Most of us could probably speak at length about “a” priest we know, who he is, what he does, how he helps us. What could be said, though, about the “priesthood” ?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers this:
Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time; thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate (bishops), presbyterate (priests) and diaconate (deacons) (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1536)
This is a rich summary!
We could begin to unpack it by recognizing the priesthood as a gift of God to the Church. Jesus reveals to us the Father’s love. Jesus is the Eternal Priest who intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father. There is only one priest, Jesus Christ.
At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the ministerial priesthood, a particular vocation by which God calls men to continue the mission of Jesus until he comes again. When a priest says mass, it is really Jesus praying through the priest. When you go to confession, it is Jesus who reconciles you to the Father, through the ministry of the ordained priest who acts in his name and by his grace.
From Jesus, through his apostles, to the Catholic priests you know today, there is an unbroken sharing in the priesthood of Christ which is guaranteed by “apostolic succession”. In other words, a validly ordained Catholic priest can trace his ministerial priesthood all the way back to Jesus through the bishop who ordained him, and so on all the way down through the centuries.
A man’s vocation to the priesthood is given to him by God. No one has a right to be a priest. It is a calling that must be confirmed by the faith community, particularly, those responsible for priestly formation in a seminary or religious house of formation.
Our tradition holds that there are 3 levels of Holy Orders: Deacons, Priests and Bishops. Bishops, by their ordination, receive the “fullness of the priestly ministry”, with the three-fold roles of teaching, governing and sanctifying the people of God. Priests and Deacons, through their ministry, assist the Bishop in the carrying out of his role.