The Priest and the Liturgy
Prof. Michael F. Hull, New York
The priest is intimately and uniquely configured to Jesus Christ the High Priest by his ordination. As an alter Christus, it is the priest who sanctifies (munus sanctificandi), teaches (munus docendi), and governs (munus regendi) in persona Christi capitis. The stark actualization of the priest’s sanctifying role in the mystici corporis Christi is his celebration of the rites, particularly in the confection of the Holy Eucharist and performance of the sacraments. Indeed, in all her public worship of the Triune God, the mediation and ministrations of the priest are essential. The Church adopted and adapted the term "liturgy" or "people’s work" from classical Greek—amply attested in the Septuagint, New Testament, and Patristic writings—to describe this public worship "through which, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, the work of our redemption is accomplished, and it is through the liturgy, especially, that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church" (Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 2).
"The liturgy, then, is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ" (SC, n. 7). As High Priest, Jesus offers himself by prayer and obedience to the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Church, his mystical body, is called to do the same. "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear" (Heb 5:7). In like manner, the people of God—the priests and the faithful—offer their prayers along with those of the Christ to the Father in the bond of love that is the Holy Spirit. "From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others" (SC, n. 7).
In the liturgical renewal envisioned by the Second Vatican Council, the central role of the priest in the Church’s liturgy is highlighted. The emphasis on the participation of the faithful in the mediation of the priest underscores the liturgical vitality of his ministrations. St. Peter (1 Pet 2:5, 9) and St. John of Patmos (Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6) remind us of God’s preliminary call to the Hebrews: "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod 19:6). Yet even in this foreshadowing of the mediation of the New Testament priesthood, Aaron and his sons were set apart for the liturgy, taken from among God’s chosen ones, and specially consecrated for proper worship (Exod 28:1). Likewise, the priest in his configuration to the High Priest, Jesus Christ, is "chosen from among men" and "appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Heb 5:1). Standing in the orans position between God and man, the priest’s intercession is accentuated by the "full, conscious, and active participation" of those baptized into Christ and his Church (SC, n. 14)
The priest and the liturgy manifest the divine economy of salvation: "The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly people; in the person of Christ he effects the eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people" (Lumen gentium, n. 10). The liturgical renewal inaugurated by the Council signifies the Church’s unwavering commitment to her consecratory role in Divine Providence. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is through the liturgy that the people of God—God’s priests at the head of God’s faithful—continue their efforts to sanctify the world until all men turn to Christ their Lord and "in his temple all cry ‘Glory’" (Ps 29:9).