Why Priests?


The first priest that Garry Wills takes aim at isn’t a man in a clerical collar. It’s Christ.

A significant proportion of the book is spent disputing Jesus’s lineage as a priest in the order of Melchizedek (as laid out in the Letter to the Hebrews), but Wills isn’t trying to strip Jesus of titles. He means to recast Jesus in a role he respects more—not a priest, but a Jewish prophet. Quoth Wills:

Jesus was a radical Jewish prophet. And like many Jewish prophets, he was against the Jewish ruling structures of his time… “the classical prophets,” as they were called, were normally harsh critics of ritual that was only ritual… Prophets were originally God’s messengers, called to rebuke those who were forgetting or defying his commands.

One of Christ’s most striking acts in this tradition is His cleansing of the temple. He overturns the corrupt structures that stand between the people and God. But Christ doesn’t come to reform the intermediaries; he comes to replace them and transfigure them.

Prophets recur in the Old Testament. Ezekiel followed Jeremiah who followed Isaiah, all sent to the people of Israel to bring her people back into the proper relationship with God. Man is fallen, and our tendency toward moral entropy means we constantly forget or neglect God. But in the Christian tradition, no prophet followed Christ. Without the regulatory function of prophet as critic, we rely on something else to remain in communion with God. In Wills’s tradition—the Catholic tradition—our safeguard is Communion in the Eucharist, transubstantiated by the priests who stand in persona Christi.

But Wills doubts that anyone can stand in the place of Christ without supplanting Him. He worries that priests have become modern-day temple merchants—standing between the people and God and forcing the masses through meaningless ritual and obstacles. He takes particular umbrage at the baroque trappings of the priesthood. Wills rattles off the list of arcane sounding vestments that priests and bishops wear (amice, alb, maniple, fascia, chausible, biretta, simar, rochet, etc.) and declares:

Everything about the priest and the sanctuary (which could not be entered but by the priest and his acolytes) proclaimed this was a very special person, made different by the special task he had to perform. That is why he was wrapped and enclosed like a human treasure.

Wills sees the pomp and circumstance of church as drawing our attention away from the God who became Man and directing it towards just one particular man, swathed in robes and standing front stage center. But when an actor puts on costuming and grease- paint, she does it to become someone else, both to the audience and to herself. A director I worked with once told me to start working on a show by getting different shoes, or, failing that, by putting a pebble in mine during rehearsals—anything to set this space off from ordinary life.

A priest doesn’t vest to draw attention to himself, but to what he does. In vestments, priests become a little anonymous. The sacraments work ex opere operato, from the work done, not the merits of the person carrying it out. The ornate robes tell us what work the priest is prepared to do, just as oxygen tanks and helmets mark out firefighters.

The uniform of a first responder is functional and battered. But Wills is correct to note that vestments are superfluously beautiful. They are more than seems necessary, more than we would ask for ourselves. They are meant to remind us of grace.

The Sacraments, which are (primarily, but not exclusively) administered by priests, are outward signs of inward grace. A sinner may be forgiven without the sacrament of reconciliation; the ritual is, to a certain extent, superfluous. Ritual doesn’t limit the ways God can act in the world, but it expands humans’ ability to understand or address the Infinite.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Neko

    You would not know from the review, but this book is a response to the anxiety among some Catholics about access, due to the priest shortage, to the sacraments. Neither is it written by a pearl clutcher “worried” about the distractions of decadent ecclesiastic spectacle. Rather, Wills forcefully argues that a priest’s status as an “ontologically changed” individual uniquely capable of effecting the real presence is based on a dubious tradition both of the priesthood and transubstantiation. To the Thomistic theology adopted by the Church Wills advocates an alternative derived from Augustine. As you can imagine, Wills has been accused by irate orthodox of being a Catholic in Name Only.

    Leigh’s assertion that Wills “means to recast Jesus in a role he respects more—not a priest, but a Jewish prophet” doesn’t acknowledge that Wills is an historian, and among historians Jesus is regarded as a Jewish prophet, not a priest. In other words, this “recasting” is well established and not some reinvention of Wills’s to suit a personal taste. It is also consistent with his view of Jesus as a radical, transformative figure that Wills describes in his other (prolific) writings.

    Also, to suggest that Wills is antagonistic to ritual and/or priests misses the mark: “I feel no personal animosity toward priests,” he writes in Why Priests?. (Wills spent five years in seminary preparing for the priesthood, so I think he knows what ex opere operato is about.) Rather, it is to reassure Catholics that ritual is not essential for communion with God:

    …congregations do not have to feel they have lost all connection with the sacred just because the role of priests in their lives is contracting. If Peter and Paul had no need of priests to love and serve God, neither do we. If we need fellowship in belief—and we do—we have each other.

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, but your thoughtful post encouraged me to elaborate a bit.

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