The 21st century is not the first era to be scandalized by the reprehensible conduct of some clergy. In 1517, Martin Luther visited Rome as a young, pious, Augustinian priest and monk. Author Eric Mataxas noted in a recent biography that while in the Eternal City, Luther observed that the “shortest time officially allowed in which a priest could hurry through Mass was twelve minutes, but Luther recalled that at the basilica of St. Sebastian seven Masses were said in an hour — in other words, in something less than nine minutes each.” Once while devoutly offering Mass, Luther was instructed by the priest waiting next in line to speed the celebration, “Quick! Quick! Send Our Lady back her Son!” — obviously a reference to Christ’s Real Presence on the altar. Luther and his generation would be scandalized by priestly misconduct to the point of no return and eventually the “universal priesthood,” or “priesthood of all believers,” would replace within the Protestant Christian community the ordained or clerical priesthood that was, and is, at the heart of the Catholic Christian community.
The New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews is being read at Sunday Masses this season. Possibly written in the late first century by an associate of St. Paul (St. Timothy is mentioned in the text) and possibly written in one of the great cities of the Grecian world, like Alexandria, it is directed toward Jewish Christians familiar with the Temple worship in Jerusalem and with the Jewish notion of priesthood. It is clearly the most priestly oriented writing from the early Church. In Old Testament thought, the Jewish high priest, like Aaron, was a member of and identified with the Jewish people. He too was guilty of personal sin just as they were. Yet the ancient Jewish priests were also divinely appointed, selected by God exclusively from one family. By their sins, the high priests were linked to the people; but by their Divine calling they were linked to God. The ancient high priests, then, were clearly mediators, standing between sinful mankind and the excellence of God.
Undoubtedly, the Old Testament priestly tradition of mediation was intended as preparation for the New Testament belief in the priestly mediation task of the man/God, Jesus Christ. As human, Christ could identify with sinful mankind. Although not guilty of sin, Christ bore the burdens of sin: “…for he himself is beset by weakness.” On the other hand, as Son of God, Christ is uniquely called and equipped to relate with God the Father:“…it was not Christ who glorified himself in becoming high priest, but rather the one who said to him: You are my son: this day I have begotten you.” Hence the Divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ constitute him the ideal mediator between God and man.He is the eternal high priest, whose linkage with God and the human race, with heaven and earth, with sanctity and sinfulness, constitutes him the unique go-between, the matchless intermediary, the perfect link between time and eternity. Recalling an ancient priest who had neither ancestry nor progeny, neither past nor future, but who is remembered in an eternal now, the author of Hebrews quotes psalm 110 affirming the perpetual priesthood of Jesus Christ: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
While certainly all believers and possibly all people of good will share in the universal priesthood of Jesus Christ, the ordained priesthood of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions exists sacramentally and powerfully and vividly as a daily reminder of the eternal, that is, on-going priesthood of Jesus Christ. Today’s priests are patently bothered by sin — as Aaron was and as Christ was. And today’s priests do not take the ministry to themselves, they are called by God — as Aaron was and as Christ was. Like Aaron and like Christ, today’s ordained priests serve as sacramental mediators of Divine Grace for the people of God. In availing themselves of the ordained priest’s ministry, the faithful are paying tribute to Christ, the sole source of all grace. Without Christ as mediating priest, the gates of heaven would still be closed, to employ a metaphor from our catechism days.Christ is the unique channel between heaven and earth. Indeed, apart from him there is no salvation. The task, the vocation, the duty of today’s ordained priest is to make recognizable, palpable and available the matchless salvation Christ uniquely won for the many.
Especially in these days when spirituality is sometimes sought in a mystical vacuum, devoid of all rite and ritual, the Christian priestly vocation is all the more important reminding the world of the centrality, the necessity, the inevitability of the original and enduring priestly ministry of Jesus Christ especially entrusted to his catholic and apostolic Church.