By Felipe Gomez, SJ
Felipe GOMEZ, SJ holds a STD in Systematic Theology from the Gregorian University, Rome. He is former editor of the East Asian Pastoral Review. From 1971-1975 he taught theology in Dalat, Vietnam. He has been engaged in theological translations into Vietnamese in Paris from 1989-1996. He continues this work now at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila, where he is also a faculty member. He has published widely in Vietnamese. The Good Shepherd and The Holy Spirit are his recent English publications.
Priests are living in challenging times. In some parts of the world – in the ex-Christian nations, especially – they experience a deep crisis; in more traditional or newly Christian societies, they are held in respect and even reverence. In the former set-up, the image of the priest has changed beyond recognition; in the latter, it is changing. Since most of the literature still comes from the Western countries, doubts, critiques and negatives impressions shower on the rest of the world, corroding the "joyful naiveté" of the younger Churches. In Asia, some priests study a poor theology in the seminary; they come out with an idea of priesthood which is either ingenuously idealistic or wrapped in concepts they do not grasp. The priest needs a new image, which has to be carved out of the Rock, Christ, and geared toward the mission. In this third Christian millennium this mission is not easy, but also not more difficult than it has always been in this part of the world. Surely, this mission is complex and therefore it can generate various images of "the priest," each as legitimate as the other. I have chosen one aspect, the Priest as Intercessor, which is both essential and – I think – very congenial with the Asian ethos of this vocation. Moreover, the ministry of intercession is the synthesis of all other ministries, because it underscores the main aspects of a priestly existence: being a man-of-God and a man-for-others.
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines intercession as follows: "To intercede is to go or come between two parties, to plead before one of them on behalf of the other." The Macquarie Dictionary gives this definition: "Intercede is...to interpose on behalf of one in difficulty or in trouble, as by pleading or petition." The intercessor is "in between" the powerful and the needy, acting from below. Intercession is an aspect of mediation. In all religions, the priest is the one authoritatively appointed to intercede with "Heavens" (God or whatever name is used to call the Absolute) on behalf of the people. We believe that "there is only one God, and there is only one mediator between God and humanity, himself a human being, Christ Jesus" (1 Tim 2:5); but this mediation, like everything coming from Divine Goodness, is shared: God alone is good, but many are good; God alone is holy, but many are holy; God alone is Being, but all creatures are beings... In the Old Testament, mediators were, for example, the king, the prophet, the priest. About the priest in particular, the New Testament teaches us that there is only one Priest, Jesus Christ; but this unique priesthood is shared in various ways, which Vatican II concretizes in the two kinds: the common priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained (Lumen Gentium, 10). The Latin name for high priest is "Pontifex" (in English, pontiff), which means "bridge builder," a good description of mediatorship. Priestly mediation can be exercised in many ways, like offering sacrifices, praising God, or interceding for the people; this is what Jesus does now in heaven: "He lives forever to intercede for us" (Heb 7:25). It is this singular aspect of priesthood that I want to develop here.
To understand the role of an intercessor, we have to look at the models. The chief model is, obviously Jesus the high priest; but we have also a lay woman, his mother Mary. We have exemplary models in the Old Testament, such as Abraham, Moses and Daniel, and thousands in the history of the Church, like the saintly Curé d’Ars, Jean Marie Vianney, patron of priests. A priest ought to live within that "cloud of witnesses" mentioned by the epistle to the Hebrews (12:1), in constant communion with the Saints, our brothers, as Vatican II reminds us: "For after they have been received into their heavenly home and are present to the Lord, through Him and with Him and in Him they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, showing forth the merits which they won on earth through the one Mediator between God and man, serving God in all things and filling up in their flesh those things which are lacking of the sufferings of Christ for His Body which is the Church" (LG, 49). Intercession, therefore, is a heavenly ministry.
The Jesus we consider here is the Risen Lord, the High Priest; when he was living on earth, Jesus was a layman! Presently, Christ’s priestly office consists of these two actions: (1) the offering up of himself as a sacrifice, and (2) making continual intercession for us. First he offers his sacrifice, ensuingly he intercedes for us; intercession presupposes sacrifice. "Every high priest is taken from among human beings and is appointed to act on their behalf in relationships with God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Heb 5:1). To be intercessor comes at a price. As the epistle explains, the Old Testament priests offered "alien blood" (victims that were animals), but Jesus offered himself. In the Church, the priests participate in that mediation, therefore, they act in Christ’s name; when they celebrate the Eucharist this identification is such that they act in persona Christi, that is, as if they were Christ in person. As representing Christ, the priest is the sacramental head of the community, the Body of Christ; but as he intercedes before God, he represents and presents that Body to the Father: he is the archetypal middleman. On the existential level, the consequence is that the more a priest is identified with Christ and with the people the better intercessor he will be. In the book of the Apocalypse, Jesus is described as a Lamb standing before the throne of God: "A Lamb standing that seemed to have been sacrificed" (Rev 5:6). In apocalyptic language, sitting means judging or governing, while standing means interceding; again, here we see that the Intercessor showed the price he had to pay: he had been slain, he paid with his life. "It follows, then, that his power to save those who come to God through him is absolute" (Heb 7:25). We have here a hint of how and why an intercession can be efficacious.
