In Persona Christi

To the venerable memory of two legends
of the clergy of San Rafael, who sowed the Church here:
Father Ernesto de Miguel–61 years of priesthood–
and Father Basilio Winnyczuk–57 years of priesthood–
To a living legend of the diocesan clergy of San Rafael,
Father Victorino Ortega–58 years of exercising the priestly ministry.

There is an essential difference between the priesthood of the Old Testament and that of the New. In the Old Testament the priesthood was hereditary; priests were members of the tribe of Levi. Thus, the priesthood–Levitical or Aaronic–was received by hereditary succession.

It doesn’t happen like this in the New Testament. Our Lord Jesus Christ isn’t a priest by hereditary succession. He doesn’t succeed the Levitical priesthood (He didn’t take a place within it), but, on the contrary, He substituted it, He eliminated it, He abolished it, He abrogated it. This is because His priesthood is a new priesthood; it is according to the order of Melchizedek, and not according to the order of Aaron (Heb 7:11).

Thus, as Jesus Christ didn’t succeed anyone, neither does any-one succeed Him. His priesthood doesn’t pass to others by succession because the priesthood of Jesus Christ remains for ever: Like Melchizedek you are a priest forever (Ps 109:4). It is an eternal priesthood, living (Heb 7:25) and without interruption (Heb 7:3). No one can substitute it, no one can replace it, no one can improve it, no one can interrupt it, and no one can multiply it. Jesus Christ, the High and Eternal priest, is un-substitutable, irreplaceable, un- improvable, uninterruptible; He is one, unique, and indivisible.

However, haven’t we participated in Masses in which other priests have concelebrated? Certainly we have, and so it is. All of them are ministerial priests. How is it that, although there are many priests, the priesthood of Jesus Christ isn’t multiplied? Just as the multitude of hosts doesn’t multiply Christ’s one physical Body, and just as the multitude of presences of Christ’s sacrifice in different Masses doesn’t multiply the one sacrifice of the Cross, neither does the multitude of subjects that participate in Christ’s priesthood multiply His one priesthood. This is what is under- stood–with all the clarity that the clear obscurity of faith permits– when we say that the ministerial priest acts in persona Christi.

A. The Priest of the New Testament Acts In Persona Christi

How do we know that the ministerial priest acts in persona Christi? We know because it has been revealed in Sacred Scripture, for example, in 2 Cor 2:10; moreover, it is an expression that was used often by the Fathers of the Church: Saint Justin, Saint Cyprian, Saint Athanasius, Saint Hilary, Saint Ambrose, Saint Augus-tine, Saint Jerome, Saint Chromatius of Aquileia, Saint Isidore of Seville, to name a few. Later, we find the expression in the writings of Peter Lombard, Innocent III, Peter of Poitiers, Saint Albert the Great, Saint Bonaventure, Saint Thomas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Cajetan, Báñez, Saint Robert Bellarmine, Suárez, and many others.[1] It is a phrase used also by the Councils of Florence[2] and Vatican II[3]; it is present in the ordinary Magisterium of Pius XI,[4] Pius XII,[5] Paul VI,[6] John Paul II,[7] and other popes. Lastly, it is even used by the Code of Canon Law[8] and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.[9]

What is it that we want to say when we affirm that the priest acts in persona Christi? Basically, we mean four things; the priest acts:

  • in the name of Christ
  • with the power of Christ
  • in the place of Christ and
  • by (sacramental) identification with Christ

B. In the Name of Christ

Just as all of the baptized are one with Christ, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28), all of us priests are one in Christ the Head: you are all one in Christ Jesus. There is only one priest in the new economy of salvation, and the rest simply participate in that High and Eternal priesthood. Regarding con-celebration, Saint Thomas says, “If each individual priest were acting in his own power, then other celebrants would be superfluous, since one would be sufficient. But whereas the priest does not consecrate except as in Christ’s stead, and since many are one in Christ (Gal 3:28), consequently it does not matter whether this sacrament be consecrated by one or by many, except that the rite of the Church must be observed.”[10] In another part, he says: “In consecrating the sacrament he [the priest] speaks as in the person of Christ, whose place he holds by the power of his orders. Consequently, if a priest severed from the unity of the Church celebrates Mass, not having lost the power of orders, he consecrates Christ’s true body and blood.”[11] With regard to the priest acting in the person of Christ, we affirm that “we believe that a good priest does not do more, nor a bad one less, given that what happens does not occur by the merit of the one consecrating, but rather by the word of the Creator and the power of the Holy Spirit,”[12] as Innocent III taught, following Saint Augustine.[13]

C. With the Power of Christ

When the priest acts in persona Christi, he acts with the power and efficacy of Jesus Christ Himself: “Such is the dignity of this sacrament that it is performed only as in the person of Christ. Now whoever performs any act in another’s stead must do so by the power bestowed by such a one. But as the power of receiving this sacrament is conceded by Christ to the baptized person, so likewise the power of consecrating this sacrament on Christ’s be-half is bestowed upon the priest at his ordination: for thereby he is put upon a level with them to whom the Lord said (Lk 22:19): Do this for a commemoration of Me. Therefore, it must be said that it belongs to priests to accomplish this sacrament.”[14]

