The Priesthood as Consecration

Looking at the priesthood in the modern world, particularly through the lens of consecration, requires an initial reexamination of terms.  Through time and the development of thought, concepts such as “the sacred” and “consecration” can become obscured and equivocal. 

Perhaps, unique among all ages of human history, modernity is remarkable in its almost complete disregard for the distinction between the sacred and profane.  Modern science has “disenchanted” the world, reducing reality to that which can be analyzed empirically and, thereby, eliminating the niche for the supernatural.  God and faith have been inevitably relegated to the Kantian noumenon, where they are beyond human perception, and are practically unknowable.  The challenge for Christianity, however, is that it is at its core incarnational: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him…” (Rom 8:28, RSV).  Not only can we say “God is in all things, 1 but further, man is able to set aside parts of the world to God.  By consecration (from the Latin “to make sacred, set apart”), objects or specific areas are marked as sacred and, therefore, different from the rest of the world, bearing a special relationship with the divine.  Central to the reality of consecration, and inextricably linked with it, is the priesthood.  Priests, being consecrated and commissioned with the task of consecrating, are faced with the challenge of functioning in a world that fails to even recognize a sacred realm at all.  The Catholic priesthood, in particular, finds itself in a state of crisis.  With the priesthood—in its very essence being a consecration—reviving a sense of the sacred, and a grasp of the priestly identity as consecrated, are essential to revitalizing the priesthood, and its ability to sanctify the world.  Pope John Paul II writes in Pastores dabo vobis, “A correct and in-depth awareness of the nature and mission of the ministerial priesthood is the path which must be taken … in order to emerge from the crisis of priestly identity.” 2

Looking at the priesthood in the modern world, particularly through the lens of consecration, requires an initial reexamination of terms.  Through time and the development of thought, concepts such as “the sacred” and “consecration” can become obscured and equivocal.  Josef Pieper, renowned for his fundamental clarity in parsing concepts with long confused meanings, provides the philosophical starting point in his work, In Search of the Sacred.  He introduces his study using the common experience of acting differently when entering a “sacred place.”  At a war memorial, a church, or even a restaurant, certain actions are unacceptable for the sake of showing a proper respect.  Regardless of what is being shown respect, the explanation is ultimately that, “within the world’s total framework of space and time, accessible to man, there do exist specific exceptional and separated spaces and times, distinct from the ordinary and, therefore, possessing a special and unique dignity.” 3  Humanity innately senses the transcendent value of certain places and things, which are to be treated differently.

This sense captures the distinction between the sacred and profane.  The Greek root of holy (hagios) and Latin root of sacred (sanctus) both bespeak a sense of separation from the “profane” (at its root, innocuously meaning the area in front of the temple gates). 4  Analogous to the relationship between the objects of science and philosophy, the sacred and profane are two different aspects of the one reality. 5  The profane is not the unholy, but rather, it is distinct from the holy that is consecrated in a “special orientation toward the divine realm.” 6  This distinction ultimately relies on faith.  Sacred actions and things are sacramental in that their meaning intangibly proceeds from the divine. 7  In secularized modernity, the real has been almost completely reduced to the empirical.  Nothing can be consecrated and respected as transcendentally worthy of respect, which has led to a vacuity in the meaning of the priesthood.

Pieper goes on to show how essential consecration truly is to priestly identity, examining the process by which something is consecrated.  First, a person, place, or object is “dedicated” (dedicatio) to God; it is removed from the realm of the useful, to the sacramental, as an offering.  It is then “consecrated” (consecratio) in the formal ratification of the offering by the higher authority. 8  A priest offers himself to God in self-sacrifice, renouncing “explicitly and permanently the common standards of a life aimed at ‘making a living’ and ‘being useful to society’ and, at the same time, vows himself to the exclusive service of God.” 9  The consecration is then accomplished by God through the bishop.  “It is precisely here that the decisive difference between commissioning and consecration becomes evident: the one accepting a commission is not changed in his inner nature, while the one being consecrated receives a new and essential inner quality – the consecration transforms him into a persona sacra.” 10  Priesthood is separated from any other sort of ministry in that it is a consecration, it is an ontological change in the individual by which he enters a special relationship with the transcendent.

Pieper thus reaches philosophically the theological nature of priesthood, as affirmed in the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ministry and the Life of Priests (Presbyterorum ordinis): “Priests by the anointing of the Holy Spirit 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.” 11  The priest, by being consecrated, is imprinted with a sacramental character that sets him apart as a “sacred person,” who in a special way acts in the person of Christ.  He is conformed in a unique manner to Christ, the priest, who is ultimately the fulfillment of all priesthood.  The Letter of the Hebrews emphasizes this fulfillment:

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins … He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first, for his own sins and, then, for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself. (Heb 5:1, 7:27)

While the priesthood has a fundamentally non-denominational meaning, and is not unique to Christianity, Christ brings new meaning to it by his fulfillment.  Intrinsic to this concept of fulfillment is an understanding that Christ does not abolish what came before, but rather perfects it. 12  To understand the imperfection of all prior priesthood is to grasp the perfection which is bestowed by Christ.

