The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 1, Chapter 2

Our Priesthood: the Sacramental Character and Grace

Chapter Two


The sublime character of our priesthood is evident both from the manner of its institution and from the sacrament of Holy Orders and its effects. We shall now consider each of these points in turn, paying particular attention to the exalted nature of the purpose of the effects resulting from our ordination.

The institution of our priesthood

The Council of Trent declares (Denz. 938) that at the same time as Christ instituted the Blessed Eucharist he also instituted the priesthood of the New Law: "Do this for a commemoration of me" (Luke xxii, 19; 1 Cor. xi, 24).

By these words spoken after the consecration of the bread and wine Jesus Christ ordained the Apostles priests for offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Later on, after his Resurrection, he also gave them the power of forgiving sin when he breathed upon them and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit; when you forgive men's sins, they arc forgiven, when you hold them bound, they are held bound" (John xx, 22). On an earlier occasion at the beginning of his public life he had called them to follow him: "Come and follow me; I will make you into fishers of men" (Mark i, 18). "It was not you that chose me, it was I that chose you" (John xv, 16).

Now the priesthood, 110 less than the sacrifice of the New Law, must endure for all time in order to promote the salvation of men and women of all generations. Therefore the Apostles chose out and ordained other ministers by an external and visible rite—the laying on of hands—so that they might be set apart from the rest of the faithful. To these men alone belonged the office of ruling the Church, of dispensing the mysteries of God, and of offering gifts and sacrifices: cf. Acts vi, 6; xiii, 3; xiv, 22; xx, 28; 1 Tim. iv, 14; 2 Tim. i, 6; 1 Cor. iv, 1; Heb. v, 1. The office of mediator which the priest exercises in offering sacrifice to God and in conferring divine gifts upon the people presupposes that he has been called by God, because "his vocation comes from God, as Aaron's did; nobody can take on himself such a privilege as this" (Heb. v, 4).

Priestly ordination and its effects

The Church has defined that Ordination or Holy Orders is a sacrament in the strict sense of the word, instituted by Christ and conferring grace in virtue of its sacramental character. It is further defined that "the hierarchy instituted by divine ordinance consists of bishops, priests, and ministers" (Council of Trent; Denz. 966). Nevertheless many theologians—for instance, Billuart and other Thomists—maintain that the Episcopate is not a sacrament distinct from the priesthood but simply extends the priestly character to the power of ordaining and confirming, a power which is in no way superior to that of consecrating the Eucharist—the supreme sacrament and sacrifice. This reveals at once the eminent dignity possessed by every priest of the New Law, for neither the Bishops nor the Pope himself have any greater power for the consecration of the Eucharist, although they do possess this additional power of ordaining, confirming, consecrating churches and chalices, etc.

It is also of faith that priestly ordination imprints on the soul an indelible character and confers a special sacramental grace (Denz. 964, 959). We must pause a moment to consider the sublime purpose of this character and sacramental grace.

The character is an intimate and permanent possession of the soul which enables a man to perform the actions of a priest validly; so it is commonly understood as the active power of Holy Orders to consecrate the Eucharist validly and to absolve the faithful validly from sins committed since Baptism. Cf. Council of Trent, Denz. 960.

But what is the purpose of the sacramental grace of Holy Orders (Denz. 959)? It is easier to answer this question with certainty than to decide what it is that constitutes its nature. The grace is given that the priest may perform the duties of his state not merely validly but also holily, and that this spirit of holiness—which is intended to characterize all his work—may develop in unison with his growth in grace and charity demanded by the supreme commandment (cf. Denz. 960). The reason is obvious. God never confers a power on any man without at the same time giving him the necessary means for the worthy exercise of that power. And the prayers in the Pontifical make it evident that this is the purpose of the sacramental grace of Holy Orders. Hence it follows that this grace is an even more precious effect than the character of the sacrament. Cf. Ilia, q. 62, in the introduction to the question.

Taking all these definitions and assertions together it is clear that the Catholic Church regards our priesthood as invested with a noble dignity. We shall return to this point later on, but let us note at once how superior is the Catholic Church's teaching on this matter to the erroneous views of others.

Apart from certain ritualists, most Protestants deny the very existence of the sacrament of Holy Orders, contending that all the faithful are priests by virtue of their Baptism and only need a public mandate in order to exercise their priestly office. The Modernists in their turn assert that the priesthood is nothing more than an institution of the Church.

It is perfectly true that the facts we have been discussing were not revealed in any theoretical form but in the practice followed in the administering of the sacraments. Now the complex nature of priestly ordination—no less than that of Baptism— can be described in a number of assertions according as one considers the matter, the form, the minister, the subject, or the effects. Even from the practice of not repeating ordination, much information can be gathered about the effects of this sacrament, especially about the indelible character.

