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Jesus Christ and the Authority of his Priests

Jesus Christ and the Authority of his Priests

Sacred power and lay dependence?
by John Wijngaards

Published by Catholics for a Changing Church, London, 2008

In spite of Vatican II’s declaration that laity and clergy share a common dignity and that there exist no two tiers among the People of God,(1) the Roman Curia keeps reinforcing feudalistic medieval notions. The unending prohibitions limiting the involvement of lay people in the ministries demonstrate the point. The new General Instruction on the Roman Missal issued by the Congregation for Worship in 2001 sharpens the distinction between a sacred clergy and a profane laity.

The word ‘sacred’ occurs more often in this instruction than in any comparable document of its kind. A whole new section on ‘sacred things’ has been added. Central to the Congregation for Worship’s view on the eucharist is the sanctuary: a sacred area within the church in which the altar stands and in which consecrated ministers exercise their offices. The altar itself is a sacred table and should be treated as such, we are told. The sacred ambo, from which the Scripture is read, carries the sacred lectern. The chalice and the paten that hold the consecrated bread and wine are called sacred vessels. The priest wears sacred vestments and is himself a sacred person. Even the chair on which he sits in the sanctuary shares in his sacredness. His chair has to be “visibly distinct from chairs used by others who are not clergy”.

I am reminded here of my schooldays in the Netherlands. One of the hideous pranks we indulged in was puncturing the tyres of our teachers’ bicycles. One day one of my classmates went too far. He punctured the tyres of our school chaplain’s bicycle.

I still hear him haranguing our class.

“Do you realise what you have done? You have committed sabotage, no more: sacrilege! For the bicycle you crippled is no ordinary bicycle. It’s a sacred bicycle! A priest’s bicycle!”

Going back to the Vatican instruction, even more astonishing is its admonition that lay helpers at holy communion must receive the ‘sacred vessels’ from the priests and may not remove them from the tabernacle or pick them up from the altar themselves. They also may not move consecrated hosts from one ciborium into another. Neither may they assist in the cleansing of the ‘sacred vessels’ after Mass. They are not to consume consecrated wine left over after communion unless the priest administers it to them. In other words: the vessels are more sacred than the lay ministers of the eucharist!

Now it is very clear from reading the Gospels that Jesus Christ abolished the idea of a sacred priesthood removed from ordinary layfolk. In fact, he radically abrogated this kind of distinction between the sacred and the profane.

Jesus Christ did not come from a priestly family, nor did he receive the priestly ordination prescribed in the Torah.(2) He offered his sacrifice not in the hallowed Temple precincts, but on Golgotha, a contaminated mount of execution. He wore no priestly garments. His altar was a beam of ordinary wood. The author of the letter to the Hebrews explains at length that Christ thus abolished and replaced the cultic worship of the Temple. The curtain that shielded the Holy of Holies was rent in two.(3) The theological and spiritual significance of Christ’s action here cannot be overestimated. For in one stroke he made the whole world sacred and liberated the whole human race from distinctions based on a sacred status.

The Old Testament notion of a sacred priesthood was so alien to Christ that we never find him applying the term ‘sacrificial priest’, cohên, sacerdos, to himself or his followers. In fact, it is only in the letter to the Hebrews that the ‘priesthood’ of Christ (as cohên) is discussed in explicit terms.(4) Christ entrusted a special task to his apostles and their successors, but he would not have agreed to this ministry being understood as setting apart a new sacred caste as had been the case in Old Testament times. He would not have agreed to the notions of sacrality developed by medieval ontologists, notions which, unfortunately, are still adhered to by the Vatican.

The leaders of Christ’s community manifest and apply God’s powerful presence. This is not so because they are a sacred clergy ministering to a profane laity.(5) But what does their ‘authority’ then consist in? What leadership should they offer?

God’s power and priestly authority

The institutional Church of our time cracks and fractures in all joints by an all-pervasive abuse of ecclesiastical power. The main culprits are the Pope and the ruling clique in the Vatican who are holding the whole Church in a suffocating stranglehold.(6) Everything is decided by an elite who rule from the top down. Bishops have been reduced to branch managers who execute Rome’s orders. Theologians have been silenced. The laity brought to its knees. The clerical Church we have become, has rightly been compared to a dysfunctional family.(7)

Rumours in Rome reveal that the Pope is about to issue a definitive Dictionary of Church Speech.

