Priesthood (Catholic Church)
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The ministerial orders of the Roman Catholic Church are those ofbishop, presbyter (more commonly called priest in English), anddeacon. The ordained priesthood and the common priesthood (or priesthood of all the baptized) are different in function and essence.
Unlike usage in English, "the Latin words sacerdos andsacerdotium are used to refer in general to the ministerial priesthood shared by bishops and presbyters. The wordspresbyter, presbyterium and presbyteratus refer to priests in the English use of the word or presbyters".
Of Catholic priests (presbyters) of the Latin Church and theeastern Catholic Churches there were in late 2008 409,166 worldwide.
The state of consecrated life is neither clerical, and members of institutes of consecrated life can be either clergy or laity. Those who are clerics constitute the religious or regular clergy, distinct from the diocesan or secular clergy.
The Old Testament describes how God made his people "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,"and within the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi was chosen to be set apart for the liturgicalservice of offering sacrifice as priests. The priest was understood as a mediator between God and human beings who offers sacrifices and intercedes for the people.
The New Testament depicts Jesus as the "great high priest" of the New Covenant who, instead of offering the ritual animal sacrifices prescribed by the Jewish Law, offers himself on the cross as the true and perfect sacrifice. The Catholic priesthood is a participation in this priesthood of Christ, and therefore traces its origins to Jesus Christ himself. Thus, the New Testament says that as high priest, Jesus has made the Church "a kingdom of priests for his God and Father." All who are baptized are given a share in the priesthood of Christ; that is, they are conformed to Christ and made capable of offering true worship and praise to God as Christians. "The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly."
The ministerial priesthood of Catholic priests and bishops — what most people think of as "the Catholic priesthood" — has a distinct history. This ministerial priesthood is at the service of thepriesthood of all believers and involves the direct consecration of a man to Christ through thesacrament of orders, so that he can act in the person of Christ for the sake of the Christian faithful, above all in dispensing the sacraments. It is understood to have begun at the Last Supper, whenJesus Christ instituted the Eucharist in the presence of the Twelve Apostles, commanding them to "do this in memory of me." The Catholic priesthood, therefore, is a share in the priesthood of Christ and traces its historical origins to the Twelve Apostles appointed by Christ. Those apostles in turn selected other men to succeed them as the bishops ("episkopoi", Greek for "overseers") of the Christian communities, with whom were associated presbyters ("presbyteroi", Greek for "elders") and deacons("diakonoi", Greek for "servants"). As communities multiplied and grew in size, the bishops appointed more and more presbyters to preside at the Eucharist in place of the bishop in the multiple communities in each region. The diaconate evolved as the liturgical assistants of the bishop and his delegate for the administration of Church funds and programmes for the poor. Today, the rank of "presbyter" is typically what one thinks of as a "priest", although technically both a bishop and a presbyter are "priests" in the sense that they share in Christ's ministerial priesthood and offer sacrifice to God in the person of Christ.
Theology of the priesthood
Passover and Christ
The theology of the Catholic priesthood is rooted in the priesthood of Christ and to some degree shares elements of the ancient Hebraic priesthood as well. A priest is one who presides over asacrifice and offers that sacrifice and prayers to God on behalf of believers. The ancient Jewish priesthood which functioned at the temple in Jerusalem offered animal sacrifices at various times throughout the year for a variety of reasons.
In Christian theology, Jesus is the Lamb provided by God himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Before his death on the cross, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples (the Last Supper) and offered blessings over the bread and wine respectively, saying: "Take and eat. This is my body” and "Drink from this all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:26b-28 Jerusalem Bible). The next day Christ's body and blood were visibly sacrificed on the cross. Catholics believe that it is this same body, sacrificed on the cross and risen on the third day which is made present in the offering of each Eucharistic sacrifice which is called the Eucharist. However, Catholicism does not believe that the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist involves a change in the 'accidental' features: i.e., scientific analysis of the Eucharistic elements would indicate the physical properties of wine and bread.
Thus Catholic priests (and bishops who are “high priests”) in presiding at the Eucharist join each offering of the Eucharistic elements in union with the sacrifice of Christ. Catholic ordained ministers are known as priests because by their celebration of the Eucharist, their offering makes present the one eternal sacrifice of Christ.
Catholicism does not teach that Christ is sacrificed again and again, but that "The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.". Instead, the Catholic Church holds the Jewish concept of memorial in which "..the memorial is not merely a recollection of past events....these events become in a certain way present and real." and thus "...the sacrifice Christ offered once and for all on the cross remains ever present." Properly speaking, in Catholic theology, expressed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, "Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers." Thus, Catholic clergy share in the one, unique, Priesthood of Christ.