Throughout the history of human cult, figures have arisen who are set apart to specialize in those matters of ritual, and of the divine.  Jean Galot, in his definitive work on the priesthood, Theology of the Priesthood, writes, “The priest is precisely cultic, and seeks to establish personal relations with superior forces with a view to securing their protection.” 13  In ancient world religions, there was a recognition of a divine realm that belonged to the competence of certain professionals set apart.  Judaism, though unusual in its belief in one God, was no exception.  The manner of consecration is recorded in the Book of Exodus, “Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests … And you shall take the anointing oil, and pour it on his head and anoint him” (Ex 29:1, 7).  While priestly function in the age of the patriarchs was largely unspecialized and conducted by tribal leaders and heads of families, those of Aaron’s family, and the tribe of Levi, were set apart as a hereditary priesthood. 14  They were consecrated and, thus, given sole rights to enter the tent and sanctuary. 15, and attend to the tent of meeting, for all the service of the tent; and no one else shall come near you.  And you [Aaron] shall attend to the duties of the sanctuary and the duties of the altar, that there be wrath no more upon the sons of Israel” (Nm 18:4-5).]  Consequently, they were not given their own portion of the Promised Land, but were to be provided dwelling by the other tribes. 16  As described by Pieper, the setting apart entailed a rejection of earthly entanglements for the sake of divine service. 

David Bohr, in his work, The Diocesan Priest: Consecrated and Sent, elaborates on this Old Testament understanding of priestly consecration.  He writes:

When men were installed as priests, they were “made holy” (in Hebrew, qiddes – cf. 1 Sam 7:1).  Holiness was not here considered to be a moral quality, but rather referred to being set apart to serve God, who alone is holy.  To make someone a priest was to separate him from the profane so that he could more appropriately approach God as a mediator on behalf of the people by bringing their prayers and sacrifices to the sanctuary or temple. 17

Approaching God, the Holy One, required a distance from profane things of the world.  The Scriptures speak often of the consequences for approaching God improperly, whether it be Nadab and Abihu who offered unholy fire and were consumed in flames (Lv 10:1-2), or God’s explicit warning, “If anyone else comes near, he shall be put to death” (Nm 3:10).  Ritual purity, in some way, made one worthy enough to enter the sanctuary, and act as mediator between God and man.

Jesus Christ, then, is the fulfillment of priesthood, as he is the perfect mediator who can truly approach God worthily.  Hebrews describes Christ, “For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Heb 7:26).  While priests had been consecrated to enter the sanctuary and sacrifice, their holiness was not necessarily moral, but rather a matter of their separation.  Attached to Jesus’ name, however, is the title Christ, the anointed one, the messiah.  As Joseph Ratzinger writes, “with Jesus, it is not possible to distinguish office and person … The person is the office; the office is the person.” 18  He is, in his very essence, consecrated, anointed by God with the Holy Spirit. 19  Galot highlights this exceptional sacredness as evidenced in Christ’s life: the manner of his conception by the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:26-38), his presentation in the temple (Pope Benedict XVI notes the Greek paristánai alludes to the offering of sacrifice, 20 Lk 2:22-40), and his baptism in the Spirit which inaugurated his ministry (Mt 3:13-17, Mk 1:9-11, Lk 3:21-22).  Jesus’ consecration comes not from man, but directly from God. 21  As opposed to all prior priesthood, Christ is the worthy mediator in his holiness and perfect consecration.

Being fundamentally different in his consecration, Christ, as priest, subsequently redefines the priesthood.  Galot writes:

Consecration culminates in Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice.  In the priestly prayer, Jesus declares: “…for their sake, I consecrate myself so that they too may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:19)…Here, he declares that he is called upon to live this consecration fully by consecrating himself through sacrifice. 22

Christ reveals the fullest expression of what it means to be consecrated in his sacrificial self-offering on the cross.  Hebrews continues, “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then, through the greater and more perfect tent … he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:11-12).  In his perfection, Christ was able to hand himself over as a worthy offering to secure the salvation of all mankind.  To be truly consecrated as a priest and act in the person of Christ, therefore, is no longer a matter of offering holocausts, but of offering oneself as priest and victim.  The “persona sacra” is set apart not only to handle sacred vessels and offerings, but also to be offered himself for the salvation of others.

