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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVIII: No. 2 - Pentecost 2003

The Ministerial Priesthood
Explanation of the Icon

Click on Icon for a closer view

by the iconographer
Monsignor Anthony A. La Femina

The Lord Jesus Christ, the sole Priest of the New Covenant, made all members of His Church share by grace in His unique priesthood. Through the Ministerial Priest, who has received the sacrament of Holy Orders, Christ Himself makes His members an eternal gift to the Father (cf. I Pt 3:18).

The Ministerial Priesthood differs not only in degree but in essence from the Common Priesthood of all baptized believers, because it confers special powers and correlative duties upon bishops and priests. All ordained priests (including bishops), exercise the supreme degree of their sacred functions in the same way: by celebrating the Eucharist (Lumen Gentium 28). For this reason the icon presents the Ministerial Priest during this celebration. The priest's life and mission are so linked to the Eucharistic Sacrifice that he is called to become completely one with it in order to become, himself, a sacrifice of praise.

The instrumentality of the priest in making this Sacrifice present on earth is illustrated in the icon by the blood and water coming from Christ's side and being offered to the Eternal Father by the hand of the priest. The Ministerial Priesthood is so connected to the Eucharist that the Priesthood cannot be correctly contemplated outside of the Eucharistic Mystery. The Holy Spirit is pictured in the icon above the priest since the priest brings about the Eucharist (Sacrifice -- Sacrament -- Presence) through the power of the Spirit.

The Ministerial Priest is "the sacramental representation of Christ the Head and Shepherd" as Pope John Paul II has said (L'Osservatore Romano, December 5, 2001). This is to say that the priest is an icon of Christ the Priest that is divinely written by the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechism 1142). The priest's sacramental identification with the Eternal High Priest is indicated in the icon by the Greek Letters "IC" (Jesus) and "XC" (Christ) on the extremities of the priest's stole. These letters are used in icons to identify only the Person of the Lord Jesus.

In his ascending mediation the priest offers to the heavenly Father, together with the Lord's unique Sacrifice, the prayers and sacrifices of God's People that are symbolized by the smoking golden thurible (censer) of fragrant incense in the priest's hand (cf. Ps 141:2; Rev 5:8; 8:3,4). There, through a personal life of prayer and penance united with the Sacrifice he offers, the priest entreats the Father's mercy for himself and all those souls whom God has providentially confided to his priestly vocation.

In the exercise of his descending mediation the priest distributes the sacred gifts of the heavenly Father's merciful love. The rays signifying God's merciful gifts are depicted in the icon by the red and white rays that come from the blood and water of the Lord's side flowing into the hand of the priest. Once in the hand of the priest the blood and water become the red and white rays of Divine Mercy. The red rays signify the blood of our Savior that is the undeniable proof of the heavenly Father's merciful love for all persons without exception. The red rays also signify the Eucharist as the life and nourishment of souls. The white rays indicate the Holy Spirit, who makes souls holy and pleasing to God in a special way through Holy Mass and all the sacraments, but especially through the forgiveness of sin in the Sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation. Pope John Paul II teaches that because the priest is the minister of Christ's Sacrifice and of His mercy, the priest is indissolubly bound up with the two sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation (L'OR, July 20, 2001).

The priest is portrayed in the icon with golden shoes decorated with precious stones to reflect the words of Saint Paul: "How beautiful are the feet of those who announce good news" (Rm 10:15; cf. Is 52:7). It is precisely God's mercy that the priest brings to mankind on behalf of the Church in his service of evangelization.

In the icon the seraphic figures of the four evangelists come forth from the Throne of God (Ezk 1:5-7,9,10,12; Rev 4:6-8). Only persons on earth need evangelization, and the Ministerial Priests carry out this evangelization as their "priestly service of the Gospel of God" (Rm 15:16). The priest fulfills his teaching office at the explicit command of the Lord Jesus:

"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the world" (Mt 28:19,20).

Pope John Paul II teaches that "the priest is not the man of his own personal initiatives; he is the minister of the Gospel in the name of the Church. His apostolic activity takes its origin from the Church and returns to the Church" (L'OR, May 16, 2001).

Prayer for Priests
God our Father, you reveal your omnipotence in the superabundance of your mercy, poured forth into the world through the sacred wounds of your Son and our Redeemer.
We ardently pray that your sacred ministers may be clear reflections of your mercy. May they, with every word and deed of their life, illumine humanity, disoriented by sin, and bring it back to you, who are Love.
We ask this, Father, through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.

Monsignor Anthony LaFemina, a canonist, theologian and iconographer, is on the staff of the Diocese of Charleston. His icon of the Incarnation was featured in the Lent/Easter issue of Voices. The above explanation of the icon of the Priesthood, on the back cover of this issue, is condensed from his essay in the Adoremus Bulletin, May 2002

Related Page: Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Members of the Congregation for the Clergy on the Occasion of Their Plenary Assembly, March 16, 2009

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