Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ministerial Priesthood

Many non-Catholics object to the ministerial priesthood, and instead insist on "the universal priesthood of believers."  To a degree, they are correct.  We all do share in the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ.  St. Peter writes in the Scriptures (1 Peter 2:9-10):

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.
Now this would appear that all believers are priests, and that there is no ministerial priesthood.  But we must also remember that when reading the scriptures, we must "be especially attentive to at the content and unity of Scripture" (CCC 112). WHat this means is that no passage of Scripture can be taken on its own.  It must be examined not only in its immediate context, but within the context of the whole of Scripture.  Keeping this in mind, there is another place in the Bible where language very similar to this appears.  In Exodus 19: 4-6  we read  what Moses is to tell the Children of Israel:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought  you to myself.  Now, therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
What we see then, is that St. Peter is not dismissing the need for a ministerial priesthood, but identifying the Church as the fulfillment of Israel, so Peter's identification of the Church as a "royal priesthood" does not preclude the necessity of a ministerial priesthood.  We must also remember that this statement was before the consecration of the Levites to the priestly ministry.  So who comprised the priesthood in Israel before the Levitical priesthood:  The firstborn sons were consecrated to the ministry (Ex 22:29-31).  This means that even though the Church is a "kingdom of priests," there is still a need for ordained priests.
For evidence, we can also look to the Liturgy.  For a more detailed treatment of the idea that I am going to introduce, I recommend two books: Letter and Spirit by Scott Hahn, and Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI).   This idea is that the proper "habitat" for interpreting Scripture is in the context of the Liturgy.  The reason I bring this up is the celebration on Holy Thursday (for the non-Catholics who may read this, that is the Thursday before Easter).  This liturgy celebrates the institution of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  Since this is the celebration of the Eucharist, you would think that the Gospel reading would be one of the Last Supper narratives found in the Synoptic Gospels.  The reading is the Last Supper narrative in John's Gospel, which does not have the Eucharist narrative, but the Washing of the Feet and Jesus's High Priestly Prayer.
How can these things be connected with the Priesthood? That is a good question.  First we will look at the Washing of the Feet (Jn 13:1-20):
Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own  who were in the world , he loved then to the end.  And during supper, when the devil had put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin, and began to was the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.  He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, "Lord do you wash my feet?" Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand." Peter said to him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not only my feet only, but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him,  "He who has bathed does not need to wash, except except for his feet, for he is clean all over, and you are clean, but not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; that is why he said "You are not all clean."
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you know What I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done for you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he greater who is sent than who sent him.  If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  I am not speaking of you all; I know whom I have chosen; it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, 'He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.' I tell you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he.  Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me." 
There is quite a bit to unpack in this passage, but I will be limiting myself to those things that indicate the ministerial priesthood.  The first thing to notice is that Jesus is actually ordaining the Apostles into a new priesthood.  If you read about the ordination rites in Leviticus, it starts with a washing, followed by a sacrifice (cf Leviticus 8). The foot-washing was on one level, this ritual washing.  In addition, it was sign of the nature of the priestly ministry, that is, service, which was to be repeated by those who were ordained.  If this was the only evidence for the ministerial priesthood, it would be weak indeed, but we also have a portion the High Priestly prayer of Jesus that indicates that part of the prayer was only for the Apostles (Jn 17:6-19):
I have manifested your name to the men whom you gave me out of the world; they were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you; for I have given them the words which you gave me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  I am praying for them; I ma not praying for the world, but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours; all mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.  And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.  While I was with them, , I kept them in your name, which you have given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.  But now I am coming to you; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.  I have given them your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.  I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world .  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.
This whole portion of the prayer is not for the entire world (that portion of the prayer is vv. 20-26), but for the Apostles alone.  The thrust of the prayer is that the Apostles, those who were given to the Son by the Father, be consecrated and be protected from the world who hates them.  How is this to be interpreted, if not a reference to the priesthood?  And if to the priesthood, and there is no ordained priesthood, but only the universal priesthood of all believers, then why the Apostles only?  At this point in his ministry he had many disciples, but it was only the twelve being prayed for in this manner.  Is the priesthood explicit in either of these passages? No, but there is a definite implicit reference to the priesthood.  In my next post, I will look at the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's epistles to show how the ministerial priesthood is all but undeniable.
Until nest time, may the Peace of the Lord be with you all!


  1. You can read my take on the washing of the feet as an ordination ritual at

    If you want to hear more on this topic you can go to

    It was at a conference I went to several years ago. All the talks are very good. I think the presentation on foot washing as an ordination ritual is in "Johannine Tradition part 3" but I can't remember for sure.

  2. Hey Carl, my name is John. I read a lot of blogs on religion and prayer and I've i feel like I've ended up here once before. I'd love to hear your thoughts about this prayer exchange website I thought it was an interesting idea and would be curious to hear what you (or other christians) think about it

    I'll check back here in the next day or two, thanks & God bless
    John W.

  3. Mr. Wilson, the entire concept of getting paid for prayer is repulsive absolutely counter to what Jesus taught about prayer. I approved your comment only to allow me to come out and say that there are truly no words to adequately express how offensive I find this.