The two offices—the offices of saying Mass and forgiving sins—are the most exalted among the many powers and privileges God grants his priests. The faithful, therefore, for these and many other reasons, owe the greatest respect and devotion to God’s chosen ministers.
Offering the Mass, and thus renewing Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, constitutes the priest’s chief dignity. While engaged in the sacred liturgy, the priest assumes the role of the Son of God, lovingly offering himself to the Father on behalf of all mankind. When the priest says the words of consecration, he reenacts Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, himself separating the Lord’s precious blood from his holy body. The priest then literally takes hold of God and raises him up high so that the people can adore their Savior.
The priest, in addition to being the specific instrument God uses to manifest Himself daily to the Church, also distributes divine grace when he gives Communion to the faithful. The people thus receive God directly from the hands of the priest.
The priest’s dignity, however, is not limited to the Mass alone; he also shares another divine prerogative when he pardons sin through the sacrament of Penance. Christ, when He told his apostles that whose sins they forgive are forgiven and whose sins they retain are retained, clearly willed that the normal means of returning to God’s good grace should be through priestly absolution. Thus the ordinary way a soul passes from the death of sin to the life of grace is through the Catholic priesthood. Only souls in the state of grace can enter paradise; therefore, God has entrusted the very keys of heaven to his priests.
Exhortation of St Pius X
In the midst of all his duties, the priest shall have ever present to his mind the striking admonition given by St. Paul: “Neither he that plants is anything, nor he that waters, but it is God that gives the increase” (1 Cor. 3:7).
It may be that we go and sow the seed with tears; it may be that we tend its growth at the cost of heavy labour; but to make it germinate and yield the hoped for fruit, that depends on God alone and his powerful assistance. This further point also is worthy of profound consideration, namely that men are but the instruments whom God employs for the salvation of souls.
It is particularly as the ministers of Jesus Christ in the great sacrifice which is constantly renewed with abiding power for the salvation of the world, that we have the duty of conforming our minds to that spirit in which he offered himself as an unspotted victim to God on the altar of the Cross.
There is abundant evidence from every age that even the humblest priest, provided his life has the adornment of overflowing sanctity, can undertake and accomplish marvelous works for the spiritual welfare of the people of God. Sanctity alone makes us what our divine vocation demands, men crucified to the world and to whom the world has been crucified.
Pope St Pius X, Haerent Animo