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The Priest as 'Another Christ' in Liturgical Prayer by Ralph A. Keifer from 'Women and Priesthood:Future Directions'

The Priest as 'Another Christ' in Liturgical Prayer

by Ralph A. Keifer

from Women and Priesthood: Future Directions, pp. 103-110.
edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

RALPH A KEIFER, Associate Professor of Liturgy at Catholic Theological Union and in Notre Dame University's Summer Graduate Program in Liturgical Studies. M.A. and Ph.D. in Theology from Notre Dame University. Also taught at Duquesne University, St. Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana, Catholic University, St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. General Editor for the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, 1971-73. Author of numerous articles and co-author of several books. Married and father of three children.

The question of the ordination of women to the Roman Catholic presbyterate raises a liturgical question: would the ordination of women be liturgically disruptive? Or, to pose the question another way, would a decision to ordain women to the presbyterate represent a break with the basic patterns of liturgical prayer in the Roman rite? In a church which takes its patterns of liturgical prayer as normative for belief (lex orandi legem statuat credendi), the question has major import. If the ordination of women were to pose the possibility of a basic disruption of the church’s prayer patterns, it would be prima facie evidence that the ordination of women is theologically questionable.


It may be useful to indicate what I mean by “disruption” of “basic patterns”. I do not refer to the dismay which might attend the introduction of the practice of women’s ordination, or to the difficulties which some Catholics might experience in accepting women in the role of presiding over sacramental celebration. Change, even major change and innovation may evoke dismay from some. Such change need not, at the same time, affect the basic patterns of liturgical prayer. For instance, the introduction of the use of the vernacular into the liturgy was dismaying to some, but did not affect basic liturgical patterns. By “basic liturgical patterns” I refer to those aspects of liturgical prayer which express and signify the fundamental reality of the church. The question which I address is: would the fact and presence of female presbyters represent a basic change in those patterns?

It is the belief of this writer that the ordination of women would not represent a basic change in liturgical pattern. The difficulty with proving this is that negative facts are more difficult to prove than positive ones. I can, for instance, prove that I was in Moscow at noon on Tuesday of last week. It would probably be impossible to produce proof that I was never in Moscow. The only way to prove negative facts is to entertain all the possibilities and then rule them out.

With regard to the ordination of women, there are only two critical possibilities that can be entertained: the fact that ordination prayers speak exclusively of male ministers, and the common understanding that the presbyter represents Christ in the role of liturgical presidency. As to ordination prayers, the argument on liturgical grounds is inconclusive. Since women presbyters have been unknown to Roman Catholicism, its prayer formulae cannot be expected to speak of the ministry of women, past or present. That the ordination prayers appeal to paradigms such as the priesthood of Aaron, the priesthood of Christ, the office of the apostles, etc. is also inconclusive. The question is not whether women ever occupied such offices, but whether they can be assimilated to the office of presbyter without betraying the church’s tradition on the nature of presbyteral ministry. It is not a question which the prayers answer.

We must turn, then, to the question of the presbyter’s role of representing Christ as liturgical president, most notably as presiding at the eucharist. Similar to other chapters in this book, our discussion will center around the Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


To clarify its conclusion that women cannot be ordained, the Declaration appeals to the fact that the bishop or priest, in the exercise of his ministry, represents Christ, who acts through him. The supreme expression of this representation is found in eucharistic celebration. The priest acts “in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.”(1) The document then explains that since the priest is a sacramental sign of Christ, Christ’s role in the eucharist would be obscured if the priest were to be a woman. A “natural resemblance” must exist between Christ and the priest:

The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ’s role in the eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this natural resemblance which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.(2)

It is easy to counter this line of reasoning with the following objection. In exercising the ministries proper to their offices, the priest or bishop represents the entire church, a body consisting of women as well as men. There is no reason then why such offices might not also be assumed by women. The Declaration takes note of this objection, but meets it by asserting that the priest represents the church “precisely because he first represents Christ himself, who is Head and Shepherd of the Church.”(3)

The Declaration, furthermore, develops the nuptial symbol. It draws upon the Old Testament symbol of God as spouse of Israel,(4) and with the help of many New Testament passages it speaks of “Christ . . . the Bridegroom; the church . . . the Bride.” The Roman statement draws this conclusion:

