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The Necessity Of The Catholic Priesthood

The Necessity of the   Catholic Priesthood

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present conference   is on the necessity of the Catholic priesthood. Implicit in everything that   Father Gerald Fitzgerald thought, wrote and did was his deep conviction that   the Catholic priesthood is absolutely and I mean absolutely necessary.

Necessary to carry on   the work of Christ’s redemption, necessary not just for the well-being but   for the continued existence of the Catholic Church, necessary for the   corresponding existence of and well-being of Christianity. And in what we may   miss, most surprising, necessary for the moral survival of the human race.   These convictions of Father Gerald were not his own personal or private   ideas, they are part of divine revelation. Predicted by the prophets of the   Old Law and made explicit by the Son of God, they are of the essence of   Christianity. By way of prelude we might point out that there are vocal and   influential voices being heard today being heard and being read that   questions or openly challenge, the necessity of the Catholic priesthood as   established by Jesus Christ. There are those who would reduce the Catholic   priesthood as a merely useful institution.

Those who claim the   Catholic priesthood was not established by Jesus Christ but by as rather a   later second or even third century innovation of the Church.

Those who see no real   distinction between the universal priesthood of the faithful of which St.   Peter speaks, and which everyone receives at baptism and the ministerial   priesthood received only by bishops and priests when they are ordained to the   sacrament of holy orders. There are strident voices now pushing for the   ordination of women on this score that the Church has been discriminating   against women and that of course includes Christ. He discriminated by not   ordaining them. I use the adjective strident consciously. And sadly these   voices in not a few circles – not excluding some clerical circles – are being   heard.

So much by way of   introduction, why go into this most fundamental subject of why the Catholic   priesthood – as ordained by Christ – is necessary with all the kinds of   necessity we identified at the beginning?

If the importance of   speaking of the necessity of the Catholic priesthood has always been worth   talking about and reminding the faithful that it’s part of our Catholic Faith   the importance now is imperative. I have taught to too many priests, I know   too many, I council too many not to know that obscurity here, confusion here   is bed rock to the crisis in the Catholic Church today. That’s a large   statement. Let me repeat it. I believe the bedrock to the massive and I don’t   hesitate calling it the demonic confusion in the Catholic Church today is   doubt or even denial about the necessity of the Catholic Priesthood as   instituted by Jesus Christ.

Why, therefore, must   we say that there can be no substitute for what Christ did at the Last   Supper? In other words, why must there be a Catholic priesthood for the   survival of the Catholic Church? Listen. In the times of convolution over the   past centuries notably in the sixteenth century the Catholic Church   disappeared where the necessity of the Catholic Priesthood was denied. There   is no Catholic Church without the priesthood instituted by Christ.

To understand this   necessity is to have laid the foundations for a correct appreciation of the   Church’s ordained priesthood. We may think well of – we may respect – what is   useful but we prize we hold onto with all the force of our being with what we   think is necessary. We hold onto with our life’s blood what is necessary and   the priesthood is necessary for the life’s blood of the Church. There is no Catholic Church – underline,   encircle, emblazon the word, “NO”   – there is no Catholic Church without the priesthood. It is the faith   realization of the absolute necessity of the Priesthood that justifies the   place, the dignity of the priest in Roman Catholicism. And why the people   both torn between their faith and their experience they will respect, honor a   priest no matter how humanly speaking, how dishonorable he may become.

It is this necessity   that justifies the deep concern of the Church at large and of the faithful   for having holy priests because then their sanctity is the visible expression   of their necessity. It justifies what justifies the conviction of the   necessity of the priesthood. Justifies the crusade of prayers and sacrifices   by religious and the faithful for priests, for the conversion of priests who   have strayed away, and for their continued and ever growing sanctification.

All of this is in one   sense a prelude and in another sense the reason why I thought this conference   on the necessity of the priesthood was necessary.


Necessity of the Priesthood

We now address   ourselves to the heart of the issue. If the priesthood is necessary what is   necessary about it? What is necessary about the priesthood is in the whole   world by divine will exercised by the Son of God when He became man there are   certain powers that no other human being, no matter how otherwise qualified,   and let me tell you there are a lot of people that in so many ways are   obviously better qualified humanly speaking than priests.

There are people who   are more intelligent than priests – I know I have taught too many priests and   lay people too. There are people who are holier than priests, there are   people who are better qualified as leaders, leaders in society than priests.   But that is not the issue, the issue is whether in their being or as one   occasion in having a long conversation with the Lutheran Chaplain while   teaching at the state university – we knew each other well. He had his   doctorate in theology like I had mine. We talked over a period of months on   what is or is there any difference between an ordained minister like himself   and a Catholic priest. He did not want to admit that there was any real   difference. Or better he couldn’t see the difference, so finally I had to ask   him. Do you know what the word ontological means? He said sure, ontological   has to do with (ontos) the Greek word for being. When you were   ordained as you say to the Lutheran ministry were you ontologically different   than you were before? He said no! Well, I did!

