In Persona Christi: Acting in Christ's Name

April 27, 2009


BaptismThe solidarity of all the baptized with Christ is the fundamental mystery of the Church. They become “one body, one spirit in Christ.” God's Son became flesh and dwelt among us in order to conclude an old covenant of Mosaic law and temple sacrifices, and to inaugurate a new covenant of reverent self-offering. Christ, the unique priest of the new covenant, worships his Father by lovingly offering his own incarnate life together with the spiritual sacrifices of all the members of his mystical body. Paul (Rm 8:29) calls Christ "the firstborn of many brothers and sisters," who became human so that we might become divine. Augustine says: "He would first share with us, and then enable us to share with him." Christ is the Adam of the new creation from whose pierced side comes forth the new Eve under the signs of water and blood. This new Eve, born of Baptism and Eucharist, is the Church.

Christ and his members have become united like the wine and the water in the chalice at Mass. In this eucharistic blending of the human and the divine, we see the nature of the Church. Christ offers himself to the Father in perfect love and adoration after joining himself to his members’ humanity. Sacramentally he embraces them as they unite their lives with his. The Church's liturgy makes this mystery visible, even though it remains ultimately invisible and heavenly.

AssemblyIn the Eucharist, the assembled faithful discover the spiritual meaning of what they do when scattered to their homes. Christ's self-offering becomes the pattern and meaning of their own self-offering in faith and love. Lumen Gentium (hereafter LG; Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) ¶1 explains that the Church is a sacrament of the union of the faithful with Christ and of the unity of all humankind with one another and with God. At liturgy, the faithful symbolize and actualize Christ's offering of his whole body to the Father. They intentionally join themselves to Christ in offering their own spiritual sacrifices, which then take on transcendent value because of their solidarity with Christ. The faithful give themselves to God in the name of Christ (in Latin: in persona Christi), and the Father receives them, because they are rooted in Christ.

The role of the priest and the role of the people in liturgy are complementary: "The prayers addressed to God by the priest who, in the person of Christ, presides over the assembly, are said in the name of the entire holy people and of all present" (Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution the Sacred Liturgy) ¶33). The baptized, as "living stones," are built into the spiritual house of the Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1268; hereafter CCC) and “become a holy priesthood, belonging no longer to themselves, but to him who died and rose for them." (cf. 1 Cor 6:19; 2 Cor 5:15). Every participation in Christ's priesthood is fundamentally rooted in the matrix of our baptismal transformation. As for priests, as LG 28 puts it: "Acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming his mystery, [presbyters] unite the prayers of the faithful to the sacrifice of Christ their head...," or as the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) says: "A spiritual power is given [to presbyters], a power whose purpose is to build up the Church." (¶6)

The Catechism (1367) expresses this with even more clarity:

"In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ's sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering."

processionThe entire people of God offer the Eucharist to the Father of Jesus in his name (in persona Christi). This is why, I think, the Catechism (n. 1548) goes on to explain that the priest, "In virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis [in the name of Christ as head of the body]," or as the next number says, "Through the ordained ministry, especially that of bishops and priests, the presence of Christ as head of the church is made visible in the midst of the community of believers." (n. 1549) This further explains the meaning of what is said by the Catechism just before, namely, that "the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood: it is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. The ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his church." (n. 1547)

This brief reflection helps us to appreciate a series of interlocking theological truths that have the greatest importance for every one of the faithful:

(1) Baptism makes the faithful "a new creature," an adopted child of God who has become "a partaker of the divine nature" and a member who participates in Christ's priesthood (CCC n.1265 and n.1268).

(2) Consecrated by Baptism for divine worship, the entire body of the faithful offer to the Father the adoration and praise of Christ's body, the church, joining their own spiritual sacrifices (prayers, works, joys, sufferings) to his; they do this in the name of Christ, that is in solidarity with Christ, in persona Christi.

(3) The ministerial priesthood, which the Lord committed to bishops and presbyters as pastors of his people, is in the strict sense a service (LG ¶24, CCC n.1551). This sacramental means is transmitted by its own sacrament, Holy Orders, to visibly assure the sacramental presence of Christ as head in the midst of the community of believers. (CCC n.1549)

(4) In this way the People of God, consecrated by baptism, offer their sacrifice of praise in the name of Christ (in persona Christi), finding the most privileged expression of this self-offering around the eucharistic table, where their spiritual sacrifices "are offered to the Father in all piety along with the body of the Lord." (LG ¶34)

Rev. Paul Philibert, O.P., S.T.D. is currently a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical & Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota.  He is the author of The Priesthood Of The Faithful: Key To A Living Church(Collegeville, MN: the Liturgical Press, 2005) and Seeing and Believing: Images of Christian Faith(designed and illustrated by Frank Kacmarcik; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995), and co-author of Stewards of God's Mysteries: Priestly Spirituality in a Changing Church Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2004).

Photos by Michael Jensen

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