It is vital for Catholics to understand that their religion comes out of the nature and the action of God, who is infinite and loving. Loving means God spreading his own goodness.
The Catholic faith is what it is because God is what He is, and has done what He has done, and, indeed, continues to do. True religion has its origin, of course, in God, not in man.
The Catholic faith cannot be separated from its priesthood, no more than life-giving blood can flow without the heart. We need help to live our lives at the highest level, the level that is the Catholic faith.
Throughout its long experience, saintly members of the Church, under God's inspiration and guidance, have provided many means of assisting us to this highest level.
The most obvious means is the religious life, by which men or women live in community under the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, lifting them above the pursuit of riches, from even the noble love of marriage, and from their own wayward wills and for her vast flock, the lay people, she has given rise to countless organisations, all designed to provide effective ways of living the essence of Christianity, charity.
Religious life and lay organisations are not, therefore, something over and above Catholic life; they are not 'extras', so that one could say, "I'm a Catholic, but also a religious, or a member of this or that lay organisation as well, and so more than just Catholic." There is nothing higher for us than living the Catholic faith.
What is the priesthood then?
The Catholic priesthood is not a means of living the Catholic faith: it is the source of the Catholic faith.
When the priest realises this, he is awestruck, and the beauty of it is that his awe will grow with grace. It is to be hoped that this awe strikes all Catholics, especially our seminarians.
The reason why the priesthood is the source of the faith is because all that the faith is comes from the great high priest, Christ Himself.
The contents of the Catholic religion amount to being one in the life with the person of Christ (grace) believing in Him as truth (summarised in the Creed) and living like Him as the way (the Commandments of love – i.e., spreading the goodness of God) Christ, by His very Incarnation, is priest, for His human nature was used to do the priestly work of bringing people to the Father: His soul to teach and love, and His body to be the victim of that love which reverses the rebellion of man's will, at and from the very beginning.
We need to be governed in the way, taught the truth, and sanctified in the life of grace. Christ alone can achieve these things, in those who want them; but He was to return to his Father, so how could He continue all this work, essential if man is to reach that eternal life for which the Father created Him?
He made possible the continuation of His work so wonderfully and yet so simply.
At the Last Supper, having given us the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that all men of all times and places could enjoy the benefit of His love, shown in His sacrifice on the Cross, He simply told His apostles: "Do this in memory of me." He was to continue as priest on earth, through mere men! Herein lies the mystery of the Sacrament of Holy Orders: while the Eucharist, by its nature, is the greatest of the Sacraments, Holy Orders is the source of them all.
The priest, may God help him, is thus, the extension of the Person of Christ into the world.
Love of Jesus Christ
The most important thing I learned in my seminary days was that the priest must have, must live, a personal love for Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Could anything be more obvious? Yet, I was laughed at once, at a seminar for priests in 1977, of all places held at St Patrick's College, Manly, our major and senior seminary, for stating just that. What? Did a priest laugh at me, implying that a man who is Christ's extension in the world, should not bother about loving Jesus Christ?
At the words of ordination by the bishop, who possesses the fullness of the priesthood, the the new priest ceases to be just himself: his soul is taken over by the person of Christ, and so, he receives the Lord's authority to govern and teach, and His power to sanctify. This is what the Sacrament does to him.
The world wants to take us priests away from Christ. It rejoices when one of us fails, because it is convinced our standards are impossible; it hurls attractions at us, its prince hating the priest more than anyone.
We all face that danger. There is even more danger for those whose gifts from God win them admiration and applause from the world.
I know a priest who, as a boy, captained football teams and was pretty good at the other sports; was always near the top of the class; won nearly every eisteddfod he was in; enjoyed the school dances; looked forward, perhaps rather vainly, to the praise from friends at school the day after the speech night, with its concerts and theatrical productions; then carried most of this into the seminary and post-ordination years – all a little like Odysseus' journey back to Ithaca.
Homer gave him a rough time, but all with the purpose of teaching about life.
The applause of audiences, the well-meaning compliments afterwards, the excitement of travelling Australia's beauty among its accepting people, the pleasure of the mountains and the sea, especially under it: all are there for lawful enjoyment, even by the priest, but never for his fulfillment, and never for their own sake.
Even that exquisite happiness for the priest, seeing Our Lord forming Himself in his parishioners, especially the young, is but part, necessary, yes, but still only a part of his ultimate joy, leading to its essence: there before the Tabernacle, coping as best he can with the unfathomable reality – I am Christ among the people (Sacerdos alter Christus!)
Lest he despair, knowing himself, he is reminded from the Source of Love: "Don't you have Me? Don't I have you? What more do you want?"
There is no more. This is everything.
Fr John O'Neill STB, MASA, is the parish priest at Doonside in the Parramatta Diocese, NSW.