By the character of the sacrament of holy orders imprinted on his soul at the moment of ordination, the priest is made a sharer in the priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He participates, so to speak, in the grace of the hypostatic union, which unites the human nature of Jesus to the Divine Person of the Word who assumes it in the Incarnation.
Consequently, like Christ, the priest is established as a mediator between God and men: he forms the bridge between God who is to be placated and men who are to be reconciled. He is a pontiff, in Latin pontifex, “bridge-builder”. This is the doctrine of St. Paul: “Every high priest”, the Apostle says, “taken from among men is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb. 5:1), starting with the sacrifice par excellence, Holy Mass.
In return, the priest causes God’s mercy and graces to descend upon mankind: the Latin word for priest, sacerdos, means “sacra dans”: one who gives holy things to men. He is the minister of Christ the Priest in distributing the graces of Redemption. St. Paul declares this: “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). To sum up, the priest is another Christ: Sacerdos alter Christus.
The priest is also called “the man of God” (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 3:17). By his priestly character as well as by his sacred ministry, he is distinguished from simple baptized Christians, not by a difference of degree but essentially.
This doctrine was professed again by the Second Vatican Council: “Hence the priesthood of priests, while presupposing the sacraments of initiation, is nevertheless conferred by its own particular sacrament. Through that sacrament priests by the anointing of the Holy Ghost are signed with a special character and so are configured to Christ the priest in such a way that they are able to act in the person of Christ the Head.”
But the same Council, in its Constitution on the Church, also advocates a common priesthood of all the baptized; this Protestant-sounding expression in and of itself allows commentators to ignore the preceding truth and to adhere to error. Marcel Lefebvre disapproved of this duplicity.
St. Thomas Aquinas, to be sure, teaches that the three sacramental characters of baptism, confirmation and holy orders are participations in the priesthood of Christ, but he is careful not to say that the baptized or confirmed Christian receives any sort of “priesthood”.
The “common priesthood” is a priesthood only in a metaphorical sense, and in this sense St. Peter speaks about a “holy priesthood” or a “kingly priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5-9) that offers spiritual sacrifices. Although it is true that, by virtue of their baptismal character, simple Christians are invited to offer themselves and join in the Mass, this still does not make them ministerial priests.
Configured by his character to Christ the Priest, the priest, and he alone, has received the power to effect, at the consecration of the Mass, the transubstantiation of the bread into the Body of Christ and of the wine into the Blood of Christ. By repeating the words spoken by Christ at the Last Supper, he acts in the person of Christ the Priest as His privileged instrument. He makes really and substantially present the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ under the species—or appearances—of bread and wine. This unique power was given neither to the Virgin Mary nor to the angels.
In addition to this power over the Eucharistic Body of Jesus Christ, the priest also has a power over the Mystical Body of Christ, the members of the faithful people: the power to sanctify and to save souls. A young man called to a priestly vocation may be drawn more by the attraction of the altar or by zeal for souls, but the two always go together. Archbishop Lefebvre, dispelling a widespread error, defines the priestly vocation as follows:
A vocation is not the result of a miraculous or extraordinary call, but rather the blossoming of a Christian soul that is attached to its Creator and Savior Jesus Christ by an exclusive love and shares His thirst to save souls.”