, beginning on 19 June 2009. In this article Fr Peter Joseph explains the origin and meaning of the priesthood.

Every Catholic has seen priests at work — baptising, offering Mass, visiting the sick, conducting marriages or funerals, visiting schools, running parishes.

We cannot imagine a Church without priests. The priesthood certainly seems necessary to the Church — but where does it come from?

The origin of the priesthood

The Church of God has priests because Christ our Saviour is a priest — our High Priest — whose priesthood is shared by all the baptised, and in a special way by the ordained minister.

The Church has priests because Christ ordained certain men to be his priests. At the Last Supper, as the Council of Trent defined as a dogma of the faith, Jesus ordained the Apostles priests of the New Testament. He conferred priestly power on them when he said, after offering the first Eucharist, "Do this in commemoration of me" (Lk 22:19).

What Jesus gave his Apostles he wanted to endure till the end of the world. All priests in the Church have received their priesthood from bishops who have received it in an unbroken line from the Apostles themselves.

Since Christ is the one Saviour of the human race, priests do not replace Christ but represent him and prolong his ministry through space and time.

In order to continue his priesthood down the ages, Christ gave the Church the sacrament of Holy Orders, defined as "the sacrament that gives a man a share in the ministerial priesthood of Christ our High Priest." Jesus instituted this sacrament at the Last Supper. It is conferred by a bishop and is given in three degrees. From lowest to highest, they are: diaconate (possessed by a deacon), priesthood, and episcopate (the state of a bishop). We will focus on the second rank, that of priesthood.

Ordination in the New Testament

By a visible rite consisting of prayer and the laying on of hands, the Apostles ordained helpers and successors.

We read of the first deacons that "seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom," were chosen, and were "set before the Apostles" who "prayed and laid their hands upon them" (Acts 6:3-6). One of the seven was St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Another was St Philip, who preached and baptised in Samaria.

When Sts Paul and Barnabas were about to set forth on their first mission, the heads of the Church at Antioch, "after fasting and praying ... laid their hands on them and sent them off." (Acts 13:3)

Through this rite of prayer and the laying on of hands, Paul and Barnabas received divine grace and were made the envoys of the Holy Spirit, i.e., they were empowered by him to preach and sanctify.

St Paul then passed on the same spiritual power to others in his turn. He says to St Timothy: "I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands" (2 Tim 1:6). As the context shows, St Paul is speaking of the grace to discharge the duties of a bishop. St John Chrysostom (d. 407) paraphrases the words thus: "Excite anew the grace you received for the purpose of ruling the Church." (Hom. in 2 Tim., 1)

We see in the New Testament that those who received this rite had authority to teach, sanctify and rule. They had to teach and preach (cf. 1 Tim 5:17; Tit 1:9), administer sacraments (cf. Acts 19:4-6; Jam 5:14-15; 1 Cor 1:16), care for the flock of Christ (cf. Acts 15:22; 20:28), give directives (cf. Acts 15:6 ff.; 1 Cor 5:3-4; 11:17,33-34), receive obedience from the faithful, watch over their souls, and render an account for them (cf. Heb 13:17; 1 Tim 3:1-6). The deacons instructed and gave Baptism (cf. Acts 8:26-38).

Sacred character

The priesthood of the New Testament is not just an office or appointment like being elected mayor or member of Parliament. It imprints a permanent and irremovable mark upon the soul, a priestly "character," just as the Christian "character" is given permanently at Baptism. It is this sacred seal received through the sacrament of Holy Orders which distinguishes the Catholic priest from a Protestant minister or a lay evangelist. A minister holds an office deputed to him by his community, but the priest is empowered by Christ and commissioned by him via his bishop or religious Superior.

St Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395) says of a newly ordained priest, that "he who was but yesterday one of the people suddenly becomes ... the dispenser of hidden mysteries ... Though in outward appearance he is the same as before, by a certain unseen power and grace, he is transformed into a higher being." (Orat. in Bapt. Christi)

The distinctive character in the soul is the basis for the distinctive clerical dress required of the priest. His wearing of priestly dress is a proclamation of Christ, an outward sign of his consecration by and to Christ, and it makes him recognisable and available to God's people.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "This sacrament configures the ordinand to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may be Christ's instrument for his Church. By ordination is received the capacity to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church, in his triple office of priest, prophet and king." (CCC 1581). So, every priest, like Christ, has three roles: he is a minister of the sacraments, a teacher, and a leader.

Minister of the sacraments

Firstly, the ordained man is a priest — he blesses, offers and sanctifies. He is an icon of Christ, a living representative of the Redeemer whose work he continues. He gives Baptism to infants and adults. He can administer Confirmation to adults after baptising them and, with the faculty from a bishop, to children when needed. Above all, he has the power of offering the great Sacrifice of the Mass, administering Holy Communion, and forgiving sins in the sacrament of Penance. He also administers Anointing of the Sick and officiates at Marriages, giving couples the nuptial blessing. The only one of the seven sacraments that he cannot give, apart from Matrimony where the spouses are the ministers, is Holy Orders, which is reserved to a bishop.

