June 21, 2013
On June 8, I had the profound joy of ordaining eight men to the holy priesthood for service in the Archdiocese of Portland. This followed just a few weeks after ordaining four men as transitional deacons. God willing, they will be ordained priests next year about this time. To help put this in perspective, in the seven years that I served as the Bishop of Marquette before coming to Oregon, I ordained 10 fine men to the priesthood — just two more than what this one ordination accomplished. You can imagine my joy.

But what is a priest, and why do we need them? This is a question that we must all be clear about here in western Oregon if we are going to continue the strong vocational picture we have enjoyed in recent years. The better question is not what a priest is, but who he is.

As I said in the ordination homily on June 8, there is a danger of reducing the ministry of priests to a functional view of priesthood that focuses on what the priest does rather than on who he is in the very core of his being. In this functional view, the priesthood becomes simply another job or career path. This would be to impoverish our understanding of the ministerial priesthood.

We must begin by recognizing that there is only one authentic priesthood, and that is the priesthood of Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest. The Second Vatican Council reminded us that, by virtue of our common baptism, all of us share in this one priesthood of Christ by which we are to offer ourselves and our spiritual sacrifices to God our Father in union with his Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But Vatican II, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, also taught very clearly that the ordained (ministerial) priesthood differs from the common priesthood of all the baptized, not just in degree, but in essence. What this means is that the ordained priest doesn’t just share to a greater degree in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, but he shares in and exercises that priesthood in a different way altogether.

By the grace of the Holy Spirit, the ordained priest is sacramentally configured to Jesus Christ the Priest and is therefore able to exercise his priestly ministry “in the person of Christ the Head” of his Body, the Church. The priest receives a sacramental character, or mark, that makes him forever a priest of Jesus Christ and which changes his very being in the depth of his soul. A priest can no more cease being a priest than any one of us can cease being baptized, even though a priest may sadly choose to not exercise his priesthood.

In the Church, the priest, always in profound communion with his bishop, exercises the role of Jesus Christ as Priest, Prophet and King. Everything the priest does flows from who he essentially is. Yes, the priest performs many services and functions for the people of God, but the primary emphasis must always remain on the essential identity from which all of his priestly activity flows.

In exercising his share in Christ’s ministry as Priest, Prophet and King, the priest sanctifies, teaches and shepherds respectively the faithful entrusted to his pastoral care. As teacher, he raises the prophetic voice in the Church and in the world, always teaching not his own doctrine but that of Christ and the Church. The people of God have a right to hear from the lips of priests the full and authentic teaching of the Church, which is guided by the Holy Spirit according to Christ’s own promise.

As shepherd, the priest guides and leads the people of God in the ways of life and salvation. He calls the faithful to exercise their own baptismal priesthood and encourages them to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and a leaven in society. Like any good shepherd, this may mean challenging the sheep from time to time not to go astray from the safe and right path.

Finally, as sanctifier of the people of God, the priest exercises his priestly office in the most profound way in the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation. He is given a sacred power to forgive sins in the name of Christ and the Church, to make present in the holy Mass the sacrifice of Christ for our salvation, and to feed the faithful with the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God.

Simply put, without priests there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist there is no Church as Christ willed it to be.

It is by the Divine Will that Jesus gave the ordained priesthood to his Church. He did so on the night of the Last Supper before his saving death on the cross. In that Upper Room, he gave us our first priests, the Apostles. Their successors, the bishops and the priests in communion with them, carry on this ministry throughout the ages down to our own day.

That is why we need priests. They carry on the work of Jesus which he entrusted to the Apostles. So pray for these new priests. Pray for all of your priests. Pray that God grant us many more. And any of you young men out there that God is surely calling, pray for the courage to say “yes” and answer the call!