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

The Priesthood of Christ our Saviour

Part One


The fundamental theme of this work is the dignity of the priesthood. And thus the opening chapters are devoted to a doctrinal study of the two parts of this theme: the dignity of Christ's priesthood, and the dignity of our priesthood, which is simply a sharing in that of Christ.

Not only the nature but also the purpose of each priesthood must be discussed, and it will then be evident that both have the same purpose: the manifestation of God's goodness and love towards men in their need for salvation, so that they may have life and have it more abundantly.


Cf. the Epistle to the Hebrews; the commentaries of the Fathers and of St. Thomas on this Epistle; the Summa, III, q. 22.

It is clearly revealed that Christ our Saviour is a priest—the high priest of the New Law—and that his priesthood remains for ever. "We can claim a great high priest, and one who has passed right up through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God" (Heb. iv, 14). "There he stands, eternally, a priest" (Heb. vii, 3). "Christ lives on still to make intercession on our behalf" (Heb. vii, 25). See also the Council of Ephesus (Denz. 122) and the Council of Trent (Denz. 938).

Christ as man is a priest

The special office of a priest is to be a mediator between God and men by giving divine gifts to man—namely, God's teaching and grace (the downward movement in mediation) —and by offering to God the prayers and sacrifice of man (the upward movement in mediation). This office is especially appropriate to Christ as man since his humanity is inferior to the divine nature and yet at the same time personally or hypostatically united to the Word, and he has also received the fulness of grace in his capacity as head of the Church. Hence it is already evident that his priesthood has as its purpose the manifestation of God's love for man. And so St. Thomas, when he asks whether it is fitting for Christ to be a priest (Summa, Ilia, q. 22, a. 1), quotes the words of St. Peter in his second Epistle (i, 4): "Through him God has bestowed on us high and treasured promises; you are to share the divine nature." This was the way in which Christ brought divine gifts to man—by giving grace which is the seed of glory or of eternal life. In the passage just quoted, St. Thomas also refers to the Epistle to the Colossians (i, 19): "It was God's good pleasure to let all completeness dwell in him, and through him to win back all things."

Therefore Christ as man is priest and mediator and in this respect inferior to God; but it should be borne in mind that even as man he is by no means inferior to the angels, not because of his nature but because of the hypostatic union and his fulness of grace and glory.

Why is Christ's priesthood everlasting?

St. Thomas gives three reasons (Ilia, q. 22, a. 5). First, because of his everlasting consecration through the hypostatic union, from which results a completeness of grace and glory that could never be lost. Secondly, because his priesthood has never been superseded by any other, since he intercedes unceasingly on our behalf. Thirdly, because of the consummation of his sacrifice—namely, the unending union of redeemed man with God in the Beatific Vision. This is the eternal treasure conferred on man by the Saviour's sacrifice—everlasting life—and that is why Christ is said to have taken his place "as our high priest, to win us blessings that still lie in the future" (Heb. ix, 11).

But Christ is not only a priest: he is also a victim by submitting to death and offering himself to God the Father on our behalf. This is of faith, as is evident both from Scripture— "He gave himself up on our behalf, a sacrifice breathing out fragrance as he offered it to God" (Ephes. v, 2)—and from the Council of Trent (Denz. 938): "On the altar of the cross he once offered himself through death to God the Father that he might obtain their eternal redemption." And Christ remains the principal priest and victim in the Mass.1

What constitutes the nature of Christ's priesthood? The grace of the hypostatic union according to the opinion of an increasing number of theologians, and this for three reasons. In the first place, it was in virtue of the hypostatic union that Christ was able to offer a sacrifice of infinite worth, which would make satisfaction for sin and merit for us grace and everlasting life. Secondly, Christ as man is a priest in virtue of his anointing by God, and his original anointing came from the grace of union. Thirdly, it is the same grace in Christ which is responsible for his own sanctification and for the sanctification of others. But the grace which is primarily responsible for Christ's sanctification is the grace of union. Therefore it is the grace of union which is primarily responsible for Christ's sanctification of others.

Christ is both priest and victim

It is important to insist on the fact that Christ was and remains for ever both priest and victim, for it gives us a clear and practical expression of the dignity of his priesthood. Cf. Ilia, q. 22, a. 2. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians v, 2: "Order your lives in charity, upon the model of that charity which Christ shewed to us, when he gave himself up on our behalf, a sacrifice breathing out fragrance as he offered it to God." We find the same truth defined by the Council of Trent (Denz. 938, 939, 940) when considering Christ's institution of the sacrifice of the Mass and of the priesthood of the New Law.

