Holloway on... The theme of the priesthood
Holloway on... The theme of the priesthood

Holloway on... The theme of the priesthood

Father Edward Holloway explores the Sacrament of Order

There are sacraments which we know confer a character — the Fathers who wrote in Greek prefer the word seal — not just on the soul but on the Christian person which includes the flesh as well. Through this ‘sealing’ or consecration is defined the essential relationship to God of this sacrament and its grace or status. The ‘character’ of Baptism is the seal of the ‘divinization’ of man through our incorporation into Christ as both Son of God and Son of Man. These twin titles make Jesus Christ the Priest-King of all human stock. This membering into Christ, through both the Divine and the human nature in Him, is through the likeness of his Passion, Death and Resurrection; it proceeds through the washing and cleansing of men from Original Sin and, where applicable, actual sin. The first effect of this membering into Christ is membering also into the Church through the adoption of sonhood or daughterhood to the Father, through the Son, in their mutual love, the Holy Spirit. Through this incorporation into Christ, as states the anointing with chrism of Baptism, we participate in Christ’s life as priest, prophet, and king for humankind. Thus, the ‘seal’ of Baptism is the essential consecration and configuration of the human person flesh and spirit, into God the Word made flesh. Incorporation into Christ is one in essence with the ‘supernatural’ order, for by this we are made in Christ ‘co-sharers of the Divine Nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4). No other status or sanctifying sacrament of Christ in the economy of the Church can be received except through this fundamental ‘sealing’ to the Image of God in the Person of Christ. Thus Baptism is the character or seal of perfection, of ‘divinization’ as the Greeks prefer to call it, which is restored in and through the Redemption of Christ. Every other sacramental character or grace is consequential upon this supreme character of being born again through water and the Holy Spirit.

Confirmation and Order

Confirmation, it seems to me, cannot be ranked as a ‘sealing’ unto God on the same level as Baptism, though I have not found any development of this theme in the theological Manualists. It is not essential to the salvation and incorporation of man into God through Christ in the same way as Baptism, and of course Baptism does, must, confer the Holy Spirit. When I was a young priest we did not confer this sacrament upon babies or adults who were dying. It was a less worthy custom, but the Holy Spirit could not have allowed to fall into disuse for centuries any grace or status vital to the life of the Church. We recall that the Fathers of the Church were wont to refer to Confirmation as the ‘perfection of the seal’, i.e., the seal of Baptism. Confirmation would seem to confer a status in the order of a consequential, a further ‘dignity’ in the language of an older Scholasticism, that enhances the status of Baptism. It seems best described as the character or dynamic relationship to God through Christ which goes with the personal work i.e. work proper to the Person of the Holy Spirit within the Church, consequent upon the Ascension of the Lord. It strengthens the Christian personality to resist evil and bring in the mature fruits of the grace of Baptism. Just as much it is the seal of empowerment to teach and preach with ‘power from on high’ the Good News of the Kingdom of God revealed in Christ. To its seal of status we would refer the words of Christ: “He will receive of Mine and show it to you.” While this text refers primarily to the specific mission of the Holy Spirit within the Magisterium of the Church down the ages, it conveys consequentially in its own personal character, the apostolic power of witness in the individual Christian.

The Sacrament of Order

Order likewise would seem to be a character (the seal of a status) which, while essential to the very constitution of the Church, conveys a grace which in terms of our individual Christian perfection is a further enhancement (in the philosophical category of the ‘accident’) of the graces given in Baptism and Confirmation. In the footnote to the Faith Pamphlet Sexual Order and Holy Order I have a comment derived in part from Emile Mersch, S.J., Theology of the Mystical Body, explaining that while the call to Holy Order, to the work and friendship of Jesus personally as his apostle, is a supreme privilege and joy, it does not divinize a priest ontologically, i.e. in the order of his human personality, one whit more than the layman or laywoman. Our Lady did not possess any degree of the character of Holy Order, but no dignity, status, or sanctity in heaven or upon earth is equal to hers. In the Declaration concerning Women and the Priesthood, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [1976] makes the same point - well after the publication of the Faith Pamphlet, may one add. In heaven it is the saints, those who have most heroically conformed themselves to Christ through the characters of Baptism and Confirmation, who are the highest: not the ministers as ministers.

Order then, is the sealing unto service, the character of ministry as a grace for others, but in that very act of loving service, a privileged degree in the sanctification of one’s very self: “To whom very much is given, of him very much will be required back” ... (Luke 12:48). Our personal holiness through Order must the more closely resemble Him whom we touch and handle. The priesthood (and we are not considering the degree which is the Diaconate in this article) is never conferred as a title of honour. If a bishop does not need more priests he may not ordain them. It is a ministry of love within the ecclesial ministry of Christ, essential to the Economy of God Incarnate which is the Church. Apart from Order, sanctity of the highest degree can be won by that sealing (consecration) unto the Son of God and Man given in Baptism and Confirmation, especially when lived within the three vows of perfection. This is said to clarify a theological perspective, not to diminish the dignity of a vocation which calls to the familiar friendship with Jesus in his mission upon earth. We live in an age when Jesus is calling urgently to many a ‘rich young man’ to sell up and follow Him and share in His treasure. It is precisely because of our spiritual conditioning as sons of God, and lovers of his Holy Spirit, that hearing the call, and meeting the gaze of Jesus - “who looking upon him, loved him” (Mark 10:21) - that we leave all other things and follow Him only, down the arches of our years.

