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The Value of a Theological Formula "In Persona Christi" by A. G. Martimort

The Value of a Theological Formula "In Persona Christi"

A. G. Martimort
published in L'Osservatore Romano (March 10, 1977): 6-7

There is a tendency today, in certain circles, to stress the fact that the priest, in the liturgy, speaks in the name of the assembly and even in the name of the whole Church. This is a very true and traditional affirmation, which could already be found in the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. "In the prayers of the Mass—he said—the priest speaks in persona Ecclesiae, occupying the place of the Church."(1) But this statement requires to be explained. It is not, in fact, because the priest would supposedly have been chosen by his community to be its spokesman that he speaks in its name. Furthermore, the prayer he utters goes far beyond the narrow circle of the assembly over which he presides. St. Thomas stated precisely: "Only he who consecrates the eucharist, the sacrament of the universal Church, can represent the whole Church. (2) "Pius XII, in the encyclical Mediator Dei, thought it necessary to recall: "The priest takes the people's place only because he plays the part of Our Lord Jesus Christ, since Jesus is the head of all his members and offers himself for them. . . ."(3)

That is why one must not be surprised to find often, in the texts of the Second Vatican Council, the formula in persona Christi used to characterize the specific way of acting of the ministerial priesthood. Thus we read in the liturgical constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium:

"the prayers addressed to God by the priest who presides over the assembly in persona Christi."(4) In Lumen Gentium, the council, wishing to distinguish from the common priesthood of the baptized the ministerial priesthood of bishops and priests, gives the following definition of the latter: "The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, moulds and rules the priestly people: Acting in persona Christi, he brings about the eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people."(5)

Configured to Christ the Priest

The same Constitution on the Church, a few pages further on, returns to this formula in connection with priests of the second degree, adding, moreover, a new perspective, to which we will come back further on. "By the power of the sacrament of orders, and in the image of Christ the eternal High Priest, they (priests) are consecrated to preach the Gospel, shepherd the faithful, and celebrate the divine worship as true priests of the New Testament. Partakers of the function of Christ the sole mediator on their level of ministry, they announce the divine word to all. They exercise this sacred function of Christ most of all in the eucharistic liturgy or synaxis. There, acting in persona Christi, and proclaiming the mystery, they join the offering of the faithful to the sacrifice of their head. Until the coming of the Lord, they represent and apply in the sacrifice of the Mass the one sacrifice of the New Testament, namely the sacrifice of Christ offering himself once and for all to his Father as a spotless victim."(6)

Finally, in the decree Presbyterorum Ordinis a more developed expression is found: ". .. that special sacrament through which priests, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are marked with a special character and are so configured to Christ the Priest that they can act in persona Christi capitis."(7) We find the same idea, if not the same words, several times in this decree; "To the degree of their authority , . . priests exercise the office (munus] of Christ the Head and the Shepherd";(8) "By the sacrament of orders priests are configured to Christ the Priest so that as ministers of the Head and co-workers of the episcopal order they can build up and establish his whole body which is the Church."(9)

We have deliberately left in Latin the expression in persona Christi. Certain translators of the conciliar texts, however, did not understand that it was a question of a technical formula,, consecrated by theological tradition, and they misunderstood its exact meaning.(10) Now, the very frequency with which the council utilized it shows the importance it attributed to it for understanding the specific nature of the ministerial priesthood. It will be useful, therefore, to recall its origin and study its significance more deeply.(11)

It was above all St. Thomas who made this formula a classical one. It is often found in his writings. Several times, he refers it to a text of the Second Letter to the Corinthians, which he quotes according to the text of the Vulgate: "Nam et ego, quod donavi, si quid donavi, propter vos, in persona Christi" (2 Cor 2:10).(12) It is an evident mistranslation. The Greek is en prosôpo Christou, which means "in the presence of Christ" or "before Christ's eyes." However, in spite of the preference he shows for this quotation, the Angelic Doctor can add another one, taken from the same letter: "Pro Christo legatione fungimur, tamquam Deo exhortante per nos (2 Cor 5:20).(13) This time, it is no longer a mistranslation, nor even an adaptation: the apostle, in fact, exhorting the Corinthians to "be reconciled to God," states forcefully: "Christ gave us the ministry of reconciliation . . . ; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself . . . entrusting to us the message of reconciliation" (vv. 18-19). It is in the strongest sense, therefore, that its conclusion must be understood: "So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us" (hyper Christou oun presbeuomen). The voice of the apostle expresses God's own voice, or rather God speaks the word of reconciliation through the apostle's mouth.

