In the face of the threats which seem to be taking shape against priestly celibacy, it is necessary to recall the unshakable foundations of this discipline as old as the Church. We must begin by recalling the greatness of the priesthood founded by Jesus Christ, in which the priests of the New Covenant participate, and the sanctity demanded by this state.
Sacerdos alter Christus: the priest is another Christ. The greatness of the priest is due to the fact that he possesses, by the priestly character, a participation in the very priesthood of Christ. To consider Christ the Priest is the only way to access the truth and the greatness of the Catholic priesthood.
The Essence of the Priesthood
The Epistle to the Hebrews gives this famous definition of the priesthood: “For every high priest taken from among men, is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5:1). Thus, the priest is mediator: he offers sacrifices and oblations to God in the name of the people, it is an ascending mediation. But he is also chosen by God to communicate to men His graces of mercy and forgiveness, it is a descending mediation. Mediation is constitutive of the priesthood.
But from whom does Christ receive His priesthood? St. Paul replies that the priesthood is so high that not even “Christ in His humanity could not have arrogated this dignity.” It was the Father Himself who established His Son as Eternal Priest: “So Christ also did not glorify himself, that he might be made a high priest: but he that said unto him: Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place: Thou art a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedech” (Heb 5:4-6).
And how did Christ become a priest? In the same way that He became the mediator between God and men: by His incarnation. Because the mediator must be an intermediary between extremes and join them together. This requires two conditions: 1) being at a distance from the extremes; 2) transmit to each of the extremes what belongs to the other.
Christ as man fulfills these two conditions: He is distant from God by nature, but also from men by the immense dignity of His grace and His glory. In addition, He transmits the precepts and gifts of God to men, and the satisfaction, demands, and prayers of men to God. Not as if He had received them from men, but because He offered to God, for men, what He offered and satisfied for them.
This is why Christ became a priest at the very moment of the incarnation. From that moment, He was mediator and pontiff. Through the hypostatic union—the union of the two natures, divine and human, in the unity of the person of the Word—the Son, the second person of the Trinity, penetrates and possesses the soul and the body of Jesus, He sanctifies them.
Jesus Christ is therefore the priest par excellence. “For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” in the words of St. Paul (Heb. 7:26). Until the end of time, the priests of this world will only receive a share of His power: He is the sole source of the whole priesthood.
So we can say that the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary was the sanctuary in which the first priestly consecration took place—and, in a way, the only one, all the others being contained in her.
Christ, Priest and Victim
Unlike any other sacrifice, and especially the sacrifices of the Old Testament, in the sacrifice of the New Law, the priest is also the offered host. The priest and the victim are united in the one and same person. This sacrifice glorifies God with perfect homage, it makes the Lord propitious to men and obtains for them all graces of eternal life.
In Jesus the High Priest, a reverence and a deep adoration filled His soul, by the contemplation of the infinite majesty of His Father. He knew Him as no creature can ever know Him: “Just Father, the world hath not known thee; but I have known thee” (Jn 17:25).
The divine perfections adorned His intelligence: the absolute holiness of the Father, His sovereign justice, His infinite mercy. This sight plunged Him into reverential fear and into the virtue of religion which must animate the priest scrificer.
In Jesus the immaculate victim, we still discover adoration, but which is expressed in the acceptance of annihilation and death. He knew He was destined for the Cross for the remission of the sins of the world; before divine justice, He felt burdened with the terrifying weight of all the offenses of the human race. He fully agreed to this role of victim.
Thus, on entering the world, the Son of God took on a body capable of enduring suffering and death: “For we have not a high priest, who can not have compassion on our infirmities: but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin.” (Heb 4:15), until death, death on the cross.
Christ Exercises His Priesthood
The whole life of Jesus was priestly, but the exercise of his priesthood shines most especially on four occasions: at the moment of the Incarnation, at the Last Supper, on the Cross, and after His Ascension.
The first movement of the soul of the incarnate Son of God was an act of sovereign religion. St. Paul reveals it: “Wherefore when he [Christ] cometh into the world, he saith: Sacrifice and oblation thou wouldst not: but a body thou hast fitted to me: Holocausts for sin did not please thee. Then said I: Behold I come: in the head of the book it is written of me: that I should do thy will, O God” (Heb 10:5-7). This ineffable offering was His response to the unparalleled grace of the hypostatic union; it was a priestly act, prelude to the redemptive sacrifice and to all the acts of the celestial priesthood.
At the Last Supper, Christ is high priest and host, as the Council of Trent affirms: “At the Last Supper, declaring Himself constituted a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedech, He offered up to God the Father His own body and blood under the species of bread and wine.” Sovereign priest, of His own immediate authority, He instituted three supernatural wonders which He bequeathed to His Church: the sacrifice of the mass, the sacrament of the Eucharist intimately united to the mass, the priesthood derived from His destined to be perpetuated until the end of time.
On the Cross, Christ redeems us with the highest act of religion: sacrifice. This sacrifice is eminently propitiatory. In the eyes of God, the value of His Son’s immolation exceeds all the aversion He has for our outrages. This bloody immolation is what constitutes the sacrifice.
Finally, Jesus returned to Heaven consummates His sacrifice eternally by communicating the fruits to us in time and in eternity. Heaven celebrates a grand liturgy: Christ offers Himself to the Father, and this glorious oblation is the completion, the consummation of redemption. In this heavenly liturgy, we will all be united to Jesus and to each other. We will participate in the adoration, love, thanksgiving that He and all of His members bring to the Holy Trinity.