Priests in the New Testament
The II Vatican Council (cf. LG 28 and PO 2) based its doctrinal explanations about the priesthood of the New Testament on the concept of "consecration and mission" which the Lord Jesus claims for himself according to John 10:36:
«Yet to someone whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world you say, "You are blaspheming" because I said "I am son of God!" ».
Consecration, sanctification ("agiazo"): "Christ" comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew expression "Messiah" which means "anointed". It does not become the proper name of Jesus, if not because he fulfills perfectly the divine mission for which he stands. In fact, in Israel those were anointed in the name of God who were consecrated to him for a mission, which he had entrusted them. This was the case with the kings (cf 1 Sam 9:16; 10:1; 16:1.12-13; 1 Kings 1:39), priests (Ez 29:7; Lv 8:12) and in rare cases with prophets (1 Kings 19:16). Therefore, the Messiah had to be the event "par excellence" as the Lord would have sent him to definitely establish his kingdom (cf Sal 2:2; At 4:26-27). The Messiah had to be anointed through the Spirit of the Lord (cf. Is 11:2) simultaneously as king and as priest (cf. Zc 4:14; 6:13), but also as prophet (cf Is 61:1; Lc 4:16-21). Jesus has fulfilled the messianic hope of Israel in his threefold function of priest, prophet and king (CCC 436); cf. The angel who proclaimed the birth of Jesus to shepherds at the birth of the Messiah promised to Israel (cf. Lc 2:11), his conception as "holy" (Lc 1:35) in the virginal womb of Mary. Joseph was called by God to "take Mary as his wife"; she was pregnant, "having conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 1:21), so that Jesus, "called Christ" would be born of the wife of Joseph in the messianic line of David (Mt Mt 1:16; cf Rm 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8; Ap 22:16).
Mission ("apostello") is an "apostolate". "The messianic consecration of Jesus shows his divine mission. On the other hand, it is what his own name indicates, because Christ's name means the one who has anointed and he who himself has been anointed. The one who has anointed is the Father, the anointed one was the Son and He anointed in the Holy Spirit who is the anointing ( Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus haereses 3, 18, 3). His eternal messianic consecration was revealed during the time of his life on earth in the moment of baptism by John, when God "consecrated him in the Holy Spirit and in power" (At 10:38), "so that he should become known to Israel" (John 1:31) as its Messiah. His deeds and his words will reveal him as "the holy one of God" (Mc 1:24; John 6:69; At 3:14). (CCC 438)
Such consecration-mission assures that in the New Testament there remains a unique "high priest according the order of Melchisedek" (Heb 5:10; 6:20), "holy, innocent, immaculate" (Heb 10:14), who "by a unique offer has made perfect forever those who are sanctified" (Heb 10:14), by the unique sacrifice of his cross (cf CCC 1545).
"Made perfect" (teleioo) is a word with profound significance: it means at the same time to perfect, fulfill and consecrate-sanctify, translating a Hebrew word which used to mean the anointing of priests of the old covenant and the consecration of the temple; it's the last word of Jesus on the cross: "It is fulfilled" (John 19:30).
(Among the Fathers, already Theophill underlined the priestly dimension of "consecration" in John 10:36: sanctificavit eum, hoc est sanxit sacrificari pro mundo. In quo ostendit se non esse deum sicut ceteri; nam salvum facere mundum, divinum opus est, non autem hominis deificati per gratiam).
Therefore, Jesus has a special anointing by the Holy Spirit (cf Mt 3:16; Lc 4:18; At 4:27; 10:38) in which he allows his whole mystical body to participate: in him all christians become a "holy and royal priesthood to offer offerings to God through Jesus Christ and to proclaim the miracles of who has called them from darkness into his wonderful light (cf 1 Pt 2:5.9). As highpriest and mediator he has made of the Church "a kingdom of priests for God his Father" (Ap 1:6; cf Ap 5:9-10). These texts are the bases for the doctrine of the "common priesthood".
But with the intention of forming the christians into one body, in which "all members do not have the same function" (Rm 12:4), on the evening of his Resurrection, he sent especially the Apostles, in the same way he was sent by the Father (cf John 20:21); from here originates the doctrine of the "special mandate" of the hierarchy in the Church.
"Then, through the Apostles themselves, he made their successors, the bishops, sharers in his consecration and mission, duly entrusted in varying subordinate degree the office of ministry (according the formula of the II Vatican Council, LG 28 and PO 2); the doctrine of the apostolic succession is a historical fact that is found only in the Catholic Church and in the Orthodox Church; it enables to recognize in each ordained minister someone who is inserted in a chain of transmission - uninterrupted since the days of the Apostles - through the gesture of the imposition of hands, by a spiritual gift which enables him to act in the name of Christ the head. No one could pretend to take the place of Christ who had abolished all the sacrifices and who has become the only High Priest. This is the reason why this gift is considered as initiated by Christ himself and why it has become part of the sacraments of the New Covenant.
- The Apostles handed on in their writings and by their spoken word (cf 2 Thess 2:15) everything what they had received from the Word of God made flesh.
"Give the things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses to trustworthy persons who are capable of teaching also others" (2 Tim 2:2).
- Such mission of "maintaining the deposit" (1Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14) must be exercised by the successors of the Apostles who have been charged through the imposition of hands ( 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6; 1 Tim 5:22). Those who are responsible bear the title of "vigilants" (in Greek "episcopi", from which the word "bishop" comes) or "elder" (in Greek "presbiteri"). Also the letters of Saint James (5:14) and of Saint Peter (1 Pet 5:1-14) testify to the existence of "presbyters" as heads of the communities.
As a matter of fact, all this shows us a time very near to Christ: summer of the year 56 for the letter of James and approximately the year 58 for 1 Tim. The Acts of the Apostles speak twice about the rite of the imposition of hands (Acts 6:6 and 13:3; cf also 14:23), testifying to the presence of "presbyters" at Ephesus in the year 58 (At 20:17). They were also called "episcopi" (Acts 20:28). The letter of 1 Peter used the letters to Titus and to Timothy; the letter itself made reference to the letter to the Hebrews which was written before the destruction of the temple in the year 70. Therefore it seems that the writings which speak about "presbyters" were redacted exactly when James, Paul and Peter were still alive.
Such scriptural approach to consecration and mission which was put into new light by the II Vatican Council clarifies simultaneously the exercise of the ministry: the apostolic minister, if we consider well the doctrine of the New Testament and especially the letters of Paul, puts together in harmony two concepts of the priesthood, of "presbyters" which sometimes were opposed to one another: in effect, the true apostolate and the true adoration of the Father are strictly combined and permanently connected in such a way that these two aspects of the life of priests cannot exist one without the other. Saint Paul himself declares that when he proclaims the gospel he directs to God an act of adoration: when he praises him "among the gentiles" he sings "to the glory of his name" (cf Rom 15:9) (cf Introduction to the Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis).
Such an approach clarifies simultaneously one of the fundamental duties of those who participate according to this special modality of the priesthood and of the mandate of Christ: if the imposition of hands offers to those who receive it a "spiritual gift" which enables them to exercise their mission, it is their duty "to keep alive the gift the Lord has placed in you" (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6) through ongoing formation (cf Exhort. Pastores dabo vobis 70).