Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P. | IgnatiusInsight.com Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.


1. Jesus, the High Priest

“Jesus was not a priest, but a layman.” So I recently heard a young priest declare. He seemed anxious not to be too “clerical.” It is true that Jesus never officiated in the services of the Temple. He was not even an ordained rabbi. In the eyes of his contemporaries Jesus was just a layman. His legal father, Joseph, was a member of the tribe of Judah, not of Levi from which the hereditary Jewish priesthood had to come (Mt 1:1-18; Lk 2:4-5, 3:1-38).

Nevertheless, the early Christians were concerned to show that Jesus was the Messiah (Greek: Christos, the Anointed One). He was to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies by being invested by a ceremony of anointment with the same divine authority conferred on Aaron as High Priest and on David as King and on their successors. From the Dead Sea Scrolls we have learned that some Jews of Jesus’ time expected both a “Messiah of David” and a “Messiah of Aaron,”and the Christians believed that Jesus fulfilled both hopes. To avoid a political understanding of his mission, however, Jesus did not make this claim for himself publicly or permit the Twelve to do so. Yet privately he accepted Peter’s profession of faith in him as the Christ (Mk 8:27-30; Mt 16:13-20; Lk 9:18-21). According to the Synoptics, Jesus, even when asked by Pilate at his trial whether he was “the King of the Jews,” only replied “You say so” (Mk 15:2; Mt 27:11; Lk 23:3) and remained silent. Yet in the fuller account in John 18:28-40, he explained, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Was Jesus a priest? For the church of New Testament times and today for all those who accept the inspiration of the Bible, the Epistle to the Hebrews settles that question without any ambiguity. Even from a literary point of view Hebrews is one of the most impressive books of the New Testament, although we are not sure who was its author. Because of the style of the epistle many of the Church Fathers doubted that St. Paul was its author and so do most exegetes today. Nevertheless, it is an inspired, canonical work, and may have been written before the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. since it seems to assume that the Temple services were still continuing (Heb 10:1-3, etc.). Some exegetes explain these passages as mere references to the Old Testament prescriptions for these services. Yet surely if the author wrote after the destruction of the Temple, he would have mentioned the abolition of the Temple sacrifices as a striking proof of his thesis that the services of the Old Law were only temporary, a mere shadow of the things to come.

It is obvious enough why this epistle, in spire of the obscurity of its author, was thought by the early Church to be important enough to be included in the canon. On the basis of many Old Testament references it eloquently argues that (1) Jesus Christ is the Son of God superior to all creation; (2) yet he is also truly human, in all but sin like one of us; (3) and therefore as the Christ he is our Mediator. He is the only true priest who is able with us and for us to offer himself to God as a worthy sacrifice and thus bring us the gift of salvation from God, his Father.

Thus, although St. Paul and the Gospels never speak explicitly of Jesus as a priest, Hebrews firmly insists that he is not only a priest but also the only true priest. Moreover, though the Synoptics and Paul do not speak of Jesus as a “priest,” they do relate his solemn words and action at the Last Supper. What could be more clearly a priestly act than his sharing of the bread and wine as he said to the Twelve, “This is my body that is for you ... This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me,” thus symbolizing the coming sacrifice of the cross (1 Cor 11:23-34, cf. 10:16-17; Mk 14:22-26; Mt 26:26-29; Lk 22:14-23)? Certainly these many references make clear that the early Church understood the Last Supper as a cultic, priestly act on Jesus’ part to be continued as a central practice in the Christian community.

Central to the whole argument of Hebrews is its claim that this sacrificial death of Jesus was the one true sacrifice that can take away sin. Hence, Jesus is the one and only true High Priest of whom the Aaronic priests of the Old Testament were merely prophetic types. Thus the author of Hebrews surely would have granted that the Last Supper which prefigures Jesus’ sacrificial death was itself also a prophetic, priestly action. For some exegetes who favor the Protestant emphasis on preaching the Word as against Catholic emphasis on the priestly administration of the Sacraments, the term “cultic” has negative connotations. These scholars also exaggerate the contrast between the prophetic and the priestly traditions of the Old Testament. It is true that the prophets often denounce those who obey the cultic prescriptions of the Law while neglecting its moral commandments. “Obedience is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22). “Cult,” however, simply means “worship” and nowhere in the Bible do “worship” or “priest” as such have negative connotations. Quite the contrary, “priesthood” and “worship” (whatever may be said of particular priests and their fidelity to their calling), when they are in the service of the One God, are for the Bible always positive terms (Gen 14:18). That is why Hebrews is so concerned to show that Jesus was not only a priest, but the High Priest, the Supreme Priest. Thus, any attempt to address the question of Christian priesthood theologically ought to begin with the truth of revelation that Hebrews so profoundly establishes. Strictly speaking there can be only one Priest, Jesus Christ, as true Man and True God, the sole Mediator between God and humanity who has offered one sufficient sacrifice, the sacrifice of himself on the Cross.

