We Are All Priests – And That’s Not What I Expected

We Are All Priests – And That’s Not What I Expected October 5, 2014

One of the main issues that I had with the Church as a practicing Protestant – and which continued somewhat into my early time as a revert – concerned the legitimacy and the necessity of the Catholic Priesthood.

After all, my last interaction with a Priest hadn’t been a good one, and was largely responsible for my falling away from the Church at age 14.

No, nothing sexual. Far from it.

Let’s just say that a very teachable moment – and the opportunity for mixing in a little bit of mercy and understanding with the larger amount of justice actually administered – passed us both by. And with it went any desire or chance to remain anchored to the Church through some very difficult years then just ahead of me.

Who appointed these men arbiters of my spiritual and earthly existence anyway? Where’s the authority for that? And who needs them to stand between my prayers and my God? I can speak to Him anytime I want, I can read and apply scripture on my own, and I certainly can seek forgiveness directly, without involving the “middleman.”

And what do these cloistered souls know about living in the “real world” – a world where you and I too often struggle with financial difficulties, workplace stress, and intimacy issues? No Priest could possibly understand.

In my Protestant church, the Pastors were good and honorable family men, living on tight budgets, who routinely preached lessons on the tensions and difficulties that arose in their marriages and families. Those Pastors “got it.” They understood.

Two years ago, I regularly scoffed at the hierarchy and the bureaucracy which characterized and weighed down the Church. I often sharply criticized its failure to discipline, or even acknowledge, those miscreants who took sexual advantage of the children in their care. Oh yes, that was another issue: “forced” celibacy clearly distorted their ability to function normally in society. Who couldn’t see that?

Grace Pending is all about change. And I’ve certainly changed since Francis.

But this blog is also about continual learning, about a continual faith in progress.

So I won’t ever try to convince you that I’m doubt-free, or that I understand all of the intricacies of Church doctrine.

I’m not and I don’t.

But if I am going to continue learning and growing – and blogging! – I’ll need solid teachers to guide me through. Fortunately, I’ve found several.

One of the best is Father Robert Barron, Rector of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.

Last year, Father Barron took Gary Wills to task for his (“preposterous”) book Why Priests? A Failed Tradition:

On Wills’s reading, priests have been bad news from the beginning. Jesus was a layman and a prophet, who was opposed by the Jewish establishment of scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. But when those relatively ineffectual enemies of Jesus wanted to eliminate the troublesome prophet, they turned – like Don Corleone turning to Luca Brasi – to the priests:  “The priests killed Jesus. That is what they do. They kill the prophets” (Wills, p. 80)

Wills sounded much like me. But there’s a lot more accordingly to Father Barron.

Wills dismissed and distorted the traditional understanding and meaning of the book of Hebrews – a book which directly connects Christ to the Priests of the ancient Hebrew scriptures.

Here’s Father Barron’s explanation:

The unknown author of this ancient sermon/exhortation/treatise [Hebrews] famously used the language of temple, cult, sacrifice, and priesthood in order to explain the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He urged that Jesus best be understood as the recapitulation and perfection of the ancient Jewish priesthood and that his bloody death on the cross best be construed as temple sacrifice lifted into a new and higher context.

What priesthood and sacrifice only imperfectly accomplished in the old dispensation, he wrote, was now fulfilled and brought to completion through the act of this new and unexpected High Priest.

But Wills says not so fast:

The priesthood and Mass as we know them today, he [Wills] claims, flow exclusively from this unique and exceptional letter. No other New Testament author, he says, ever characterized Jesus as a priest or even hinted that his crucifixion should be given a sacrificial interpretation.

Father Barron calls this analysis “patently absurd,” easily refutes each of Wills’s contentions, and explains what every first century Jew and non-Jew alike understood about the Priesthood:

The Gospel of Luke begins and ends in the temple, and its entire trajectory is toward the cross, which is given an unambiguously sacrificial reading by Jesus himself at the Last Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you . . . This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:19-20). More to it, the disciples who take this cup of blood are implicitly identified with temple priests whose task it was to catch the blood of sacrifice in bowls.

Further, all the Gospels reference John the Baptist, son of a temple priest, who was doing temple work in the desert: washing the faithful in a kind of mikva bath and offering the forgiveness of sins.

And the Gospel of John places in the Baptist’s mouth the words that clearly designate Jesus as a sacrifice: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).

Moreover, on John’s reading, Jesus offers his body and blood to his disciples at the moment when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the temple (Jn. 13:1). Matthew tells us that, at Jesus’ death, “The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mt. 27:51).

On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest, having performed a sacrifice in the Holy of Holies, would come past the veil and sprinkle the people with blood, symbolizing Yahweh’s forgiveness of his people Israel.