So it is that the character of Holy Orders is different from the character of Baptism and of Confirmation, because these are directed towards different acts. Cf. Ilia, q. 63, a. 5.

Furthermore, while the Baptismal character is a power of receiving validly the other sacraments, the character of Confirmation and of Holy Orders is an active power (q. 63, a. 3); and whereas the character of Confirmation fits a man for the defence of his faith, the character of Holy Orders gives a man the power to consecrate and absolve validly. Christ himself did not receive this special character since he was a priest in virtue of the eternal grace of the hypostatic union.

Though the sacramental character is a permanent possession of the soul—even in Hell—the sacramental grace is lost through mortal sin and regained with the restoration of sanctifying grace.

We will now consider in greater detail this sacramental grace of the priesthood which is intended to bear abundant fruit throughout the whole course of our life.

The nature of sacramental grace—with special reference to the priesthood

It is difficult to determine accurately the nature of sacramental grace, and the question is rarely given a sufficiently systematic treatment. Yet it does help to bring out in greater relief the dignity of our priesthood. We will begin by noting what is more well known and certain about this question from Revelation.

At once we discover that more is known with certainty about the purpose of this grace than about its nature. In fact, the same holds true of habitual grace; what is primarily known with certainty about this gift is that it is the seed of glory or of eternal life. But we know that this eternal life is a sharing in God's own intimate life through the Beatific Vision and an unceasing act of love—acts which necessarily presuppose a share in the divine nature. Therefore habitual grace must be some kind of participation in the divine nature or Godhead, in order to be the seed of glory.

And so it is the purpose of sacramental grace which is first made known to us by Revelation through Sacred Scripture and Tradition. It is conferred on man to help him exercise worthily and in close union with God those actions which he can perform validly by reason of the character he has received. Hence the sacramental grace of the priesthood is intended for the worthy and increasingly holy fulfilment of our priestly duties—consecration and sacramental absolution. This much is admitted as certain by all theologians.

But what of the nature of this grace? This can be deduced from its purpose, which is the primary cause of any being; an agent only acts with a definite end in view, and produces a perfection which corresponds to that end. Cf. Ilia, q. 62, a. 2. St. Thomas asks whether the sacramental grace adds anything further to habitual grace which he calls "the grace of the virtues and gifts", since the infused virtues and the seven gifts have their origin in that grace—that was true even of Adam before his fall and of the angels, although they had not received the sacraments. He replies that it must add something, otherwise there would be 110 point in conferring the sacraments on those who already possess the grace of the virtues and gifts.

Confirmation and the Eucharist are received by persons already baptized, but such sacraments are meaningless unless they produce some special effect. To suggest that they merely produce an increase of grace is not sufficient, for the frequent repetition of one and the same sacrament would have a similar effect. Certainly there would never be any need for more than three sacraments: Baptism for the reception of the first grace, Penance for those who had lost their baptismal grace, and a third sacrament for the increase of grace in the just. So any solution of the problem along those lines could never explain why there are seven sacraments specifically distinct from each other, which must, therefore, confer a special grace if they are not to be pointless. The whole question depends on this notion of "purpose."

The Council of Florence uses a similar argument, although expressing it in a different form (Denz. 695): "By Baptism we are spiritually reborn; by Confirmation we receive an increase of grace and are strengthened in faith; already reborn and strengthened we are then nourished with the divine food of the Eucharist. If the soul should fall sick through sin, we are spiritually healed through Penance, etc." The Council of Trent declares (Denz. 847): "If anyone should say that the sacraments of the New Law are not essential for salvation but superfluous ... let him be anathema." Therefore the sacramental grace does add something to habitual or sanctifying grace.

But what does it add? This can also be deduced from its purpose, but in order to be methodical we must first decide what it does not add and what is the general teaching of theologians on this point. In this way it will prove possible to discover what is admitted as certain by everyone and what is the more probable opinion where certainty cannot be attained.1

It is the common teaching of theologians that sacramental grace is not a new infused habit distinct from sanctifying grace. On the one hand, the soul is already sufficiently sanctified in its essence by habitual grace which makes us sharers in the divine nature, just as Adam before his fall and the angels were sanctified without receiving the sacraments; on the other hand, the faculties of our soul are sufficiently empowered to perform supernatural acts by the infused virtues and the seven gifts, which flow from sanctifying grace. Cf. St. Thomas, loc. cit., ad. i. Therefore sacramental grace is not a new infused habit.

All theologians are also agreed that the sacramental grace adds to sanctifying grace a definite right to receive at the appropriate moment those actual graces which correspond to the end of each of the sacraments. Without this addition the sacramental grace would be possessed by anyone in the state of sanctifying grace, and thus no special grace would be produced by any of the sacraments. So the very least we can say of each of the sacraments is that they give this tide to special actual graces. Cf. St. Thomas, loc. cit., corp.

