“Let a man so account us as the ministers of Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God.” (1 Cor. 4:1)
God delights in using instruments. He has His priests, kings, and prophets. He has His birds of the air, fishes of the sea, and beasts of the land. In a sense, we could say that all creation is an instrument of Almighty God for the accomplishment of His ends. But the greatest of His instruments is the humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The role of Jesus Christ
God and man
Jesus Christ is both God and man. What this means is that He has two natures—divine and human—and so two principles of activity. He can act solely as God, as He does in creating and conserving beings in existence. He can act solely as man, as He did when sleeping here on this earth (though of course He did not lose His divinity in doing so). But there is also a third activity available to Him, one whereby He acts according to both of His natures, actions which the Fathers of the Church called “theandric” or God-man activities. In such actions, His humanity is an instrument of His divinity.
Let us take an example of this third type of activity. Once while on this earth, Our Lord encountered a blind man who asked to receive his sight, and Our Lord graciously granted his request. Looking upon the blind man with His human eyes, He spoke the human words, “Receive thy sight”, while at the same time His divinity accomplished the miracle (Lk. 18:35-42). The activity of Our Lord’s humanity was the occasion and instrument for the working of a divine effect, beyond the power of any human nature.
Jesus Christ Instrument of all graces
In this example, we see some key characteristics of instrumental activity. There is both a principal agent and an instrumental one. Each acts according to its own proper activity. It is beyond the power of the instrument alone to produce the effect of the activity, yet the result is accomplished by the principal agent’s employing the instrument.
A breathtaking fact, which Catholics profess, is that God has willed that all supernatural benefits come to men, after the sin of Adam, through the humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ: “It has pleased God the Father that in Him all His fullness should dwell, and that through Him He should reconcile to Himself all things” (Col. 1:20). Our Lord’s human nature was united to the divinity from the first moment of conception. He has been constituted the new head of the human race and it is His role to raise up that race from its fallen state and lead it to its goal. He does this by providing men with supernatural life, by teaching them and by governing them. He does this in binding baptized men together in one mystical body, His Church, in which they communicate of His very life.
To this day, Our Lord gives divine grace to men through acts of His human intellect and will. He knows each one of us and our blindness, He takes pity on us, and He wills to bestow divine blessings on us to deliver us from our fallen state. Unlike the blind man, however, we are able to reject the grace that Christ bestows upon us: when He makes contact with us through His humanity, we can choose not to make the act of faith necessary to make contact with Him.
Those, however, who “hear His voice” (cf. Jn. 10:3) and cooperate with the grace of Christ, He leads to the sacrament of Baptism, the reception of which makes them members of His Church and infuses the life of Christ into their souls. This Church is His own Bride and He has endowed her not only with the means to introduce the life of Christ into the souls of her children through Baptism, but also to increase that life and efficaciously lead souls to Heaven. This work is done primarily and ordinarily through the instrumentality of Catholic priests.
The priest's function
Priest instrument of Jesus Christ
Similar to the way in which the humanity of Our Lord is the instrument of His divinity, the priest is the instrument of Our Lord Himself. At his ordination, a priest is given the power to act in the person of Jesus Christ. From that point, the priest, by pronouncing merely human words, such as “For this is My Body” or “I absolve you from your sins” accomplishes supernatural effects beyond human power. In those moments in which the priest is engaging the character of Holy Orders, Christ acts through him to grant spiritual benefits to souls. When a layman says “I absolve you” to a contrite friend, nothing supernatural happens. When a priest says these words, Christ washes that soul with His own Precious Blood.
Since priests are not the source of supernatural life, as Christ is, they are not able to give grace at will or establish new channels of grace. Christ gives grace how He wills, to whom He wills, in the degree He wills, and when He wills. Priests, on the other hand, only have powers to bless, to consecrate, and to sanctify the things that Christ has specified, in the precise way that He has specified.
At the same time, what a great power this is! Christ binds Himself to give grace to souls whenever a Catholic priest exercises the official functions of the priesthood. Even more striking, He binds Himself to make Himself present in the Holy Eucharist whenever a priest pronounces the words of consecration.
The sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary is of infinite value. Yet, because He desires that men cooperate in their own salvation, its fruits are ordinarily communicated to men through the instrumentality of the Catholic priesthood. An infinite treasure house of graces, the “unfathomable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8), are waiting to be applied to souls. Yet these graces are not often applied because of the fewness of priests. Many souls are lost because there are not sufficient priests to dispense the mysteries of Christ.
Instrument for governing
While the primary role of the priest is to act as an instrument of Christ to confer grace on souls, he also acts as an instrument of Christ in the office of governing. As Christ has charge over His Church and its members, so too do priests. The pope has charge over all Catholics, bishops over the members of their dioceses, and parish priests over their own faithful. This role of governance includes the duties of choosing members of the clergy, disciplining and even excommunicating the wayward, organizing the use of Church resources, and conducting initiatives for the salvation of souls.
Instrument for teaching
A final aspect of the instrumentality of the priest is his role as teacher. When Christ came on this earth, He gave to the Apostles the fullness of revelation, i.e. the body of truths which must be believed in order to be saved. With this Deposit of Faith came the duty to preserve and transmit it. Priests are instruments for the communication of revealed truths, in a way similar to that of our Divine Lord. Again, they are not the source of these truths and have no authority to teach new truths, but their mission is to pass on the truths that came from Him in the very same meaning and sense in which the Apostles received them.
Let us review and summarize. God makes use of instruments to communicate of His goodness. The humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ is His greatest instrument. Our Lord as God bestows all supernatural gifts through acts of His human intellect and will. He unites men by supernatural bonds in the body of the Church, and leads the elect to their heavenly home. But Our Lord does not do everything by Himself, as He delights in using instruments. Thus, He calls upon the Church to choose certain men to become priests and act in His name. These priests sanctify souls through the powerful channels of grace which Christ has established. They transmit the saving truths which Christ gave to the Apostles, and they govern the flock of Christ, so as to lead souls to Him.
Every human being is made for Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the human race as a whole belongs to Him. As such, no greater role is possible for a man than becoming an instrument of Jesus Christ in the Catholic priesthood.