Perspective on the Character of Priesthood

We ask what exactly is this character or seal conferred by those sacraments which give some intrinsic conformation either to the natures and Person of Christ, or to his active mission, in the Christian personality? I know no book more carefully or more beautifully researched than that of my one-time Dogma professor, Fr. Bernard Leeming S.J., Principles of Sacramental Theology: I refer you to it. Myself, I do not follow my old master in his theories of sacramental causality. I dislike theologies of ‘title’, ‘sign’, ‘modality’ and intentional ‘entitlement’ etc. They are too human, man-made. The Divine is always divinely direct and ‘simple’. I would prefer the direct, physical perfective causality taught by St. Thomas Aquinas. Yet, I know nothing more beautiful or full than Bernard Leeming’s work on the inner meaning of the character in those sacraments which confer such a status. He told me he found it with delight in especially the Greek Fathers of the Church. I would express it this way. The sacramental ‘character’ is always a relationship to God, through the Person of Jesus Christ, in the order of the Incarnation. Jesus, we know, is the Sacramentum Mundi, the Sacrament or Holy Liturgy of ontological (i.e., of very being) communion between the Father and mankind. Baptism conforms sinful human nature, reconciled in the Person and in both the natures of the Person of Christ, to the image of the Father in the love of the Holy Spirit. This seal, image, or character conferred is specifically that of Christ as Son: Son of God, and Son as source, origin, and Head of mankind.

Subject as always to correction, I would suggest that Adam as ‘unfallen’ was created with the character of the Son of God and Son of Man, in being made into the supernatural order, together with the entire Universe which expected Christ as its Crown, the Heir to the Ages, the final term of its glory. The womb of woman is the sign and symbol of that status of the Universe. Baptism restores what is lost by the Fall, lost to our nature and to our individual persons. From the nature of the Incarnation as an economy (God in the Flesh) and the nature of man, there is required in the external ecclesial order an operative sign of our restored status. Cleansing and Redemption must be part of that sign of the restoration of God’s grace and gift of status, for it affects the ontological order, the lifting of man’s being into ‘sharing the Divine Nature’. Adam was membered to Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3). Baptism members us into Christ again after our loss of status. Thus we become ‘a royal people, a kingly priesthood’, deputed to the honour and love, the worship and joy of God through Christ our Priest-King. We do so for our own persons and nature, but we do it also for the inanimate creation below humankind which over the ages has ministered the body to our souls. This Universe cannot speak God’s glory of itself, but it does so through us, in whom it is taken up into the spirit, and that human nature taken through Jesus Christ into the very being of God: in the words of the fourth Eucharistic Prayer, “we shall sing your glory with every creature through Christ Our Lord, through whom you give us everything that is good.”

Consecration to God

The Fathers of the Church speak of the characters of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Order in terms of consecration to God. This is either the hallowing of basic nature, as in Baptism, or concerns the vocation of the Christian unto God in the Church and because of the Church. The nomenclature of consecration is preferred because it echoes the words of Christ: “For them I consecrate (or sanctify, or hallow) myself, so that they may be consecrated through Me” (John 17:19). Thus the character - and the Latin Fathers so often refer to the analogy of the Roman soldier, tattooed with the Emperor’s ‘mark’ and consecrated to his service - is a permanent relationship to God. It is a status. One would agree with Leeming that the first effect of such sacraments is not to confer sanctifying grace, because a person can be baptised or ordained in grave sin. The direct effect is a status. Yet this status is more than an entitlement to grace (as Leeming would hold) because the grace flows directly and intelligibly through the status. It may be blocked in its flow, and the technical term here is indeed an obex or obstacle. This blocking is man-made and incidental, the moment the detritus is removed from the stream the grace ‘flows.’ Theologians argue whether the character of Holy Order is a habit or a power, is it only a moral entity or a physical one, etc. To my liking it is a habitus a ‘clothing’ literally, a permanent state or endowment of person. I would call it physical, because it stays real in your personality forever, even in the damned. As an endowment, a potentiality, it can be activated or conferred in differing degrees, according to the relationship given to Christ the Minister in his ‘character’ as Priest, Prophet, and King. Hence the threefold actuality of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon.

