Priests Offer Their Lives in Persona Christi

By Father James Wilcox

Director of Vocations

North Texas Catholic

April 21, 2017

The desire to grow in holiness, to grow in a real relationship with God, seems at times to be an innate call deep within each human person.

However, through the grace of God, it often takes another person to ignite this desire and help fan it into a burning flame. In the Catholic Church, we are fortunate to have an array of holy men and women — saints — whose lives offer stunning examples of true discipleship. Not all courageous mentors have been declared saints by the Catholic Church; actually, most have not. Nonetheless, their example and influence is important in sparking our desire for holiness. 

A few months ago I was asked to lead a prayer. Afterward, someone who knew my childhood pastor commented, “You prayed that like Monsigner [Thomas] Weinzapfel.”

“WOW! What an amazing compliment,” I thought. 

While the person was likely commenting on Msgr. Weinzapfel’s matter-of-fact style of prayer and my apparent emulation of that style, I accepted the remark as praise. This good and holy priest (the longest-serving priest of the Diocese of Dallas) had been my pastor and was influential in teaching me what it means to be a priest. Even more recently, Msgr. Weinzapfel’s name came up in conversation with some seminarians, and I was moved to reflect on the lived priesthood of some holy diocesan priests. 

Young men in discernment often ask about the difference between diocesan and religious priesthood. In religious life e.g., Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, Pallottines, etc.) a man first discerns the charism or mission of the religious order. A religious order is founded to assist the Church in living out a specific area of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For instance, perhaps a man feels called to work with the poor.  He may be called to be a Franciscan. Then, within the charism of the religious order, the man discerns the call to priesthood.

A diocesan priest is called to be a shepherd for the people of a particular geographical region, most often for the area in which the man lives. Msgr. Weinzapfel, who passed away in January 2016, was a diocesan priest for 70 years. He had been called to serve the people of his diocese, and he lived this call with great vigor and with a stalwart force that clearly withstood the test of time.

Other diocesan priests offer great examples of holiness. I am reminded of Father Stanley Rother, a diocesan priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, who gave his life for the people he served in Guatemala. And of Father Emil Kapaun, who was a Kansas priest that served during the Korean War. In addition, I recently read about a priest in the Midwest, who while serving as chaplain to the sheriff’s department, assisted in recovering two bodies from the wreckage of an automobile accident.

These are more extreme examples of the work of diocesan priests. However, none of these men accepted the call of Jesus Christ to the priesthood so that their lives could be demure.  Rather, a man who says “Yes!” to Jesus Christ in the priesthood is a man who is seeking to lay down his life for his friends. Perhaps that means celebrating the Eucharist on the hood of an army jeep like Fr. Kapaun. Or, perhaps it means conscientiously serving as a pastor of a parish with a parochial school for more than 25 years like Msgr. Weinzapfel.  

In all cases, the virtue of courage practiced by the man who answers the call to priesthood is evidenced in his serving in persona Christi. When he was pope, Benedict XVI stated, “the priest, who acts in persona Christi Capitis and representing the Lord, never acts in the name of someone who is absent but, rather, in the very Person of the Risen Christ, who makes Himself present with his truly effective action.”
These men and all other diocesan priests live the mystery of supernatural faith. These men are examples of actively and positively choosing to live holy and virtuous lives. These men offer their lives in persona Christi, so that we might grow in holiness and in our love for God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 


The desire to grow in holiness, to grow in a real relationship with God, seems at times to be an innate call deep within each human person.

Published (until 12/12/2039)