Philippa Martyr: What only priests can do

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Mark Anderson, Benjamin Saliba and Adrian Simmons take a step towards priesthood by being admitted to candidacy for Holy Orders at St Mary’s Cathedral on 16 May 2021. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

The laity can do pretty much any job in the Church. But only presbyters can make Jesus really present

I wanted to follow up on my recent column about the planned Vatican conference on the theology of priesthood. I was thinking during Mass last Sunday about how I would explain the priesthood in the simplest terms.

It’s this: Priests are the men who bring God down from Heaven. Not just symbolically or in the spirit – in the flesh, really and completely.

If I were artistic, I’d design an altar, across the front of which would be engraved the words ‘He Came Down From Heaven’. The Mass is the Incarnation. It wasn’t a one-off event lasting 33 years. The Incarnation is ongoing, and as real as it ever was.

The passage of time hasn’t made God’s presence on earth any weaker than when He was walking around here. The sole reason for this is the ministerial priesthood.

It’s this: Priests are the men who bring God down from Heaven. Not just symbolically or in the spirit – in the flesh, really and completely.

Yes, we can all call down God from Heaven into our hearts in our prayers, and we can all receive the Holy Spirit, and we can all share that with other people. Great. Have at it. But not all of us can call down God from Heaven into bread and wine so that the bread and wine don’t exist any longer.

Not all of us can put our fingers into slightly salty water and infuse it with such a potent current of grace that it can terrify demons.

Not all of us can let God borrow our ears to hear sins and speak words of absolution which regenerate a person’s soul more powerfully than an exorcism. Not all of us can do exorcisms that actually work, either (note: please don’t try this at home).

Jesus established the ministerial priesthood personally. He chose men who knew they had a very different job from everyone else’s (Acts 6).

We know this not just from the New Testament, but from every document that’s survived from the early Church. The priesthood and the structure of the Mass were established really early. It’s clearly an organic fulfilment of the Jewish temple priesthood and sacrifice, and was understood as such by the people doing it.

All of the other stuff – vestments, liturgical languages, what celibacy meant in practice – has grown from this core of truth.

It’s not clericalism to say this out loud. It’s not clericalism to celebrate it, and be grateful for it. To be called to this vocation is hard and joyous. It’s a learning curve that practically bends backwards. It’s the single hardest thing a man can ever do with his life.

But when it’s done right, it’s like cracking open a dam and allowing God to flood creation with His real presence.

Without priests, we have no Mass and very few sacraments. This is called ‘Protestantism’, and if you like it, it’s available in your local neighbourhood.

Lay people can do pretty much everything in the Church. They can manage money, buy properties, do gardening, hire and fire, and do the social and charitable work. But they can’t do what a priest can do. And this should not be an issue for any Catholic.

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