Priestly Ministration in This Life and the Next

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review
June 1996
Reproduced with Permission

The Japanese ideograph for "priest" is transcribed as "shisai" whose meaning is "one who conducts sacred ceremonies." The ceremonies are, in this concept, not composed by the priest, but are a fixed ritual which the priest conducts in the manner already prescribed. The merit of the ritual is conceived as an opus operatum, having a value of its own when properly performed; a value which is beyond the more limited scope of the priest's expertise. The concept thus reflects the manner in which Christ ordained priests at the Last Supper: "Do this in memory of me." That is, consecrate the bread and wine in the manner I have shown you, as a memorial of my work.

The apostles interpreted this to mean that priests should speak the words of consecration just as Christ had spoken them: "This is my body ... This is my blood" (emphasis added). The rite indicates that only one Person functions at the altar at this time. The officiating priest yields his own personality to be identified with that of Christ. Christ speaks these words, which perform the miracle of transubstantiating the bread into his body, the wine into his blood.

Only God can perform that miracle-a wonder of nature; nature here assaults her natural laws and yields instead to God's direct interference. The priest who performs this rite identifies himself with God for the moment; with Christ the Lord, who performs the miracle. The priest sets the stage on which Christ can perform his rite-his sacrifice-over and over again, from the rising of the sun to the setting thereof. The apostles began to do this with the ceremony of the "Breaking of the Bread" (Acts 2:42) and priests have continued to do so faithfully during the succeeding centuries. What characterizes the priest most of all, then, is his official function of identifying himself with Christ at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Mass is the chief form of prayer for the priest.

Christ sacrifices himself in the Mass by obedience to the Father unto death. He prayed for strength to carry out his mission by falling on his knees and petitioning the Father during the agony in the garden. The Father sent an angel to strengthen him, while sweat poured from him as drops of blood (Luke 22:43). He went forth to his passion and death by the power of the Holy Spirit, being freely determined to do so with his human will as well as his divine will. By his obedience he merited to become the Savior of mankind, and the priest of the cosmos. For "in the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear" (Heb. 5:7). He nailed our sins to the cross with himself and destroyed them through his death, reconciling the world once more to the Father: "He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins" (Col. 1: 13).

The cosmos is now under the rule of Christ and will remain so until the day comes when he will deliver it to the Father: "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet .... For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.... When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to everyone" (I Cor. 15:25, 27, 28).

And it is this obedience of Christ-this sacrifice of the cross made real once more in the sacrifice of the Mass-which continually induces the Father to bless our cosmos and make it function for our benefit. The ministerial priest, who offers the obedient Christ in sacrifice, is thus instrumental in bringing to all mankind the blessings which God promised to the Israelites when they are obedient. For we all become obedient to the Father in Christ when we offer ourselves with him through the Mass; and the Father responds by opening his cornucopia of blessings for the whole world, in the manner which Moses described so well:

If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall last to the time of the vintage, and the vintage shall last to the time of sowing; and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in peace in the land securely. And I will give you peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid ....

And I will have regard for you, and will confirm my covenant with you .... And I will make my abode among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people (Lev. 26:3-6; 9; 11-12).

So long, then, as there is a critical mass of ministerial priests in the world, who offer Christ's obedience to the Father for the sake of our cosmos; who offer themselves together with Christ; and who induce their faithful to do likewise; so long can we expect with confidence that the Father will make our cosmos function for our human welfare; so long will he continue to make the sun to shine and the rains to fall on this earth before he allows the end to come.

Priests, then, are the preservers of our functioning cosmos, are the persons most responsible for obtaining God's gifts of peace and prosperity in this world. By offering Christ to the Father in obedience, and by their own obedience and that of their flock, priests merit that God continues to say to man, male and female: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28).

When the Israelites, while marching through the desert, were besieged by fire which consumed some of the outskirts of the camp, they cried out for salvation; they besought not the Lord directly, but Moses; Moses then prayed to the Lord for them, and the fire died down (Num. 11: 1-2). They trusted more in the prayer of Moses than in their own. People of the New Israel, when in distress, likewise look to their priests; they expect their prayers to be heard if the priest prays for them. Their trust is never in vain. Instinctively the People of God know that their own prayers are heard most readily by the Lord when they pray through a priest who offers the Sacrifice of the Mass. Their own prayers, they may feel, are like a kite which flies but a short distance into the sky. But when the priest offers their prayers through the Sacrifice of the Mass, their kites become a space ship, escaping nature's gravity and ascending into heaven where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father.

Since it is Christ who now controls our cosmos (see I Cor. 15:27), it is his power of prayer which induces God to make it function. When will this world come to an end? That day about which Christ said:

The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call and they will gather the elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (Matt. 24:29-31).

Priests, by their prayer, by their offering of the Mass, continue to hold up the sky so that our generation of people can live under it. They induce the Lord to keep the sun in place to warm our globe; to guide our earth safely through the hazards of orbiting asteroids; to prevent warring nations from triggering an atomic holocaust suicidal for the race; to prevent the race from extinguishing itself by diseases such as AIDS; or by smothering family life and so shutting down orderly human reproduction. We priests, perhaps unknowingly, are pillars who support the vault of the sky above us, to hold it in place for ourselves and for the next generation.

If priests fail, if the number of just priests and their faithful followers fall below a critical mass in the eyes of the Lord, shall we then expect the end? If a time comes when there are not even "ten just men" in a world which has become a Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Gen. 18:32), is it then that the Lord will destroy our earthly dwelling with fire and brimstone? That priests are largely responsible to postpone that day of wrath and gloom, we reasonably believe. To multiply good and faithful priests, then, appears to be the best guarantee for the safety of our cosmos and for the survival of the race.

