What Is the Priesthood?

I was trying to write about women’s ordination per my promise of this weekend, I really was.  But I kept having to parenthetically define my terms, so I figured I’ll sketch out a quick theology of the priesthood today so we’re all on the same page.  Expect the argument against women’s ordination soon.

First, can I just remind you how much I love the priesthood?


A priest in vestments about to be executed.

I think much of the rhetoric surrounding women’s ordination comes from a misunderstanding of the priesthood.  We tend to equate Catholic priests with Protestant ministers.  They often serve similar functions, but they’re not the same–not at all.  You see, Protestant ministers are ministers because of what they do: preach, pray, lead.  Catholic priests are priests because of who they are.  At ordination, they receive an indelible mark, a mark that can’t be removed.1  This mark makes them alter Christus, another Christ.  Their souls are changed.  Even if they never preach, pray, or lead a day in their lives, they’re still “priests forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4, Heb 7:17).

Because of this special character imprinted on their souls, priests act in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, when they function as priests.  It’s Christ who blesses you through the priest, Christ who consecrates, Christ who absolves.  In Mt 10:1 (and parallels), Jesus commissions his apostles (the first priests, although they’re not ordained until later) to heal and exorcise, exactly what he’s doing.  After the resurrection (Mt 28:20), he tells them to teach as well.  So Jesus himself sends the first priests out to fulfill his role in the world.

But they’re not just doing the same work as Jesus–they’re doing his work.  In Lk 10:16, he tells them that those who hear them hear him.  He’s giving them his authority and sending them into the world as he was sent.

Why don’t I ever get to confess in a field?

It’s most clear in Jn 20:21-23, a passage where Jesus gives the apostles the power to absolve sins.  He says to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  These men aren’t just reminders of Jesus, they’re his presence in the world.  And when he gives them the power to absolve (“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them”), we can’t help but remember the line “Who but God alone can forgive sins?” (Lk 5:21)  Indeed, only God can forgive sins.  Which must mean that when priests absolve, they do it by Christ’s power, not their own.

Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders on Holy Thursday at the Last Supper.  In John 17:17, he prays, “Consecrate them, Father, in the truth” and goes on to say “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.”  As Christ is the Father’s presence in the world (not the same as the Father but acting on his behalf with his authority), so priests are Christ’s presence in the world (not the same as Christ but acting on his behalf with his authority).  At the moment of this prayer, the apostles became priests.

A Franciscan priest prays with a man about to be executed.

Throughout the early Church (Acts 6:6, 13:3, 14:23; 1 Tim 4:14), the office of priesthood is passed down through the laying on of hands.  In this way, the priests who follow the Apostles share in their priestly character just as Judas’ successor, St. Matthias, enjoyed the same apostolic privileges that Judas had thrown away (Acts 1:26).  This apostolic succession is a top priority in the early Church for one reason: it is absolutely necessary that the Church have priests, not merely ministers.  Preaching and praying and leading are wonderful, but anybody can do that.  To be a priest, one must be ordained by a successor of the apostles in order to be alter Christus.

So when priests function as priests, they have that priestly power not by their own merit but because they share in the one high priesthood of Christ.

I was at Mass with a 3-year-old one day.  Afterward, she saw the priest who had celebrated the Mass walking around in street clothes.  She tugged on my shirt.  “Meg, that man looks like God.”

“No, honey, that’s not God,” I said.  “That’s the priest.”

“I know,” she insisted, “but he looks like God.”

“No, sweetie, he looks like the priest because he is the priest.  He’s not God.”

“I know,” she said, exasperated that I would think she was so dumb as to imagine that we could see God outside of Mass.  “But he looks like that green God what was at the front of the church.” (It was Ordinary Time—green vestments.)  I realized that she, in her youthful credulity, understood in persona Christi better than I ever had.  In Mass, the priest is God.  Outside Mass, of course, he’s not God, he’s just some guy (well, still alter Christus, but functioning as a regular person).  Wow.

A missionary priest anoints a dying woman.

This doesn’t mean that individual priests are infallible or impeccable or even particularly nice.  It means that they act as Christ when they say Mass or hear confessions or anoint the sick or give blessings.  They might be jerks sometimes, but their character as another Christ remains.

Because they are in persona Christi, priests are married to the Church.  Ephesians 5 famously tells us that Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is the Bride; all of Revelation echoes this.  The cross is Christ’s marriage bed where he gives himself completely to us forever.  This marital covenant with his bride the Church is renewed on the altar at each Mass, where Christ renewedly offers us his very self in the Eucharist.  This is what it means to be a priest: to stand in the place of Christ doing for the Bride what only her Groom can do.  This image of Christ’s marital love for his Church is inherent to the priesthood.

With this understanding of priests as being ordained in the upper room, consecrated to be in persona Christi, and the bridegrooms of the Church, we’ll finally be able to explore why women aren’t capable of Holy Orders.  Soon, I promise.


If you’re reading this before 8:15 am (Eastern) on Thursday, tune in to KWKY to hear me talk about discernment.  That’s 8 hours from now.  If you’re up and reading now, I sure hope you’re not up again then.

  1. I know you know a “former priest.”  He’s still a priest (can still absolve sins if the penitent is in danger of death), he’s just not permitted to function as a priest and is released from his obligation of celibacy.  For all intents and purposes, he’s a lay man.  But technically, still a priest. []

About Meg

I'm a Catholic, madly in love with the Lord, His Word, His Bride the Church, and especially His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. I'm committed to the Church not because I was raised this way but because the Lord has drawn my heart and convicted my reason. After 2 degrees in theology and 5 years in the classroom, I quit my 9-5 to follow Christ more literally. Since May of 2012, I've been a hobo for Christ; I live out of my car and travel the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, blogging, and trying to rock the world for Jesus.
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4 Responses to What Is the Priesthood?

  1. annebender says:

    This is great! So easy to understand! Thanks!

  2. What a beautiful post on the priesthood! I never understood, thought about, or even heard of Alter Christus until I began attending the Tridentine Rite ~ totally changed my whole idea of Mass, and the Priesthood.

  3. Thank you for this great post. I was searching for good explanation of in persona Christi. This is that and more!

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