During his life on earth, Jesus left us an example of his intercession through prayer. There is first his "priestly prayer," in John 17, asking his Father to protect his disciples and bless even us, who believe in him because of them, that we may be one. He interceded for Peter, that despite his betrayal his faith should not fail so that he might still strengthen his brothers (see Lk 22:32). He interceded for his executioners, that they be forgiven, excusing them, because they did not know what they were doing (cf. Lk 23:34). He even interceded for those who had no intercessors: think of the crippled "who had no man" to help him (Jn 5:7) and Jesus cured him. In his long nights of prayer, Jesus brought to his Father his concerns about his people, his gospel, his disciples... "In the days of his flesh, he offered up prayer and entreaty, with loud cries and with tears, to the one who had the power to save him from death, and winning a hearing by his reverence" (Heb 5:7). But again, he knew the cost: "He learned obedience from the things which he suffered"; and the Hebrew writer remarks that it was so that he became "perfect, the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him"(Heb 5:8-9; cf. 4:15).
We can look at the moving example of Abraham, interceding for the city of Sodom. He dared to bargain with Yahweh! (see Gen 18:16-32). He also interceded for his son Ishmael (cf. Gen 17:18); he prayed and obtained blessing for Abimelech’s family (cf. 20:17). Surely, God could call "Abraham, my friend" (Is 41:8); but can a priest not hope for something similar? (see Jn 15:14-15).
Moses, because of his priestly leadership, offers an example closer to the priests in the Church. It was to him that God really granted what we can call "intercessory spirit"; for example, contemplate Moses’ prayer for the removal of plagues (cf. Ex 15:25 ff.); for water at Rephidim (cf. Ex 17:4); for victory over Amalek (cf. Ex 17:8-16); prayer for the people after the golden calf (cf. Ex 32:11-14,21-34; 33:12ff.); after the renewal of the tables of stone (cf. Ex 34:9); at the setting forth and stopping of the Ark (Num 10:35ff.); after the burning at Taberah (cf. Num 11:2); for the healing of Miriam’s leprosy (cf. Num 12:13); after the return of the spies (cf. Num 14:13-19); through Aaron for the end of the plague (cf. Num 17:9-15); after the attack by serpents (cf. Num 21:7); for direction in the case of the daughters of Zelophehad (cf. Num 27:5); for a successor (cf. Num 27:15); for the people for their entrance into Canaan (cf. Deut 3:23ff.); for the people after the worship of the golden calf (cf. Deut 9:18 ff); for the rebellious people (cf. Deut 9:25-29); to offer prayer for the nation (cf. Deut 26:15); for Moses’ final blessing of the tribes (cf. Deut 33)... Great intercessor, indeed, but also with such a sense of responsibility that he was ready to pay the price: "Now, please forgive their sin! If not, please blot me out of the book you have written!" (Ex 32:32).
More examples can be gathered from the long history of salvation: Samuel interceded for the people (cf. 1 Sam 12:23); King Hezekiah interceded for the nation (cf. 2 Chron 30:18-20); Job interceded for His children (cf. Job 1:1-5) and for his friends (cf. Job 42:7-10); Daniel prayed for the fate of Israel (Dan 9:1-19); and so on. Seeing those examples, we can surmise that the prayer of the Christians has to be still more efficacious; take the first community of Jerusalem, interceding for Peter in prison and so obtaining his liberation (cf. Acts 12:4-5; 7-8). In the Church, we could add many more; the patron saint of the priests, St. John Mary Vianney, will be enough. He is remembered because of his apostolate of hearing confessions (40 years at more than 10 hours a day!); but before his wayward parishioners decided to come to mass... he passed years praying 12 hours daily before the tabernacle: "Oh my God, convert my parish!"
I do not have to recall the Blessed Virgin, the intercessor par excellence after Christ himself.