But this title, being a relative and moral reality, needs a real foundation which cannot be other than the sacramental grace enduring in the soul as an intrinsic reality. We know already that our right to an eternal inheritance is founded on habitual grace—the seed of glory—and on our meritorious acts which obtain an intensification of that grace. So in a similar way the right to the actual graces corresponding to the particular end of each sacrament is founded on the sacramental grace itself, which cannot be regarded as a mere moral or relative entity but must be the foundation of that right; it is a permanent, intrinsic, and supernatural reality inhering in the soul. Cf. St. Thomas, loc. cit., ad. 3. Of this we are certain from what has been revealed about the purpose of sacramental grace. St. Paul speaks about this permanent supernatural reality in 1 Tim. iv, 14: "A special grace has been entrusted to thee; prophecy awarded it, and the imposition of the presbyters' hands went with it; do not let it suffer from neglect."

Is it possible to be more precise in determining the nature of this permanent supernatural reality if it is not a new habit distinct from sanctifying grace, the infused virtues or the gifts ? So far we have moved in the realms of certainty but now we must descend to probability.

It seems to be the more probable opinion held by John of St. Thomas, the theologians of Salamanca, Contenson, Hugon, Merkelbach, and many other Thomists that the sacramental grace is a special modification and strengthening of sanctifying grace, which exerts an influence on the acts of the various virtues. Cf. De Veritate, q. 27, a. 5, ad 12. We know already that the grace of original justice had a particular vital force of its own in addition to habitual grace which has now been restored to us, and it is this special vigour which is given back to us in some measure by the proper effects of each of the sacraments. This modal reality added to habitual grace forms the basis of the moral right to the future reception of actual graces corresponding to the sacrament received. We find something similar—although on a higher plane—in the lives of Our Lady and St. Joseph. Our Lady was given the grace of motherhood, the love and tenderness of a mother; St. Joseph the love and prudence of a foster-father, both of them thus receiving a special modification and strengthening of sanctifying grace.

Although all the statements in this section have been deduced from the purpose of the sacraments, this final conclusion cannot be put forward as anything other than the more probable opinion.

But our view can be confirmed by considering each of the sacraments in turn. The grace of Baptism is given not merely to make us capable of living a supernatural life—such as was enjoyed by Adam before his fall and by the angels—but in order to help us to live as Christians by following the example of Christ in his work of Redemption. And so this grace by enabling us to live as Christians disposes us to love the cross, a disposition not present either in the good angels or in Adam before their fall.

The grace of Confirmation is intended to make us constant and prudent in witnessing to the truth of the Christian faith. The grace of Holy Communion is given to unite us more closely to Christ through an increase of charity. The sacramental grace of Penance is meant as a help for avoiding the occasions of sin. The sacramental grace of Marriage strengthens the parties to live as followers of Christ in their married state and to educate their children according to Christian principles. The grace of Holy Orders is conferred that the priest may fulfil his sacred duties—the act of consecration, sacramental absolution, preaching, spiritual direction—with ever-increasing holiness: and so we speak of priestly love and priestly prudence. It is clear, therefore, that the modality of habitual grace, about which we have spoken above, exercises an influence on the infused virtues which flow from sanctifying grace.

Notice once again that it is the purpose of the sacraments which is always acting as our guide in this question—a clear and practical illustration of the principle that the final cause is the primary cause, since it provides the reason for the existence of the other three.

Corollaries. Therefore the sacramental grace of the priesthood, since it is a permanent and intrinsic mode of habitual grace, can be looked upon as a feature of the priest's spiritual character which is meant to develop and grow to perfection—to the age of maturity in the spiritual life.

It follows that while no growth is possible in the character of Holy Orders which empowers a man to exercise validly die priestly functions, yet the sacramental grace, having as its aim an increasingly holy celebration of Mass and administration of Penance, is intensified at the same time as habitual grace which it modifies and strengthens in a special way. True, this is not expressed in so many words in the theological works but it is deduced as certain from the purpose of these divine gifts.

And thus all are agreed that the sacramental grace of Holy Orders should bear fruit and that it entitles a man to further and higher actual graces—provided no obstacle is put in the way. It develops rather like the features of a child's countenance which change with the different facial expressions of smiling, crying, blinking, etc. Therefore, "how careful we must be not to lose that sacramental grace or prove ourselves unworthy of it by receiving the sacrament without the suitable dispositions" (Billuart).

