THE PRIESTHOOD SURPASSES ALL OTHER CREATED DIGNITIES
The sacerdotal dignity is the most noble of all the dignities in this world. “Nothing,” says St. Ambrose, “is more excellent in this world.” It transcends, says St. Bernard, “all the dignities of kings, of emperors, and of Angels.” According to St. Ambrose, the dignity of the priest as far exceeds that of kings, as the value of gold surpasses that of lead. The reason, is, because the power of kings extends only to temporal goods and to the bodies of men, but the power of the priest extends to spiritual goods and to the human soul. “Hence,” says St. Clement, “as much as the soul is more noble than the body, so much is the priesthood more excellent than royalty.” “Princes,” says St. John Chrysostom, “have the power of binding, but they bind only the bodies, while the priest binds the soul.”
The kings of the earth glory in honouring priests: “It is a mark of a good prince,” says Pope St. Marcellinus, “to honour the priests of God.” “They willingly,” says Peter de Blois, “bend their knee before the priest of God; they kiss his hands, and with, bowed down head receive his benediction.” “The sacerdotal dignity,” says St. Chrysostom, “effaces the royal dignity; hence the king inclines his head under the hand of the priest to receive his blessing.” In the Council of Nice, the Emperor Constantine wished to sit in the last place, after all the priests, and on a seat lower than that which they occupied; he would not even sit down without their permission. The holy king, St. Boleslaus, had so great a veneration for priests, that he would not dare to sit in their presence.
The sacerdotal dignity also surpasses the dignity of the Angels. The Angels in Heaven cannot absolve from a single sin. The Guardian Angels procure for the souls committed to their care grace to have recourse to a priest that he may absolve them: “Although,” says St. Peter Damian, “Angels may be present, they yet wait for the priest to exercise his power, but no one of them has the power of the keys-that is, to bind and to loose.” When St. Michael comes to a dying Christian who invokes his aid, the holy Archangel can chase away the devils, but he cannot free his client from their chains till a priest comes to absolve him. After having given the order of priesthood to a holy ecclesiastic, St. Francis de Sales perceived, that in going out he stopped at the door as if to give precedence to another. Being asked by the Saint why he stopped, he answered that God favoured him with the visible presence of his Angel guardian, who before he had received priesthood always remained at his right and preceded him, but afterwards walked on his left and refused to go before him. It was in a holy contest with the Angel that he stopped at the door. St. Francis of Assisi used to say, “If I saw an Angel and a priest, I would bend my knee first to the priest and then to the Angel.”
Besides, the power of the priest surpasses that of the Blessed Virgin Mary; for, although this Divine Mother can pray for us, and by her prayers obtain whatever she wishes, yet she cannot absolve a Christian from even the smallest sin. “The Blessed Virgin was eminently more perfect than the Apostles,” says Innocent III: “It was, however, not to her, but only to the Apostles, that the Lord entrusted the keys of the kingdom of Heaven.” St. Bernardine of Sienna has written: “Holy Virgin, excuse me, for I speak not against thee: the Lord has raised the priesthood above thee.” The Saint assigns the reason of the superiority of the priesthood over Mary; she conceived Jesus Christ only once; but by consecrating the Eucharist, the priest, as it were, conceives Him as often as he wishes, so that if the Person of the Redeemer had not as yet been in the world, the priest, by pronouncing the words of Consecration, would produce this great Person of a Man-God. “O wonderful dignity of priests,” cries out St. Augustine, “in whose hands, as in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, the Son of God becomes incarnate.” Hence priests are called the parents of Jesus Christ: such is the title that St. Bernard gives them, for they are the active cause by which He is made to exist really in the consecrated Host.
Thus the priest may, in a certain manner, be called the creator of his Creator, since by saying the words of Consecration, he creates, as it were, Jesus in the Sacrament, by giving Him a sacramental existence, and produces Him as a Victim to be offered to the Eternal Father. As in creating the world it was sufficient for God to have said: Let it be made, and it was created¬He spoke, and they were made-(Ps. xxxii. 9)-so it is sufficient for the priest to say, “Hoc est corpus meum,” and behold the bread is no longer bread, but the Body of Jesus Christ. “The power of the priest,” says St. Bernardine of Sienna, “is the power of the Divine Person; for the Transubstantiation of the bread requires as much power as the creation of the world.” And St. Augustine has written: “0 venerable sanctity of the hands! 0 happy function of the priest! He that created me (if I may say so) gave me the power to create Him; and He that created me without me is Himself created by me!” As the Word of God created Heaven and earth, so, says St. Jerome, the words of the priest create Jesus Christ. “At a sign from God there came forth from nothing both the sublime vault of the heavens and the vast extent of the earth; but not less great is the power that manifests itself in the mysterious words of the priest.” The dignity of the priest is so great, that he even blesses Jesus Christ on the altar as a Victim to be offered to the Eternal Father. In the sacrifice of the Mass, writes Father Mansi, Jesus Christ is the principal Offerer and Victim; as Minister, He blesses the priest, but as Victim, the priest blesses Him.