Leonardo Alenza y Nieto 1807-1845
El viático / The Viaticum 1840
Oil on canvas
77 cm x 63,5 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Perhaps the above painting represents an overly Romantic view of the role of the priest perhaps even in the 1840s. In modern times the role of the priest has changed.
The recent scandals have highlighted the status and role of priests.
The Catechism is perhaps not readily comprehensible about it especially on the distinction of roles between bishops and priests in their charge. Perhaps the sources below might assist in understanding some aspects of the issue.
In his First Lenten sermon (10th March 2010) Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, at the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Curia said:
"The word of God that guides us in these reflections of the Year for Priests is 1 Corinthians 4:1: "Si nos existimet homo, ut ministros Christi et dispensatores mysteriorum Dei"; "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God."
In Advent we meditated on the first part of this definition: the priest as servant of Christ, in the power and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It remains, in this Lent, to reflect on the second part: the priest as steward of the mysteries of God. Of course, what we say of the priest is all the more true for the bishop who possesses the fullness of the priesthood.
The term "mysteries" has two fundamental meanings: the first is that of the truth hidden and revealed by God, the divine proposals announced in a veiled manner in the Old Testament and revealed to men in the fullness of time; the second is that of "concrete signs of grace," in practice the sacraments. The Letter to the Hebrews combines the two meanings in the expression: "the things that relate to God" (ea que sunt ad Deum); it accentuates, in fact, precisely the ritual and sacramental meaning, stating that the task of the priest (the author speaks here, however of the priesthood in general, of the Old and of the New Testaments) is to "offer gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Hebrews 5:1).
This second meaning is affirmed above all in the tradition of the Church. Saint Ambrose wrote two treatises on the rites of Christian initiation, seen as fulfillment of figures and prophesies of the Old Testament; he entitled one "De sacramentis" and the other "De mysteriis," even if in practice they treat the same argument.
Returning to the word of the Apostle, the first of these two meanings brings to light the role of the priest in relation to the word of God, the second is his role in relation to the sacraments. Together they delineate the physiognomy of the priest as witness of the truth of God and as minister of the grace of Christ, as evangeliser and sacrificer.
For many centuries the function of the priest was reduced almost exclusively to his role of liturgist and sacrificer: "to offer sacrifices and forgive sins."
It was for Vatican Council II to make evident, next to the function of worship that of evangelization. In line with what Lumen Gentium said of the function of bishops to "teach" and "sanctify," Presbyterorum ordinis states:
"In the measure in which they participate in the office of the apostles, God gives priests a special grace to be ministers of Christ among the people. They perform the sacred duty of preaching the Gospel, so that the offering of the people can be made acceptable and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:16) Through the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the People of God are called together and assembled [...] Their ministry, which begins with the evangelical proclamation, derives its power and force from the sacrifice of Christ.”"
For a fuller reflection on the role of the priest see: Pope Paul VI Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (7th December 1965)