Why is it that Christ was and will always continue to be both priest and victim?

Simply because there was no other victim befitting his priesthood. He was the most perfect victim possible, possessing an infinite value, just as the offering of the sacrifice of the cross also possessed an infinite value because of the person of the Word. He was a victim in three different ways: a victim for sin, in order to obtain the forgiveness of sin; a victim for peace, in order to preserve grace; and a victim of a burnt-sacrifice, in order to effect a perfect union of redeemed man with God in the Beatific Vision. The texts which St. Thomas quotes from the Epistle to the Hebrews are explicit on all these points (Ilia, q. 22, a. 2).

Christ certainly did not put himself to death but willingly submitted to the blows of his executioners, although he could have rendered them impotent as he had done previously in the Garden of Gethsemane, when his enemies fell to the ground. On an earlier occasion he had said (John x, 18): "Nobody can rob me of my life; I lay it down of my own accord."

The fire which consumed the victim was, according to St. Thomas, the fire of infinite love coming down from heaven.

The visible sign of the Father's acceptance of the victim which had been offered to him was the glorious Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.

Notice how the voluntary death of Christ differs from the death of a martyr, since it was a sacrifice in the strict sense of the word. The martyrs submitted to their death willingly, but once the death-blow had been delivered it was no longer within their power to lay down their life or take it up again. Christ on the other hand could have miraculously prevented his death occurring under the fatal blows of his executioners, and this he could have desired if his Father had not given him a command to die on our behalf. Furthermore not all the martyrs were priests, so the sacrifice they made of their life was not a sacrifice in the strict sense of the word since it was not offered by a priest.

Therefore Christ the high priest offered himself as a victim, first of all without the shedding of blood at the Last Supper under the appearances of bread and wine, and then by pouring out his blood on the cross. It is important to remember, however, that even if the Last Supper had never taken place, Christ's voluntary death on the cross would have been a complete sacrifice and not merely a part of a sacrifice—although Fr. de la Taille disagrees with the majority of theologians on this point. For at the time of the crucifixion there was not only a bloody immolation but also an offering, an offering which was not entirely internal but also externally expressed in the words: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit"—"It is achieved."

The effect of the sacrifice was atonement for sin: "Our weakness, and it was he who carried the weight of it, our miseries, and it was he who bore them" (Isaias liii, 4).

The perfection of Christ's priesthood

St. Augustine (De Trinitate bk. iv, c. 14), St. Albert the Great (De Eucharistia dist. v, c. 3; ed. Borgnet 1899, vol. 38, p. 387), and St. Thomas (Ilia, q. 48, a. 3; q. 22, a. 1 and a. 4) are all agreed that it is impossible to conceive of any priesthood being more perfect than that of Christ.

The proof of this assertion rests on the definition of priesthood —together with the fact that although Christ's habitual grace could be increased die grace of union could not. The argument can be put briefly as follows—

The degree of excellence belonging to any priesthood depends on the intimacy of union, first between the priest and God; secondly, between the priest and the victim possessing the greater purity and value and which is more completely destroyed; and thirdly, between the priest and the people on whose behalf the sacrifice is offered.

This principle follows naturally from the definition of a priest—the mediator between God and man for the offering of sacrifice.

In the first place, a priest must be closely united to God by holiness of life in order to make up for shortcomings in the worship, petition, reparation, and thanksgiving of the faithful.

Secondly, a priesthood possesses a greater degree of excellence if the victim offered in sacrifice possesses greater purity and value in order to express the sinlessness of a contrite heart, and if the victim is more completely destroyed in order to express the total consecration of oneself to God.2 Also, the perfection of a priesthood is measured by the union existing between priest and victim, since the external offering and destruction of the victim are intended as signs of an internal offering and immolation of the priest himself. In the words of Psalm L, 18: "If thou hadst a mind for (external) sacrifice, sacrifice I would have given thee, but thou takest no pleasure in burnt-offerings; the sacrifice God loves is a broken spirit; a heart that is humbled and contrite thou, O God, wilt never disdain." That was the reason for God's refusal of the purely external sacrifice offered by Cain.

