The structure of the church can be traced to Jesus Christ

Father John A. Kiley

Jesus Christ was undeniably a man of the people, in fact, a man of the common people. His common touch stood in great contrast to the more fashionable ministry of his cousin St. John the Baptist.

The Baptist, after all, had access to the king’s ear. The younger Herod took delight in the observations and challenges that came from the lips of the precursor. John also enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the occupying troops. He gave them sage and sober advice in their dealings with the man in the street.

The Baptist was also held in favor by many of the Jewish ruling elite. A number of priests and scholars of the law hastened out to the banks of the Jordan to receive the ritual bath John offered to those seeking renewal. And of course the Baptist did not neglect the Jewish crowds either. He offered them practical guidance as well. Eventually John’s favor with society would not last. Herodias would be his undoing in royal circles. The Jewish leaders would ultimately prefer their own hegemony over John’s leadership and the crowds would temporarily shift their allegiance to Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, for some time, St. John the Baptist was unquestionably the celebrity for the day, held in general esteem throughout the ranks of Palestinian society.

Jesus Christ, in contrast, was quite popular with the crowds who one day even wanted to make him a king but he was held in little esteem by the Palestinian royal and religious leaders. The young Herod viewed Jesus, frankly, as a fool who might supply him with some entertainment. The Jewish leaders never embraced the ministry of Jesus as they had the work of John. Instead of attracting hoards of priests and rabbis as John had, Jesus welcomed a mere handful of Jewish authorities privately, such as Nicodemus who came to him secretly at night. Nonetheless, the overwhelming masses of ordinary people that flocked to Jesus must never be overlooked. On more than one occasion, Christ fed thousands of faithful enthusiasts who were hanging on his every word. The crowds encircled Jesus so regularly and forcefully that he sometimes did not even have time to eat. Other times Jesus had to abandon crowds eager for cures to press on to do his Father’s work of preaching and teaching. While Jesus is occasionally witnessed at meals in the home of some Pharisees, these encounters are frequently antagonistic and confrontational. Jesus is more often the object of their scorn rather than the beneficiary of their respect.

Jesus was clearly no “respecter of persons” as even his enemies observed. His egalitarian inclinations endeared him to the people and offered access even to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. Jesus was obviously the good shepherd whose heart pained for those many sheep who had been too long without a shepherd. Considering the overwhelming evidence that Jesus was a man of the people, attentive more to the masses than to their leaders, it is profoundly instructive that Jesus intended his own church to be structurally hierarchical rather then simply communitarian. In the early Gospel passages that the church has chosen for the beginning of ordinary time, Jesus singles out certain men to become his disciples. Peter, Andrew, James and John are summoned by name to leave their family trade and follow Christ in his ministry of evangelization. “I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus promises. Later, after fervent prayer throughout the night, Jesus will single out a chosen Twelve to follow him even more closely than the several disciples. And even within this select group, Jesus will designate St. Peter as the unique authority upon which the work of the church will depend.

The early church, as well as succeeding generations of believers, have respected Jesus’ instructions and have guided the Christian community into the effective, structured society that the church is today. The roles of the laity, deacons, priests, bishops and the Holy Father are recognized as apostolic in origin. The hierarchical nature of the church is not a mere question of organization and efficiency. The priestly people that are the Christian laity as well as the holy orders that constitute church leadership reflect clearly the explicit will of Christ. Thus clearly the structure of the church traces itself back to Jesus Christ. So the church is not simply a practical organization. The hierarchical Catholic Church is an explicit celebration of Christ and his divine will.