What is specific in priestly intercession?
We know that the priest is not the only intercessor, and that intercession is not the only function of a priest; one may legitimately think that, before all, a "priest is constituted to offer gifts and sacrifices" (Heb 8:3) — to celebrate the Mass; yet the priestly offering of Jesus Christ is always geared toward intercession (Heb 7:25). And the Church embodies this function in history: "Christ continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world. She does this, not only by celebrating the eucharist, but also in other ways, especially by praying the divine office" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 83).
The Church has many members, with different ways of doing this function. After Vatican II, the role of the laity has been so enhanced that some might have been tempted to fancy a "priestless Church," as they experience "priestless Sundays." But no; as a bishop put it, the Church needs priests, the lay will never replace them.1 Perhaps the leveling mentality, which we breathe, has made us blind to appreciate the charism of priesthood (and the supernatural, in general). The saint Curé d’Ars used to say: "If we came to really know what a priest is, we would die." He was thinking of the Old Testament conviction that to see God meant to die (see Gen 32:31; Ex 33:20); such was the awe that the awareness of his priesthood caused in him. To render this charism something banal, inane, pointless, stale... is akin to sacrilege.
And so, what makes priestly intercession so special is simply the priesthood. A priest is "especially" jointed to Christ, the Intercessor, by his sacramental consecration. As a baptized becomes a "new creature," so an ordained man becomes a "new Christ-Intercessor." This newness implies a renewed personality that affects all his actions. The ordination establishes the priest as an official intercessor within the People of God. This is not a job (like a professor or a nurse), which, after the working shift, becomes just a member of the community like the others. The slogan "a priest for ever," is not a joke; it means an exercise of 24 hours a day priesthood, constantly "on duty." When he intercedes for others, a priest is not doing something extra, he is just performing as the sacrament — the Holy Spirit — fashioned him. As a clock tells time so a priest mediates between God and his people; if the clock stops telling time it becomes useless junk, so it is with a priest who does not intercede for the people.
In the Church, priests have various charges; the parish priest is singular as far as intercession is concerned. He is "shepherd of the sheep," intimately associated with the bishop. Therefore, what the Church expects of bishops, analogically, also expects from these priests. In the post-synodal exhortation, John Paul II explained the bishop’s role thus: "The Bishop’s personal prayer will be particularly and typically ‘apostolic,’ in the sense that it is presented to the Father as intercession for all the needs of the people entrusted to his care. In the Roman Pontifical this is the final commitment demanded of the candidate elected to the episcopacy before the rite of the imposition of hands: ‘Are you resolved to pray without ceasing for the People of God, and to carry out the office of high priest without reproach?’"2 A pastor is called to be not only the conscience of the faithful, but also their voice, especially in front of God. The chief way of interceding for the people is celebrating the Eucharist; that is why Canon Law specifies that "the pastor is obliged to apply Mass for the people entrusted to him each Sunday and holy day of obligation" (canon 534). Similar duty affects all who have "care of souls" and, out of solidarity and with reasonable differences, any priest ought to take this onus as flowing from his ordination.
The zenith of priestly intercession is, as I have said, the eucharist. Acting in persona Christi,as really impersonating Christ, he consecrates the bread and wine not chiefly for the purpose of adoration, but to offer the Victim —Christ— "for the living and the dead." In the Latin rite, perhaps too much attention is paid to the moment of consecration (with bells, incense, genuflections...), causing many priests to skimp over the following intercessions and so missing one of the purposes of the liturgy! The Roman Canon (the first Eucharistic Prayer) has two mementos: "Remember, Lord, your people, especially those for whom we now pray..." And after the consecration: "Remember, Lord, those who have died..." The second Eucharistic Prayer, short as it is, has three "Remember..." which are not simply "memorial" but mainly intercessions: we remember them in order to obtain for them "to grow in love," "a share in the resurrection" and "the light of your presence"; and finally: "Have mercy on us all.." The third and fourth Eucharistic Prayers underline still more, if possible, the intercessions. Theology explains that our eucharist is simply the same offered by Jesus in heaven, precisely to make intercession for us (cf. Heb 7:25). Paul VI put it this way: "Like Christ Himself, His minister is wholly and solely intent on the things of God and the Church, and he imitates the great high priest who lives ever in the presence of God in order to intercede in our favor."3 The priestly horizon must be really universal: "They should have at heart, in their prayers and particularly at the eucharistic sacrifice, the concern of the whole Church for all of humanity" (Redemptoris Missio, 1990, n. 67).
