Paul the Priest

The Church calls us from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18).  So we should not be surprised as the Year of St. Paul comes to a close, that Pope Benedict is preparing us for a “new year.” He has announced a Year of the Priest, which will run from June 19, 2009, to June 19, 2010.

The year marks the 150th anniversary of the death of that very holy parish priest, St. John Marie Vianney, the Cure of Ars. Let us look back—to St. Paul—as we look ahead to the Year of the Priest.

As an Apostle, St. Paul understood his role in priestly terms. He spoke of his calling as “the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:15-16).

Those are carefully crafted phrases, precise in their terms, each rich in evocative power. And what they evoke is priesthood. By grace, Paul had become a “minister.” In Greek the word is leitourgon, from which we get the English word “liturgy.” In St. Paul’s culture, this referred to a ritual role, a priestly role.

Thus, he goes on to say specifically that his work is a “priestly service”; and he further specifies that it is sacrificial. He speaks of the “offering of the Gentiles,” and prays that it may be “sanctified.”

He spoke of his apostolate as a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). In the Old Covenant, that role had been fulfilled by the priests, who brought about the forgiveness of sins through the expiating sacrifices of the Temple. Now, Paul can describe himself as a “steward of
God’s mysteries” (1 Cor 4:1), employing the common Greek term for the Church’s sacraments: mysteria.

Paul also identified himself repeat¬edly as an “ambassador of Christ” (2 Cor 5:20; Phlm 9). The ancient rabbis said that an ambas¬sador was to be received as the dignitary whom he represented. And indeed that is how the churches received St. Paul: they “received me,” he said, “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (Gal 4:14).

With the coming of Christ, there was a “change in the priesthood” (Heb 7:12). Jesus himself was the high priest of the New Covenant. In fact, Paul spoke of Jesus as both sacrificial priest and sacrificial victim (see Eph 5:2). But Jesus also shared his priesthood with men he designated as Apostles; and he commanded them to offer the sacrifice of the New Covenant (see 1 Cor 11:25).

So close was the Apostles’ communion with Jesus that they represented him– they re-presented him. When St. Paul forgave sins, he said that he did so en prosopo Christou (2 Cor 2:10). That Greek word prosopo is very rich. It literally means face, or it can also mean person or presence. The Latin Bible rendered that phrase as in persona Christi. Thus tradition has always read it: in the person of Christ.

That’s how St. Paul understood his priesthood: to be the presence, the person, and the face of Christ the High Priest. His is the face God showed to the Gentiles. Like Christ, St. Paul saw himself also as a sacrificial victim, “poured as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith” (Phil 2:17). The priesthood then, as now, was a call to self-giving.

By the rite of ordination, the Apostle conferred the gift of priesthood on a new generation (see 2 Tim 1:6). And so it has passed through the millennia. In this month of Our Lady in this year of St. Paul, we remember our priests in a special way, with thanksgiving, or Eucharistia.