Thirdly, the excellence of a priesthood depends on the intimacy of union between priest and people, and also on the number of people with whom the priest is closely united, because the priest in his capacity as man's mediator for offering sacrifice to God has to unite together all die worship, petition, reparation, and thanksgiving of the people into a single raising of his mind to God; that is, so to speak, the soul of the people's prayer. Consequently a priest in closer union with a greater number of people is a sign of a more perfect priesthood, since the sacrifice he offers gives increased honour to God and its effect is more widespread. Think of St. John Vianney celebrating Mass for his own people and for the large number of pilgrims.

This principle can easily be applied to Christ's priesthood, revealing at once that its splendour could not possibly be surpassed by any other.

In the first place, Christ as priest is not only more holy than all other priests but he is holiness itself, since he is the incarnate Word of God. Also, his holiness as man springs from the uncreated grace of union with the Word, which sanctifies his humanity. In this respect Christ's formal and fundamental holiness is not acquired but innate, is not accidental but substantial, is not created but uncreated. His human priestly actions are theandric since they are the actions of the divine person of the Word, and so possess of their very nature an infinite value—originally for obtaining merit and making satisfaction on our behalf, now for giving adoration and thanks. Note that the grace which belongs to him as head of the Church is not sufficient for giving his actions that infinite value, since it is created habitual grace.

Moreover, Christ is holy by reason of the abundance of his habitual grace and created charity, although it must always be remembered that by the absolute power of God this created habitual grace and charity in Christ could have been increased, whereas the grace of the hypostatic union was as perfect as it could be. Incidentally, this confirms what has been said already, that it is the grace of union which constitutes the nature of Christ's priesthood.

Christ also possessed the chief ministerial power (potestas excellentiae) of instituting the sacraments and a priesthood which would endure for all time.3 He is the source of all priestly power.

Therefore, because of his holiness or permanent union with God, Christ's priesthood could not be surpassed, since it would be impossible to create any greater grace than the grace of union—although it is within God's absolute power to create a greater habitual grace and charity than that present in the most holy soul of Christ.

In the second place, Christ's priesthood excels all others by reason of his union with the perfect victim which he offered. We have already stated that Christ is both priest and victim; 110 other victim would have been worthy of his priesthood. And it was not merely his body which was offered as the victim but also his soul which was ready to die with sorrow. The correspondence between the external and internal sacrifice could not have been more perfect, neither would it have been possible for the victim to possess greater purity or value or to undergo greater destruction. So it was that the sacrifice of Calvary was a perfect holocaust, verifying the words of St. John the Baptist: "Look, this is the Lamb of God; look, this is he who takes away the sins of the world" (John i, 29).

And finally, Christ's priesthood is the most perfect possible because of his union with all Christians—in fact, with men of all generations and of all races who have belonged and must belong to his mystical body, since he died for all men without exception.

The sacrifice of the cross was universal both in time and in place, and from Christ's side the union between himself and the people could not have been more intimate. Cf. St. Paul's teaching on the mystical body of Christ, 1 Cor. xii, 27; Ephes. iv, 25; v, 26. The moral influence which Christ exercised over his mystical body by merit and satisfaction while he was here on earth is now continued in heaven by his prayer of intercession : "He lives on still to make intercession on our behalf" (cf. IlIa, q. 21 and Ha Ilae, q. 83, a. 11). Moreover he is the physical instrumental cause of all the grace we receive (Ilia, q. 62, a. 5) and of every act of transubstantiation which he is actually willing.

Therefore, from whatever aspect we view Christ's priesthood —the union between Christ and God, or between Christ and the victim, or between Christ and the people for whom the sacrifice was offered—its supreme perfection is evident. It is impossible to conceive of any closer union between priest and God; and this confirms the view that the nature of Christ's priesthood is constituted not by his habitual grace and the grace which is his as head of the Church—for this together with his charity could be surpassed in virtue of God's absolute power (Ilia, q. 7, a. 12, ad. 2; q. 10, a. 4, ad. 3)—but by the uncreated grace of union which is identical with the Person of

the Word as terminating, possessing, and sanctifying the humanity of Christ (Ilia, q. 6, a. 6), and which is also the foundation of the infinite value of the sacrifice of Calvary and, therefore, of the sacrifice of the Mass.

In brief, the reasons why we find it impossible to think of any priesthood being more perfect than that of Christ are the following—

First, there cannot be a closer union between the priest and God than the hypostatic union.

Secondly, no priest can be more closely united to the victim of his sacrifice than Christ was, since he himself was both priest and victim. Not only was his body offered as the victim but also his soul which was ready to die with sorrow.