That is why we can never ignore the fact that Christ is a man. And therefore, unless one is to disregard the importance of this symbolism [Christ as Bridegroom, Church as Bride] for the economy of Revelation, it must be admitted that, in actions which demand the character of ordination and in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom and head of the Church is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation—which is in the highest degree the case of the Eucharist—his role (this is the original sense of the word persona) must be taken by a man.(5)

This theme of God, Spouse of Israel, originated in Canaanite liturgy and is often applied to Christ, Spouse of the Church, within a distinctive liturgical setting. The New Testament introduces this nuptial theme in the midst of a heavenly or earthly banquet, celebrating the marriage of the King’s son (Mark 2:19; Matt 22:1-4; Rev 19:7). The motif of God or Christ as bridegroom is thus linked with a long biblical tradition about the heavenly or eschatological banquet and leads into the liturgical commemoration of the Eucharist (Is 25:6; Ps 22:27; Matt 26:29).

The argument here is fundamentally liturgical and sacramental: the contention of the Declaration is that the sacramental signing of Christ’s role, especially and supremely in the eucharist, would be obscured if the presiding minister were to be a woman. Citing a variety of texts from the Second Vatican Council and subsequent official Roman documents, the Declaration argues that the presiding minister only represents the church because he first represents Christ as head of the church. What is at stake, above all, is that the role of Christ in liturgical action, especially that of the eucharist, be clearly and unmistakeably signed: “. . . the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease.”(6) The Declaration is suggesting that the role of Christ as head and shepherd of the Church is signed in clear distinction from the priest’s representing the Church as body and bride of Christ.

While the argument is fundamentally liturgical and sacramental, the Declaration does not support its position with more appeals to liturgical text and rite. The eucharistic liturgy is directly mentioned only once, when the document asserts that the priest takes the role of Christ when he pronounces the words of consecration. And the footnote reference is not to the texts and gestures of the Roman liturgy (nor to any other), but to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas.(7) If the distinctive role of Christ as head and shepherd of the church is so clearly signed in distinction from the church’s role as body and bride of Christ, it could be expected that liturgical gesture and text would reflect that distinctive role. In fact, it could be expected that it would be clearly mirrored in liturgical texts, for it is in its verbal and oral articulation that a sacramental sign is given its most specific perceptible meaning. The classic concern with the “matter” (action, things) and “form” (words) of sacramental activity was grounded in this understanding of a sacramental sign.

Yet the Declaration gives no indication of liturgical texts which would support its suggestion that in the act of consecration at the eucharist the priest represents Christ the head and shepherd of the church in distinction from his role as representing the church as the body and bride of Christ. It is the view of this writer that no such textual support is to be sought because there is none to be found. There is no point in the eucharistic liturgy at which the priest represents Christ the head in contradistinction to his representing the church. These roles are signed together, inseparably, and without sharp distinction between them. A major weakness of the Declaration’s liturgical and sacramental argument is that it has no basis whatsoever in the prayer texts of the Roman rite or the texts of the eucharistic liturgies of any other churches whose apostolic succession Rome acknowledges.

Conventions of piety often hold such power, even over the perceptions of the literate and the articulate, that the assertion of the preceding paragraph is probably not wholly acceptable as a bald statement. We are, perhaps, schooled less by what the liturgy says and does than by a long history of liturgical passivity on the part of the laity which obscured the role of the people in the liturgy. Centuries of a Latin liturgy have especially schooled Roman Catholic piety to be more attentive to what appears visually at the liturgy than to what is said. Within the context of such a piety, the Declaration’s suggestion that the priest represents Christ as head and shepherd of the church when he pronounces the words of consecration seems to be a reasonable, even obvious suggestion. If one attends to the eucharistic action primarily with the eye, it looks as if the priest takes on a distinctive role when he “pronounces the words of consecration.” The point of what follows in this chapter is to indicate that what may seem obvious is not, and that the liturgical texts say something quite other than what the Declaration says about the representation of Christ at the eucharist.