  • ‘Collegiality’ now means: bishops shall refer all matters to the college of Vatican departments.
  • ‘Freedom of expression in the Church’ means: the Pope is free to suppress anything without consulting anybody.
  • ‘Laity’ means: flock of human sheep lovingly herded and fleeced by clerics.

Small wonder that visions of future ministries often de-emphasize power. And they are right in the sense that the present abuse of authority needs urgently to be reformed. Democratic values need to be adopted, papal primacy restored to its limited role, ancient procedures of electing bishops reinstalled, participative decision-making established at all levels, accountability for all forms of authority legalised.

But, paradoxically, I feel that rather than de-emphasizing authority, we need to rediscover the true meaning and extent of priestly power. And for this we have to return to basics.

God is among us with power

Jesus Christ saw it as his task to initiate ‘the kingdom of God’. ‘The kingdom of God’ was an image of the new reality his Father was bringing about. Dozens of classical studies have been written on what exactly Jesus meant with this image. And though some debate continues, its general outline is clear.(8)

When we refer to ‘a kingdom’, we usually think of a country that is ruled by a king. We can then say that someone travelled the length and breadth of the kingdom, or that there was a war between two kingdoms, and so on. This was not the first and most important meaning of ‘malkuth’, ‘kingdom’, for the Jews. Malkuth meant someone’s ‘being king’, what we may render by ‘kingship’ in English. God’s kingship means that God is king.

When Jesus announced that the kingdom of God had come, he was in fact saying: ‘God’s kingship has been established’. ‘God is king once more’. ‘God rules over us again’. ‘God’s power has become tangible again’. ‘God’s power saves, heals us, is revealed to us in visible deeds of love.’(9)

But how was this saving power of God to reach people?

“The harvest is rich”, Jesus said, “and the labourers are few. We must ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers in his harvest.”(10)

Leaders with authority

It is sometimes overlooked that Jesus Christ himself taught and acted with authority. Jesus’ claimed to possess ‘divine clout’(11), a claim that shines through even in the oldest layers of the Gospels.

  • He taught people as someone with authority, not as their scribes.(12)
  • “Heaven and earth shall pass away, my words shall not pass away”.(13)
  • “The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”.(14)
  • “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things”.(15)

Jesus’ power clearly was of a charismatic nature. He revealed God’s love. He forgave sins. He healed. He brought salvation. He poured out the Holy Spirit over people. But it was power.

Now it is undeniable that Jesus delegated part of this power to his disciples.

  • “He gave the twelve disciples power over unclean spirits so that they could cast them out, and heal every disease and every infirmity”.(16)
  • “If anyone will not listen to your words . . . . , it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town!”(17)
  • “Amen, amen I say to you. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven [= shall be bound by God]. Whatever you loosen on earth shall be loosened in heaven [= shall be loosened by God]”.(18)

It is also undeniable that the community of Jesus’ followers, from the earliest times on, was conscious of the fact that it carried that sacred power Jesus had delegated.(19)

Various leadership functions sprung up. We read of ‘prophets’ and ‘teachers’, but also of

  • ‘apostles’, apostoloi, Aramaic: shelîchîm, persons who are sent, delegated;
  • ‘elders’ - presbuteroi, from which our word ‘priest’ derives;(20)
  • ‘overseers’ - episcopoi, the origin of our word ‘bishop’;(21)
  • ‘servants’ - diakonoi, that is: ‘deacons’.(22)

Initially the terms were used vaguely. The functions of community leaders overlapped. But a shift to more precise job descriptions can be discerned even within the first century AD, as witnessed in the pastoral letters and the writings of Ignatius of Antioch who clearly define bishops, priests and deacons.(23)

Christian communities never were amorphous groups without explicit leaders. On the contrary, specific persons were selected to perform well-defined duties. These early ministers carried distinct job titles. They acted ‘in the name of Jesus’, or ‘with Jesus’ power’, or ‘with the authority entrusted by the Lord Jesus’.(24)

Renewed ministries in our own time too will require dedicated and trained leaders. These spiritual leaders must be allowed to act with the authority delegated by Christ. Envisioning Christian communities without committed leaders trained to render specific services is not only impractical from an organizational point of view, it will not do justice to the thrust and commission originating from Jesus Christ himself. Also here, like in other spheres of life, “power corrupts, but the lack of power corrupts absolutely”.(25)

Obviously, Church structures need to be democratically overhauled as I outlined above. Moreover, those classes of persons who are now excluded from admission to leadership because they are considered incapable or unworthy, should no longer be barred. I am thinking in particular of women, married persons whether men or women, and homosexuals, whether single or in stable relationships.