Thirdly, there cannot exist a more intimate union between priest and people, nor can the number of people be surpassed, since Christ is the head of all men and his sacrifice was offered for everyone without exception.

There now remains one further question to be discussed concerning the priesthood of Christ, and that is its relationship to the Masses which are being offered at present throughout the world.

Christ's priesthood and the Mass

Does the priesthood of Christ exercise here and now an actual influence on every Mass, so that Christ himself offers each Mass not merely virtually but also actually?

This question has been well treated by the theologians of Salamanca in their work De Eucharistia (disp. xiii, dub. iii, §i), and I myself have already considered it at length in the first volume of my treatise De Eucharistia, 1942, pp. 290-300.

Scotus, the Nominalists, and Vasquez maintain that Christ is the principal offerer at Mass in virtue of the fact that it was he who instituted this sacrifice and issued the command that it should be offered in his name. But he does not actually offer the sacrifice here and now, since this would seem to entail the presence in Christ of several acts of internal offering.

On the other hand, the majority of theologians—especially the Thomist school—are of the opinion that Christ does actually offer all the Masses celebrated each day of the year throughout the world, although this does not imply several acts of interior offering; there is but one act in his soul which endures for ever. Such is the opinion of Cajetan, John of St. Thomas, the theological school of Salamanca, Gonet, Suarez, Bellarmine, Bérulle, Condren, Bossuet, Olier, Thomas-sin; in more recent years, Lepin, Grimal, Herve, Michel, Petazzi, S. J.

The following are the arguments which they bring forward to support their view—

(1) This opinion is implied in the words of the Council of Trent (Denz. 94.0): "For the victim is one and the same: he who is now offering through the ministry of priests is the same person who then offered himself on the cross, only the manner of offering is different." In other words, Christ is actually here and now the principal offerer. However, since Christ is no longer a wayfarer on earth the sacrifice is neither bloodstained nor painful nor meritorious; the Mass applies to our souls the past merits and satisfaction of Christ.

(2) Pius XI writes in his encyclical Quas Primas (Denz. 2195): "Christ the priest offered himself as a victim for sin and eternally offers himself." The same view is to be found in the encyclical of Pius XII Mediator Dei et hominum, 30 November, 1947, for when speaking of Christ as the principal offerer he writes: "Similarly he offers himself daily on our altars for our redemption so that we may be saved from eternal condemnation and numbered in the flock of his chosen ones." In the Mass he does not acquire new merit but applies the merit already gained through the sacrifice of Calvary.

(3) The fundamental theological argument is based partly on Scripture and partly on Tradition.

"Christ lives on still to make intercession on our behalf" (Heb. vii, 25, and Rom. viii, 34). It is also the common teaching of the Fathers that Christ is the principal offerer of every Mass. Now is this office of principal priest something which he once exercised in the past when he instituted the Mass? But he is "a priest for ever, in the line of Melchisedech" and "lives on still to make intercession on our behalf". Therefore he is actually exercising this office at the present moment, for it is one which he can never lay aside.

So Christ as the principal priest of the sacrifice of the Mass actually wills and offers that sacrifice. How well this illustrates the eminent dignity of our sacrifice, not only because of the victim offered but also because of the principal offerer and his theandric action of reparative worship, intercession, and thanksgiving.

I have already shown in the first volume of my work De Eucharistia, p. 294, that this was the opinion of the Fathers.

(4) According to St. Thomas (Ilia, q. 62, a. 5) and the majority of theologians the humanity of Christ is an instrumental cause of all supernatural effects, an instrument always united to the divinity, conscious and free. In other words, Christ as man wills to co-operate physically here and now in the production of these supernatural effects. But amongst these effects is each and every act of transubstantiation. Therefore, Christ as man wills each one of these acts in virtue of an act of his will made while on earth, when through the Beatific Vision and his infused knowledge he foresaw and willed every single Mass as an application of the merits of Calvary (Ilia, q. 10, a. 2; q. 11, a. 1).

So this interior offering continues unceasingly in Christ in his state of glory; it is never renewed or multiplied. This offering—so far as its effects are concerned—is subordinate to the offering of the sacrifice of the cross, since the Mass is simply the application of that sacrifice. Therefore Christ could truly say on the cross: "It is achieved", precisely because the Mass only applies the merits already gained by the Passion.

