TIlE SUBLIME DIGNITY OF THE PRIESTHOOD
In his Epistle to the Christians of Smyrna, St. Ignatius, Martyr, says that the priesthood is the most sublime of all created dignities: “The apex of dignities is the priesthood.” St. Ephrem calls it an infinite dignity: “The priesthood is an astounding miracle, great, immense, and infinite.” St. John Chrysostom says, that though its functions are performed on earth, the priesthood should be numbered among the things of Heaven. According to Cassian, the priest of God is exalted above all earthly sovereignties, and above all celestial heights -he is inferior only to God. Innocent III says that the priest is placed between God and man; inferior to God, but superior to man.
St. Denis calls the priest “a divine man.” Hence he has called the priesthood “a divine dignity.” In fine, St. Ephrem says that the gift of the sacerdatal dignity surpasses all understanding. For us it is enough to know, that Jesus Christ has said that we should treat His priests as we would His own person: He that heareth you, heareth me; he that despiseth you, despiseth me-(Luke x. 16). Hence St. John Chrysostom says, that “he who honours a priest, honours Christ, and he who insults a priest, insults Christ.” Through respect for the sacerdotal dignity, St. Mary of Oignies used to kiss the ground on which a priest had walked.
The dignity of the priest is estimated by the exalted nature of his office. Priests are chosen by God to manage on earth all His concerns and interests. “Divine,” says St. Cyril of Alexandria; “are the offices confided to priests.” St. Ambrose has called the priestly office “a divine profession.” A priest is a minister destined by God to be a, public ambassador of the whole Church, to honour Him, and to obtain His graces for all the faithful. The entire Church cannot give to God as much honour, nor obtain so many graces, as a single priest by celebrating a single Mass; for the greatest honour that the whole Church without priests could give to God would consist in offering to Him in sacrifice the lives of all men. But of what value are the lives of all men compared with the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which is a Sacrifice of infinite value? What are all men before God but a little dust? As a drop of a bucket . . as a little dust-(Is. xl. 15, 17). They are but a mere nothing in His sight. All nations are before him as if they had no being at all. Thus, by the celebration of a single Mass, in which he offers Jesus Christ in Sacrifice, a priest gives greater honour to the Lord, than if all men by dying for God offered to Him the sacrifice of their lives. By a single Mass he gives greater honour to God than all the Angels and Saints, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, have, given or shall give to Him; for their worship cannot be of infinite value, like that which the priest celebrating on the altar offers to God.
Moreover, in the holy Mass the priest offers to God an adequate thanksgiving for all the graces bestowed even on the Blessed in Paradise; but such a thanksgiving all the Saints together are incapable of offering to God. Hence it is that on this account also the priestly dignity is superior even to all celestial dignities. Besides, the priest, says St. John Chrysostom, is an ambassador of the whole world, to intercede with God and to obtain graces for all creatures. The priest, according to St. Ephrem, “treats familiarly with God.” To priests every door is open.
Jesus has died to institute the priesthood. It was not necessary for the Redeemer to die in order to save the world; a drop of His Blood, a single tear, or prayer, was sufficient to procure salvation for all; for such a prayer, being of infinite value, would be sufficient to save not one but a thousand worlds. But to institute the priesthood, the Death of Jesus Christ has been necessary. Had He not died, where should we find the Victim that the priests of the New Law now offer? Where find a victim altogether holy and immaculate, capable of giving to God an honour worthy of God? As has been already said, all the lives of men and Angels are not capable of giving to God an infinite honour like that which a priest offers to Him by a single Mass.