By Carmina Magnusen Chapp

If I were to meet a priest and an angel, I should salute the priest before I saluted the angel. The latter is the friend of God; but the priest holds His place. – St. John Vianney, Catechism on the Priesthood

In a recent general audience, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the mission of the priest to put people in contact with God, to sanctify them through the administration of the sacraments. He called for a reflection on this role of the priest, and whether it has not been undervalued, leading to a weakness of faith.

The Pope’s remarks ring true when one considers that the “quality” of a Mass is often judged by the people in the pews on the quality of the homily, undervaluing the fact that Jesus becomes present in the sacrament of the Eucharist and unites Himself to us in holy Communion regardless of how good the homily is. We are a Church of word and sacrament. Both must be appreciated if we are to enjoy the fullness of faith. {{more}}

This is especially relevant in the Year of the Priest, while we celebrate the sacrament of holy orders. The priest administers the sacraments of Christ only because he himself has received the sacrament of holy orders and is, in fact, a sacramental representation of Jesus Christ. When the priest baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes. When the priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass, it is Christ who offers the sacrifice. When the priest absolves us of our sins in the confessional, it is Christ who absolves us.

Through all the sacraments, a particular grace is given to empower us to live the Gospel and to love as Jesus loves. We are to cooperate in these graces so we may become “perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Likewise, the priest receives particular graces through his ordination which empower him to do this particular work of Christ. He is changed in his very being (ontologically) in the sacrament.

By virtue of his ordination, a priest can do things lay people simply cannot. While Christ is present at a family meal where bread is broken and shared, He is present sacramentally in the bread and wine changed to the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass. Christ may be present at the kitchen table when a woman listens to a friend in confidence, but He is present sacramentally in the priest in the confessional and thus able to absolve the person of sin through the sacramental sign of his priesthood.

A priest lays down his own life to live the life of Christ for our salvation. In a secular culture, dependency of the priesthood may seem a bit outdated. Some may even claim it is unjust. In a world that values freedom and equality, why can’t we all just save ourselves? Indeed, many choose to do so, putting faith only in themselves and their own abilities, but to what end? The joy of knowing Jesus Christ and encountering Him in His Word, in His sacraments, and in His priesthood, cannot be matched by a secular approach to life.

When people meet a priest, they expect to meet Christ – a motivation for priests to live the Gospel fully and for lay persons to pray for priests to remain faithful to their priestly identity.

Carmina Magnusen Chapp is academic dean of the Religious Studies spanision at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood.