At the Eucharist the priest acts not only "in the person of Christ", but also and more directly "in the person of the Church"
Rome sees the priest's representation of the Church as secondary.
It is true that the priest represents the Church, which is the Body of Christ. But if he does so, it is precisely because he first represents Christ himself, who is the Head and the Shepherd of the Church. The Second Vatican Council used this phrase to make more precise and to complete the expression in persona Christi. It is in this quality that the priest presides over the Christian assembly and celebrates the Eucharistic sacrifice in which the whole Church offers and is herself wholly offered. Inter Insigniores § 33.
What comes first: representing the Church or representing Christ?
Undoubtedly, the priest ultimately represents Christ, but there are good theological reasons to say that the priest begins his or her ministry as someone who receives ordination in a line of apostolic succession. In an ascending theology the priest receives his mandate from the church on earth. However, because of the indissoluble bond that exists between the head (Christ) and the members of the church, namely the Holy Spirit, the priest who represents the members represents Christ the head.
The first (in persona Ecclesiae) begins with what is more accessible and progresses toward what is ultimately signified; the second (in persona Christi) analyzes the actual process in which what is ultimately signified directs the whole process of symbolization.
E.Kilmartin, Bishop and Presbyter as Representatives of the Church and Christ, in Women Priests: a Catholic Commentary of the Vatican Declaration, eds. A. and L.Swidler, Paulist Press, New York 1977, pp. 295-302; here p. 296. See also David Coffey, Priestly Representation and Womens Ordination, in Priesthood. The Hard Questions ed. Gerald P. Gleeson, Columba, Dublin 1993, pp. 79-99; here p. 96.
The question is more relevant when we apply it to the priest as the celebrant during Mass.
At the Eucharistic Prayer the priest acts more directly in the name of the believing community, though ultimately in the name of Christ
The reason for saying this is the liturgy itself.
1. Throughout the eucharistic prayer the priest speaks in name of the community
It is enough to read the prayer itself, as we find it, for instance, in the First Eucharistic Prayer. The priest always speaks of we, us, all of us, etc. I will just indicate the beginnings.
- We come to you, Father, with praise and thanksgiving through Jesus Christ your Son. Through him we ask you to accept and blesss these gifts we offer you in sacrifice.
- We offer them for your holy catholic Church . . .
- Remember, Lord, those for whom we now pray . . . .
- Remember all of us gathered here before you. You know how firmly we believe in you and dedicate ourselves to you . . . .
- In union with the whole Church we honour Mary . . .
- Father accept this offering from your whole family. Grant us your peace in this life and save us from final damnation . . .
- Bless and approve our offering . . .
2. The words of consecration do not stand on their own
Following Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians, Rome gives the impression that the words of consecration stand on their own, that - while the priest speaks these words - he steps outside his role as leader of the community and suddenly speaks only in the name of Christ. The priest, who alone has the power to perform it, then acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration. Inter Insigniores § 25.
Let us look at the text itself, as we find it in the First Prayer (the socalled Roman Canon). I will give a literal translation from the latin text which is at least ten centuries old.
Bless and approve our offering; make it acceptable to you, an offering in spirit and in truth. Let it become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your only Son, our Lord
who on the day before he suffered took bread in his sacred hands and looking up to heaven, to you, his almighty Father, gave you thanks and praise.
He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.
When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples, and said: Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.
It is clear that the words of consecration are part of the whole eucharistic prayer:
- Textually 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.
- 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.
- An examination of the eucharistic prayers shows that even at the moment of consecration the priest does not really step into the character of Christ or play his part, even though he uses certain words and gestures of Christ. The form of this part of the mass is not drama; it is narrative, in which the priest speaks throughout of Christ in the third person, clearly as someone other than himself, even in the pronunciation of the words of consecration. He unmistakably maintains his direct representation of the church and his identity as its minister right through the sacred action.
- Christian antiquity, at least until the fourth century, universally viewed the entire prayer as consecratory. Western theological reflection, for a variety of reasons 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.
- Isolating the words of consecration ignores the structure of the eucharistic prayers, which are composed of a number of elements, of which the institution narrative is one certainly, but, very importantly, the epiclesis [=calling down of the Spirit] is another.
The well known liturgist, Ralph A. Keifer comes to this conclusion:
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. 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.
Thus in the articulation of the eucharistic prayer in the Roman rite no clearcut distinction is made between the priests 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 priests 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. 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.
Ralph A. Keifer, The Priest as "Another Christ" in Liturgical Prayer, in Women and Priesthood. Future Directions, Liturgical Press, Collegeville 1978, pp. 103-110; here pp. 109-110. Keifer is Associate Professor of Liturgy at Catholic Theological Union, has lectured in many universities and written many books. From 1971-1973 he was General Editor for the International Committee for English in the Liturgy.
Read: Can Men be Ordained?, by Rosemary Radford Ruether