Ministries do not need to be for life. They could be linked to well-defined periods of time. Also, the Church can and should institute new ministries for our own time, to cater for the pastoral care of youth, the elderly, immigrants, and other vulnerable groups. All these ministers, whether on a short-term or permanent basis, whether for more modest or larger tasks, should be empowered to act within their sphere of action with the weight and scope of God’s saving rule to back them up.

In the rest of this paper I will focus more directly on the power of the ‘presbyteros’, the priest. What kind of power does the priest possess?

God’s sacred power made visible

Disciples sent by John the Baptist challenged Jesus about his mission. He told them the effects of his work were visible.

“Tell John what your ears and eyes tell you.
The blind see.
The lame walk.
Lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear.
The dead are raised to life.
Good News is proclaimed to the poor!”(26)

God’s power can been seen in its effects, Jesus says. God’s presence is seen in signs.

Remember, we can only touch God through gestures and symbols. We can only speak about God in images. The realm of religion is a reality expressed in signs.

Jesus Christ was, in his own person, the deepest religious symbol par excellence. Scripture calls him the ‘reflection of the Father’s glory’, ‘the imprint of the Father’s being’, ‘image of the invisible God’. Jesus Christ showed us, in his humanity, what God is like.(27) Whoever saw him, saw the Father. Who heard his words, heard the Father speak.(28) Everything Jesus did, was a visible, audible, tangible expression of God’s love for us. Jesus was, therefore, the living sign of God among us; or, to use the present-day theological term, he was the sacrament of God meeting us, speaking to us, forgiving us, healing us, making us God’s adopted children. ‘Sacrament’ means ‘sign’.(29)

Symbols can be coined, just as money is. A particular image then receives a specific value, like a piece of paper that becomes a ten-pound note. Jesus Christ coined a whole new set of religious symbols to express God’s presence, a process continued by his followers. This set of symbols we now know as the sacramental order.

The community of believers, which we call the Church, is itself a sacrament: it is the lasting sign of Christ surrounding us and holding us.

“Where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am in your midst”.(30)

In and through his community Christ speaks to us, saves us, heals us, fulfils our spiritual needs.

Jesus Christ coined other sacramental signs. He coined immersion in water, that is baptism, to signify and effect entrance into the Kingdom of God, re-birth as a child of God, reception of God’s Spirit.(31) He coined the typically human custom of eating together as a sign to manifest and to bring about our sharing in God’s gifts of love and salvation. He took bread and wine and said, “This is my body for you … This is my blood of the new covenant”. The eucharist is the great sacrament that seals God’s Kingdom in us.

In the same way Jesus ‘coined’, so to say, some of his disciples to preach and heal in his name. “Who sees you, sees me”. Each new leader becomes a sign of Jesus, manifesting Jesus’ power of love.

How did Jesus ‘coin’ the new leader? In all likelihood by the laying on of hands. From the earliest times Christians appointed leaders through the laying on of hands.(32) In the Pastoral Letters we read: “Do not be too quick to lay hands on anyone”,(33) and “Fan into a flame the gift that God gave you when I laid my hands on you”.(34) And it is extremely likely that this gesture of imposing hands on a person’s head originated from Jesus himself.

Jesus often healed the blind and the sick using his hands. He blessed the eucharistic bread and wine grasping them in his hands. Jesus’ hands mediated God’s power. He must have delegated his own power to others by the imposition of hands, as Moses had done to Joshua before the whole community.(35)

What better moment to imagine this ritual than when Jesus had prayed for the whole night before appointing the twelve apostles that first time? He called out their names one by one and must have laid his hands on each head while he “gave each authority over unclean spirits” and “power to cure all kinds of diseases and sicknesses”.(36) The new leaders were publicly designated to be signs of God’s saving power, as Jesus himself was.

Note that I make this assertion without embracing the sacramentalism of the Middle Ages. The scholastic ‘ontologists’ re-wrote the sacraments in terms of essence and being. The substance of bread and wine was now seen as having been transsubstantiated into the substance of Christ. The nature of the priesthood lies in sacrifice, they decided. A priest is therefore more sacerdos, sacrificial priest, than presbyter. The essence of a priest or bishop was said to have changed for ever by the imprint of an indelible character, and so on.

It is rumoured that a newly ordained bishop approached a wise old theologian. The bishop was shaking with anxiety.

“I am not sure I received the episcopal character”, he confided. “When the three ordaining bishops imposed hands on me, they were distracted by a plane that flew over.”