But life on earth comes to an end for each and all of us. Christ consoled his apostles at the Last Supper with the memorable promise that he will go ahead of them, to prepare a place for them in heaven:

Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also (John 14:1-3).

And what activity will the apostles have when dwelling with Christ in heaven? Just being with Christ, and eating and drinking with him, is surely to be their central joy. But Christ promised even more: They will also be active with him doing the works of salvation by "judging the twelve tribes of Israel." That is, they will be engaged with himself in the government of the Church:

You are those who have continued with me in my trials; as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:2830).

The apostles heard these revealing promises from the very lips of Christ while they were eating at table with him in the Upper Room. The warmth and rapture of eating with Christ at the Last Supper was a foretaste of their coming feast in heaven. Because they were continuing to be with Christ in his trials, they would be rewarded with a place close to Christ at the table in heaven.

And from their vantage point at the heavenly banquet, they should continue their apostolic activities on earth by "judging the twelve tribes of Israel." With Christ they participate in the government of the Church and in providing it with internal life. And so the faithful rightly look to the apostles in heaven as sharing with Christ the on-going administrative government of the Church. In Eucharistic Prayer I we commemorate Mary and Joseph together with the apostles and martyrs and all the saints, asking that "their merits and prayers gain us your constant help and protection." Heaven, then, is for the apostles and saints not only companionship with Christ, but is, in addition, an energizing of their merits and prayers for munificence to us on earth.

From these words of Christ, in which he promises that the apostles will sit on thrones in heaven to govern with him the twelve tribes of Israel, we rightfully draw inferences about our own future activities in heaven. The love for Christ which we have built up during this life by sharing with him in his trials will not be extinguished with death; on the contrary, it will come into a full flowering of magnificent power in the life hereafter. (Whatever is deficient will be repaired beforehand in purgatory and by God's kind indulgence.) And we know that all we have done for the least of his brethren will be credited to us as having been done to him: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40).

If the apostles now spend their lives in heaven by doing beneficent activities for people on earth-which is another way of saying that they are seated on twelve thrones governing the twelve tribes of Israel-then we rightly assume that all the faithful who arrive in heaven continue there the good works they have begun on earth. Parents in heaven, at supper now with Christ, and governing the Church with him, will be specially mindful of their offspring through succeeding generations, and of all with whom they have special relationships. The saints of two thousand years ago can see their work survive in generation after generation whom they continue to help with their merits and prayers.

We confidently believe that the Church Triumphant in heaven is, in solidarity with Christ, actively assisting the Church Militant on earth. Each one in heaven will be specially mindful of the members of his personal household and all personal associates still on earth. Parents, grandparents, and great grandparents to the nth power, can share again and again in the miracle of baptism when Christ adopts one of their descendants into the Mystical Body. They can instill, with Christ, into the hearts of children at First Holy Communion, a celestial gift and joy which is a pledge of heaven to come. They can assist at the marriages of their descendants when the grace and seal of Christ bonds them to each other and into the heavenly family. The joys experienced on earth by people when doing good works are thus shared by their benefactors in heaven.

If all the saints in heaven are continuously engaged in doing good works for their own people on earth, then the priest will surely come fully into his own special powers and position there; with Christ, the priest in heaven can minister to the very large family which he has shepherded while on earth; the "hundredfold ... houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands" (Mark 10:30). These are the people for whom the priest was in labor to give them birth in Christ; whom he nourished with the word and bread of life, whom he strengthened when they were weak, whom he healed when they were ill. With Christ he now continues to come into their lives with the graces of spiritual salvation.

In addition, every priest, because he is another Christ, is wedded with him to the Church. He may not have the highest rank of an apostle who is entitled to sit on one of the twelve thrones to judge the entire Church, but he is nevertheless so bonded to Christ by his eternal priesthood that all of Christ's concerns are now his own. With Christ, then, the priest in heaven can assist believers on all the continents: in Africa, in North and South America, in Asia, Europe, Oceania, even in Antarctica. Everywhere the priest can assist the Church with Christ's grace "that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:26-27). The priest in heaven, then, is swept along by the love of Christ to do good to the entire Church.

Eventually will come the consummation, when the earth will "grow old like a garment," after God decides to roll up the cosmos like a mantle and change it (Heb. 1: 11 - 12). What will be the function of the apostles and saints in the Triumphant Church thereafter? That is, after the judgment is finished, at which the goats were consigned to eternal fire, and the sheep inherited the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (see Matt. 25)?

In the eternal eschaton the saints, and with them the holy priests, will enter with the Lord into the rest of the Sabbath. They will be at peace there in the fullness of eternal consolidated joy with the entire Mystical Body. Each member celebrates what was received from others, each affirms eternally what God has done through him or her for others. The time of creation yields to the time of eternal affirmation. The joy and success of each is celebrated in the vibrant Communion of Love. For this is the time-or lack of time-when fruition will last forever:

Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God willbe their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever (Rev. 22:1-5).

For all of us then, the meaning of life on earth is to grow into the love of Christ and to do his work while it is day. It is on earth where we build up our personality, where we capacitate ourselves for functions in the next life. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said fifteen centuries ago, "We are in a sense our own parents, and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good" (PG 44,702). For the priest this reflection provides a strong motivation to be what Christ calls him to be-another Christ. For the faithful in turn, the thought inspires them to make the most of their respective vocations, especially to maximize benefits available through the ministration of priests.