A priest is essentially a mediator, a sharer in Christ's mediation. To God, he presents man's prayers, petitions, repentance and needs. From God, he brings Christ's truth, love, grace and mercy.

The priest presides over the worship and prayer of the faithful in church, in such acts as Benediction and Vespers. He also administers sacramentals and blessings, such as enrolment in a scapular, blessing of a home, or blessing of a woman before child-birth.

The Church encourages her priests to offer Mass daily. This is indeed the greatest office of the priest: to offer the Body and Blood of God the Son to our Heavenly Father in a perfect sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, propitiation and petition — for the Church and the world, for the living and the dead. The priest-celebrant speaks in the very person of Christ when he says the momentous words: "This is my body ... this is my blood." The priest offers himself along with the sacrifice; and the Church, too, is joined to the Eucharistic offering, in order to be handed over to God the Father Almighty, in, with and through Jesus Christ, the one Mediator.

The priest in the sacrament of Penance is a minister of reconciliation. He reconciles sinners with God and the Church. He brings to life the parable of the Prodigal Son, whose Father mercifully welcomed him back to the family and restored all that he had lost and rejected. Every priest, sooner or later, will hear the confession of a death-bed repentance and, in response to a tally of sins, will have the joy of pronouncing the words of Divine Mercy: "I absolve you of your sins." St John Chrysostom, in his great work on the priesthood, says, "Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor archangels." (De Sacerd. III, 5)

In order to preach and minister fruitfully and zealously, the priest must be a man of prayer. No priest can remain faithful or spiritual without prayer. At his diaconate, he promised to pray each day the Divine Office (the Breviary), for the Church and the world. This public prayer of the Church is a yearly liturgical cycle of prayers for each day, composed principally of Psalms, as well as intercessions and other readings of Sacred Scripture and ecclesiastical writers.

Teacher of the Word of God

In addition to being a minister of the sacraments, the ordained man is a prophet — he teaches the Word of God. He announces a message which is not his own; he preaches a revealed message. He is not its author and interpreter. He is its transmitter. Does this mean that he is just a record playing or a mindless reader who reads things out without changing a word? Of course not; he takes the responsibility of explaining Christ's doctrine to the people so that they understand it. It is up to him to help people appreciate the Gospel more and know how to apply it to their lives. The priest must prepare and give his own homilies, talks and classes. He must know the teachings of the Church on matters of faith and morals and must be ready with an answer to the more common questions and difficulties. He preaches not himself but Christ crucified and risen.

Shepherd and servant of the community

Thirdly, the ordained man is a leader of the community — he shares in Christ's royal or kingly mission. Of course, Christ's kingship is like no other headship. Christ led by example, not just by command. He made himself last and servant to all; he got down on the ground to wash his disciples' feet, and he laid down his life for his sheep.

To say a priest is a servant does not mean he is devoid of authority. A priest takes the responsibility for the life of a parish or his apostolate in a way that cannot be delegated. He is, like Christ, the shepherd of the flock. His authority is not ordered to his personal benefit but to the building up of the whole Church. He must look out for all the sheep, not just those close to him or who like him on a personal level. Priests are available for all God's people and try to be concerned about all.

Some priests belong to a diocese, a territory governed by a bishop. These priests are called diocesan or secular. They can own property and are responsible for their own finances and possessions. Others are religious priests, who belong to a religious order and, having taken a vow of poverty, do not own personal property. They are under the direction of a religious Superior.

As a guarantee that he is not in a self-appointed ministry or just 'doing his own thing,' a diocesan priest promises obedience to his bishop. A religious priest promises the same to his religious Superior. The diocesan priest first promises obedience and respect to his bishop at his ordination as a deacon. Obedience ensures that his ministry is at the service of Christ and the Church.

Priestly celibacy

One of the requirements of the priesthood, at least in the Latin rite, is that the priest cannot be married. This is known as priestly celibacy.

Every recent Pope since John XXIII has said explicitly and emphatically that clerical celibacy is a jewel of the Church that will not be renounced. Our Lord, our High Priest, was not married, and he praised celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mt 19:12). Do we need reminding in this Year of St Paul that the Apostle Paul was celibate and commended this state of life? (cf. 1 Cor 7:8)

Once a man is a priest, he can never marry after ordination. That is a law held and applied universally and without exception by East and West, Catholic and Orthodox. Eastern Catholic Churches, such as the Maronites, Melkites or Ukrainians, have married clergy (married, that is, before diaconate) but they have never had married bishops.

Catholics know the value of clerical celibacy. Anyone who has studied the history of the Church and her missionaries can see plain-as-day that priestly celibacy, lived joyfully and prayerfully, has been a source of spiritual fruitfulness for the Church. How has the Church spread to all nations of the most diverse cultures — but through celibate and dedicated priests and religious?

Celibate clergy have renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and so can serve God with an undivided heart. They are not distracted from their work by family affections and cares, and are free to work wherever they are needed. Celibacy in the priest is a sign and stimulus of charity, and a singular source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world. The celibate priest is a sign of the mystical marriage between Christ and his Church and is better fitted for spiritual fatherhood in Christ. In short, celibacy is most fitting in him who, by ordination, is configured to Christ the Head and Spouse of the Church.