No first century Jew would have missed Matthew’s implication that Jesus is the definitive High Priest who has performed, through his death, the final sacrifice and hence affected the final reconciliation of God and humanity.

In point of fact, it is the summation and explicitation of priestly themes present throughout the New Testament. The priesthood and the Mass, with its strong sacrificial overtones, were hardly accretions distorting the New Testament, but rather developments of themes seminally present from the beginning of Christianity.

Jesus as priest. Jesus, in fact, as the ultimate priest, the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate reconciliation, being both fully human and fully divine.

So, compelling scriptural and historical evidence does, in fact, exist of a Priesthood that flows directly from Old Testament scripture, and through to the very beginnings of the First Century Church. It continues to this day.

A Priesthood made necessary to unite – to reconcile – God with humanity through Christ’s sacrifice. And to instruct, to heal, to forgive. It’s all of those things.

Father Barron quotes Wills one last time and emphatically concludes:

“There is one God, and Jesus is one of his prophets, and I am one of his millions of followers” (Wills, 259).

Quite right: if Jesus is nothing more than one more prophet of God, then the Catholic priesthood is indeed an absurdity. But if Jesus is who the great Creeds of the Church say he is, then priesthood, real presence, sacrifice, and Eucharist remain as indispensable as ever.

I now have a clear answer.

But wait, there’s more . . . And it’s not what I expected.

In his newly released DVD, Priest, Prophet, King, Father Barron explores these points in far greater detail, and even demonstrates how Adam was the very first Priest. As with all of his works, Father Barron’s short series is a beautiful gift to both the spirit and the intellect.

But he brings up one final point – one which underscores the title of this post.

Father Barron asserts that every time we attend Mass, every time that we participate in the Priestly sacrifice, we too have a mission.

We are called think about how we can be a type of priest. What are we able and willing to sacrifice in order to advance reconciliation between God and humanity?

Will it be a sacrifice for peace? One respecting life from conception to natural death? One seeking the elimination of financial and spiritual poverty, or bigotry, or discrimination?

None of this will be easy. True sacrifice never is. But we are each unordained Priests – in duty, if not in title or name. We have a job to do.

So, yes, the established Priesthood is grounded in scripture, its establishment is intertwined with the very beginnings of the Church Jesus Himself founded over 2,000 years ago, and its existence is essential for our reconciliation – from humanity to Divinity.

Without the willing and on-going sacrificial work of Christ through the Priesthood, God and humanity could never be reconciled.

And as Catholics, we are called upon to not only to assist and support the established Priesthood, but to also fulfill our own mission of sacrifice and reconciliation – and to do so on a daily basis.

Now that I know that, I’ve got no choice but to engage.

I’m in.

How about you?



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  • captcrisis

    I don’t think Fr. Barron refutes Wills. He reads a lot of symbolism into what Jesus did, but it’s odd that neither Jesus nor his apostles establishes a priesthood — as you and I understand the term and as ancient Jews understood it. From my reading Jesus rather carefully refuses to use the “p” word, and the temple curtain being torn in two more naturally represents the destruction of any priesthood.

    • Tom Zampino

      Thank you for reading my post and for your input.

    • CSmith

      I was taught that the tearing of the veil was symbolic of the fulfillment of the practice of animal sacrifice. Jesus brought the new covenant into being, and since the old covenant was fulfilled, animal sacrifice was no longer to be practiced. Jesus established the new sacrifice through himself at the Last Supper. The CD titled The Fourth Cup by Dr Scott Hahn is an excellent resource on this. You can also find this talk on Youtube

      • Tom Zampino

        Thank you!

      • captcrisis

        An interesting interpretation.

        There are all kinds of ways to see it, of course.

        I can’t help noting that the “curtain being torn in two”, along with the next verse about “spirits rising from the dead and appearing to many”, are problematic verses. In fact (I can’t be the first one to notice this) throughout the Gospels accounts of the resurrection seem tacked on, interrupting the flow of the narrative, or being suspiciously sketchy or unbelievable. This is an example.

        If the temple really sustained that kind of unprecedented occurrence on Friday, wouldn’t it be a big deal? All Israel would be abuzz about it. Likewise if spirits of the dead suddenly visited “many” that day. Yet there was not a blip of reaction. Even the Apostles were unaware of such visitations, feeling abandoned on Holy Saturday, not even expecting any resurrection, and not believing the women who ran to tell them about the empty tomb.