Thus clarified by this Pauline perspective, the formula in persona Cbristi means in the first place that the bishops, successors of the apostles, and the priests, their collaborators, are ambassadors of Christ, that they speak in his name. In this sense St. Thomas also says ex persona, an expression he found in the Vulgate in connection with Jephthah's messengers to the king of Ammon (Judges 11:12).

Now, the role of Christ's ministers is not limited to speech, which, in any case, is efficacious in itself, they act in the Lord's name, they carry out his role, they take his place and that not only when they exercise the sacramental ministry proper, but also in the whole of their ecclesial activity. "Praelatus" St. Thomas states, "in Ecclesia gerit vicem Dei . . . , in persona Dei determinat quid sit acceptum";(14) "Christus est caput Ecclesiae propria virtute et auctoritate: alli fero dicuntur capita inquantum vicem gerunt Christi."(15)

So "to act in persona Chnsti" is equivalent, therefore, to "take the place of Christ," a formula which we also find again in the decree Presbyterorum Ordinis of Vatican II.(16) It is hardly necessary to stress how traditional it is: we find it already in St. Cyprian, in connection with the eucharistic celebration which must obey Christ's institution strictly: "nam si Christus Jesus Dominus et Deus noster ipse est summus sacerdos Dei Patris et sacrificium Patri seipsum obtulit et hoc fieri in sui commemorationem praecepit, utique ille sacerdos vice Christi fungitur, qui id quod Christus fecit imitatur, et sacrificium verum et plenum tunc offert in Ecclesia Deo Patri, si sic incipiat offerre secundum quod ipsum Christum videat obtulisse."(17) ("For if Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is himself the high priest of God the Father, and offered himself as a sacrifice to the Father, and ordered this to be done in memory of himself, evidently that priest takes the place of Christ who imitates what Christ did, and he then offers in the Church a true and perfect sacrifice to God the Father if he begins to offer it in the same way in which he sees that Christ offered it.")

Need of Deep Analysis

Earlier St. Ignatius of Antioch, wishing to recommend the sacred ministers to the veneration of the faithful, presented them as taking the Lord's place; it must be confessed, however, that his "typology" is very vague and will transmit its uncertain character to the Oriental treatises on ecclesiastical discipline which succeed one another until the end of the fourth century: "Be concerned to do everything in divine concord, under the presidency of the Bishop, who occupies God's place (prokathemenou tou episcopou eis topon Theou), of the priests, who occupy the place on the senate of the Apostles. . . ."(18)

St. John Chrysostom, on the other hand, will give his teaching a more solid foundation by basing it on the Second Letter to the Corinthians.(19) Finally, a commentary on the Byzantine Liturgy, composed in the middle of the ninth century, the Protheoria, forestalls surprisingly the terminology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Its formula deserves to be quoted: "If anyone asks how it is possible for the high priests and priests of today to be mediators of such holy realities, let him know that it is not impossible, especially for those who have this dignity, since they play the part of Christ the high priest (ôs tou megalou archiereûs tou Christou ferousi prosôpon)."(20)

"To play the part of Christ," that even seems a toned down translation: is there not a discreet allusion here to the mask of the theater, by means of which the actor disappears, giving way to the character whose part he takes? And in this case, is not the same image suggested by the original meaning of the Latin word persona? It is necessary, therefore, to make an even deeper analysis of our formula in persona Christi.

Explaining the Phrase

In the conciliar texts that we quoted, as also in the Summa Theologica, it is above all the priest's role in the eucharistic celebration which is described as being in persona Christi. Without excluding the other activities of the priestly ministry, this one is considered the strongest test of the priest's link with Christ.

In fact, both Greek and Latin commentators have stressed the extraordinary nature of the sacrament of the eucharist. Whereas the minister of the other sacraments expresses himself by way of intercession: "Send, Oh Lord, your Spirit . . ." or in an indicative way: "The child so-and-so is baptized . . .," "So and so, I baptize you . . . ," when it is a question of consecrating the eucharist, the priest proceeds in a historico-narrative manner, a narrative which is action, since the priest completes it with Christ's actions: the breaking and the distribution of communion.(21) Now, in the context of this narrative, the celebrant uses the same words as Christ, quoting them in the first person: "This is my body . . . ," St. Ambrose stressed this in his catechesis for the newly baptized: "All that is said before, is said by the priest. ..; but when the moment approaches to produce the venerable Sacrament, the priest no longer uses his own words, but he uses the words of Christ; it is the words of Christ, therefore, that produce this sacrament."(22)

Whatever theological discussions were raised later by the Orientals with regard to the epiclesis, the western tradition never hesitated: the priest utters Christ's words with the same efficacy as Christ. His personality is therefore effaced before the personality of Christ, whom he represents and whose voice he is: representation and voice which bring about what they signify. In persona Christi takes on here an extremely realistic sense which Christian thought has explained in various ways.