The value of our priesthood is also evident in the fact to which we have already alluded—namely, that so far as the consecration of the Eucharist is concerned, the Bishop himself has 110 greater power than the priest. And this power of consecrating the Body of Christ is far more outstanding than the power of consecrating priests and chalices, because the Holy Eucharist is the supreme sacrament and sacrifice, containing not merely the gift of grace but the very author of grace. So we find St. Thomas, St. Albert, St. Bonaventure, Scotus, and Soto of the opinion that the Episcopate is not a separate sacrament from that of the priesthood2 but is its extension and perfect complement, giving the power to ordain, confirm and govern. It is, therefore, the fulness of the priesthood and is intended to be as fruitful in the bishop as the grace of the priesthood should be in the priest.

Our dignity is further revealed in the sacrament of Penance. In order to receive absolution men and women entrust the priest with their secret thoughts and desires, which not even the angels themselves are allowed to know. And thus the priest actually co-operates with God in giving back life to the soul. So whether he is celebrating Mass or ministering to souls he is another Christ. His priesthood is a splendid participation in the supreme priesthood of Christ; he is Christ's minister, his living conscious instrument for the saving of souls.

Remember that the priest in celebrating Mass is so closely united to Christ—the principal offerer—as his instrument that the one effect of consecration is produced by both of them together, just as the writer and his pen produce the same effect. The effect of consecration—the changing of the substance of bread and wine—is produced by God as the principal agent, by the humanity of Christ as the instrument conjoined to the divinity, and by the celebrant as a separate instrument, conscious and free.

It might be objected that the sacramental grace of the priesthood is of less worth than the priestly character for although the latter is indelible, sacramental grace, like sanctifying grace, is lost by mortal sin. This is a serious difficulty, since the more perfect an accidental reality, the more firmly does it inhere in the substance to which it belongs. Therefore grace which can be lost does appear to be less perfect than the character which can never be lost.

In reply to this objection, notice why it is that the character cannot be lost. It is not because of its own perfection and greater dignity, but because it is conferred for the valid celebration of Mass and for the valid administration of Penance, which provide for the spiritual welfare of the faithful. This is very well explained by St. Thomas, Ilia, q. 63, a. 5c: "The sacramental character is a sharing in Christ's priesthood by his faithful . . ."; also in answer to the first objection: "Grace is present in the soul as a form complete in its being, whereas the character is there as an instrumental power. Now a complete form is present in its subject according to the condition of that subject,3 so that grace is present in the soul of a person here on earth according to the volatile nature of the will. But an instrumental power is to be considered rather from the point of view of the condition of the principal agent; hence the character is indelibly present in the soul not because of any perfection of its own but because of the perfection belonging to Christ's priesthood from which the character originates as an instrumental power."

Again, in answer to the third objection, St. Thomas says: "The character endures even after this life, in the good as redounding to their glory, in the wicked as stressing their disgrace, just as the character of military service remains in a soldier after the victory has been won, as a mark of honour in the victors, as a mark of dishonour in the vanquished."

This concludes for the present our study of the dignity of Christ's priesthood and of ours.

Summary. It is impossible to think of any priesthood more perfect than that of Christ, since his union with God, with the victim, and with the people could never be surpassed.

Our own priesthood, on account of its character and the sacramental grace, is subordinated to Christ's priesthood in such a way that the same effect of consecration is produced by both, just as the writer and his pen combine to produce the same effect.

If we consider the act of consecrating the Eucharist, the power of a priest is not exceeded by that of Pope or Bishop.

Furthermore, in order to receive sacramental absolution and spiritual direction the faithful reveal to the priest their secret thoughts and desires, although they remain hidden from the angels.

While the indelible character which enables a priest to fulfil his duties validly cannot be intensified in any way, the sacramental grace given for an increasingly holy offering of the Mass and absolving from sin can increase together with sanctifying grace of which it is a special determination. It develops as a feature of the priest's spiritual character and entitles him to receive further and more excellent actual graces, so that he may carry out his priestly functions with ever-growing sanctity until the day of his death. And thus, normally speaking, the priest's final Mass will be celebrated in a higher degree of holiness than was his first. Even though his sensible devotion may be weaker, his virtues of faith, hope, charity, and religion, aided by the seven gifts, will have grown stronger; and the sacramental grace as a mode of sanctifying grace will be exerting a greater influence on those virtues.

This was especially true of the saints, in the final Masses of St. John the Evangelist, St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. Philip, St. Francis of Sales, St. Charles Borromeo, St. John Vianney.

1Many opinions have been expressed on the nature of sacramental grace.

(1) There were at one time some who held that it was a special infused habit distinct from habitual grace, from the infused virtues and from the seven gifts.

(2) Others think that it is not a distinct habit but a reality giving a definite title to special graces which will enable a man to fulfil the obligations flowing from the sacrament. (3) Others assert that it is a special mode of the grace of the virtues and gifts establishing a right to the actual graces already mentioned. An entire thesis could be devoted to this question, having special regard for the purpose of this grace.

2And thus it would be inferior to the priesthood.

3For instance, the knowledge of a student after his lectures will depend on his capacity.