Ars Celebrandi: The way of celebrating as an indication of the awareness of one’s identity as Priest


“Our priestly life and activity continue the life and activity of Christ himself. Here lies our identity, our true dignity, the source of our joy, the very basis of our life”.

These words, taken from John Paul II’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the formation of priests in the modern world (Pastores dabo vobis, no. 18), offer a summary that is beautiful, effective and full of grateful wonder at the Church’s awareness of the dignity of the priest.  Even more so, these words offer to each priest a type of mirror in which to contemplate with great joy his own identity, so as to bring it into focus once again, especially in liturgical celebration.

It is indeed the liturgical act which reveals in a unique way the most intimate and fascinating aspect of priestly ministry: to be a living and transparent image of Christ the Priest. Theological reflection has coined a rather rich phrase to describe this reality: “in persona Christi”. The priest acts in the person of Christ Himself; he “lives as Christ” in performing the actions of his own liturgical and sacramental ministry.

Hence there arises the importance of a way of celebrating which should reveal the awareness of priestly identity, and at the same time should help the priest to “remain” in this identity of his, to renew it, to deepen it, and to be configured to it with ever greater intensity.

Some examples related to the celebration of Holy Mass can lead to a greater understanding of what we want to emphasize.

Even beginning in the sacristy, the priest reveals the awareness that he has of his identity through the prayerful way in which he prepares himself for the celebration, in the devout manner with which he puts on the holy vestments, and in the careful choice of the same for their beauty and dignity.  Everything is an eloquent sign of entering into a ministry that empties the priest of his own subjectivity and draws him into the action of Christ the Priest, to Whom that subjectivity is surrendered.

The priest reveals the awareness of his identity also during the Liturgy of the Word: first he is an attentive listener, in the rapt silence of his heart.  Then he acts as a humble servant in echoing not his own word but that of Christ and of the Church, which precisely for this reason is a word that must be proclaimed in its entirety, without over-personalization or fear, but instead with boldness, with frankness, and with the strong tenderness of Christ’s own heart.

Above all, it is in entering into the Eucharistic Liturgy that the priest reveals the awareness of what he is about to do.  In the act of handing over his own life to the Father in union with the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of the world, he begins to perceive within himself the interior disposition of Christ; his gestures and his words now take on a unique depth and an interior resonance which, in a certain sense, is dramatic. In truth, the priest is inhabited, so to say, by Christ’s Passion, by an intense sorrow for the sin of the world, by the yearning desire to offer himself entirely and without reserve for the salvation of all.

While celebrating the holy mysteries, the priest knows that he is not the protagonist.  Another is the true and great Protagonist, to Whom the priest is called to open wide the gates of his own heart and of his whole life, so as to become a sacramental re-presentation of Him.

The priest’s way of celebrating is thus that of John the Baptist: the Bridegroom’s friend who rejoices at His voice and exalts His presence, and who feels the irrepressible need to decrease so that the Bridegroom may increase.

In this art of setting oneself aside and hiding oneself in Christ lies the priest’s entire way of celebrating.  He is, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, a man of the sacred precisely because he has been mysteriously seized by the Sacred One par excellence, Christ (cf. Summa Theologiae III, 73, 1, 3m).

It is this way of celebrating that reveals the firm awareness that the priest has of his own identity.  It is this way of celebrating, nurtured with attention and fidelity in daily celebration, that renders the priest’s adherence to his splendid identity more convincing and ardent, that renders his joy more truthful and well-rooted, and that renders his service to the Church more authentic and fertile.


Msgr. Guido Marini