D. In the Place of Christ

The Victim in the Mass is the same Victim as on Calvary; only the mode of His self-immolation is different: here it is unbloody. In the Mass, the Priest is the same, and only the mode in which He offers Himself is different: in the Mass, it is by means of the ministerial priests. This is why priests act in persona Christi, that is, in the place of Christ, standing in for Christ, in representation of Christ. “This sacrament is directly representative of the Lord’s Passion, by which Christ offered Himself to God as priest and host on the altar of the cross. The host that the priest offers is one with that which Christ offered on the cross–according to reality–because it really contains Christ; but the offering minister is not the same really, on account of which it is necessary that he be the same by representation. For this reason it is more correct to say ‘This is My Body,’ than ‘This is the Body of Christ.’ It could also be said that the priest does not have an external act that is sacramentally the cause of consecration, but rather that the power of the consecration consists only in the pronounced words; be-cause of this, they are pronounced by the person of Christ, in virtue of whom the consecration is carried out.”[15]

E. By (Sacramental) Identification with Christ

In persona Christi means more than offering in the name of or in the place of Christ; it means in specific sacramental identification with ‘the eternal High Priest’[16] who is the author and principal subject of this sacrifice, His own sacrifice, in which no one can take His place. Only He–only Christ–was able and is always able to be the true and effective expiation for our sins and . . . for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn 4:10).”[17]

Accordingly, “[the words of consecration] are said as a recitation and, at the same time, as a significative recitation. Why? Be-cause the priest himself speaks in the person of Christ, and acts as though Christ were present, for in any other way the words would not reach their proper matter. What is the result? It must be affirmed that one thing occurs in divine words, and something else in human ones, because the human word only signifies, while the divine signifies and is efficacious.”[18] Why is it that those words are efficacious, that is, that they make real what they signify? It is be cause they are said in persona Christi and so are divine words; those words “receive their power from the divine power; for this rea-son, once they are said, by the divine power it is made so. It is from here that it is not merely a word that signifies, but rather one that is also efficacious (factiva).”[19]

In no other sacrament does such a sacramental identification with Christ occur, and for two reasons: the first is that in this sacrament the matter is consecrated, whereas the other sacraments use matter that has already been consecrated. The second reason is that the consecration of the matter of the other sacraments is simply a blessing, whereas “in this sacrament the consecration of the matter consists in the miraculous change of substance, which can only be done by God; hence the minister in performing this sacrament has no other act save pronouncing the words. . . . The forms of the other sacraments are pronounced in the person of the minister, whether by way of exercising an act, as when it is said, ‘I baptize you,’ or ‘I confirm you,’ etc.; or by way of command, as when it is said in the sacrament of order, ‘Take the pow-er,’ etc.; or by way of entreaty, as when in the sacrament of Extreme Unction it is said, ‘By this anointing and our intercession,’ etc. But the form of this sacrament is pronounced as if Christ were speaking in person, so that it is given to be understood that the minister does nothing in perfecting this sacrament, except to pronounce Christ’s words.”[20]

As a consequence, we should look at the priest, who has been given the power to act in persona Christi, in a way similar to the way we see the Eucharist. After the consecration, we see the appearances of bread and wine, but we know that Christ’s Body and Blood are beneath them. In a similar way, when we see priests, tall or short, young or not-so-young, kind or distant, saints or very imperfect, we must transcend those “appearances” and know that priests are “a sacramental representation of Jesus Christ – the head and shepherd . . . [and that they] exist and act in the name and person of Christ the head and shepherd.”[21] Christ is present in them with His priestly power.

Thus, we must pray for all the priests of the world, so that they might always be aware that they act in the name of Christ, with His power, in His place, as His representatives, sacramentally identifying themselves with Him.

Every priest should be able to say what John Paul II said as he drew near his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination: “In the span of almost 50 years of priesthood, the celebration of the Eucharist continues being the most important and most sacred moment for me. At the altar I am fully aware that I am celebrating in persona Christi.”[22]

[1] Cfr. B.D. Marliangeas, Clés pour une Théologie du Ministere (Paris 1978).

[2] DS 698.

[3] Ecumenical Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Genti-um, 10, 28: “in persona Christi”; Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 33; Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, 2: “in persona Christi Capitis,” etc.

[4] DS 2275.

[5] DS 2300.

[6] For example: Solemn Profession of Faith (06/30/1968), 24.

[7] For example: Letter to All Bishops of the Church Regarding the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist, 8; Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 875, 878, 1548.

[8] CIC, 900.

[9] CIC, 698.

[10] Saint Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., III, q. 82, a. 2, ad 2.

[11] Saint Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., III, q. 82, a. 7, ad 3.

[12] DS 424.

[13] DS 794.

[14] Saint Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., III, q. 82, a. 1, corpus.

[15] Saint Thomas Aquinas, In IV Sent., dist. 8, q. 2, a. 1, qc. 4.

[16] Cf. Roman Missal – “Collect Prayer B of the Votive Mass of the Holy Eucharist.”

[17] John Paul II, Letter Dominicae Cenae to all the Bishops of the Church on the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist, 8.

[18] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 26; 3.

[19] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 26; 3.

[20] Saint Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., III, q. 78, a. 1: “ex persona ipsius Christi loquentis.”

[21] John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, 15.

[22] John Paul II, “Discourse at the end of the Celebration on the Occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the Decree ‘Presbyterorum Ordinis,’” L’Osservatore Romano 44 (1995) 610.



Other posts


A. Institution of the Diaconate in the Church The diaconate