“Don’t worry”, the theologian reassured him. “I can perform a quality test.”

“Go ahead”, the bishop said.

“Well, tell me, if you were to receive three letters: one from the Inland Revenue, one from your dying mother and one from the Vatican, which one would you open first?”

The bishop thought, then said: “I’d ask my secretary to read them first.”

The theologian sighed and said: “Yes, you’ve got the episcopal character.”

Our rejection of medieval theologising on sacraments may not, however, make us reject the symbolism itself.

The fruits of God’s rule among people

At this point we need to return to what Jesus had in mind with ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’, God’s rule on earth. Bringing that rule about is what he entrusted to the leaders to whom he delegated his power. And we must resist the temptation to interpret Jesus’ intentions with the medieval, ecclesiastical spectacles we have inherited. Jesus did not envisage future leaders of his community turning into sacred clerics whose main task it is to build up structures held together by Church law and sacramental practice, however necessary these can be at times.

Then what did Jesus expect his delegated leaders to achieve?

God’s rule had to change people’s lives.

This is how Jesus described his own mission, a mission that applies equally to the leaders he sent out:

“The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
for the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
to bring liberty to captives,
new sight to the blind,
to set the downtrodden free,
to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour”.(37)

This is what priests in a renewed ministry will have to focus on, strengthened by God’s power: improving, widening, deepening people’s lives.

Note that the stress is on people. This has consequences for recruitment. Only such persons should be called upon to minister who are people-oriented: who care about people, who live for people. Formation should focus on people-skills: openness, empathy, enthusiasm, the ability to listen and talk, to admonish in a friendly way and inspire. God’s power should be seen in the effect it has on people.

In practice a priest’s work will amount to all those pastoral tasks we are familiar with: communicating God’s love, encouraging the young, comforting the sick and aged, consoling the mourning, helping people to seek forgiveness or to forgive others. It will imply standing by the poor and marginalised, taking the side of immigrants or fringe groups, moving out to where people are, rather than waiting for them in a church building.

The first Christians knew they had entered God’s kingdom because they could feel it, touch it, hear it, almost smell it, in the new spiritual world that surrounded them. They sensed the action of the Spirit stirring in themselves or in others.(38)

“The kingdom of God is within you”.(39)

Jesus outlines a vision of the kingdom of his Father in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul describes the tangible environment of love which God’s powerful rule creates in our own heart and in that of the Christian community.

“The Spirit brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control”.(40)

Some practical observations

Reforming the ministries will first and foremost require structural reforms in the Church. Jesus refused to be crowned king and did not want his leaders to ‘lord it over people’.(41) The present abuse of authority must be curbed. True collegial responsibility must be introduced. Involvement of the laity on all levels needs to be restored. The ministries must be opened to all worthy candidates, men and women.(42) Without elaborating on this further, I fully support the attempt to draw up a new Constitution for the Church that would be the basis for a renewed Church law.(43)

The Second Vatican Council tried to extricate the ministries from medieval scholasticism. It did not fully succeed. A new theology needs to be created that sheds medieval ontologism, re-examines the sources and integrates contemporary thinking.

The Catholic community will also need to re-focus its pastoral practices. It is here that God’s saving power is felt most.

I am aware of the fact that some communities celebrate Mass without an ordained priest, selecting one of the group to preside. In extraordinary circumstances this seems correct. Christ’s power is latent in each Christian community, and each community is by definition eucharistic.(44) Sr. Eileen McCormack, a missionary in Peru who was killed by the ‘Shining Path’ terrorists on 21 May, 1991, presided over eucharists which she celebrated with and for her abandoned communities.(45) But such cases are emergencies and Church law should make provision for them.

Finally, I would like to put on record that in my view many priests of our time already come close to Jesus’ ideals. Some are caring shepherds who build people up with God’s power. I am thinking of one parish priest who regularly visits his sick and ageing parishioners. For them he truly is the loving face of Christ, a Christ who heartens and heals. I have seen him inspire the congregation on Sundays, invite men and women to leadership roles in the parish, give families real comfort and hope when a loved one dies. Such powerful concern should become the norm and the focus of any renewed priestly ministry.

When Graham Greene portrays the whiskey priest in his novel ‘The Power and the Glory’ we know instinctively that in this wretched wreck of a man, in spite of human weakness and perhaps on account of it, God’s power touched the people of a rural parish in Mexico. The whiskey priest and not the clerical Cardinal point the way to a renewed priesthood.