In the first place, it has drawn the conclusion that the priest is an image of Christ. It is here that we find again a text of Lumen Gentium, already quoted at the beginning;(23) and it is a traditional affirmation, for which it will be sufficient to indicate some witnesses. For example, Narsai of Nisibis who, about the middle of the fifth century, in his XVII homily on the explanation of the Mass, describing the rite of Introit, exclaimed: "The priest who has been chosen to celebrate this Sacrifice, bears in himself at this moment the image of Our Lord."(24) At the beginning of the ninth century, St. Theodore the Studite, disputing with the Iconoclasts, explained the fact that the priest did not use an icon of Christ for baptismal "signatio" as follows: "The priest, standing between God and men, is a replica (mimèma) of Christ in the priestly invocations ...; being, therefore, an icon of Christ, the priest plainly does not imitate him by using another icon. . . ."(25) It will be noticed that it is in connection with baptism that Theodore speaks of the priest as the image or replica of Christ: as regards the eucharist, in fact, this similarity marks him for the whole of his liturgical service

But it is precisely in the eucharist that it must be discovered and understood. In this sense, St. Thomas has a particularly inspiring formula. Having to answer the question: "Is Christ sacrificed in this sacrament?," he comes up against the objection: "In Christ's sacrifice, the same person is priest and victim; but in the celebration of this sacrament, it is not the same person who is priest and victim." He solves it by recalling in the first place that "the celebration of this sacrament is an image which represents the Passion of Christ (imago repraesentativa Passionis Christi) and then that, for this very reason, the priest is also the image of Christ: etiam sacerdos gerit imaginem Christi, in cuius persona et virtute verba. pronuntiat ad consecrandum.(26)

Image—But Also Presence

Not just the image of Christ, but his presence. The Second Vatican Council took up again, in the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, a statement of the encyclical Mediator Dei: "He (Christ) is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of his minister, 'the same one now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,' but especially under the eucharistic species."(27)

This is an invitation to understand the nature of the sacrament of holy orders according to the general laws of Christian sacramentalism. St. Thomas emphasized forcefully, in the first place, that in the eucharist it is necessary to consider not only the subject matter and the words, but also the priest: "The instrumental power to carry out the change (of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ) does not he only in the words, nor only in the priest, but in both, . . . And as the priest, more than the words, resembles the principal agent (Christ) since he bears his image (quia gerit eius figuram], so, to speak simply, his instrumental power is greater and more worthy: moreover, it is permanent and applies to many other similar effects. . . ."(28)

This characteristic which the ministerial priesthood has of representing Christ extends from the eucharist far beyond: "every minister of the Church is, in some way, the figure of Christ (gerit typum Christi), as Peter Lombard says,(29) and yet he is superior who represents Christ according to a greater perfection. The priest represents Christ in this, that by himself he carried out a certain ministry; but the bishop in this, that he instituted other ministers, and founded the Church. . . ."(30) In the logic of this reasoning, St. Thomas should have reached the point of admitting the sacramentality of the episcopate and perhaps he would have done so if he had completed the Summa.

However, that may be, and to restrict ourselves to the priesthood, the thought of the Angelic Doctor can easily be discerned: the Christian priesthood is of a sacramental nature, not only in the transitory act of ordination, but in the person of the priest. Certainly, the supernatural efficacy of his action as consecrator of the eucharist, or as minister of penance,(31) proceeds from the character received in ordination. But this character is invisible; the priest himself is and must be a sign, and therefore he must confirm the conditions required for that: "cum sacramentum sit signum, in his quae in Sacramento aguntur requiritur non solum res sed signum rei."(32) The principal condition is that the sign should have a natural resemblance with what is signified: "Signa sacramentalia ex naturali similitudine repraesentant."(33) These two principles are invoked by St. Thomas, as is known, to explain that women cannot receive holy orders.

