God puts more stock in who a man is than in what he can do. That’s a pattern we see as we read the Scriptures, and it’s something we learn when we come to see our own wretchedness and need for Christ’s salvation. God equips the men and women He calls—not the other way around. That’s why St. John Henry Newman can claim in his sermon, “The Christian Ministry,” that priests of Christ are greater than even the greatest ministers of the Old Testament, including Abraham and Moses. Let’s look at how this principle works in the priesthood Christ has established and what it means for us today.
What is it about the office of the Christian priesthood that exalts its ministers above all others? Newman tells us plainly: “Let us consider in what the peculiar dignity of the Christian Minister consists. Evidently in this, that he is the representative of Christ; for, as Christ is infinitely above all other messengers from God, he who stands in His stead, must be superior, beyond compare, to all Ministers of religion, whether Prophets, Priests, Lawgivers, Judges, or Kings, whom Almighty God ever commissioned.” This is a hard truth to accept, compelled as we moderns are to grade and evaluate everyone and everything according to its productivity. The merit, if we want to think about it this way, is Christ’s alone. His priests are His messengers and so they carry the force and weight of His person.
The Scriptures show us that Christ Himself confers His authority to His Apostles. Newman points to three examples: Jesus giving the disciples authority over demons (Luke 9:1-2), Jesus breathing on the disciples and giving them authority to forgive sins (John 20:21-23), and several statements from the epistles of St. Paul, including, “So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (1 Cor. 5:20). Summarizing the priest’s role, Newman says, “By a Priest, in a Christian sense, is meant an appointed channel by which the peculiar Gospel blessings are conveyed to mankind, one who has power to apply to individuals those gifts which Christ has promised us generally as the fruit of His mediation.” Don’t miss those words—”in a Christian sense”—because there is nothing like the Christian (read Catholic) priesthood¹. The priests of other religions look similar to Catholic priests on the outside, but they are simply mediators, go-betweens, interpreters. A Catholic priest is an Alter Christus (literally “another Christ”).
This is exactly the point where some turn away. Many Protestants believe the Apostles were special and set apart, but they are not ready to believe their office continues to this day. And many Catholics simply see priests as men or leaders. Newman grants that “there is a strong line of distinction between the Apostles and other Christian Ministers,” but the very duties they exercised, including teaching, healing and baptizing, exist to serve the needs of God’s people. Since we have these same needs today, we need this ministry to continue. In short, Newman argues, if there are sacraments, then there must be sacred ministers.
Those who fail to accept these facts are prejudiced, Newman says. They look at Scripture or the Church without really being open to the truth. That they accept some truths of Scripture and not others makes them inconsistent, which “in a speculative age, such as our own, a religious education which involves such inconsistency, is most dangerous to the unformed Christian, who will set straight his traditionary creed by unlearning the portion of truth it contains, rather than by adding that in which it is deficient.”
What about us? Are we formed in the faith and seeking the truth, or are we prejudiced by some other way of looking at life? Prejudice blinds one to reality by narrowing the scope of one’s focus to the point of excluding reason. There are many people today, for example, who view life through a political lens. They interpret all leaders’ decisions, especially in the Church, as strictly human struggles for power and influence. Unfortunately, until this lens is removed, they will retain this narrow bias.
Christ has come not only to free us from sin but to free us to live in the truth. We have to do our part in seeking the truth by reading the Scriptures and teachings of the Church (like the Catechism) and learning from mature believers. Let’s also ask our Lord to free our minds and hearts, to open them as He did for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and to work in and through us, weak though we are, to bring others with us into the light of His truth.
¹ Newman gave this sermon in 1834, eleven years prior to converting to the Catholic faith. That said, he had developed an understanding of the priesthood which was beyond the Protestant concept of a minister.