Before we can understand why there have to be priests, we have to understand which things are essential, i.e., those which are necessary to us, some of which are absolutely necessary.
Food is absolutely necessary for the body, but vegemite is not, despite what some might say. Material food, however, is not absolutely necessary for the whole man - body and soul - because even if he starves to death, he will continue to exist; for lack of food cannot destroy his eternal soul.
The reality is that what is absolutely necessary has to do with that life which never ends.
Once we arrive at this truth, we should be awestruck at the discoveries to be made. What we discover is not only God but that He has let us know so much about what He is like (Revelation): that in God there are Three Divine Persons, distinct and equal in all things, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The next step is to get into proportion the world we live in, and the relative importance of the things we do and the things that happen to us while we are in it. We come to see that the vast bulk of reality has been going on forever, that God the Father has been loving God the Son always, the Son loving the Father always, and that their mutual and eternal love is the person of the Holy Spirit.
We find out then that the Father has created, out of love, and that He has created man; but that man, under Lucifer's temptation, tried to put himself as the only source and goal of his happiness ("You shall be as gods!"). This went completely against his nature, since it was created in such a way that only by possessing God could it be fulfilled. So he cut himself off from God.
God the Son, seeing this dreadful ingratitude to his Father, joined the created race to bring it back again by his love for both his Father, and the human race. That love was shown in the most vivid way possible, through agonising suffering and death. So, the absolutely necessary work on earth is the work of God the Son, Jesus Christ, bringing mankind back to the Father and its only complete fulfilment.
The priest of the Catholic Church, by the Sacrament of Order, keeps going on earth God the Son's eternal love for God the Father and mankind whom He created; and that love is in the Divine Nature, our source and purpose of existence, and absolutely necessary.
Here we see why celibacy is so entwined into the priesthood: through the Sacrament of Order, a man's love is absorbed by and lifted into the love of God the Son for God the Father, and the Son's complete and direct love for all mankind. Despite the holiness and wonder of married love, the priest's love is so absorbed in Christ and all mankind that it works on a higher plane even than that of marriage.
The necessity of a prayerful mind in the priest is therefore obvious, so that his oneness in what Christ thinks and wants is achieved, by grace, daily more and more.
So the priest goes among people to bring them "the Good News" that goes to the essence of man's nature and fulfils his essential needs. Man needs to know how he should live for the sake of earthly and eternal happiness ("I am the Way"); to know what he is, what God is like, what happens after inevitable death of the body ("I am the Truth"); and to have the means of overcoming his sinful weak nature and reaching a life that is above his nature ("I am the life").
A priest's work is the most essential of all - and may we priests and our people never forget or cease to appreciate this.
He must live the way, preach the truth and provide the means of the life - the Mass and the Sacraments, in celebrating which, he has to forget himself, and let the presence of the active Christ take him over.
What should motivate a man to become a priest? He should be fascinated by Jesus Christ and the people's need for Him. Everything else grows from that attraction.
Christ is why he wants to pray; why and what he wants to tell others; why he wants to keep Christ's act of love on the Cross living on among the people and where they live their lives; why he wants to bring them God's forgiveness; and why he wants to bring them into Christ's family, strengthen them in His service, make Godly their love in marriage, and set their vision and hope clearly and finally in their Father's direction when their time on earth is ending.
Young Catholic men, if you want "a joy that cannot be described" (Peter) then be fascinated by Christ, and follow him into his priesthood.
First, make sure you have the real Christ as revealed, especially in the Gospels, and not the vague, wimp invention of some moderns. Then, do not be put off by the years of study, or the changeable details of seminary systems. That all soon passes.
Let your first love be the divine guest in the tabernacle and relate all your theology to knowing the real Christ more intimately. By an ever-intensifying faith, keep your eyes on Christ, and your heart set on being determined to help his people, not by patting them on their heads and encouraging them to compromise with the world, but by leading them to Heaven.
What a mystery! How can the Church ever be short of priests? She will not be, not when more Catholics know and live once more Jesus Christ as he really is. May those words of his not put us off, but draw us into the place where he and his Father are, by the action of the Holy Spirit: "If any man will be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me."
Fr John O'Neill is parish priest at Doonside in the Diocese of Parramatta, NSW.