A confirmatory argument can be derived from the fact that Christ certainly wills to give himself in Holy Communion to all the faithful who receive him. A fortiori, he must actually will to offer himself to God the Father in accordance with the four ends of sacrifice. The consecration is of greater importance than the communion, since the essence of the sacrifice is obviously more important than its participation by the faithful. So Christ must will both actually.4

This view would seem to be certain and has been confirmed in the recent encyclical of Pius XII, Mediator Dei et hominum.

It is a truth which has far-reaching consequences for the priest celebrating Mass. It means that he must strive to attain to a still closer and present union with Christ, who is actually offering the Mass in the most perfect manner possible by his theandric act of infinite value, accompanied by the highest degree of contemplation, fervent love, adoration, and piety. The celebrant will thus share more intimately in the supreme priesthood of Christ.

The priest will then be led on to recall that Christ is not only the offerer of the Mass but also its victim, that he once endured most painful sufferings and now offers to his Father the sufferings of his mystical body—our own pains and sufferings —so that they may possess greater value for the saving of souls.

If the priest happens to be somewhat distracted by any irreverence in those around him at the moment of consecration, Christ himself is certainly not distracted. His soul united to the divine person of the Word sees and wills this present act of consecration, sees and wills its value and its efficacy and the spread of its influence even to the souls in Purgatory. All this is seen intuitively by Christ and actually willed by him.

While on earth he had already foreseen all this in his capacity as judge of the living and the dead (cf. St. Thomas, III, q. 10, a. 2). With even greater reason must he now enjoy the same knowledge through the Beatific Vision, which is not subject to time but to eternity in which it shares, and while in Heaven he continues the same act of will. So at this ever-present moment of unchanging eternity Christ sees and wills in his sacred soul every Mass and the influence which it exercises on the whole world—in the mission-fields, in Purgatory, and even in Heaven in so far as it is the Mass which leads us towards eternal life and gives supreme glory to God.

This is a truth which we ought to make known to the laity in order to encourage them to fix their attention on the principal priest, since the celebrant at the altar is only the minister of Christ and not his successor. They would come to appreciate better the infinite value of the Mass, which originates from the victim and the principal offerer. They would also find it easier to understand how the sacrifice of the Mass and the sacrifice of Calvary are essentially the same sacrifice—the same victim and the same principal offerer-—differing only in the manner of offering. On Calvary there was suffering, shedding of blood, and merit; now the sacrifice is bloodless and sacramental. No longer is it painful and meritorious but confers on us of its very nature (ex opere operato) the satisfaction and merit of the Passion and produces in our souls abundant grace, dependent on our present dispositions. On many occasions the saints while assisting at Mass have seen Christ himself in the place of the celebrant, making the actual offering of himself for the glory of his Father and the saving of souls.

And so it is that the excellence of Christ's priesthood stands clearly revealed; it is obviously impossible to conceive of one more perfect.

1Cf. Council of Trent (Denz. 940): "For the victim (in the sacrifice of Calvary and in the sacrifice of the Mass) is one and the same: he who is now offering through the ministry of priests is the same person who then offered himself on the cross, only the manner of offering is different," in so far as the immolation is no longer accompanied by the shedding of blood, neither is it meritorious, but applies to us the merits of the Passion.

2Considering the victim alone, the most perfect of all the sacrifices of the Old Testament was Abraham's offering of his dearly loved son, who as the type of Christ offered himself heroically without any resistance in a spirit of prayer and love of God.

3St. Thomas, III, q. 64, a. 4; q. 50, a. 4, ad 3.

4Cardinal de Bérulle writes in his book Vie de Jésus, c. 26: "This first voluntary act of offering made by Jesus is not a transitory act like ours, but one which is permanent as depending on the nature and state of eternity. It is an everlasting act of the will which has never ceased day or night, which has never been disturbed or interrupted by any other act, but has always remained actual in his soul. Just as in that soul there is a perpetual life-giving movement, so also this interior and spiritual act of offering has been (and is) everlasting in the mind and heart of Jesus."

This act of self-offering endures in Christ in the same way as the Beatific Vision and the love and the worship which accompanies that vision; it is measured not by time but by the eternity in which it shares.

Cf. Bossuet Elevations sur Ies mysteres, 13th week, 7th Elevation: "From the moment that Jesus (entering this world) began this wonderful act (of self-offering), he has never discontinued it; from the time of his infancy and even from the time when he lay in his mother's womb he has remained in his state of victim completely resigned to the divine commands. . . . Let us, therefore, imitate the example of Jesus Christ in his attitude of victim and abandon ourselves without reserve to the will of God."