There is a change in being, a change in ontos,   and in its own way as different a change in being as a child before being   baptized and then is baptized. It is just not the same person. Now what is it   that the sacrament orders confers on the priest that gives the priest the   power to do and changes him not only in time but as faith tells us into   eternity?

A priest receives the power of offering the sacrifice   of the Mass. A priest receives the power to forgive sins. The priest receives   the power of exercising authority in Christ’s name. Eucharist, Sin,   Authority. E. S. A.


Power of the Priest to Offer the Sacrifice of   the Mass

First then in virtue of his ordination to the   priesthood, the priest receives the power to offer the sacrifice of the Mass.   It is really a composite of two powers, the power of transubstantiation and   the power of oblation. The power of transubstantiation means that the   substance, in Latin substancia, of bread and wine is changed hence trans.   That substance is changed into the substance into the living, historical,   geographical Jesus Christ. No one else on earth has that power. And the power   of oblation the individual consecration separately would not constitute the   sacrifice of the Mass. There must be by divine mandate there must be first   transubstantiation of the bread and then the transubstantiation of the wine.   And Christ’s intention which is to become the priest’s intention of thus   separately consecration Christ’s body and blood constitutes the essence of   the Mass. And the oblation that Christ offered on the cross is literally   reenacted on the altar. Why? For two good reasons because on the altar is the   real body and blood of Christ. And on the altar is Christ with a human will   and at the heart of sacrifice is not what is offered – the heart of sacrifice   is why it is offered. And Christ’s human will no less offered himself in the   sacrifice of the Mass just as truly as he did on the cross on Calvary. The   power therefore of transubstantiation and oblation in the holy sacrifice of   the mass is not – is not – a later innovation. We must believe it’s our   faith. That what Jesus Christ did at the Last Supper changing as St.   Augustine says the bread and wine into Himself in such a way the moment He   pronounced the words of consecration Jesus was holding Himself in His own   hands. Where did that power come from? It came directly historically from   what we call apostolic succession when Christ told His apostles “do this   in rememberance of Me” the Church has declared infallibly by that act on   the part of the Savior He was transmitting to the apostles who surrounded Him   a share in the power He had just exercised. But let’s be clear. I repeat,   there are volumes of print and a babble of voices claiming something else. Be   not deceived, be not misled. We believe, we’d better believe, that the power   which Christ possessed because He was the living God in human form He then   had the power to communicate to others. First the apostles – they in turn   then communicated the same power to their successors those on whom they laid   their hands. So that by the end of the first century of the Christian era,   secular unbelieving historians tell us that there were over one hundred   dioceses surrounding the Mediterranean world. And by the time of the Council   of Nicaea in 325 AD there were hundreds of priests in dioceses and thousands   by the beginning of the fourth century and hundreds of bishops who met in   solemn conclave at Nicaea.


Power of the Priest to Forgive Sins

What is the second power that we believe that   priests and only priests have received from Christ? No less, no less than at   the Last Supper only the apostles not even who? Not even the mother of God,   she was not ordained by her Son to carry on the power that He had and gave   His apostles at the Last Supper. But secondly, No less than Christ conferred   only on the apostles and only on their successors the bishops and priests of   the Catholic Church did Christ confer the power of forgiving sins in His name   and no one else. Faith tells and the Catholic Church has confirmed that the   last thing which Christ did before He died He instituted the priesthood in   order to make possible the sacrifice of the Mass the transubstantiation of   bread and wine into the living Christ. So the first thing that Christ did   after His resurrection. Why did He come into the world? Why was He crucified?   Why? In order to merit the graces that a sinful world needs to be cleansed   from its sins. Very well, the risen Savior with His wounds still fresh we   might say in His risen body. Listen, the Church teaches that Christ is now in   Heaven in his risen body indeed but with all the wounds He sustained during   His passion and crucifixion. Isn’t that great? An eternal reminder why God   became man. And it was that risen Savior on the night after His resurrection   having given His apostles the power to change bread and wine into His living   body and blood and reenact the sacrifice of Calvary, He now gave them the second   astounding power of forgiving sins in His name. Once again clarity, sharp   crystal clear clarity. There are books, how well I know, learned monographs,   how well I know. Oh they can talk about the sacrament of penance but they   carefully avoid the word confession. When I read a statement of our Holy   Father that he gave, He said I prefer the word sacrament of confession to the   sacrament of penance. I almost screamed for joy and I have been using it   shamelessly ever since.