Christ speaks of this consecration, which he hands on to his apostles, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sake, I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:18-19).  Presbyterorum ordinis emphasizes the meaning of this transmission:

Christ, whom the Father sanctified, consecrated and sent into the world, “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and cleanse for himself an acceptable people, pursuing good works”(Tt 2:14), and, thus, through suffering, entered into his glory. In like fashion, priests consecrated by the anointing of the Holy Spirit and sent by Christ must mortify the works of the flesh in themselves and give themselves entirely to the service of men. It is in this way that they can go forward in that holiness with which Christ endows them to perfect man. 23

Priests, too, are consecrated in the Holy Spirit, and grow in perfection, inasmuch as they serve others in advancing toward salvation.  Further, while the cross is the culmination of Christ’s consecration, his whole life serves as a model for the unfolding of that consecration. 24  Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Formation of Priests, Pastores dabo vobis, highlights another image of Christ: “By virtue of their consecration, priests are configured to Jesus, the good shepherd, and are called to imitate and to live out his own pastoral charity.” 25  As a shepherd of souls, the priest’s self-offering takes the form of pastoral charity in his ministry.  Lumen gentium makes explicit the major dimensions of this ministry, “By the power of the sacrament of Orders, in the image of Christ, the eternal high Priest, they are consecrated to preach the Gospel, and shepherd the faithful, and to celebrate divine worship.” 26  It is through proclaiming the Gospel, and celebrating the sacraments as a faithful leader, that the priest shepherds souls for Christ.   

The essence of the priest as consecrated is thus revealed in light of the relationship between traditional priesthood and its transformation in Christ.  Throughout human history, priests have been set apart to be mediators between God and man.  Imperfect as they were, they embraced a more limited connection with the profane world to enter the sanctuary in an acceptable manner.  Jesus elevated this ancient priesthood through his own priesthood, being himself consecrated to God perfectly.  In that perfect consecration, he was able to offer himself completely to the Father, a sacrifice which wrought redemption once and for all.  He in turn commissioned priests to share in his consecration through a particular conformity to this offering.  The life of a priest imitates that of Christ inasmuch as his “setting apart” allows him to act as mediator between God and man, inasmuch as he in turn serves the sheep of his flock and leads them to salvation.  Christ, therefore, ultimately shows that the priesthood is a balance between two opposites, i.e., being set apart while, at the same time, being the leaven in the dough of the world (Mt 13:33).

While it can be difficult to reconcile these two aspects of priesthood, looking to situations in which one is neglected, shows the danger of leaning toward either extreme.  The Jewish, cultic priesthood during the time of Christ exemplifies just such an exaggeration, i.e., being completely set apart.  While consecration requires a separation from the profane, it can also lead to a clericalization by which the priest no longer serves the people for which he is mediator.  The parable of the Good Samaritan reveals Christ’s condemnation of this extreme.  With a man beaten and half dead on the side of the road, the priest and Levite cross the street to avoid ritual impurity, while the Samaritan is lauded by Christ for assisting (Lk 10:25-37). Similarly, Christ violates Pharisaical Sabbath law to miraculously heal the sick (Mk 3:1-6), and eats with sinners, challenging the naysayers, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13).  One is set apart for the sake of others; priestly holiness is in its essence becoming a persona sacra through whom others encounter the divine.  As John Paul II wrote, “These are elements connected with the priest’s ‘consecration’ … which equips and obliges him to be a ‘living instrument of Christ the eternal priest’ …” 27  Like a sacred object, while it is set apart from profane use, it remains an instrument of sacred use.

The opposite extreme is found in the functionalist view, where a priest stands as a member of society with merely a different function.  Martin Luther was a preeminent proponent of this view.  Bohr summarizes Luther’s stance, “Martin Luther held that a priest who never preaches the Word of God has stopped functioning and, thereby, ceases to be a priest.  The idea of an indelible character for him was a human invention lacking scriptural basis.” 28  One is a priest inasmuch as he exercises a ministry of service.  Apart from that, there is nothing essentially changed through consecration.  In Pieper’s terms, a priest is merely commissioned, not in his essence changed into a persona sacra.  Yet, the priest stands in the person of Christ, who was, in his very being, consecrated as the Messiah.  Galot emphasizes the importance of ordination reaching to one’s very being:

The priesthood engages us more radically at the level of our doing precisely because it affects what we are.  In all this, we recognize a distinctive sign that God is at work: he wants to gain possession of the whole person, and not only the upper and visible layer, which is the person’s activity. 29

The whole priest must be consecrated that he may exercise his ministry of offering and shepherding in union with Christ.  Priestly virtue becomes part of his character, and is expressed in holy action.  The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Priestly Training, Optatum totius, speak of celibacy as a clear, external sign of this handing over of the whole person, “Let {seminarians} recognize, however, the surpassing excellence of virginity consecrated to Christ, so that, with a maturely deliberate and generous choice, they may consecrate themselves to the Lord by a complete gift of body and soul.” 30