Power over the Body and Blood of Christ

The character of Order does not admit of any difference of degree in the essence of Priesthood. The essence of our priesthood lies, as St. Thomas declares (Supp. 40 art. 5) in the power over the Body and Blood of Christ, a permanent power which not even the Pope can invalidate in the schismatic or heretic. Our Eucharist will always be valid, and in this the heart of priesthood is manifested. As an official power ‘prophecy’, the authority to speak in the name of the Church, may be removed by the Church. A theologian may lose his licence. A priest can lose all power of jurisdiction as well, for this belongs to the focus of ‘kingship’ and we have bishops and pope above us. Power over the Body and Blood of Christ takes us by a habitus, a power of person, into a relationship with Christ the Minister to Man which is ontological, i.e., it is definitive, a sharing in His relationship to the Father; as High Priest of mankind according to the Order of Melchisedech Jesus has power to sanctify and feed. We are not delegates in this work, we are channels of His Ministry.

We bear in mind that at the altar Christ is actively, not only passively, the Minister of the Eucharist, just as at the Last Supper. Here is the heart, the defining principle in the order of being of your priesthood, your ‘sealing unto Christ’ in his Kingly Priesthood. Through this relationship given for ever in the now of eternity, you are apostles and commissioned ministers of Christ even though your apostleship as priests of the second rank is intrinsically subject to the episcopal rank, whose presbyterium it participates and applies. Subject always to the judgement of the Church, I would agree with St. Thomas in this now rather the minority view that the Episcopate is not a distinct sacrament from the priesthood, but rather the highest modality of Holy Order. The common defining factor by which both bishop and priest enter into the Ministry of Christ as Sacramentum Mundi (Sacrament of the World) is this ineffaceable power to actively present again the Sacrifice of Christ, and from it to feed the Faithful with the Bread of Life and Reconciliation which flows from the Sacrifice. I do not think this awe-ful power within the character of Order admits of higher excellence.

Vatican Council

Some of you [seminarians] are being worried by teachers who seem to place the defining essence of the priestly function in the Church within prophecy. You have their rebuttal in all the documents of the Church, including the recent Second Vatican Council and consequential statements since. These confirm that the summit and centre of the Church’s life is the Eucharist as Sacrifice and Sacrament, and that this is the supreme work and ministry of the priestly character. Indeed, John-Paul II in his letter to Priests of 1979, makes a remark which has always, before his statement seemed important to me: the powers of priest, prophet, and king, must not be thought of as individual charisms, separate either in the character of Baptism or in the character of Order. He is talking about Order, and he reminds us that these three powers all flow from the one single focus of Christ’s Kingly Priesthood, and that all inhere as a unity in His Person as Son of God and Son of Man. However, the central unity which is Christ the Person consummates a work through sacrifice and sacrament which is sanctification, i.e., giving the life of grace and bringing to perfection the image of God given and revealed in Christ. The defining essence of priesthood, then, is Eucharistic even as Christ is Our Eucharist, our Mediation of Thanksgiving, of Life, and of Peace with the Father in the love of the Holy Spirit.

Consequences of the Priestly Character

In everything you do, then, the preaching of the word of The Word culminates in bringing men and women into union and communion of life with God in Christ. Sanctification is no abstract idea, nor the mere function as minister of the Mass as a rite. It is the filling out of the lives and loves and works of young and old through the Life of Jesus which is within them by grace, that is to say by the dynamic Indwelling of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God gives the increase but you do the watering (I Cor. 3:6); you minister for Jesus through every power of flesh and spirit. Sanctification, making to grow like God, with its unique reference to the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Holy Eucharist which contains them both, subsumes the office of prophecy within this central definition of consecration of men in Christ. It is here the joy and the maturity of the priesthood lies for you. All the work, the teaching and forming, the weary striving, the day-by-day minutiae, focuses through your personal communion with Christ as friend and apostle in his work and yours. It is yours because in your Ordination you were consecrated in Him, that others might be consecrated through you. There will be the drinking of His chalice, as He ironically promised to the two bright boys who asked for seats at his right hand, seats at his left, but there will be the unique joys of Jesus too. You bask in the love of those who love God, perhaps especially the young. You love God and them in a surge which passes from God to them, from them to you, and back again from you to God. Finally you understand what Jesus meant when he prayed that “the love with which I have loved Thee may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17:26). This is the fullness, the working out in practice of your grace of Order to Christ’s relationship of self-hallowing, first to His Father, and then as Son and Minister of Man, for us.

The Prayer of the Church

All the documents of the Church this century relate our life of prayer as priests to the Liturgy, and to the Eucharist as the heart of the Liturgy. This again places your priestly identity within the central theme of prayer, praise and self-consecration which is the Eucharist who is God made Man. The Divine Office is the continuation, the follow through of our Eucharistic ministry within the Church. Some of the most beautiful theology concerning this relationship of the Office to the Mass is in the introductory notes of the breviary ... which we never read! The defining note of the character of your Order is again placed through sanctification, increasing within yourself and your people the work of Christ to make all things new on earth. Prophecy is an essential function in bringing to sanctification, but sanctification, like the Incarnation itself is sacramental, the communion of Life between God and “the men Thou gavest Me” (Jn. 17:24). Here then is the formal definition of the character of priestly order.

Fr Edward Holloway was the founder of the Faith Movement and for many years the Editor of this magazine. This is the first part of an article in the November 1992 issue; the second part will be published in our next issue.


Faith Magazine

March - April 2022 2022