Part 3 Theology

Chapter p31 Theology of Ministry

Preliminary Questions


In Persona Christi

Leading the Eucharist

The Subject of the Sacrament

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

Would you want to be a priest?  Why or why not?  Would you want one of your children to be a priest?  Why or why not? 

Return to   Top of This Page   Ministry Index    Home Page


Mike Joncas. "The New Roman Rite Prayer of Ordination of Presbyters: A Liturgical Vision of the Priesthood." The Priest 48/5 (May 1992) 39-47.

Mike Joncas. "Naming the Tasks of Presbyteral Ministry: A Comparison of the Promissio Electorum in the 1968 and 1990 Roman Rite Ordination Ritual." Service of the Church: Essays on Theology and Ministry honoring Reverend Charles L. Froehle. Ed. Victor J. Klimoski and Mary Christine Athans. St. Paul, MN: St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity University of St. Thomas, 1993. Pp. 101-116.

Mike Joncas. "The Public Language of Ministry Revisited: De Ordinatione Episcopi, Presbyterorum et Diaconorum 1990". Worship 68/5 (1994) 386-403.

Mike Joncas. "Ordination 3: Medieval and Roman Catholic," New Westminister Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, edited by Paul Bradshaw (Louisville, Ky., and London: Westminister John Knox Press, 2002).

Return to   Top of This Page   Ministry Index    Home Page

In Persona Christi

"In persona Christi" (a Latin phrase meaning "in the person of Christ,") is a phrase that recent Popes (Pius XII, Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI; and the Catechism Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law written under John Paul II's authority) have used to explain how an ordained priest even though he is "a mere human being" can do "divine" things such as change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and forgive sins. (E.g. "Who but God alone can forgive sins?" Mark 2:7-8, NAB). A priest can do these things because--at that moment--he is acting "in the person of Christ". And for that reason he uses the first person singular ("This is MY body." "I absolve you…")

This understanding is presumed by the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Can. 1008 By divine institution, the sacrament of orders establishes some among the Christian faithful as sacred ministers through an indelible character which marks them. They are consecrated and designated, each according to his grade, to nourish the people of God, fulfilling in the person of Christ the Head the functions of teaching, sanctifying, and governing.

And it is presumed true by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

CCC 1548 In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis. [emphasis added.]

Note that the Catechism of the Catholic Church here uses the phrase "in persona Christi Capitis" but sources of this phrase indicated in the footnote speak of "in persona Christi". It seems the phrase "in persona Christi Capitis was introduced to somehow try to safeguard the concept of "in persona Christi" in the light of the fact that the rediscovery of baptism by the Second Vatican Council also implied the rediscovery of the fact that it is by baptism that each of the baptized becomes an "alter Christus", "Another Christ", and each of the baptized acts in persona Christi!

Four additional comments.

1. The "bottle opener metaphor" I have a bottle opener in my kitchen cabinet drawer. There was a time when I frequently needed a bottle opener to open pop (soda) bottles and beer bottles and to poke a triangular hole in the top of juice cans. Today, when I buy soda or beer it usually comes in a bottle with a twist top or a can with a pull tab opener. I still have the bottle opener in my kitchen drawer so that it is available when I need it, but I seldom use it today.

If the Church teaches that the priest acts in persona Christi, I certainly believe what the church teaches. However, in my own pastoral ministry this particular teaching is something like the bottle opener I have in the kitchen. I seldom use it today.

2. The teaching regarding "in persona Christi" is a doctrine that I have never actually experienced personally. When I am standing at the altar presiding at the celebration of the Eucharist, it is my intention to pray and to lead the congregation in prayer by naming their prayer and encouraging their "amen". When I lead the Eucharistic prayer, I pray in the first person plural, (i.e. "we" because I am praying in the name of the entire community [myself included] hence, "we". It has never been my experience that when I come to the words "This is my body..." at that moment I cease to be Tom Richstatter and become Jesus Christ. This has not been my experience; in fact, it not something that I even avert to.

[When I say the words "This is my body..." etc. I am speaking to God the Father, in the name of the worshipping community, recalling the scriptural narrative of the Last Supper. This is clearly indicated in the text of the Eucharistic Prayers: "...he took the bread and gave you thanks and praise."]