Let’s be clear and if there is one aspect of   the priesthood along with the power of consecration and offering Mass that   Father Gerald had no illusions about, it was the power of the priesthood to   forgive sins. I repeat, let’s be clear this is no mere declaration of   Christ’s mercy for the sinner. You don’t have to be a priest, all you have to   do is be able to read or speak to tell a person steeped in sin, have   confidence God is merciful. So the sinner can say sincerely, thanks I need   the reminder. That is not the power which the Church calls the power of the   keys.

I may have already said this before there are   stories that have happened in my life which bear repeating. Having been on   the faculty of six Protestant seminaries. The Lutheran school of theology for   seven years. This was at a Baptist seminary. I like to tell this I have in my   notes stacks of nine courses in Protestantism that I have taught. You name it   I have course in Protestant justification Protestant Christology. Never once   was I asked by a Protestant seminary to teach them about Protestantism –   isn’t that neat? All my courses on Protestantism were taught on request by   Catholic seminaries or Catholic Universities. So I was teaching this semester   the sacraments to this group of Protestant seminarians and I should add they   were getting credit for the course. This class was on the sacrament of   penance – change – sacrament of confession. The president of the seminary was   there, Dr. Robinson. I was explaining how the faithful are told to tell their   sins or grave sins, identify the sin, and be specific about what kind of sin   is it. Confess also the frequency – how often did I do it. And you may hold   nothing back and the priest gives you a penance and absolution and then the   penitent leaves the confessional. Then Mr. Robinson said, “May I say   something to the men?” At the time they only had men studying for the   ministry. Fellows he said what Dr. Hardon has just told you I know that it is   hard for you to understand but Catholic’s really believe, they really believe   that, when the priest gives them absolution. I could hardly believe my ears   when said Dr Robinson, Baptists, when the priest says that I absolve you from   your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit   Catholic’s really believe and he said even intelligent educated Catholic’s   believe that they are absolved from their sins as though Jesus Himself said,   as it is in the gospels “Go in peace your sins are forgiven you.”

There are things you hear you never forget. I   never forgot that. That’s the power of the priesthood. I, I a sinner myself   but gifted, though unworthily, with the power that only Christ as God could   have. When a priest says I absolve you from your sins, Christ absolves.

Before I finish reflecting on this second   power of the priesthood which makes it so profoundly necessary, let’s make   sure we also are clear about the responsibility of the penitent. Go back to   Christ’s appearing to the Apostles on Easter Sunday night and He began –   couldn’t have been a more appropriate salutation, “Peace be with you”. He   told them whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them. Whose sins you do   not forgive they are not forgiven. Let me repeat, the sins you do not forgive   – implying what? That the priest must somehow get some manifestation of the   person’s sinfulness. No manifestation, no absolution. Memorize what I am   going to say. Even though as the Church over the centuries has always   recognized in cases of extreme emergency, plague, on the way to battle, a   sinking ship, or for me more than once a real crashing plane. We were not   more than one hundred feet above the runway over O’Hare airport in a small   plane. When a sudden gust of the strong Chicago wind turned the plane ninety   degrees. Everything happened in the plane and everything and if the plane   before landing had not tilted back before landing, someone else would be   giving this conference but not I. The first thing I do and I have done it   more than once I give general absolution to everyone in that plane. I just   wish that there was another priest on board to give me absolution.

But barring emergency situation there must be   manifestation of sins otherwise zero – no absolution. And even with general   absolution it is valid only if the person who in case of emergency receives a   general absolution carefully controlled by the Church’s law that person must   intend in the next reception of sacramental confession. Must intend and I am   speaking of grave sins to the priest in confession. Otherwise the general   absolution is invalid. However this power to forgive sin uniquely possessed   by the Catholic priesthood is not only in the sacrament of penance it is also   in the sacrament of anointing. Go back to the letter of James – anyone sick   among you, let him call in the elder. Pardon me. The Church at the Council of   Trent has defined that the elders means ordained priests, nobody else. Let   them pray over him and if he be in sin they will be remitted him. And the   beauty of priestly anointing, if a person is in sin, is that the sins are   remitted. On the same minimal condition as in the sacrament of penance all   that a person has to have is faith in God and fear of God, that is it. Unlike   outside of these two sacraments a baptized person can be forgiven only as we   believe by making a perfect act of sorrow animated by the love of God for   Himself. I might add not an easy sorrow for a person steeped in sin to   obtain.