The Vatican Council also mentions the other specific duty of the priest, the Divine Office. "In the recitation of the Divine Office, they offer a voice to the Church which perseveres in prayer in the name of the whole human race, together with Christ who ‘lives on still to make intercession on our behalf’" (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 13). Again, the recitation (and still more, the singing) of the breviary also aims at the glory and praise of God, as it befits an official prayer of the Church. However, the intercessory character permeates the whole liturgical action, as it is explicitly shown at the end of Lauds and Vespers. The priest does not pray the Divine Office as an individual, but as an "official" of the Church, moreover, "It is the very prayer which Christ himself, together with his body, addresses to the Father" (SC, 84). Awareness of this intercessory role will, no doubt, enhance the spirituality of all priests.
Qualities of the Intercessor
Three qualities are usually ascribed to the intercessor: holiness, faithfulness and perseverance. As a good summary, I offer here the advice of Archimandrite Alexiev of the Orthodox church of Bulgaria: The priest who wants to succeed in his holy work as an intercessor for the lay faithful, before God, must lead a life of intense prayer himself. Pastoral activity is designed in such a way that any ministrant has to pray. Any morning and evening service in the church, any Liturgy on Sundays or holidays, any celebration of the Holy Mysteries or any other religious service is essentially a prayer before God, from Whom it requires various acts of mercy. In order for the prayerful ministration to be effective, to embrace the entire parish like an all-encompassing fire, to influence and inspire the lay people, more often than not alienated from the Church, the priest must privately, in his home, his unknown room, meditate on God and undertake the struggle of prayer.4 This is common Christian tradition; to begin, then, Vatican II recommends "What takes place on the altar of sacrifice, the priestly heart must make his own. This cannot be done unless priests through prayer continue to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of Christ" (PO, 14). The spirituality of the priest emerges from the sacraments: Ordination that he receives and Eucharist that he celebrates. Out of these sources the Holy Spirit configures the priest’s heart to the heart of Christ, and out of this configuration the priest has to live oneness with Christ as his normal (ideally) psychological state of mind. As a consequence, Christ’s concerns and the Church's will also be his. This, I believe, is what St. Paul means when he says: "And yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me" (Gal 2:20). In human affairs, the credentials of the intercessor are the key to his efficacy; in divine affairs, the priest has his official status as the Church’s voice and hand, and his personal holiness: in the last resort, holiness weighs most. Our High Priest, Jesus, is "holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners..." (Heb 7:26); so must his "embodiments," the ministerial priests, be.
From another viewpoint, this "dialectical living," (being I and not-I), is what old spiritual masters called "a man-of-God," and modern ones, "man-for-others." The cross of the priest is made of the upright stake, the "divine solidarity," and the cross arm, the "human solidarity." A man of God, that is, a man of Christ, (our God is incarnate God!) is described by John Paul II this way: "The relation of the priest to Jesus Christ, and in him to his Church, is found in the very being of the priest by virtue of his sacramental consecration/anointing and in his activity, that is, in his mission or ministry. In particular, the priest minister is the servant of Christ present in the Church as mystery, communion and mission. In virtue of his participation in the ‘anointing’ and ‘mission’ of Christ, the priest can continue Christ’s prayer, word, sacrifice, and salvific action in the Church."5 The priestly vocation and consecration make him radically upward-oriented. The state of mind I mentioned above stems from this ontological ground; it consists in living aware of what he is. The prayer life of a priest is also grounded here.
Man-for-others is the horizontal dimension of the same priestly cross. The Congregation for the Clergy, in the Letter on the Year for Priests, says: "We must exist for others, we must undertake to live with the People in a union of holy and divine love (which clearly presupposes the richness of holy celibacy), which obliges us to live in authentic solidarity with those who suffer and who live in a great many types of poverty." This solidarity with the people presupposes a mental disposition of openness to the world, so that "the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties … of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted" (Gaudium et Spes, 1), become personal concerns; out of this the intercessory action will emerge spontaneously. This disposition begins with interest for others’ affairs, their failures and successes, needs and prosperity, sickness or health, etc., and then brings that to God in prayer, to ask help for the former and offer thanks for the latter; intercession also consists in thanking God in the name of the thankless. It also follows availability for social services.
