A priest is a man called by God to serve and build up his people. He is set aside for this task by the Sacrament of Holy Orders, one of the seven Sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ to ensure that his healing and sanctifying ministry will endure in his Church. An ordained priest shares in a unique way in Christ’s threefold ministry of Priest, Prophet and King. Priestly ordination bestows an indelible ‘seal’ on the soul and confers a sacred power to celebrate Mass and to forgive sins.
As Priest he is called to sanctify the people. He celebrates the Sacraments for them so that God’s grace can transform their lives. He is a man of prayer who celebrates the Holy Mass, reconciles people with God in the Sacrament of Penance, and ensures the other Sacraments are available to God’s people. As Prophet he is called to proclaim the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, evangelising the people and instructing them in the faith. As King he is called to imitate the Good Shepherd and lay down his life for his sheep and to lead them in the ways of Christian discipleship, helping them recognise and develop the gifts and charisms God has given them for the service of his people.
A Man of Prayer
To be effective a priest must be, above all, a man of prayer. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The faithful expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God. The priest is not asked to be an expert in economics, construction or politics. He is expected to be an expert in the spiritual life”.
A priest is a man who has responded to the call of Christ that he perceived in his heart. To remain faithful to that call and to avoid the danger of becoming simply a functionary, a priest must remain a man who draws life from his relationship with Christ in prayer. His private prayer is essential because he must know Him of Whom he speaks, teaches and preaches. He must come to have an intimate relationship with Christ because he is called to become “alter Christus, ipse Christus” – another Christ, Christ himself – for his people.
Typically a priest will spend some time in “mental prayer” or conversation with God before the Blessed Sacrament each day. Additionally he will pray the Liturgy of the Hours, a prayer of the Church for the people of God and the sanctification of the day. Priests will also live devotion to Our Lady by, for example, praying the Rosary daily.
His most important daily prayer is the celebration of the Holy Mass whereby, through his ministry, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is made present and the people are nourished by the gift of Christ himself in Holy Communion. The priest offers the Mass in persona Christi – in the person of Christ. In other words, when the priest celebrates Mass, it is Christ who is calling the people to prayer, inviting them to join their sacrifices to His, and feeding them in Holy Communion. The priesthood is given to the Church so that this ministry of Christ can be extended through all the ages.
In his ministry a priest will often be called on to lead others in prayer, especially at meetings and community functions. A priest is regarded as a man of prayer and people will expect him to teach others how to pray.
A Preacher of the Word
To evangelise is to proclaim Christ who makes himself present in the proclamation with the power to transform people’s lives. Since the day of Pentecost people have encountered Christ through the teaching of the Apostles and their collaborators. Evangelisation remains a priority for the Church. In fact, today we are called to a New Evangelisation of Western society which means to find ways of breaking through the indifference or even hostility characteristic of a cultural context that regards Christianity as no longer relevant. Pope St John Paul II once said, “The Church faces a particularly difficult task in her efforts to preach the Word of God in all cultures in which the faithful are constantly challenged by consumerism and a pleasure-seeking mentality”. Preaching the Word is, therefore, a primary duty of priests. They are called to teach the faith effectively so as to form Christian disciples with whom they can collaborate in the task of evangelisation.
A Shepherd of God’s People
A priest is a man called to lay down his life for his sheep. He is called to serve not to be served. A priest must have very clear in his mind that he exists for the sake of his people – not the other way round! The priest is called to serve others in imitation of Jesus Christ. At the Last Supper, before entrusting the Eucharist to the Apostles, Jesus first knelt down and washed their feet and taught them that they must do the same for one another.
The people rightly expect the priest to be a servant to God’s people. That does not mean they expect him to do whatever they want – which would be impossible – but that he bring the love, strength and truth of Christ into the parish, the school, hospital ward, prison, inner city, the battle field and to the margins of society. In fact, wherever God’s people are to be found, and especially wherever they suffer, the people rightfully expect their priests to be there.