Similarly, it is been my experience that the people who like me like me because I am Tom, not because I'm Jesus Christ. And the people who hate me, hate me because of things that I do as Tom. I have to admit that sometimes I wish these people would think of me as Jesus Christ and maybe they would treat me a bit better -- but I've never experienced that either.

3) "Who we are is how and where we have traveled." (Murray Bodo, O.F.M.) "We don't see things as they are. We see things as WE are." (Julia Upton, S.M.) In other words: we are shaped by our experiences and that forms the lens through which we view reality.

One of the experiences that has shaped my thinking about "in persona Christi" is my memory of seeing and hearing accounts of priests who enticed women into having sex with them by explaining authoritatively to her that she was not having sex with him, but he was acting in persona Christi, and she was actually having sex with Christ; and Christ said it was not sinful. These experiences naturally color my thinking with regard to the phrase "in persona Christi". It seems "dangerous".

4) I wonder if the phrase is used to encourage vocations to the priesthood. They might think that such an exalted view of the ordained state would enticed young men to choose this vocation. Personally, that was not my experience. I was attracted to the priesthood by seeing priests who were dedicated to serving the people of God and by witnessing their joy in this ministry. The idea of becoming "Another Christ" never entered my mind. [In this regard it is important to be aware of generational differences.]

5) I also feel that "in persona Christi" can "set the priest apart" from the rest of the baptized. I was ordained in the light of the Second Vatican Council and its Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) which consistently teaches that the priest exercises his ministry in the midst of the assembly, as one baptized in the midst of the baptized. [In this regard it is important to be aware of generational differences.]

Return to   Top of This Page   Ministry Index    Home Page

Leading the Eucharist

1. For the first twelve centuries "alter Christus" (another Christ) was a term that applied to all of the baptized.  We became "alter Christus" (another Christ) by baptism.

2. In the twelfth century the priest begins to be "alter Christus" because:  1) His hands are anointed in the ordination ceremony.  2) When asked how the Eucharist change (bread to Body) comes about Catholic theology has put forward the theory that it is caused by the priest saying the words "this is my body" in the person of Christ.  That is how he can say "my".  [This is my body...]  The Theology develops that the priest is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ.

3. How do the people participate?  They "offer themselves -- the Eucharist is understood in terms of Good Friday / Sacrifice.  "Ivo of Chartes (1040-1115) understands that the people participate only by their devotion." (Kilmartin 140)  Many understand the offertory procession as a continuation of old testament sacrifice.

4.  The current understanding and theology of priesthood and the Eucharist minimizes the relation priest/church and maximizes the relation priest/Christ.  The priest acts in the power of Christ, in persona Christi even if the priest has, "left the priesthood" and was "reduced" to the lay state.  Return to   Top of This Page   Ministry Index    Home Page

To Think About

After reading the essays on ministry for the 2007 summer course I have the following comments:

1.   Note that "clergy," "hierarchy," "ministry," "priesthood," do not have identical meanings. "Clergy is the generic term used to describe the formal religious leadership within a given religion. The term comes from Greek kleros (a lot, that which is assigned by lot (allotment) or metaphorically, heritage). Depending on the religion, clergy usually take care of the ritual aspects of the religious life, teach or otherwise help in spreading the religion's doctrine and practices. ... In Christianity there is a wide range of formal and informal clergy positions, including deacons, priests, bishops, and ministers. In Islam, religious leaders are usually known as imams or ayatollahs. (Wikipedia contributors, "Clergy," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Accessed June 15, 2007.)  The Code of Canon Law of 1917 stated that the clergy / laity distinction is of divine origin. The current Code conspicuously omits this statement.  ---  Note that the early terms for ministry in the Church are secular terms, not religious terms. They were overseers, elders, ministers. Words taken from civil administration.

2.  "The life of priests, what they do, is a mystery to me."  I find that this is often very true for the laity.  For example, I (a priest) frequently live in the homes of friends -- stay overnight, share meals and recreation, play with the kids, etc.  How frequently do you live in a rectory?  Do you count a priest among your closest friends?  Is there a priest or two who would consider you their closest friend?  ---  The question must be asked: from whom does the priest get his emotional support? Who loves him? In the old days (1950) there were 3 or 4 priests together in the rectory (all of whom had received the same formation at the same seminary with the same professors and the same textbooks); they were respected by the parish and cared for by the bishop. For the most part all three of those are gone; most priests must live alone; they receive numerous complaints (and even threats against their life); and the bishop is often from a distant diocese and does not know their name. In 2002 a study showed that the emotional support of a diocesan priest comes mainly from his mother and his siblings.

