There is something about the grammar that is used in the sacraments that is mysterious. Let me explain. When the priest baptizes an individual the priest speaks the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The priest does not say “Jesus baptizes you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He says “I.”
Next time you go to Confession notice the very specific words spoken by the priest. “God the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world unto Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The priest does not say Jesus absolves you, he says I absolve you.
When the priest comes to the bedside of the dying he administers the Last Rites with the words of the Apostolic Pardon: “I grant you a plenary indulgence of all your sins.” He does not say Jesus grants you a plenary indulgence.” He says “I.”
Finally, and most profoundly, during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass we find the heart of the Mass in the Consecration–that moment when bread and wine become Jesus’ true and real presence. Something only a priest can do. In the priest’s book upon the altar called the Sacramentary, the words of consecration are written in large bold print so that there is no mistake. What is most interesting is that the dialogue is in the third person. “On the night He was betrayed, He took bread, gave it to His disciples and said ‘Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is MY body, which is given up for you.” The case changes from 3rd person singular into the first person singular. The priest does not say “Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is Jesus’ body,” but he says “my” body. When the priest takes the chalice he says “This is the cup of my blood.” Again the case changes from the 3rd person to the 1st. The priest does not say “This is the cup of Jesus’ blood.”
All of these examples are given to show us that the church holds the priest to act “In persona Christi,” or as we believe, the priest in that sacramental moment is the “Alter Christus–Another Christ.” In that sacramental moment the priest is not just speaking Jesus’ words, but it is Jesus speaking now in the priest.
It was the great St. John Vianney, the priest of Ars France who is the patron saint of all priests. The holiest priest who ever lived. He was thrown into the paganism of France in the wake of the Revolution. He was born just as the French Revolution began, which eviscerated the faith of France. He spoke these great words about the priest: “Oh how great is the priest. If he only realized what he is, he would die. To think that God obeys the priest: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host. Without the priest we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for the journey? The priest. Who will prepare your soul to appear before God? The priest—always the priest. And if we sin, who will restore its calm and peace in Confession? Again the priest. The priest, the priest, always the priest. Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.”
Father Vianny realized that it is the priest who is “Another Christ.” The priest stands in the person of Christ for the world so that Christ might not be just symbolically present, but really present in the Sacrament of the Holy Priesthood. Please pray for your priests this Vocation Awareness Weekend.
– Fr. Gerard Gordon