The Declaration describes the priest as taking the role of Christ above all in pronouncing the words of consecration.(8) Whether “words of consecration” refers to the eucharistic prayer as a whole or to the institution narrative alone is not entirely clear. Christian antiquity, at least until the fourth century, universally viewed the entire prayer as consecratory. Western theological reflection, for a variety of reasons that need not be pursued here, had by the high middle ages singled out the institution narrative as “words of consecration.” More recent theological reflection, attentive to the nature and structure of the eucharistic prayer, has returned to the older view.

The effect of that reflection can be seen in the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue on eucharistic theology, which views the whole prayer as consecratory.(9) The Roman Missal of 1970 seems to incorporate both views, describing the eucharistic prayer as one of “thanksgiving and sanctification,”(10) while also describing the institution narrative as “institution narrative and consecration.”(11)

If the Declaration’s expression “words of consecration” means the whole eucharistic prayer, the priest’s representation of Christ is clearly conjoined integrally to his standing as representative of the church. The eucharistic prayer is also offered in the first person plural (“we”), and is intelligible only as a prayer offered on behalf of the whole church. As the Roman Missal says so well, “The meaning of the prayer is that the whole congregation joins Christ in acknowledging the works of God and in offering the sacrifice.” (12) On a view of the whole eucharistic prayer as consecratory, there is no basis for the suggestion that there is a clear and distinctive signing of the priest’s role as representing Christ as head and shepherd of the church apart from the priest’s representing the church as body and bride of Christ. Both roles are enacted together.

But it is doubtful that the Declaration is referring to the eucharistic prayer as a whole when it refers to the “words of consecration.” Since the Declaration cites no liturgical text and no work of theological reflection (as distinguished from official documents) since that of Durandus of Saint-Pourcain (d. 1332), and appeals to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, it can be assumed that the Declaration maintains the medieval view of the institution narrative itself as “words of consecration.” If this is the case, it is not enough merely to cite the integrity of the eucharistic prayer as spoken in the name of the whole church. The authors of the Declaration seem to view the institution narrative in some sort of disjuncture from the rest of the prayer—rather, perhaps, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal singles out the institution narative as consecratio. Neither the consensus of Christian antiquity nor current reflection is taken into account by the Declaration’s apparent view of consecration.

In view of this, it may be asked whether the Declaration can be met on its own grounds by citation of other sources. And indeed it can. In the Roman liturgy the institution narrative does not stand in any sort of disjuncture from the rest of the eucharistic prayer. And at no point in the prayer does the priest speak directly in the name of Christ. He continually speaks in the name of the church. Even the institution narrative, which quotes the verba Christi, is spoken in the third person: it is a quotation within a narrative recital addressed as part of a prayer to God the Father, and it is encompassed within a prayer spoken in the name of the whole church. The Declaration contends that the priest represents the church because he first represents Christ himself as head and shepherd of the church.(13) It is not the purpose of this paper to discuss the theological truth of this assertion. But on the level of sign, in what is said and done at the act of eucharist, the exact opposite is the case. It is only by praying in the name of the church that the priest enacts his role as consecratory representative of Christ.

This is all the more evident in the distinctively Roman pattern of eucharistic prayer — notably in the ancient Roman Canon (now Eucharistic Prayer I of the Roman Missal), but also in the newer prayers of the Roman eucharistic liturgy. The institution narrative is preceded by an invocation (Quam oblationem) that the gifts will become the body and blood of Christ, an invocation that is offered in the name of all:

Quam oblationem We pray, O God, that
tu, Deus, above all you would be
in omnibus, quaesumus, pleased to make this
benedictam, adscriptam, oblation blessed,
ratam, rationabilem, approved, right,
acceptabilemque facere spiritual, and
digneris: ut nobis Corpus acceptable, so that
et Sanguis fiat dilec- it might be for us the
tissimi Filii tui, Body and Blood of your
Domini nostri Iesu Son, our Lord Jesus
Christi. Christ.(14)

In the classic Canon, the corporate character of the invocation is reinforced by the petitionary quaesumus (we pray), as it is in the newer Prayers II and IV of the Missal. Similarly, the invocation before the narrative in Prayer III uses Supplices . . . deprecamur (“beseeching . . . we pray”). Moreover, the institution narrative is linked to the invocation which precedes it. In the classic Canon, the narrative begins Qui pridie (“Who, on the day . . .”), and the antecedent of the pronominal reference to Christ is the invocation which prays that the offering of the Church will become the body and blood of Christ. A virtually identical pattern is present in the other eucharistic prayers of the Roman rite.

