A friend of mine recently sent me an email about a conversation she had with a friend. It was interesting to me, so I thought I would share it publicly (with her permission, and with names changed to protect the innocent).
The email was generated by a talk that had recently been given by a priest about the priesthood. During that talk, the priest noted that, by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, priests are “ontologically different” from laypeople.
(For those without a dictionary handy, the word “ontological” is a philosophical term that refers to the study of the nature of a being, asking the question “what is this, in its essence, as opposed to its mere accidental features?”. This would include a study of how beings can be distinguished from and compared to other kinds of beings.)
Here is what my friend’s interlocutor said about the priest’s talk:
His comment about priests being “ontologically different” is pure clerical ideology. That is the kind of self-serving mindset that makes anti-clerics of the best of us. There was much grace of the rest of his talk. But that comment nearly made me get up and walk out. I fear for the mental health of young seminarians having to assent to that kind of inflated view of the priesthood—a form of magical thinking, really.
This comment is shocking, in a way, but not too surprising in another. It shocks me that any Catholic would blithely dismiss the notion that those who receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders are different from laypeople. After all, we believe that sacraments are not just symbols, or commissioning ceremonies, but that they actually confer the grace they signify. How can we not be essentially changed when we receive such a direct grace?
But it doesn’t surprise me in another way. Our modern world tends to look at the priesthood as just a job, a career that some men choose. If we look at the priesthood in such blandly naturalistic terms, then the comment makes some sense. But the priesthood is so much more than that.
Here’s what I responded to my friend:
I would recommend to this person that she read a talk given by Cardinal O’Connor, who explained better than anyone I have ever seen what it means to become a priest. Pope John Paul wrote extensively about this in his apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis.
Here’s a key passage from Cardinal O’Connor:
“In my judgment, this concept of the ontological nature of the priesthood, is critical. We don’t just put on vestments; we don’t just receive an assignment. Neither makes us priests. We become priests at ordination. There is an “ontological change” in our spiritual nature. Such is a profound mystery. Is it too bold an analogy to compare the change to Christ the Son of God’s retaining His Divinity while becoming a man? Or to observe that after bread becomes the Sacred Body of Christ, it still tastes like bread and feels like bread, but is now the Body of Christ? There has been an ontological change. A cup of wine still smells like wine and tastes like it, but it is now the Blood of Christ. At ordination an ontological change takes place.”
The person you spoke to, unfortunately, is stuck with a modernist model of the priesthood that focuses solely on role, activity, and status – as if the priesthood were purely temporal with no regard for the supernatural. Such is not at all the essence of what it is to be a priest. Just as in the Sacrament of Baptism, we all are claimed for Christ and transformed in the Holy Spirit who comes to dwell within us, the priest is transformed by the Sacrament of Holy Orders and united with Christ in a bond that is not just imitative of what He did, but that unites him to who He is. Which is to say: a sacrifice given for the many for the salvation of the world, a servant of the servants of God, the man who stoops to wash the feet of his disciples and to lift up in healing the sinful woman.
There is nothing of mental illness or arrogance or self-serving here. If anything, I think an ordinand would be terrified in approaching the altar of ordination, struck down in humility at their unworthiness for such a grace. The fact that so many men still do this is far from a sign of a mental health problem, but a testament to the heroism that is given them by the Holy Spirit, as on the first day of Pentecost.
Last Saturday, ten men were ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They weren’t being accepted for a job, they were being configured to Christ Himself.
It is no accident that, during the ordination ceremony, they lay on the floor with their arms outstretched — as if placing their bodies on the Cross with Christ.
In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul spoke of the new life in Christ that had come to him in Baptism and faith, but it has special relevance to what happened at the Cathedral on Saturday, and what happens to every man ordained to the priesthood:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
That’s no accident — that’s an ontological change.