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A priest is one who sacrifices. The ancient Jewish priests performed the Torah sacrifices. Today the Catholic priest celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
In this he is different from the Jewish rabbi or the Protestant minister. They do not sacrifice. Their counterpart is the Catholic deacon, who like them is a proclaimer of God’s teaching and a leader in prayer.
At the Last Supper, Jesus told the apostles, Lk 22:19 “Do this in remembrance of me.” He celebrated with them the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In humble obedience of Christ’s command the apostles, after attending Jewish worship, celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. Acts 2:46 “Day by day, attending the Temple together and breaking bread in their homes ” Today, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is still very much as it was then. We have a Liturgy of the Word, which follows the Jewish worship with its Scripture readings, prayers, and songs, followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the sacrament Christ instituted at the Last Supper, which re-presents Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
In the early Church, bishops, successors to the apostles, celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As their workload became more extensive each bishop began to form presbyters, who became the governing body of their community. Since they had no official duties, the bishops began to ask their presbyters to teach, celebrate Mass, and baptize. Gradually they became known as the presbyterate. Because their primary work was celebrating the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, they were called priests.
A priest holds the middle degree of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, below the bishop but above the deacon.
Jesus ordained the apostles as bishops at the Last Supper when He said, Lk 22:19 “Do this in remembrance of me.” All Catholic bishops are successors of the apostles. Jesus told His apostles, and by extension their successors, Mt 10:40 “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.” That authority has crossed the centuries in a continuing line of apostolic succession. Every Catholic priest was ordained by a bishop who was ordained by a bishop who was ordained by a bishop … who was personally ordained by Jesus Himself.
Jesus said, Jn 8:28 “I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me.” So, too, the priest does nothing on his own authority but acts in union with the pope, and with his bishop who is also in union with the pope.
That does not mean the pope personally directs each and every action. The bishop delegates authority to his priests by giving them faculties, letters of authority to do a specific thing. For example, the bishop generally gives each priest in his diocese a faculty to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass anywhere in the diocese. The priest does not have to ask the bishop each time.
Priests as sacrificers are authorized mediators who acknowledge God’s supreme authority over human beings. Prophets communicate from God to the people, but priests communicate from the people to God.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1897-1904, 2238, 2242
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