Degrees of Christ's Presence

From reflection on the testimonies of tradition regarding the ministerial priesthood, it is possible, it seems to us, to draw a certain number of guidelines which can help priests to become more clearly aware of what they are and to discern the respective place of each of their activities.

On the one hand, as we have seen above, it is in all these different activities that they act in persona Christi and that they must express his image; but it is from their role in the eucharist that this mystery of identification with Christ is discovered, because it is verified in the most significant way here. Likewise, among the various ways of Christ's presence in the Church, there are, as it were, different degrees, which are enumerated in the encyclical Mediator Dei, the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, and, in an even wider perspective, the encyclical Mysterium Fidei.

It is necessary, therefore, to appeal, in the two cases, to analogy, and to start from the first analogue which is the eucharist. In particular, the bond that unites the minister of the sacraments with Christ is different according to the nature of each of them. The sacrament of baptism, in case of necessity, can be conferred even by a pagan, that is, by someone who has not received any character that configures him to Christ's priesthood. Marriage, to be sacramental, requires that bride and bridegroom should have the baptismal character (to say that they are "ministers" is not, it must be added, a completely satisfactory expression). Penance and the eucharist require the character of holy orders.

Non-sacramental activities have often been considered so independent of holy orders that the distinction has been made between holy orders and jurisdiction and it has been possible to entrust to laymen certain tasks which in themselves seemed to belong to holy orders. There can be no question here of going into these problems, on which, in any case, the Second Vatican Council has provided elements of clarification. But it was necessary to stress how much the different tasks of the Church imply, each in its own way, participation in Christ's mission and a bond with him which reaches its apex in the eucharistic consecration.

On the other hand and in the same way, it is necessary both to maintain the necessity of these different tasks and to stress that they find their point of arrival and their source in the eucharist. "The other sacraments, as well as every ministry of the Church and every work of the apostolate," the decree Presbyterorum Ordinis says,(34) "are linked with the holy eucharist and are directed toward it. For the most blessed eucharist contains the Church's entire spiritual wealth, that is, Christ himself, our passover and living bread. Through his very flesh, made vital and vitalizing by the Holy Spirit, he offers life to men. They are thereby invited and led to offer themselves, their labors, and all created things together with him. Hence the eucharist shows itself to be the source and the apex of the whole work of preaching the Gospel. Those under instruction are introduced by stages to a sharing in the eucharist. The faithful, already marked with the sacred seal of baptism and confirmation, are through the reception of the eucharist fully joined to the Body of Christ."

It is clear that the priest cannot be defined solely by liturgical powers, the principal one of which is the eucharistic consecration. But neither can he be understood without them. He is the one who can lead evangelization to its point of arrival: baptism and the eucharist. He is the one who is associated with his bishop or sent by him to give the seal of unity to the local community through the eucharistic assembly. If he were not involved in the apostolic and pastoral responsibility of his bishop, he would run the risk of returning to a Judaizing conception of the priesthood. Vice versa, if he did not exercise his sacramental power, he would lose even consciousness of his priesthood and could no longer present to man the true mystery of Christ, accomplished once and for all, but renewed efficaciously throughout the life of the Church. In his person, the priest lives the magnificent paradox of the economy of salvation.(35)

1 Summ. theol., IIIa pars, quaest. 82, art. 7, ad 3um; "The priest, during Mass, precisely in the prayers, speaks in persona Ecclesiae, on the unity of which he takes his stand."

2 In IV Sent., Dist. 24, quaest. 2, art. 2.

3 Pius XII, encyclical Mediator Dei, AAS 39, 1947, p. 553 (Denz-Schön. 3850): "We thought it necessary to recall that the priest takes the people's place only because he plays the part (impersona) of Our Lord Jesus Christ. . . ."

4 II Vatican Council, constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 33.

5 II Vatican Council, dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, no. 10.

6 Ibid., no. 28.

7 II Vatican Council, decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 2.

8 Ibid., no. 6. This formula is already in the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, no. 28.

9 II Vatican Council, decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 12.

10 For example, in the French edition of the council texts published in Paris, Centurion, 1967, p. 397, et passim, it was translated as follows: "au nom du Christ tête en personne."

11 It is regrettable that B. D. Marliangeas has not published the work he wrote on this subject, of which he gave a brief extract in the collective work La liturgie après Vatican 1I, Paris, Ed. du Cerf, 1967 (Unam Sanctam, 66), pp. 283-2S8: "In persona Christi, in persona Ecdesiae, note sur les origines et le développement de l'usage de ces expressions dans la théologie latine."

