The human race has always felt the need of a priesthood: of men, that is, who have the official charge to be mediators between God and humanity, men who should consecrate themselves entirely to this mediation, as to the very purpose of their lives, men set aside to offer to God public prayers and sacrifices in the name of human society. For human society as such is bound to offer to God public and social worship. It is bound to acknowledge in Him its Supreme Lord and first beginning, and to strive toward Him as to its last end, to give Him thanks and offer Him propitiation. […]
Yet, in the splendour of Divine Revelation, the priest is seen invested with a still far greater dignity. This dignity was foreshadowed of old by the venerable and mysterious figure of Melchisedech, Priest and King (cf. Gn 14:18), whom St. Paul recalls as prefiguring the Person and Priesthood of Christ Our Lord Himself (cf. Heb 5:10; 6:20; 7:1, 10-11, 15).
The priest, according to the magnificent definition given by St. Paul is indeed a man “taken from amongst men,” yet “ordained for men in the things that appertain to God”: his office is not for human things, and things that pass away, however lofty and valuable these may seem; but for things divine and enduring. These eternal things may, perhaps, through ignorance, be scorned and contemned, or even attacked with diabolical fury and malice, as sad experience has often proved and proves even today; but they always continue to hold the first place in the aspirations, individual and social, of humanity, because the human heart feels irresistibly that it is made for God and is restless till it rests in Him.
Ancient priesthood and Eternal Priesthood
In the Sacred Books of the Old Law, a priesthood of divine institution was established and promulgated by Moses, inspired by God, and every detail of its duties, residence and rites were determined for it. […]
Yet that ancient priesthood derived its greatest majesty and glory from being a foretype of the Christian priesthood, the priesthood of the New and eternal Covenant sealed with the Blood of the Redeemer of the world, Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.
The Apostle of the Gentiles thus perfectly sums up what may be said of the greatness, the dignity and the mission of the Christian priesthood: “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1).
The priest is the minister of Christ, an instrument, that is to say, in the hands of the Divine Redeemer. He continues the work of the redemption in all its world-embracing universality and divine efficacy, that work that wrought so marvellous a transformation in the world. Thus the priest, as is said with good reason, is indeed “another Christ”; for, in some way, he is a continuation of Jesus Christ Himself. “As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you,” (Jn 20:21) is spoken to the priest, and hence the priest, like Christ, continues to give “glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will” (Lk 2:14). […]
Priestly character and grace
These august powers are conferred upon the priest in a Sacrament especially designed to this end: they are not merely passing or temporary in the priest, but are stable and perpetual, united as they are with the indelible character imprinted on his soul whereby he became a priest forever (cf. Ps 109:4), like unto Him in whose eternal priesthood he has been made a sharer. Even the most lamentable downfall, which, through human frailty, is possible to a priest, can never blot out from his soul this priestly character.
Moreover, along with this character and these powers, the priest through the Sacrament of Orders receives new and special grace with special helps. Thereby, if only he will loyally further, by his free and personal cooperation, the divinely powerful action of the grace itself, he will be able worthily to fulfil all the duties, however arduous, of his lofty calling. He will not be overborne, but will be able to bear the tremendous responsibilities inherent to his priestly ministry; responsibilities which have made fearful even the stoutest champions of the Christian priesthood – men such as St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great, St. Charles and many others. […]
A last tribute to the priesthood is given by the very enemies of the Church. […] They, in their way, show that they fully appreciate the dignity and importance of the Catholic priesthood, by directing against it their foremost and fiercest blows; since they know well how close is the tie that binds the Church to her priests. The most rabid enemies of the Catholic priesthood are today the very enemies of God, which is indeed a homage to the priesthood, showing it the more worthy of honour and veneration.
Most sublime, then, Venerable Brethren, is the dignity of the priesthood, and not even the falling away of some unworthy in the priesthood, however deplorable and saddening it may be, can dim the splendour of so lofty a dignity. Nor should such disgraces cause the worth and merit of so many to be overlooked – who, in the priesthood have been and are preeminent in holiness, in learning, in works of zeal, and even in martyrdom. Nor must it be forgotten that personal unworthiness does not hinder the efficacy of a priest’s ministry. The indignity of the minister does not make void the Sacraments he administers, since the Sacraments derive their efficacy from the Blood of Christ, independently of the sanctity of the instrument, or, as scholastic language expresses it, the Sacraments work their effect ex opere operato. […]
Now to all Christians in general it has been said: “Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48); how much more then should the priest consider these words of the Divine Master as spoken to himself, called as he is by a special vocation to follow Christ more closely.
Hence the Church publicly urges on all her clerics this most grave duty, placing it in the code of her laws: “Clerics must lead an interior and exterior life holier than that of the laity, and should excel in rendering them an example of virtue and good works.”1 And since the priest is an ambassador for Christ, he should so live as to be able with truth to make his own the words of the Apostle: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1); he ought to live as another Christ who by the splendour of His virtue enlightened and still enlightens the world. ◊
Excerpts from: PIUS XI.
Ad catholici sacerdotii, 20/12/1935
1 CIC 1917, can. 124.