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Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P. | Part Two | Part One

Hebrews itself does not, like the Gospels and St. Paul, speak of Jesus as “head of the body, the Church” nor as “servant.” Yet it conveys the same truth by emphasizing Christ’s priestly role as a mediator. Unless Christ was both “head of his body, the Church” (Eph 5:23) and also its Servant, he could not mediate between God and the people. As supreme head of his people, the Church, he is their representative before God. Yet as Son of God he is also God’s representative to the people. Probably one of the earliest Christian creedal formulas, a version of the Jewish creed, the Shema, was:

    For there is one God.
    There is also one mediator between God
        and the human race,
    Christ Jesus, himself human,
    Who gave himself
        as a ransom for all
(1 Tm 2:5-6).

Yet Jesus’ servanthood did not contradict his leadership role as priest. At the Last Supper after washing the feet of the Twelve he said,

You call me “teacher” and “master,” and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do (Jn 13:13-15, my italics).

Certainly Jesus did not hesitate to teach with an authority far more confident than that of the scribes and Pharisees with their legalistic quibbling (Mt 7:29). Yet he did not claim this authority to teach and to judge (Jn 6:27) as his own right but based it on the mission he had from his Father, a mission not of condemnation but of salvation (Jn 3:26-27). Hence he chose for himself the title of “shepherd” (“I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:14), an ancient Jewish title for their kings and other leaders (Ez 34). The task of a shepherd was to protect his flock and above all to keep them moving together in spite of their exasperating tendency to scatter and stray into danger. For the Christian community to remain a community and carry out its mission as the Church, there must be “one flock, and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16).

Since Jesus was always conscious that his earthly life would end on the Cross, it was imperative that he provide for the continuation of this leadership after he had departed. Although he would always be invisibly present to his Church in faith (“I am with you always, until the end of the age” Mt 28:20), nevertheless, this headship of the Church must somehow continue visibly. This is why Jesus so carefully chose and prepared the Twelve to whom he explained the full meaning of his teaching. “The knowledge of the mystery of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but to them [the crowds] it has not been granted” (Mt 13:10-11). He gave to the Twelve his own titles of “shepherd” (pastor) as when he said to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17); “judge” (“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” Mt 16:19; cf. Mt 19:28), and “teacher” (“He who hears you, hears me,” Lk 10:16).

All power in heaven and on earth has been given me, go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Mt 28:18-19)

It could be asked why in such texts no mention of the word “priest” is made. But in the text just quoted it is clear that the Twelve are to baptize. As already mentioned, at the Last Supper they were commanded to continue the celebration of the Eucharist. They were also authorized to forgive sins (“Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” Jn 20:22). Thus it is clear that in preparing and leaving leaders in his Church, Jesus intended that they should share in his headship of the Church not only as shepherds and teachers but also as ministers of his sacraments, that is, as priests. That the term “priest,” is not used of them is explained by the need of the infant Church to avoid any suggestion that its leaders claimed to be Jewish priests. As Hebrews argues, the Christian priesthood is the reality of which the Aaronic priesthood is only a metaphor.

It has also been objected that in the texts I have cited and other similar ones, it is not always clear whether Jesus is conferring powers exclusively on the Twelve and their successors or on all his disciples then and now. Vatican II answered this, as I have already shown, by teaching that while the whole Church is priestly in that it shares in Jesus’ mission and his threefold ministry of shepherd, teacher, and priest, it can not do so without visible leadership. These leaders are not outside and over the Church, but are members of a living body, as its head is also part of the body. They too receive their life from that body. Indeed, they live and act in the service of the unity and mission of that body only by the power of the Holy Spirit that animates the Church, head and members.

Hence those who are authorized by Christ to teach and govern are also authorized to lead the community in worship, especially by presiding at the Eucharist, the Church’s supreme act of worship. Only by this ordering of ecclesial leadership to presidency in worship can the essentially spiritual purpose of their leadership be manifest. In this way it fits the model set by Jesus at the Last Supper. The Fathers of the Church very reasonably saw a reference in Hebrews to the Eucharist in the text, “It is good to have our hearts strengthened by grace and not by foods, which do not benefit those who live by them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb 13:10). It is common today, however, for biblical scholars to see no more in these words than an allusion to the heavenly altar, i.e. the eternal, once and for all sacrifice of Christ. This reading requires one to suppose that the text rather strainedly uses “eating” to mean an act of faith in the Cross. Yet it seems more natural to understand it as a comparison between the Old Testament sacred meal shared by those who offer a sacrifice in the Temple and the Eucharist as a sacred meal that commemorates and makes present the sacrifice of the Cross. Even if this is not to be taken as a reference to the Eucharist, we need not be surprised that the author of Hebrews preferred to rest his arguments on Old Testament texts at a time that the New Testament was not yet written. His understanding of the shedding of Christ’s blood as the inauguration of the New Covenant (Heb 9:18) seems to reflect the Eucharistic words of institution in the tradition reported still earlier by St. Paul, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 1:25).

