Catholic teaching says that a priest is an alter Christus. To say that the priest is an alter Christus (''another Christ'') seems at first hearing decidedly brash and haughty. How can any man make a reasonable claim to be ''another Christ''? Even as a matter of faith, this seems an outlandish statement! Yes, it would be nice to walk on water, but most priests know well that we, like Peter, would only sink beneath the waves.

The phrase alter Christus is most specifically applied to the priest when he celebrates the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, so that when a priest celebrates the Eucharist it is Christ who transforms the bread and wine through the priest speaking the words of Institution. The great journey of every priest is the movement from understanding himself as a mere instrument of the Lord to understanding himself as being a priest in Christ's own image.

What about the priest who subjectively wishes to become a priest in Christ's own image? What kind of life awaits him? What kind of reality might his soul experience? Is it sufficient for the priest merely to accept that he is an instrument, or must there not also be a struggle to conform himself to Christ the Priest?

The phrase alter Christus really is not that far removed from Christian life, after all. All Christians are so called because we are ''little Christ's'' in the world in which we find ourselves. Are we not to witness to Christ by our lives? Are not all the baptized to share in the very holiness of Christ, to live his mysteries, to share in his suffering and passion, and best of all his resurrection?

The priest's call to these things is doubly imperative, because of the great privileges bestowed in Holy Orders. The ordaining bishop in the rite of ordination, at the presentation of the gifts, says to the man to be ordained: ''Know what you are doing, imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord's cross.''

There is at least one aspect of Christ's own life in which I find myself being conformed to Christ, sometimes in dramatic ways. One event stands out in my life of which I speak. It was not easy to accept, but I believe Christ wishes to teach me the path of suffering. Twelve years ago, on October 24, I suffered a terrible accident. But I realized, by God's grace, that He wanted me in a hospital on a bed of suffering. Initially I wondered how I could possibly be a priest if I wasn't ''performing'' my ministry. But priesthood is far more than ''performing'' a ministry! It is about a man's inner self slowly and maybe even sometimes spectacularly being conformed to Christ the Victim. In Christ, I could be a priest offering myself -- my suffering -- to him according to His divine will. This is not something I would choose for myself but rather something that by God's grace I was asked to live. The physical pain from that accident continues on a daily basis. But, as God alone knows, there are myriads in ways in which any person can join his suffering to that of Christ!

Celebrating the Eucharist therefore in persona Christi, ''in the person of Christ,'' takes on far more meaning when a priest says ''This is my Body which will be given up for you,'' provided that a priest can also offer up his own sufferings.

I can't help but give in to the temptation to close with a rather famous quotation:

Oh how great is the priest! . . . If he realized what he is, he would die . . . God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from Heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host. Without the sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for the journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest -- always the priest. And if the soul should happen to die (as a result of sin) who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again the priest. After God, the priest is everything! Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is (St. John Vianney). TP

Father Dunfee is the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Mingo Junction, Ohio.