John Wijngaards

Foot Notes

(1) Lumen Gentium § 30 - 32.

(2) Leviticus 8,1-36.

(3) Matthew 27,51.

(4) See especially Hebrews 5, 1-4; 7, 26-28.

(5) John Wijngaards, ‘Don’t cage the sacred’, The Tablet 23 September 2000, pp. 1256-1257; see also H. Haag, Clergy and Laity. Did Jesus Want a Two-Tier Church?, Burns & Oates 1998.

(6) P. Chirico, Infallibility: the Crossroads of Doctrine, Wilmington 1983; J. M. R. Tillard, The Bishop of Rome, Wilmington 1983; P. Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy. Authority and Autonomy in the Church, New York 1990; L. M. Bermejo, Infallibility on Trial: Church, Conciliarity and Communion, Westminster 1992; A. W. R. Sipe, Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, London 1995; J. Berry and G. Renner, Vows of Silence. The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, New York 2004.

(7) P. Collins, Papal Power. A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium, London 1997, p. 103.

(8) R.Schnackenburg, God’s Rule and Kingdom, New York 1963; G.E.Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom, New York 1964; B.Chilton (Ed.), The Kingdom of God, Philadelphia 1984; N.Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus, London 1963, and Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, Philadelphia 1976.

(9) John Wijngaards, My Galilee My People, London 1990, pp. 161-181.

(10) Matthew 9,37; compare John 4,35-38.

(11) Exegetes call it ‘der Hoheitsanspruch’.

(12) Matthew 7,29; compare Mark 1,22.27; Luke 4,32.

(13) Matthew 24,35; compare Mark 13,31; Luke 21,33. “To me has been given all authority in heaven and on earth” reflects the

(14) Matthew 9,6; compare Mark 2,10; Luke 5,24.

(15) Matthew 21,23-24.27; compare Mark 11,28-29.33; Luke 20,2.8.

(16) Matthew 10,1; compare Mark 6,7; Luke 9,1.

(17) Matthew 10,14-15; compare Mark 6,11; Luke 10,10-12.

(18) Matthew 18,18; addressed to all apostles; compare John 20,23.

(19) J.M.Reese, ‘How Matthew portrays the communication of Christ’s authority’, Biblical Theology Bulletin 7 (1977) pp. 140-141; T.F.McKENNA, ‘Matthew on Church Authority’, The Bible Today 17 (1979) pp. 2035-2041.

(20) Acts 14,23; 15,2.4.6; etc.

(21) Acts 20,28; Philemon 1,1; 1 Peter 2,25; etc.

(22) Acts 6,1-6; Romans 16,1.

(23) 1 Timothy 3,1-13; Titus 1,5-9; Ignatius, Letter to Smyrna 7,1; C.C.Richardson, ‘The Church in Ignatius of Antioch’, Journal of Religion 17 (1937) pp. 428-443; V. Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, New Haven 1960; etc.

(24) See for instance 1 Corinthians 5,3-4; 2 Corinthians 10,8; 12,.9; 13,10; etc.

(25) Adlai Stevenson.

(26) Matthew 11,5.

(27) Hebrews 1,3; Colossians 1,15; John 14,7-9.

(28) John 7,16.

(29) A readible and up-to-date introduction to the sacraments can be found in R. P. McBrien, Catholicism, London 1980, vol. 2 pp. 731-745.

(30) Matthew 18,20.

(31) John 3,1-8.

(32) Acts 6,1-6; 13,3; etc.

(33) 1 Timothy 5,22.

(34) 2 Timothy 1,6.

(35) Numbers 27,15-23; Deuteronomy 34,9).

(36) Matthew 10,1-4; Mark 3,14-16; Luke 6,13-16.

(37) Luke 4,18; from Isaiah 61,1-2. From a correct translation of Luke’s Greek text it is clear that Jesus deliberately sought this passage.

(38) Compare Galatians 3,2.

(39) Luke 17,21.

(40) Galatians 5,22.

(41) John 6,15; Matthew 20,24-28.

(42) John Wijngaards, The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church, London 2000; see also www.womenpriests.org.

(43) See http://arcc-catholic-rights.org/constitution.htm.

(44) Peter Trummer, ‘Celebrating the Eucharist without a Priest?’, Publik-Forum, nr. 15 (8 August 2003), pp. 52-53.

(45) ‘Do This in Memory of Me’, Compass Theology Review 25 (1991) no 4, pp. 33-35.


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