Power of the Priest to Exercise Authority in   Christ’s Name

The third power of the priesthood which makes   it absolutely necessary. The power of exercising authority in Christ’s name.   Remove the priesthood from the world and you have removed the divinely   instituted authority on Earth to teach divine truth, to rule and to govern   the people of God and to sanctify mankind. There are two kinds of authority   in the Catholic Church. The distinction is seldom made. There is authority   called ordinary authority and there is what is called delegated authority.   Ordinary authority is not the common authority or everyday authority.   Ordinary authority is the authority that comes from ordination. Vested first   in the Apostles always under Peter and the successors of the apostles under   the successors of Peter. Everyone else in the Church has delegated authority.

Let me go further,   does this authority vested in what we call the magisterium which is adherent   in the successors of the Apostles ordained as the apostles were always under   the bishop of Rome. Is that authority only, only over those who are I don’t   just say Catholics but baptized Christians? NO! Does this priestly Episcopal   hierarchical authority obtain for the whole human race? Yes, in everything   which pertains to salvation. Let me repeat, the ultimate authority on Earth   now over five billion human beings in everything pertaining to salvation, on   what God wants men to do to be saved. How they are to obey God, what laws are   just and what human laws are unjust and therefore because they are not just   they are not binding on the consciences of not just Catholic’s but on any   human being on Earth. Is there any authority on Earth to make that judgment?   Yes! Yes! Yes! And that authority is vested in the priesthood that Christ   instituted exercised by the successors of the apostles under the Roman   Pontiff.

We’ve said much more   during this understandably lengthy conference. There is so much to say. Are there   certain very practical implications. Yes, I have seven in all [that] are part   of the extraordinary charism of a man called Father Gerald Fitzgerald.

First implication given not just the importance of   the Catholic Priesthood but its divinely ordained imperative necessity. We   should understand the Catholic Priesthood and the first ones that should   understand their priesthood are bishops and priests themselves. There should   be no identity crisis in the Catholic priesthood.

Second implication promote vocations to the   priesthood the Church’s strength depends on the strength in mind and strength   in will of her priests. As Father Gerald often said like priests like people.   Good priests make good people. Promote vocations to the priesthood.

Third implication respect the priesthood because   priests can be, how well I know, pathetically human. To see behind the rags   morally speaking of a priest who has gone wrong to see behind him and within   him a man who Christ Himself ordained and conferred on him the powers we have   described.

Fourth implication. Pray, Pray for Catholic Priests   that they may live up to their high calling that unlike Judas, they may not   betray their Master. Prayer for priests should be the daily and I mean not   only once a day more than once a day. First priests should be praying for   priests, Religious and members of the millions of the Catholic faithful. How   we desperately need, we priests, your prayers.

Fifth. Sacrifice for priests. A priest is one who is   to sacrifice. The hard part of the priesthood is not the offering of the   sacrifice of the Mass. It is the self-sacrifice that a priest is called upon   to make and the more priestly a priest is the more the people of God will use   him, will wear him out. Our own Saint John Regis, died hearing confessions,   great. We priests are to die standing up and never say enough. But for us to   have the grace of so sacrificing ourselves we need the merits of your   sacrifices.

Sixth implication assist Catholic priests. This   covers an ocean of implications. By definition even though vowed to poverty   is to live a poor life. Help, assist, provide services for a priest is not to   be a businessman. For me over the years how grateful I am for people in   various walks of life. He won’t mind me even mentioning his name, Dr.   Dolehide, Thanksgiving day I was robbed in the Bronx lost everything I had   including all of my medication some of which I need regularly. When I got to   Chicago I called up Dr Dolehide and told him what happened. He traveled at   least 20 miles from southern Chicago came to where I was staying at eleven   fifteen at night with medications. Needless to say he both provided the   prescription and he paid for it. Sixth implication assist priests.

Seventh implication encourage priests. We are not   only just as human as everyone else, but the evil spirit – how shrewd the   devil is – he knows if he can weaken the commitment of a single Catholic   priest he has in effect weakened and maybe destroyed the faith of thousands.   Given our very human nature we deserve, we deserve to be criticized but   please God the main criticism will come from the Christ who ordained us.   Having vowed ourselves to a life of celibacy we do not have the natural   encouragement that a husband or Father has in the family.

Please God what we’ve   said at such length of the necessity for the Catholic Priesthood would not   have been said in vain.



Lord Jesus, Great high priest, you have   instituted the sacrament of the priesthood in order to continue Your saving   work until the end of time. Help us priests to remain faithful to you dear   Jesus. Even to our Calvary, as You were to Yours.

Inspire your faithful to realize on faith how   necessary we are for their salvation and sanctification so that the faithful   we have served and we might enjoy your eternal heavenly priesthood. Amen.


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