Textually, then, the institution narrative is wholly dependent upon the invocation which precedes it, and the narrative is unintelligible except as a continuation of the invocation. The narrative does not stand alone or in disjuncture from the rest of the eucharistic prayer. Thus in the articulation of the eucharistic prayer in the Roman rite no clearcut distinction is made between the priest’s representing the praying church and his representing Christ the head and shepherd of the church. The two roles are enacted simultaneously. Even on a view which insists on pinpointing a temporal moment of consecration with the recitation of the verba Christi, there is still no disjunctive representation of Christ as the head and shepherd of the church apart from the priest’s representation of the church as the body and bride of Christ. In reciting the institution narrative, the priest continues to speak on behalf of the praying church.

It can well be asked whether the Declaration does not reduce sacramental sign to dramatic pictorial tableau or to enacted allegory when it singles out the priest’s role in pronouncing the “words of consecration” as signing his representation of Christ the head and shepherd of the church. The priest’s offering of the rest of the prayer is surely as much a representative sign of the presence of Christ the head and shepherd of the church who stands before the Father as is the priest’s role in reciting the institution narrative. Singling out the consecratory moment devalues the sign that the rest of the prayer is. To offer prayer “through Christ our Lord” surely cannot exclude Christ under his aspect of being head and shepherd of the church. It is precisely because he is head of the church that prayer can be offered in this fashion.


A major defect of the Declaration’s argument is that it speaks of an aspect of sacramental signification as if it could be singled out in a particular moment of eucharistic celebration, in distinction from other moments of eucharistic celebration which express other aspects. That is to say, the Declaration speaks as if it assumes that at one particular moment one aspect of the representation of Christ is signed, while at other moments, other aspects are signed. The Declaration fails to recognize that in all liturgical action, at all times, the priest represents simultaneously both the church and Christ its head and shepherd. Further, the Declaration overlooks the tradition of liturgical prayer by which the priest represents Christ only by speaking in the name of the church. In so doing, the Declaration verges dangerously close to saying that a priest can act as priest without speaking and acting in the name of the church. Yet the pattern of the church’s prayer is such that the priest acts as priest only because he speaks in the name of the church.

What appears, then, on the level of sign in the church’s prayer pattern is that the priest represents Christ because he represents the church. There is no moment in the eucharistic action when the priest represents Christ in any way apart from the church. There is no liturgical prayer, and in particular there is no eucharist, which is not the action of the church. Attention to the sacramental signs actually used in the Roman liturgy indicates the weakness of the argument against the ordination of women on the grounds that they do not have a “natural resemblance” to Christ the head and shepherd of the church. There is no separate and clearly distinct sign of Christ the head being represented at the eucharist apart from the representation of the church. And since, on the level of sign, the representation of Christ is grounded in representation of the church, it would seem that a woman could perform the priestly role of representing Christ as well as a man.


1. Declaration, Sec. 5, par. 26.

2. Declaration, Sec. 5, par. 27.

3. Declaration, Sec. 5, par. 32.

4. The origin and development of this symbol of Yahweh, spouse of Israel, was investigated by Carroll Stuhlmueller, in ch 2. sec. 3 of this book.

5. Declaration, Sec. 5, par. 30.

6. Declaration, Sec. 5, par. 27.

7. Declaration, Sec. 5, par. 27; see also fn. 17 & 18.

8. Declaration, Sec. 5, par. 26.

9. Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine, 1971, frequently described as the Windsor Statement.

10. “. . . prex scilicet gratiarum actionis et sanctificationis,” Institutio Generalis #54.

11. ''Narratio institutionis et consecrationis," Institutio Generalis #54.

12. ICEL translation. The Latin has: ''Sensus autem jujus orationis est, ut tote congregatio fidelium se cum Christo conjungat in confessione magnalium Dei et in oblatione sacrificii." Institutio Generalis #54.

13. Declaration, Sec. 5, par. 32.

14. Literal translation.

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