The stand-in nature of the Catholic priest, standing in for Jesus Christ

July 4, 1993

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

Yet another Seminary school year drew to a magnificent close with the ceremony of ordinations at Winona on June 19, out of which came four new deacons and four new priests for the Society of St. Pius X.

The weather just held up. It had poured with rain for several days beforehand, it poured with rain the night before, but the morning itself was dry to welcome several hundreds of faithful friends who comfortably filled a spacious tent. The rain picked up again just after the outdoor picnic was over. Altogether we were lucky.

Thanks be to Our Lord, who now has four new stand-ins to ensure the continuity of his Eternal Priesthood and Sacrifice on earth, and to replace the honourable older priests faithful-to the Tridentine Mass; the news of whose deaths, one by one, reaches us in the course of a school-year at the Seminary with a certain regularity.

The stand-in nature of the Catholic priest, standing in for Jesus Christ the Eternal High Priest, was the main theme of the Ordinations sermon, and it is a truth so important for the right understanding and practice of our Faith that it may profitably be laid out here again. The argument is drawn from the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapters VII to X, in which St. Paul compares and contrasts priesthood and sacrifice in the Old and New Testaments. See the enclosed flyer.

To all outward appearances, the Catholic and Levitical priesthoods (all Old Testament priests came from the family of Aaron in the tribe of Levi) are quite similar: a succession of mortal and sinful men continuously repeat the offering of their sacrifice in vestments and ceremonies also not dissimilar, for indeed the Mosaic Liturgy was designed by the Lord God (e.g., Exodus XXXV to XL) to form and train men for the Catholic Liturgy.

But according to St. Paul, these appearances are deceptive. For whereas the Levitical priests were, he says, numerous, mortal, and sinful, the new priest is one, eternal, and sinless: "And the others (i.e., the Levitical priests) indeed were made many priests, because by reason of death they were not suffered to continue; but this (i.e., Jesus) for that he continueth for ever, hath an everlasting priesthood... For the Law (i.e., the Old Testament) maketh men priests who have infirmity; but the word of the oath which was since the law (i.e., the new priesthood) (maketh) the Son (priest), who is perfected for evermore" (Heb. VII, 23, 24, 28).

So here St. Paul says the new priest is one, everlasting, and perfect, yet we observe Catholic priests to be many, mortal, and imperfect! The Protestant solution to this problem is to deny the existence of the Catholic priesthood altogether. The New Testament priesthood, according to the Protestants, belongs to Jesus Christ and to Jesus Christ alone.

The same problem arises as with the priesthood, so with the sacrifice. In several places the Epistle to the Hebrews affirms the oneness of Christ's sacrifice, e.g., VII, 27; IX, 26, 28; X, 10; and in X, 11, 12, and 14 that oneness is clearly contrasted with the multiplicity and repetition of the Mosaic or Levitical sacrifices: "And every (Old Testament) priest indeed standeth daily ministering, and often offering the same sacrifices which can never take away sins. But this man (Jesus), offering one sacrifice for sins, for ever sitteth on the right hand of God... By one oblation he hath perfected for ever them that are to be sanctified." Thus, teaches St. Paul, where the Mosaic sacrifices are repetitive, material, and relatively powerless, the new sacrifice is once and for all, spiritual, and all-powerful. Yet the total number of Catholic Masses celebrated over nearly 2,000 years of Church history must dwarf the total number of all Mosaic sacrifices ever offered in the one Temple! The Protestant solution is again to deny that the Mass is a sacrifice. There was Christ's one bloody sacrifice on Calvary, and that is all. Anything else can be no more than a commemoration of Calvary.

What then gives Catholics the right to interpret somehow else these texts of St. Paul clearly affirming the oneness and perfection of the priest and sacrifice of the New Testament? An answer to this question can take its start from another text of Hebrews, XIII,10: "We have an altar whereof they have no power to eat who serve the tabernacle."

St. Paul speaks here of an altar and of a victim being consumed, as in the Mosaic sacrifices, and so of a continuing sacrifice, implying also a priesthood, but from which the Levites serving the Old Temple are, as such, excluded. Clearly then there is a sacrifice and priesthood of the Christians ("we"), continuing well after the death of Christ.

In that case the only possible explanation taking all the texts into account is that while the Catholic priests and Masses outwardly resemble the imperfection and repetition of the Mosaic priests and sacrifices, inwardly they are quite different. Outwardly the Catholic priests are numerous and less than perfect, but their inward reality is none other than that of the one Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ; outwardly Catholic Masses are numerous and in need of repetition; but their inward reality is none other than that of Calvary. Thus Masses in their celebration are as multiple and diverse as the extension of the Catholic Church in time and space, but as sacrifice they are one with Calvary. Similarly, Catholic priests in their humanity must number in the millions since the Church began, and the variety of their human imperfections let us graciously pass over, nevertheless as priests they are one and identical with Christ the Sovereign High Priest.

From these texts of Hebrews comes Mother Church's extraordinary teaching concerning her priesthood and Mass, but all taken with all, there is no other way that these texts on the oneness of Catholic priest and sacrifice can be understood. The implications are endless.

As a Jew once said, "If only you Catholics knew what you have in your priests." As the Curé of Ars said, "If we could see the priest for what he is, we would die of love." The priesthood being an accident or mode of being of the priest's human substance, then every act of the priest is substantially a human act, so in everything the priest does there is intermingled more or less of the man. However, when he thinks, talks, or acts as a priest, there is also more or less of Jesus Christ intermingled in his words and deeds, and the more purely he acts as a priest, for instance, in administering the sacraments, the more purely it is Jesus Christ speaking and acting through him, the more he is, without ceasing to be the man he is, a stand-in of Christ.

Thus every Catholic priest is a double reality, both treasure of Our Lord, the objective priesthood, and vessel of clay carrying that treasure, the subjective human being. To forget either half of the reality is to ask for trouble. For instance, if I blur the priest into the man, I debase Christ's priesthood to the level of human frailty, e.g., "Hi, folks, I'm Fr. Jones, but call me Joe," or ``He may be a priest, but to me he's got to prove himself as a man." Alternately, if I blur the man into the priest, I am riding for disappointment whenever the frail man sooner or later does not live up to the level of his sublime priesthood. An example might be today's sedevacantists who so cannot bear recent Popes' frailty that they deny they are Popes at all. Some Catholics combine both errors by swinging incense at a priest one moment, and then making war on him the next! They are swerving between sentiments, unstabilized by the Faith. It is Our Lord's wisdom and love to entrust such treasure to such vessels of clay, thus reminding us both that the priesthood is not human and that human beings are not divine.

Such reflections will be a useful prelude to a presentation of the next three articles from Si Si No No in the series; "Those Who Think They Have-Won. "These three concern no longer philosophers or theologians, but churchmen at the summits of the Church. Blessed the robust faith of the Middle Ages which could endure much weakness of the office-holder without calling in question the office! The individualism of our age has lost the sense of institutions, and is obsessed with the persons and personalities.

Remember the Doctrinal Sessions on Modern Errors to be held at the Seminary this summer, from July 21 to 25 and from August 31 to September 5. These Sessions are designed to present the judgment of the Church upon the modern world.

May God bless you and keep you all.