Mother Teresa on celibacy

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta has spoken beautifully about priestly celibacy: "Just as God our Father prepared a worthy dwelling place for his Son in the immaculate womb of a virgin — so it is fitting that a priest prepares himself to take the place of Jesus, the Son of God, by freely choosing priestly celibacy. Marriage and procreation are miracles of God's love by which men and women become his co-workers, to bring new life into the world. But Jesus has clearly spoken of something even greater than that, when he said that in heaven people neither marry nor are given in marriage but live like the angels; and that there are some who have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God.

"Priestly celibacy is that gift which prepares for life in heaven. Jesus calls his priest to be his co-worker in the Church, to fill heaven with God's children.

"Priestly celibacy creates an emptiness to receive that other wonderful gift that only Jesus can offer and give — the gift of divine love. First of all, Jesus offers his precious gift of himself for a life-long, faithful and personal friendship with him, in tenderness and love. Nothing will make him give up his faithfulness. He remains faithful.

"By freely choosing priestly celibacy the priest renounces earthly fatherhood and gains a share in the Fatherhood of God. Instead of becoming father to one or more children on earth, he is now able to love everybody in Christ. Yes, Jesus calls his priest to carry his Father's tender love for each and every person. For this reason, people call him 'Father.'"

The priestly title of 'Father'.

Priests are often called "Father." Non-Catholics sometimes object to this, saying that Jesus said, "Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven" (Mt 23:9). If this means the prohibition of a priest's being called "Father," then likewise no one could refer to his male parent as his father, nor quote the fourth Commandment, "Honour your father and your mother."

However, priests are rightly called "Father" since they possess spiritual fatherhood. In this sense St Paul wrote, "I became your father in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor 4:15; cf. 2 Cor 6:13; 1 Thess 2:11; 1 Tim 1:2). The meaning of Christ's saying is that human fatherhood is as nothing before the Fatherhood of God. All priests, as indeed all fathers, are called to imitate the virtues of our Heavenly Father, among which are love, providence, care, tenderness, strength, fidelity, mercy and compassion.

Women priests?

Some people have proposed the ordination of women as priests — but this is an impossibility. In 1994, in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II defined "that the Church has no faculty whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, and that this judgement is to be held definitively by all the faithful." Many years before, the 1917 Code of Canon Law said, as the 1983 Code, in Canon 1024, says: "Only a baptised man receives sacred ordination validly."

The Church considers herself bound to the choice of men only for the priestly ministry, in line with the Lord Jesus' choice of men only for the college of Apostles. This was not just a preference in keeping with the culture of his times; quite the opposite, it was counter-cultural. The Jewish and Christian religions were unique in not having priestesses, unlike the various pagan religions of their time.

The Son of God became a man, and not a woman, to be an image of his heavenly Father, and he likewise chooses certain men to represent and continue his spiritual Fatherhood and Headship in the Church. So clear is the Church's teaching on this point that as early as the fourth century St John Chrysostom wrote: "Divine law has excluded women from the ministry" (De Sacerd. III, 9).

Mary, Mother of Priests

We contemplate our Blessed Lady, the Mother of Jesus, standing at the foot of the cross of her Son, our only High Priest, with St John the beloved Apostle and priest close by her. Jesus said: "Woman, behold your son" and "Son, behold your mother" (Jn 19:26-27). God left the Virgin Mary behind for a time — to see the establishment of the Church, to strengthen the priesthood of the Apostles, to be a mother to them, until the Church, the young Church was formed. Just as Mary helped Jesus to grow, so she also helped the Church to grow in the beginning. She helps to form every priest. She has a very tender love and special protection for every priest.

The Year of the Priest

Pope Benedict XVI has announced that the Church will celebrate a special year for priests from 19 June 2009, Feast of the Sacred Heart, to 19 June 2010. The year will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of St John Vianney, the parish priest of Ars, France. Pope Pius XI proclaimed St John the patron of all parish priests, but during the course of the Year of the Priest Pope Benedict will proclaim him the patron saint of all the priests of the world.

Let us pray for our priests that they may be true sons of Mary, close brothers of Jesus Christ the High Priest, and inspiring images of the Fatherhood of God.

Father Peter Joseph is Administrator of St Dominic's parish in Flemington, Sydney, and a lecturer in Sacramental Theology at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, Vianney College in Wagga, and the Catholic Adult Education Centre.

Questions for discussion

1. Have you attended an ordination of a new priest? What struck you about the ceremony?

2. How have priests you know reminded you of Christ the Good Shepherd?

3. What can the lay faithful do to help priests to fulfil their mission faithfully?

4. What can we do to help foster vocations to the priesthood?


[1]  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, L'Osservatore Romano, July 24, 1989.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Ibid

[5]  Ibid.

© Fr Peter Joseph


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Eamonn Keane

Eamonn Keane is married with five children. He studied Commerce and Education at the National University of Ireland and Religious Education at the Catholic Teachers Training College in Sydney, Australia. He currently serves as Head of Social Science at Sydney's Redfield College... (more)


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