I wish to estimate these powers from the point of view of the divine authority bestowed upon the priests over the real body of Jesus Christ and the mystical body of Jesus Christ.
With regard to the power of priests over the real body of Jesus Christ, it is of faith that when they pronounce the words of consecration the Incarnate Word has obliged himself to obey and to come into their hands under the sacramental species. We are struck with wonder when we hear that God obeyed the voice of Joshua– The Lord obeying the voice of man – and made the sun stand when he said move not, O sun, towards Gabaon, . . . and the sun stood still. But our wonder should be far greater when we find that in obedience to the words of his priests – Hoc EST CORPUS MEUM – God himself descends on the altar, that he comes wherever they call him, and as often as they call him, and places himself in their hands, even though they should be his enemies. And after having come, he remains, entirely at their disposal; they move him as they please, from one place to another; they may, if they wish, shut him up in the tabernacle, or expose him on the altar, or carry him outside the church; they may, if they choose, eat his flesh, and give him for the food of others. “Oh, how very great is their power,” says St. Lawrence Justinian, speaking of priests. “A word falls from their lips and the body of Christ is there substantially formed from the bread, and the Incarnate Word descended from heaven, is found really present on the table of the altar! Never did divine goodness give such power to the angels. The angels abide by the order of God, but the priests take him in their hands, distribute him to the faithful, and partake of him as food for themselves.”
With regard to the mystical body of Christ, that is, all the faithful, the priest has the power of the keys, or the power of delivering sinners from hell, of making them worthy of paradise, and of changing them from the slaves of Satan into the children of God. And God himself is obliged to abide by the judgment of his priests, and either not to pardon or to pardon, according as they refuse or give absolution, provided the penitent is capable of it. “Such is,” says St. Maximus of Turin, “this judiciary power ascribed to Peter that its decision carries with it the decision of God.” Oh great is this power, that the sentence of the priest precedes, and God subscribes to it, writes St. Peter Damian. Hence St. John Chrysostom thus concludes: “The Sovereign Master of the universe only follows the servant by confirming in heaven all that the latter decides upon earth.”
Priests are the dispensers of the divine graces and the companions of God. “Consider the priests,” says St. Ignatius, Martyr, “as the dispensers of divine graces and the associates of God.” “They are, “says St. Prosper “the glory and the immovable columns of the Church all reach Christ; they are the vigilant guardians to whom the Lord has confided the keys of the kingdom of heaven; they are the stewards of the king’s house, to assign to each according to his good pleasure his place in the hierarchy.”
Were the Redeemer to descend into a church, and sit in a confessional to administer the sacrament of penance, and a priest to sit in another confessional, Jesus would say over each penitent, “Ego te absolve,” the priest would likewise say over each of his penitents, “Ego te absolve,” and the penitents of each would be absolved. How great the honour that a king would confer on a subject whom he should empower to rescue from prison as many as he pleased! But far greater is the power that the eternal Father has given to Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ has given to his priests, to rescue from hell not only the bodies but also the souls of the faithful: “The son,” says St. John Chrysostom, “has put into the hands of the priests all judgement; for having been as it were transported into heaven, they have received this divine prerogative. If a king give to a mortal the power to release from prison all prisoners, all would pronounce such a one happy; but priests have received from God a far greater power, since the soul is more noble than the body.”