The specific spirituality of a priest must be eucharistic, both as sacrifice and as sacrament. As I have indicated, it is in the celebration of the Eucharistic that the priest best incarnates his role of intercessor; he manifests Christ’s paternity, merciful and compassionate. One recent example was Padre Pio; a friend relates that "there were times before he approached the altar that he could be seen shaking. When asked if it was because of what he was about to suffer, he answered that it was not, explaining, ‘It’s what I have to offer.’ The task of this priest intercessor began in the middle of the night, concentrated on the altar and ended with five hours of adoration every day, his priesthood localized at the confessional." As a sacrament, following the example of the holy Curé d’Ars, the tabernacle must attract the priests like the rose the bees. It is in front of the sacramental Christ that the priest has leisure to indulge in his intercessory office; the Mass is too short for that. The Christ present in the tabernacle is the heavenly Intercessor; he promised to listen to those who would "remain in him" andwith him (cf. Jn 15:7). It is here that the priest can "pray in the Holy Spirit" (Jude 20), who will teach us how to pray, he who "intercedes with inexpressible groanings," "who intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will" (Rom 8:27-27); one must not forget that the main role of the Holy Spirit now is to be the "other Advocate," the Intercessor. Perhaps nothing recommends a priest to the people more than seeing him praying before the tabernacle; as Charles de Foucault said, a man is never taller than when he is kneeling. Here the earthly priest intercedes with the heavenly High Priest and both as one with the Father for his people, the most efficatious of all intercessions: "Are we not sure that it is Christ Jesus, who died – yes and more, who was raised from the dead and is at God’s right hand – and who is adding his plea for us?" (Rom 8:34). In a society corroded by sin, this union with the Intercessor adds confidence to the priest, well aware that "we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the upright" (1 Jn 2:1): in the Church, priestly intercession is only one "theandric," human-divine, of the Priest-Head and the priest-member. Like Christ, the priest is both intercessor and victim.
I want also to mention the "agony" of the priest. "Agony" means both suffering and struggle. Unless the priest suffers before the tragedies he encounters, he will hardly struggle to find a remedy to them. We know how much St. John Mary Vianney suffered; and nearer to us, Padre Pio, for example; they were both great intercessors. Suffering comes from assuming others’ pain as his own; that is the empathy of a pastor or of a fellow Christian wayfarer. Hence, the agonizing entreaties of St. John Mary, pleading before the tabernacle for the conversion of his parish. In the Kingdom of God on earth, life comes from death: "In all truth I tell you, unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest" (Jn 12:24).
From the spiritual point of view, the world today is in tragic situation; no wonder that so many "prophets of doom" warn us of God’s wrath and apocalyptic retribution. We have to take those oracles cum mica salis; however, it must make us reflect, when we hear thousands of Marian apparitions asking for prayers. I think of a similar situation in the old Israel, and how God complained to prophet Ezekiel: "I have been looking for someone among them to build a barricade and oppose me in the breach, to defend the country and prevent me from destroying it; but I have found no one" (Ez 22:30). The same complain echoes in Isaiah 64:7. The model was: "He thought of putting an end to them, had not Moses, his chosen one, taken a stand in the breach and confronted him, to turn his anger away from destroying them" (Ps 106:23). This is the role of the intercessor. Anyone is invited to this urgent task; but the priest, given his standing in the Church, is the first called "to stand in the breach" and stop the evils threatening society; like Moses, through prayer. The ancient priests already did that: "Let the priests, the ministers of Yahweh, stand weeping between portico and altar, saying, ‘Spare your people, Yahweh! Do not expose your heritage to the contempt, to the sarcasm of the nations! Why give the peoples cause to say, ‘Where is their God?’" (Joel 2:17). One might be also called to jump into the middle of the struggle and assume the risks of being mediator of peace, reconciliation, harmony, justice... of a new way of being together; but always in a priestly way.
Finally, with Mary, whose total "power" consists in intercession, the priest’s prayer can work wonders. She, "taken up to heaven, did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation" (LG, 62). A priest’s heart has to be maternal and that can only be learned through contact with the Mother of God. St. Alphonsus De Liguori (1696-1787) wrote that "without devotion to the divine Mother it is morally impossible for any one to be a good priest." Hence Vatican II requested: "Let priests love and venerate with filial devotion and veneration this mother of the Eternal High Priest, Queen of Apostles and Protector of their own ministry" (PO, 18). There is no more efficacious intercession than that of a maternal heart; think of Mary at Cana, of the Canaanite woman.
1. For the Year for Priests, Mgr. Dominique Rey, Le Prêtre (Perpignan: Tempora, 2009).
2. Pastores Gregis (2003), n. 17.
3. Encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (1967), n. 28.
4. Seraphim Alexiev, The Priest as Intercessor between Earth and Heaven, tr. Gheorghita Ciocioi (Bucharest: Sophia, 2009).
5. Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 16.