2. The Priesthood of the Baptized

Protestant Christians sometimes ask, “If, as Hebrews so clearly teaches, Jesus is the only priest and his offering on the Cross was a wholly sufficient sacrifice for sins (Heb 10:11-18), how can there be priests ordained to daily offer the Eucharist as a sacrifice?” Is not the Christian minister ordained to be a preacher of the gospel, not a cultic priest? They also point out that the leaders of the New Testament communities are called not “priests” but “elders” (presbyters). Yet at the same time they cannot pass over important biblical texts outside Hebrews. In the First Epistle of St. Peter we read,

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his [God’s] own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were “no people” but now you are God’s people. (1 Pt 2:9-10a)

This text, which quotes Exodus 19:6 with reference to the Chosen People, is also supported by the prophecy made to the Jews that in the Messianic age, “You yourselves shall be named priests of the Lord, ministers of our God you shall be called” (Is 61:6). The meaning of these texts is that God has chosen and consecrated Israel as his own people in a Covenant by which they are bound to worship him only. This thought is carried further by two other texts of Trito-Isaiah:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
    ministering to him,
Loving the name of the Lord,
    and becoming his servants
All who keep the sabbath free from profanation
    and hold to my covenant,
Them, I will bring to my holy mountain
    and make joyful in my house of prayer.
Their holocausts and sacrifices
    will be acceptable on my altar,
For my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples. (Is 56:6-7)
I come to gather nations of every language;
    they shall come and see my glory...
Some of these I will take as priests and Levites,
    says the Lord.
(Is 66:18-21)

Thus the Jewish people are called to be the mediator by which the True God will become known to all nations. Thus the Gentiles too will come to worship God in the Jerusalem Temple and from even these pagans some will be chosen to be priests. Hence these prophecies in their Christian fulfillment are not primarily made to individuals, but to the Church as a corporate body and hence to its members who by Baptism have become parts of that corporate whole. “We,” says St. Paul, “are one body in Christ, and individually parts of one another” (Rm 12:5). The Christian Community, the Church, is a “chosen race” or “nation,” who is “God’s people,” his very “own” consecrated by Christ as “holy,” and as a “royal” “kingdom.” The Church is “priestly” because it is called to “announce his [God’s] praises” in a worthy way, i.e. through Christ as God has himself willed.

The Book of Revelation confirms this teaching of First Peter when it speaks of Christ, “who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever. Amen” (Rv 2:6). “You made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth” (Rv 5:9). “The second death has no power over these; they will be priests of God and Christ, and they will reign with him for the thousand years” (Rv 20:6). This is the universal priesthood of all the baptized, recognized by the Second Vatican Council. It is symbolically effected in the chrismatic anointing of the Sacrament of Confirmation that follows Baptism.

In Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) we read:

[The] faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are established among the People of God. They are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly functions of Christ. They carry out their own part in the mission of the whole Christian people with respect to the Church and the world. (n. 31)

We can conclude that the term “priest” (Greek: hierous, Latin: sacerdos) can and must be applied to all Christians, not indeed univocally but by analogy to the perfect priesthood of Christ. All priesthood other than Christ’s can only be some form of participation in Christ’s, from which it must derive its whole meaning and power. When Jesus said, “Call no one on earth your father, you have one Father in heaven” (Mt 23:9), he was not denying that we have fathers and mothers whom we are commanded by God the Father to honor (Mt 15:4). Rather he was teaching that human fatherhood is only a share in that of the Supreme Father and Creator, the one perfect father. Similarly, although Christ is the one priest, all those baptized as members of Christ’s body and who through him worship the Father in the Holy Spirit, truly share in his priesthood. I might, therefore, have said to the young priest, “You may be right that Jesus was a layman, but certainly you were wrong to say that he was not a priest. Christ is the only Priest and we baptized Christians are priests only in and for him as we are the Church. The Church is Christ’s holy body nourished on his Eucharistic Body and Blood offered for the world once and for all time on the Cross.”

3. The Ordained Priest

The teaching of Hebrews that Christ is the only priest implies a certain ecclesiology. As Moses was the mediator of the imperfect former Covenant, so Christ is the mediator of the perfect new and final Covenant. Since the first Covenant was not made merely with individuals but with the chosen People, Israel, so the new covenant is made with the new Israel, the Christian community, the Church. Since for Hebrews the Church owes its very existence as a priestly people to its Head, Jesus Christ the High Priest, it is an hierarchical organization. The term “hierarchy,” although it was used by Vatican II in Lumen Gentium without apology, today is anathema to some for whom it seems to mean “an oppressive power.” In fact it is derived from the Greek heros, sacred, and arche, a principle of order, and hence simply means “sacred order.” The Church is no mere mob or loose “Jesus Movement,” but an organic, well-structured, dynamically acting community whose organization is determined by its spiritual mission. This is well brought out by two biblical metaphors. The First Epistle of St. Peter (2:4-8) compares Christians to “living stones” to “be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Of this edifice Christ is himself also a “living stone” but the “corner stone.” The second metaphor elaborated by St. Paul in the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians compares the Church to a living body with its differentiated organs among which Christ is the head. Since Paul used this metaphor to restore order in the Corinthian church he evidently had in mind not just Christ invisibly present, but the community leaders who represented Christ in that church.

These metaphors, therefore, make clear that the Church is hierarchical, that is, has a sacred order in which Christ as High Priest is the hierarch, the principle of that organic order. Since the Church is Christ’s body by which he remains visibly present and active in mission in the world, its leaders must also sacramentally signify that priestly presence within the Church. To say, as do some Protestant theologians, that Christ’s presence is sufficiently manifested in the preaching of His Word minimizes the Incarnation. Christ is indeed present through the preacher, but also through the Sacraments, and above all through the communal offering of the Eucharist. All three offices of Christ, pastoring, preaching, sanctifying are inseparably related in Christ as Head of the Church and therefore also in his sacramental representative within the community. Precisely because the ordained priest represents Christ, his role cannot be that of oppressive domination but, like Christ’s, is that of a servant. Did not Jesus say of himself, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28)?

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.]

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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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