  • Shannon Menkveld

    All of this comes up to the edge of one of my fundamental problems with Christianity. Why does an omnipotent God need any intermediaries, whether ordained clergy or Jesus Christ Himself, to forgive His created creatures for their flaws? It seems to me that, had He really wanted to, Yaweh could have said, “Let man be forgiven and saved” just as easily as He said, “Let there be light.” And then He could have looked upon His latest work, and called it good…

    From my (non-Christian, indeed Pagan) chair, if a Savior is necessary, then God is not all-powerful… and if Yaweh is not the all-powerful Creator and operator of the universe, then Abrahamic religion cannot be true. Thus, Christianity would seem to be self-negating.


    • Tom Zampino

      Shannon, thank you for your important, thoughtful, and most of all sincere words. I am not a theologian but there are many fine people who are and who can answer your questions directly and, perhaps, fully. I encourage you to seek them out. I’d start with the works of Father Barron himself – look to his Word on Fire website for starters. Then take your inquiry to the books of Professor Peter Kreeft and back through to the writings of St. Augustine and St. Aquinas themselves, among others – they too honestly explored and sought answers to their questions. They may not persuade you personally, but they may well answer your very legitimate questions concerning why others believe in God’s power and His direct role in our lives and our need of forgiveness through Christ. May your continued search be blessed and may you find the answers you seek.

      • Shannon Menkveld

        I’m somewhat familiar with Augustine and Aquinas, through some college philosophy and religion classes, (at a community college, with a professor who was a Jesuit-educated PhD in philosophy and theology, no less,) and more recently a few Teaching Company “Great Courses” on theology, philosophy, and history. (Good stuff, by the way, at least for the interested layperson.) Not to mention various readings in modern theology and apologetics of many different kinds.

        That said, I have not read the works of the great Christian theologians in their entirety, so it’s entirely possible that I missed something critical. Still, at some point, with every Christian theologian or apologist I’ve read, I run into places that seem an awful lot like question-begging to me. It often seems as though what they are trying to demonstrate is so self-evident to them that they are unable to see, let alone see past, the assumptions that underlie it all. Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence are a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Even if you accept all of the premises, they do not require any particular conception of the nature of the God(s) Whose existence is being argued for. Aquinas simply assumes, without even stating, let alone establishing, that the God of Medieval Christianity is the only possible Divinity, so, naturally, that’s the God Whose existence he (Aquinas) has demonstrated.

        It’s a huge blind spot.

        Modern apologists are also very prone to falling into the trap of using the Bible to demonstrate the truth of the Bible… and those bootstraps simply aren’t strong enough for how hard they’re being pulled on. Again, I’m not suggesting bad faith. (sorry…) It’s just that some things seem to be easier to see if you’re standing outside the system than they are from inside it.

        From what I’ve seen, the necessity of a Savior is often one of those things.


        • Tom Zampino

          Once again, a very direct and honest response Shannon. I agree that many times apologists do in fact use the Bible to demonstrate its own truth. But there are those who use logic and reason to arrive at the very same conclusion.

          Do me a favor. Send me an address via e-mail – reach me at tzampino@gmail.com – and I will send you a book written by Trent Horn. I will order it from Amazon: Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity.

          I haven’t read it but I have heard him speak a number of times. He agrees with your take and does not typically “beg the question” as you put it. I will order a copy for myself at the same time.

          We can both read it and maybe enter into a discussion at your convenience. Or not. But I’d be happy to send you the book either way.

          • Shannon Menkveld

            Thank you for the kind offer, but it’s unnecessary. I’m not an atheist anyway, I’m a Pagan polytheist. I carefully considered Christianity, in several different forms from Pentecostal to the UCC and a bunch in between, before rejecting it… and the basis of that rejection is more fundamental (sorry… again…) than simply the occasional errors of logic made by its defenders.

            If you’re familiar with the Jewish radio host Dennis Prager, he has a very useful system of classifying religions by the basic problem they’re trying to solve. In Christianity’s case, that would be sin and salvation… and, since I do not believe in “sin” in the Abrahamic sense, (as distinct from “evil”… the existence of which is not in doubt,) salvation is superfluous… there’s nothing to be saved from, so there’s no need for a Savior.

            Instead, let us all serve our Gods and our fellow man as best we may, striving always for goodness and virtue. It’s all we limited humans can do anyway.


          • Tom Zampino

            I understand. And thanks for the clarification. My best to you. Tom

  • Sandro Palmyra

    I don’t mind priests. I don’t mind that they possess ceremonial imperatives within the liturgy and sacramental life of the church. I have known good priests and bad.

    One thing I am sure of. God does not reveal special knowledge or give special wisdom to priests. They possess no enhanced powers over and above that of anyone else. Most Catholics are like me. They know this and it’s alright with them. They also reserve the right to disagree with priestly exhortation concerning the churches repository of “revealed’ truth, if their own considered conscience and personal relationship with God directs them to.