The virtue of priestly consecration thus lies as the means between two extremes.  To be set apart, and yet fail to serve others, defeats the purpose of one’s consecration.  To serve without being set apart destroys the foundation upon which priestly mediation depends.  Consecration is thus a “setting aside to be able to,” with capacity flowing from identity.  This balance can be seen most clearly in the culmination of consecration, the sacrifice of Calvary, which is re-presented at each Mass through the priest.  It is written in Presbyterorum ordinis, “In the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which priests fulfill their greatest task, the work of our redemption is being constantly carried on.” 31  The identity of the priest remains inexorably united to the Eucharist.  Understood as consecrated, the priest is set apart to exercise a unique role in the Mass, executing it for the sake of the ecclesia he represents.  He is consecrated to God so that he can say, “This is my body,” in the place of Christ and do so on behalf of the people.         

It is, perhaps, a revival of this integrated understanding of consecration which can serve to counteract the priestly identity crisis.  Pieper writes:

And it would be difficult to shake my conviction that the ultimate and, perhaps, the only cause of that much-discussed “identity crisis” of the priesthood nowadays is anything else but the unwillingness or even inability—for several reasons—to acknowledge and accept the connection between the sacramental, consecration action of the priest, and the divine presence in the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice. 32

In a secularized world, the priest may lose sight of his status as a persona sacra, one who is separated from others so that he may bring them into contact with the divine.  Nevertheless, a priest fulfills his consecration in imitating Christ’s priesthood, of emptying himself as the victim, consummated on Calvary, and re-presented at every Mass.  Faith in the Eucharist, and the transcendent nature and function of priesthood, flow from a belief in consecration, and serve to reinforce its importance.  Rather than rejecting his own value in a world without a sacred realm, the priest must proceed from his consecration, reawakening the sense of the sacred in the world, which he must in turn consecrate for God.

  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, New Advent website (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1008.htm), I, 8, 1 (accessed 9 April 2013).
  2. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day Pastores dabo vobis (25 March 1992), Holy See website (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031992_pastores-dabo-vobis_en.html), 11 (accessed 9 April 2013).
  3. Josef Pieper, In Search of the Sacred (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991), 13.
  4. Ibid., 13, 16.
  5. Ibid., 20-21.
  6. Ibid., 23.
  7. Pieper, 27-28.
  8. Ibid., 60.
  9. Ibid., 61.
  10. Ibid., 62.
  11. Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Prebyterorum ordinis (7 December 1965), Holy See website (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_presbyterorum-ordinis_en.html), 2 (accessed 9 April 2013).
  12. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17).
  13. Jean Galot, The Theology of the Priesthood (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1985), 19.
  14.  Galot, 21, cf. Nm 3.
  15. “{The Levites} shall join you [Aaron
  16. “The Lord said to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, ‘Command the sons of Israel that they give to the Levites pasture lands round about the cities…” (Nm 35:1-2ff.)
  17. David Bohr, The Diocesan Priest: Consecrated and Sent (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2009), 15.
  18.  Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 203 (emphasis original).
  19. “(H)ow God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
  20. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 82.
  21.  Galot, 38-39.
  22. Ibid., 39-40.
  23. Prebyterorum ordinis, 12.
  24. Galot, 39.
  25. Pastores dabo vobis, 22.
  26.  Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium (21 November 1964), Holy See website (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html), 28 (accessed 9 April 2013).
  27. Pastores dabo vobis, 20.
  28. Bohr, 77.
  29. Galot, 202.
  30. Second Vatican Council, Decree on Priestly Training, Optatum totius (28 October 1965), Holy See website (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651028_optatam-totius_en.html), 10 (accessed 9 April 2013).
  31. Presbyterorum ordinis, 13.
  32. Pieper, 30.
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avatar About Joseph Scolaro

Joseph Scolaro is a transitional deacon studying for the Diocese of Rockville Centre at St. Joseph's Seminary, New York. He received an M.A. in theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, New York, and a B.S. in biology and philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He will be ordained to the priesthood, (God willing) on June of 2014.

Comments

  1. Hello Dcn Scolaro,
    The obscured character of consecration for those in the clergy is not very different, it seems to me, from the same confusion concerning consecration among the laity. We who are consecrated to Christ and His mission by Baptism and Confirmation in the laity struggle as well in this highly secularized culture. Remaining in faith, walking in the world while grounded in the sacred demands of us a deep and intimate closeness to God in Christ. We must learn the habit of prayer, the habit of looking always for the supernatural in the midst of the natural, the work of God amid the circumstances of man.

    Thanks be to God for the grace He gives us, and for His light that is always present, even in the darkness surrounding us, and threatening us, of unbelief.

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