A final question that has been raised is why in the New Testament we find no talk of “ordination” for the priestly leaders of the early Church. The meaning of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, whether for bishops, priests, or deacons, is that these leaders in the Church do not act on their own but precisely as member of Christ’s Body. They do not act in their own right nor only in persona ecclesiae, that is, as representatives of the Christian community. They also and primarily act in persona Christi since their special role is to make Christ visible within the community as its head just as the other sacraments are the signs that make the forgiving, healing, and feeding acts of the invisible Christ symbolically visible. Therefore while the community can testify to the suitability of the candidate for priesthood and receive and acclaim him as legitimately their representative once he is ordained, they cannot make the final decision as to his ordination, nor can they confer the sacrament of Holy Orders on him. Only the bishops who have the fullness of the sacrament have the authority from Christ through their predecessors the apostles to confer this sacrament. This conferring of the same apostolic authority that Jesus conferred on the Twelve must be by some public act that makes it clear to the flock who their shepherds are. Otherwise the flock will be scattered by “savage wolves” (Acts 20:29).

While it has been argued by some that an isolated Christian church that for a long time lacked a bishop might on its own authority choose one of its members as a priest, there would be no way to know that such a leader has this apostolic authority until it would be recognized for the whole Church by such a regular ordination. Some theologians have speculated that an isolated Christian church lacking a bishop for a long time might be able by right of its own participation as a Christian community in Christ’s priesthood to appoint its own priests. Nevertheless, if they were to attempt this in good faith, there would still be no way for them or the whole Church to know that such a leader has priesthood by apostolic authority until he would be ordained by a legitimate bishop in a certainly valid sacramental act. Although the ministry of this supposed priest might be even more pastorally fruitful than that of some ordained priests, this would not make him a sacramental sign nor validate the sacraments he might attempt to perform. By valid ordination a priest sacramentally symbolizes Christ not merely in a hidden manner but as head of the historic Church in its unity throughout time and space. Of course Christ can confer graces of ministry outside the sacraments as he instituted them. Nevertheless, in a Christian community lacking a bishop, not even the college of bishops or its head, the Bishop of Rome, can essentially change or replace the sacraments. The essential permanence of the sacraments incarnationally manifests the historic unity and continuity of the Church.

From very early in the Church’s history this sacramental sign of “ordination” has been conferred by the “laying on of hands” by those recognized to be successors of the original Apostles (the bishops) with appropriate prayers expressing the rank and meaning of the office being conferred. This laying on of hands is a very natural sign, redolent of Jesus’ own practice of conferring grace by reaching out and touching the one in need (Mt 8:15, etc.). In Acts 13:3 we read how the church of Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on the first mission to the Gentiles. After fasting and prayer, “they laid hands on them and sent them off,” thus acknowledging the need of God’s grace for such an impossible task. While this laying on of hands was practiced in both the Eastern and Western Church the claim that it is the essential act of ordination was not always recognized by theologians nor formally declared until Pius XII did so in 1947. What is clear is that from the beginning it was always considered necessary that for Church leaders to have priestly as well as pastoral and teaching authority, they must receive it by some form of public ordination performed by other leaders who could rightly claim apostolic authority.

Thus my answer to the question of my friend, the young priest, can be summarized as follows. (1) The Bible explicitly teaches in Hebrews that Jesus indeed was a priest, the One Priest foreshadowed by the Old Testament priesthood. (2) The Church as the Body of Christ shares in his priestly or sanctifying office, as well as in his kingly or shepherding office, and in his teaching office, in its mission of evangelizing the world and offering worship—especially Eucharistic worship—to God. (3) The Church cannot, however, act as a unified and indefectible body whose faith is unfailing without a leadership empowered by ordination with apostolic authority from Christ to act as his representatives and instruments in the service of the Church and its mission. (4) As the priesthood of the ordained is inseparable from that of all the baptized, and vice versa, so both are inseparable from the one priesthood of Christ which is their source and their goal.

[This article originally appeared in the July/August 1998 issue of The Catholic Dossier.]

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:

Women and the Priesthood: A Theological Reflection | Jean Galot, S.J. | From Theology of the Priesthood
The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Pray the Harvest Master Sends Laborors | Rev. Anthony Zimmerman
Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method | Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler | From The Case for Clerical Celibacy
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest
The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
The Role of the Laity: An Examination of Vatican II and Christifideles Laici | Carl E. Olson

Benedict M. Ashley, OP, is a priest of the Dominican Order, Chicago Province. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame and has doctorates in philosophy and political science, and the post-doctoral decree of Master of Sacred Theology conferred by an international committee of the Order of Preachers. He was formerly President of Aquinas Institute of Theology, St.Louis, Professor of Theology at the Institute of Religion and Human Development, Houston, TX, and Professor of Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C, and Visiting Lecturer in Humanities at the University of Chicago (1999). At present he is Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis and Adjunct Professor at the Center for Health Care Ethics, Saint Louis University. He is a Senior Fellow of the Pope John Center of Medical Ethics, Boston. He is the author of numerous books and articles.

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