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.
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.
How about you?