In the heart of every right-minded Catholic there is firmly implanted an instinctive reverence for the priesthood. It is no matter of surprise to him to read of the tributes of respect paid to priests, even by those in high places. He can understand quite well that the Emperor Constantine would never himself sit down to table until the last priest was seated. It does not seem to him any extravagant veneration to find St. Catherine of Siena kneeling on the dusty roadside and kissing the footprints of a priest. He gives unhesitating approval to the sentiment of St. Francis of Assisi who writes that if he met a priest and an angel he would salute first the priest, and only after the priest, the angel. And he is inclined to believe or at least countenance, the anecdote which relates that before a certain priest’s ordination his angel guardian was seen walking before him, but after ordination the angel followed behind. All this and much more, indicative of a deep reverence for the priesthood, seems to a Catholic the most natural thing in the world.
In much the same way does he regard the attacks of Christ’s enemies on the priesthood. He expects the priest, as a matter of course, to be made a target for special venom in time of persecution. Our Lord promised His priests as much. “If the world hates you, know you all that it has hated Me before you. If you had been of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember My word which I said to you: ‘The servant is not greater than his Master’. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
Passionate devotion to the priesthood on the one hand and violent hatred on the other — both are fully accounted for when we recall Our Lord’s words to the effect that His priests are “chosen out of the world.” They are His in quite a peculiar sense. Indeed so close is the bond of friendship between Christ and His priest that the glories of the priesthood are most easily summed up by saying that the priest stands before the world as “another Christ.” At Our Lord’s Baptism the heavenly Father pointed to Christ, standing there in the waters of the Jordan, and declared to the world: “This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased. Hear ye Him.” That same wonderful declaration the Father makes in favour of His priest. The Sacrament of Holy Orders imprints on the priest a “character” or mark by virtue of which he is set apart as being, in quite an especial manner, the property of God. It is of course most true that every creature belongs absolutely to God, and that sanctifying grace elevates the creature to the wondrous dignity of Son of God. But in addition to this the priest is the well-beloved son; he is the Benjamin in God’s great family, for his soul is enriched with exceptional graces. Theologians call him a “persona sacra" — a sacred person. A church is “sacred” because it is set apart exclusively for the service of God. A vessel is “sacred” when it is used only at Mass or to hold the Blessed Sacrament. In the same way a priest is “sacred” because he has entered into a contract with God to spend himself exclusively on what has to do with the service of God, and on His side God has accepted this offering and has sealed the priest as His well-beloved son. Just as the image stamped on the coin shows it to be true, or as the signature at the foot of a document proves it to be genuine, so this “character” or mark set upon the priest by God entitles him to a place of special honour in the ranks of God’s friends. That is why the priest, for the very reason that he is “another Christ,” must expect love from those who love Christ, and bitter opposition from those who hate Christ.