An Analysis of the Priesthood "in persona Christi" and "in nominee ecclesiae"
The questions that surround the functions of the priesthood and the diaconate today appear to be part and parcel of the greater uncertainty that surrounds ancient Church customs. This paper will attempt to analyze the meanings of the phrases "in persona Christi" and "in nomine ecclesiae" as they have reflected the functions of the ministers of the Church both in the past and in today. The conclusion of this research is that while the traditional Church maintained a clear definition (and reverent propriety regarding the mystery of the priestly aspect), today's Church is less sure of the role and function of the minister in relation to Church hierarchy and Church laity.
In Persona Christi
Historical Background: the Vestments
Pius XII's (1947) encyclical Mediator Dei describes for us the aspect of the priest in relation to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, and the lay members of the Church:
Only to the apostles, and thenceforth to those on whom their successors have imposed hands, is granted the power of the priesthood, in virtue of which they represent the person of Jesus Christ before their people, acting at the same time as representatives of their people before God…The priest is the same, Jesus Christ, whose sacred Person His minister represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is made like to the High Priest and possesses the power of performing actions in virtue of Christ's very person.
Pius XII, the last pope to hold the pontifical office before Vatican II, asserts that the priestly office is one which is especially conferred upon only those who have been deemed worthy to be called to the lineage that descends to us from the Apostles. Pius XII makes clear that the priest is an alter Christus.
Pius XII's depiction of the priest as being "in persona Christi" is consistent with the vestments that the priest would have donned during the celebration of the Mass before Vatican II: "Before he even dares to approach the altar, to renew in a mystical fashion Our Lord's Sacrifice of Calvary, the priest covers himself, veritably conceals his person, under the sacred vestments which, allegorically interpreted, symbolize the garments and instruments of Christ's Passion" (Laudenschlager 1978). The symbolism behind the garments, of course, factors into the way in which the Church traditionally perceived the priest "in persona Christi" -- especially during the Mass. Each garment represented a specific aspect of Jesus Himself, and by wearing them, the priest pronounced in a visual way his role as another Christ:
The amice symbolizes the blindfold which the Jews placed about Our Lord's head so as to slap and mock Him with impunity; the alb, the white fool's robe which Herod contemptuously forced upon Him; the cincture, those cords by which the Jews dragged the Son of God from one cruel judge to another. The maniple signifies the chains which bound Our Lord to the column during his flagellation; the stole which the priest wears around his neck, the crushing burden of the Cross on His bruised shoulders; finally, the chasuble recalls the purple robe that the soldiers of Pilate put on Our Lord in mockery of His royal dignity. (Laudenschlager 1978).
The new order of the Mass does not require the priest to wear the maniple, nor does it require that he wear the amice as long as the alb is hooded. Yet, an increasing tendency towards modernization, novelty, and individuality following Vatican II saw many Masses celebrated without even the customary and prescribed vestments. The rigor with which the ancient Church protected the priesthood "in persona Christi" has seen numerous subtle changes that have led scholars such as Yves Congar to question the significance of the priesthood in both "person Christi" and "nomine ecclesiae": "The magnitude of Congar's accomplishment stands out with particular force when his theology of the Holy Spirit is read in contrast to the late-19th and early 20th-century Roman Catholic theology that he inherited" (Groppe 452). As Elizabeth Teresa Groppe states, Congar was a theologian whose eschatology was significantly different from the traditional teachings and perceptions of the Church. Congar stood out in the 20th century as a pneumatologist -- a studier of the relation of the Holy Spirit (traditionally referred to as the Holy Ghost) to the church community. Pneumatology in the 20th century took efforts to legitimize Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement that grew out of it.
Theologians like Congar essentially diminished the "in persona Christi" aspect of the priesthood by circumnavigating it completely and emphasizing that the laity approach the Spirit directly. As Groppe observes, Congar certainly desired a departure from Church custom. Groppe discusses his "chagrin" at the lack of mention of the Holy Spirit:
Those de Ecclesia treatises that did mention the Spirit did so in limited fashion. Typically they discussed the activity of the Spirit only as the guarantee of the authenticity of the tradition and the authority of the acts of the magisterium. The widely used Brevior synopsis theologiae dogmaticae by Adolphe Tanquerey, for example, contains only four references to the Holy Spirit in the section of the manual entitled "On the Church of Christ"; the Spirit is mentioned twice in the sub-section "On the Infallibility of the Apostolic College and the Gathered Episcopacy" (Groppe 452).
Congar dismissed the pneumatological work of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, asserting that the popular British theologian's efforts did not "constitute a pneumatology" (Groppe 454). If Manning, however, represented the old, Congar represented the new. And one of the aspects of modern scholarship was to doubt the significance of the old and to emphasize the transience of perspective.
Such perspective was hardly transient throughout the medieval age, however; and the ways in which the Church upheld the dignity of the priesthood was by a tight and strict militancy -- which, like all things, dissolved as the old world changed into the new, directed by Enlightenment doctrine as it was. Nonetheless, the priesthood was still viewed in accordance with the outward symbolism observed in the vestments and the liturgical colors: the vestments themselves were interpreted as "symbols of the virtues which the priest should possess, in imitation of Christ…Thus, for example, the alb signifies the perfect purity and innocence which should adorn the priest's soul; and the chasuble, which once more amply covered the priest's whole body, symbolizes that charity which should wholly consume him" (Laudenschlager 1978).
Laudenschlager further intimates the importance of the priestly vestments in pronouncing the wearer as one who had been ordained to take on a sacred role in the Christian community -- a role unlike that of the laity and unlike that of the deaconate:
These prescriptions serve to submerge, as it were, the personality of the individual priest, so that we may remember that he offers Mass in persona Christi…He comes to the altar and leaves it with his head covered by biretta, despite the presence of the congregation, as a sign of this special character, for the rules of courtesy would permit this to no ordinary man. In reverence for Christ whom he represents, those who present anything to the priest during Mass first kiss the hand. And so many other rites of the Mass, along with the celebrant's general bearing, accentuate the fact that, at the altar, the priest acts only in persona Christi; that for the time being, we might even say that he is 'no longer himself' (Laudenschlager 1978).
Thus, through the very articles of clothing that the priest traditionally wore during Mass, the person of Christ was visible -- at least to those who understood the significance of the vestments.
Historical Context: Clerics, laity, and the "people of God"
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1984) expressed his consternation with the New Code of Canon Law issued by Pope John Paul II, which illustrated -- for Lefebvre, at least -- the striking departure of modern ecclesiology and the role and function of the priest "in persona Christi" from the traditional ecclesiology that clearly outlined the functions of the cleric:
That is perhaps what best characterizes the new theories of the Church since the Council: the Church is the 'people of God.' The Church no longer consists of clerics and the laity, with only the clergy exercising the ministry from which all the graces are communicated to the laity, while the laity must receive these graces from their ministry. No, now it is all one 'people of God,' everyone is admitted, according to his function, according to his capacities, to different ministries, as if there were no more distinction between the clergy and the laity.
As Lefebvre asserts, the traditional function of the priesthood was to administer grace through the sacraments to the laity for the sanctification of their souls that they might attain everlasting life in Heaven. The role was defined; it was clear and it was expected of the clergy by the laity.