12 We have found this explanation based on 2 Cor 2:10 four times in the Summa theologica,: IIa IIae, quaest. 88, art. 12 corp.; IIIa pars, quaest. 8, art. 6 corp.; quaest. 22, art. 4 corp.; quaest. 64, art. 2, obj. 3. It is also found in Expositio super 2 Cor cap. 2, lectio 2, ed. Parma 13, p. 309.

13 Summ. theol, IIIa pars, quaest. 8, art. 6 corp.

14 Summ. theol., IIa IIae, quaest. 88, art. 12 corp.

15 Summ. theol., IIIa pars, quaest. 8, art. 6 corp.

16 II Vatican Council, decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, nos. 12, 13.

17 St. Cyprian, Epist. 63, 14: ed. Hartel (CSEL 3), p. 713.

18 St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Magn. 6, 1 (SC 10, p. 98); again in Ad. Trall. 2, 1-3,1; "You are subject to the Bishop as to Jesus Christ. . ., to the priests as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ... . Let everyone revere Deacons as Jesus Christ, as the Bishop, too, who is the image of the Father, and Priests as the senate of God and as the assembly of the Apostles... (SC 10, pp. 112-113)."

19 St. John Chrysostom, Homil: in 2 Cor, 5, 20: PG 61, col, 477-478.

20 With regard to this text and its twofold version: R. Bornert, Les commentaires byzantins de la divine liturgie du VIIème au XVme siècle, Pans, 1966 (Archives de 1'Orient chrétien, 9), p. 187. Several times, commenting on the priestly prayers of the anaphora, the author repeats that the prayer is said in the person of the Lord.

21 Readers will note, in connection with the distribution of communion, the reasoning of St. Thomas, Summ. tbeol., IIIa pars, quaest. 82, art. 3 corp: "It is the priest who distributes the body of Christ. . . , because, as has been said, he consecrates in persona Christi. Now Christ himself, as he consecrated his body, at the Last Supper, so he gave it to eat to the others also. Therefore, as the consecration of Christ's body belongs to the priest, so its distribution belongs to him."

22 St. Ambrose, De Sacramentis, IV, 14: SC 25 bis., pp. 108-111.

23 II Vatican Council, dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, no. 28: "in virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders . . . they are consecrated in the image of Christ."

24 The liturgical homilies of Narsai, ed. R. H. Connolly, Cambridge, 1909 (Texts and Studies, VIII, 1), p. 4 (ed. A. Mingana, t. 1, p. 273).

25 St. Theodore the Studite, Adversus Iconomachos, cap. 4: PG 99, 593.—cf. id., Epist. Lib. 1, 11: "The Bishop is a copy (mimêma.} of Christ, upon whom those following in his footsteps model their lives according to the Gospel. . ." (PG 99, 945 D).

26 Summ. theol., IIIa pars, quaest. 83, art. 1, ad 3um. Cf. In IV Sent., Dist. 8, art. 3, ad 9um: "Because the priest is nearer to the principal agent than the words, since he plays the part . . . ," quoted at greater length below.

27 II Vatican Council, constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7 (the quotation is from the Council of Trent, Sess. 22, decr. De SS. Sacrificio missae, C. 2):—Pius XII, encyclical Mediator Dei, AAS 39, 1947, p. 528.

28 In IV Sent., Dist. 8, art. 3, ad 9um.

29 Peter Lombard, IV Sent.., Dist. 24, cap. I.

30 St. Thomas Aquinas, In IV Sent., Dist. 24, quaest. 3, art. 2, quaestiuncula 1.

31 In the teaching of St. Thomas, it is always in persona Christi that the priest pronounces sacramental absolution, although it is formulated in an indicative way: De forma absolutions, c. 1, in Opuscula omnia . .. , ed. R Mandonnet, t. 3, Paris, Lethieleux, 1927, p. 154.—Expositio super 2 Cor, cap. 22, lectio 2, ed. Parma, t. 13, p. 309.

32 St. Thomas, In IV Sent., Dist. 25, quaest. 2, art. 2, quaestiuncula 1, corp.

33 Ibid., ad 4um.

34 II Vatican Council, decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 5.

35 Cf. the conclusion, pp. 219-220, of our study La testimonianza. della liturgia, in the vol. Il prete per gli uoinmi di oggi. Collective work edited by Gino Concetti, Roma, ed. A.V. E., 1975, pp. 192-220.


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