Peter Mullen on the duties of the priest and the nature of the authority conferred at ordination
The priest is not a social worker or any kind of quaint parochial nice guy appointed to cheer up the locals. He is not a community liaison officer. He is not required to play the guitar or to be especially good at table-tennis. He is not even primarily a preacher. The priest is the one who presents and offers the sacrifice on behalf of his people. This sacrifice, the action of the Mass, is the atoning death of Jesus Christ.
Making it real
The priest does not repeat the sacrifice, for this was done once and for all by the Saviour on Calvary. The priest re-presents Christ’s sacrifice and, as he does so, he represents Christ’s words and actions at the Last Supper. No wonder every priest is grateful for the assurance that the unworthiness of the priest doth not impede the Sacrament! Jesus commanded, Do this in remembrance of me. The English word remembrance is too weak to describe what is going on here which is an anamnesis – a making real in the present an event which happened in the past. Thus every time the priest says Mass, he proclaims the death of Christ until he comes again in glory.
The priest, as priest, is not meant to be a personality. Father Smith may be agreeable, likeable, an all-round good egg and the favourite of the ladies’ sewing circle. Or he might be good with youth or a dab hand at raising money to keep the church roof on and to pay the annual tax called the diocesan quota. He might well be a thoroughly disagreeable, irritating, rude and insensitive creature, a caricature. This is not unknown. The point is that he is not in his office for any virtues of personality. He is simply a particular functionary with authority conferred upon him by his Holy Orders.
The priest is created by his ordination which is a sacramental sign performed in the name of the whole Church and symbolized by the bishop as he lays hands on the candidate. The bishop derives his authority to perform this sacrament by virtue of the Apostolic Succession: that is he stands in an hierarchical line of such authorities which originated in the commission of Christ to his apostles when he empowered them and their successors to pronounce the forgiveness of sins, to celebrate the Holy Communion and to go into all the world making men his disciples.
The Church was never intended to be a democracy. It is a hierarchy. Christ appointed divers orders in his church. And so, while lay Christians are able and permitted to engage in most ministerial tasks, the celebration of the Sacraments is solely the provision of the priest. A layperson may baptize. Nurses have always done this, especially in emergencies when the child has seemed likely to die. A layperson may also conduct a funeral, preach, say Matins and Evensong and other public prayers. But the sacramental acts are reserved for the office of the priest.
It is vital to stress this notion of office, for the priest is not required to be clever or well-spoken – though it helps if he is – only to officiate by the authority conferred on him as a unique sort of functionary at his ordination. An important part of the priest’s craft is to say Mass properly. This means above all that he should never put his own personality – that vain thing – into it.
Jesus authorized Peter, and through him all the apostles and by extension every priest, to pronounce the forgiveness of sins. Once again it is crucial to avoid any idea of personal authority: the priest does not forgive sins by virtue of any personal merit, but by the authority vested in him – literally in his vestments – he pronounces the reality of God’s forgiveness on all those who truly repent and are in love and charity with their neighbour. A good priest learns to be discerning, so that he knows what counsel to give to those who come to Confession or in search of spiritual nourishment. So he must educate himself. Theological colleges these days perform this function with only middling efficiency for, rather than present and inculcate the Church’s ancient pastoral wisdom, most seem preoccupied with modern psychology, diversity, inclusivity, non-judgementalism and the promotion of self-esteem. What is required instead is the cure of souls. The priest is the Cure, anglicized into the Curate.
Loving and caring
Above all, the priest must try to love and care for his people. This has nothing to do with working up sentimental feelings in himself but rather a case of having the parishioner’s good at heart and trying to effect this. It is an act of will and of obedience to his commission from Christ. The priest faces the congregation when he is preaching and giving the blessing. He faces the altar when he is speaking with God on the people’s behalf. He must strive to be like God as evoked by those tremendous words of comfort, Like as the father pitieth his own children… For they are his spiritual children and he is their father with all the terrifying responsibilities which the dutiful father must have.
This is why the priest asks fervently and continuously for your prayers. ND