3. Regarding the "spiritual marriage that takes place at ordination between the priest and the church" -- from my experience as a spiritual director for diocesan clergy, this metaphor plays very little practical role in the life and spirituality of the priests I know.

4.  "I am conflicted in my opinions. In one sense, I treasure the idea of a holy person set apart by his sacramental life leading the gathered community in their praise of God: a priest."   Here we arrive at the heart of the issue theologically: whether the priest is set apart by holy orders or a member of the Body of Christ by baptism.  Holiness is required by baptism. --- It is interesting (and important) to examine our current "vocation literature", advertising the priesthood. Which priesthood are they advertising: a priesthood devoted to holiness and the adoration of the Eucharist, or a priesthood which focuses on the "job" the ministry and the celebration of the sacraments in the midst of the people of God. For example, if I were a young laymen today thinking about priesthood I would be turned off by the first and attracted by the second. A vocation literature which advertises the first vision of priesthood will naturally attract a specific clientele.

5.  Historians emphasize that one of the cultural influences was the "longing for the sacred." One of the complaints that many early Christians had against Jesus was that he was too ordinary. He did not found a new church. He did not start a new religion. People wanted "the spectacular, the miraculous, the wonderful."

6.  While we, in the United States, are beginning to speak of a "priest crisis" because we experience fewer priests in our parishes than there were when we were "growing up", we should remember that we still have many more priests than many local churches. One evening at Sacred Heart Church in Indianapolis where I was staying while teaching this course at Marian College a Franciscan Missionary returned from Brazil. This man had spent most all of his priestly life in the missions. He is currently 80 years old and has 30 parishes. He told me that when he was younger and more active he was pastor of 80 parishes. In response to my question about the Eucharist he said that his parishioners had the opportunity of receiving communion once or twice a year when the priest came to celebrate Mass. I was reminded of this conversation several days ago when I was reading Worship: A Primer in Christian Ritual by Keith F. Pecklers:

"Ultimately, the Roman Catholic Church will need to come to terms with exactly what priority it give to the Holy Eucharist. That may sounds flippant, but it is intended as quite a serious question. As the clergy shortage becomes an ever greater reality (even in parts of Italy) the celebration of Mass is being replaced by Communion Services led by members of the laity." (Pecklers 200-201)

"Saint Thomas Aquinas maintains that Eucharist is and must be the centre of the Christian life and our Church structures and other sacrament relate to it in a most intrinsic way. Aquinas, of course, was not saying anything new, but merely articulating what the Church had recognized as its own tradition for centuries. At the dawning of the twenty-first century, all the Eucharistically oriented Christian churches but especially the Roman Catholic Church must once again com to terms with what such centrality really means. In other words, how high a priority does the Church give to the Eucharist? If it is a secondary issue -- if we are content to settle for Communion services as standard far and Mass as the rare exception -- then we can proceed with business as usual, offering the Eucharistic celebration as long as a sufficient number of male, celibate clergy remain available. And when they are not longer available, then Communion Services can be performed by lay leaders. This is certainly an option and, indeed, is currently functioning as the modus operandi in more and more regions of the Catholic world." (Pecklers 202)

8.  Note that priest do not take "vows." Religious men and women frequently take the vow of chastity. Priests make a "promise" not to marry. Practically you may think this is the same thing. Theologically, there is a distinction.

9.  Bishops are not presbyters but bishops are priests.

10.  Note that our present system of "seminary formation" is very recent in the Church and history shows that there were other ways to prepare for priesthood.

11.  In order to maintain our integrity as a Church, we must have some uniform beliefs and a uniform way to pass them on or share them as we do with sacraments." This is very true; the problem lies in knowing which beliefs are of divine origin and are not reformable and which are subject to change. There was a time when "in order to maintain our integrity as a Church" we thought that all apostles had to be Jews.

Return to   Top of This Page   Ministry Index    Home Page

Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 03/20/15.  Your comments on this site are welcome at