Year of the Priests
Pope Benedict XVI has declared a “Year for Priests” beginning with the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on June 19, 2009. The year will conclude in Rome with an international gathering of priests with the Holy Father on June 19, 2010 (Source: http://www.yearofthepriests.com/).
Most Catholics do not realize that priesthood, or in this case ministerial (or hierarchical) priesthood, is one of main issues that divides Catholic and Protestant. Priests are those appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God (or mediator), to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins (Hebrews 5:1). There are three types of priesthood in the Catholic Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1544 to 1547): (1) Priesthood of Christ as the High Priest and true Priest, the only mediator between God and men; (2) ministerial (or hierarchical) priesthood comprising bishops and priests and (3) priesthood of all faithful or known as common or baptismal priesthood. While accepting the first and the third ones, since Reformation Protestant and other post-Reformation churches have been rejecting ministerial priesthood for two reasons:
- New Testament does not apply the title priest (Greek iereus) to the apostles, bishops (Greek episkopos) and elders (Greek presbuteros).
- The Eucharist or Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, is only a remembrance of Christ, following his request (Luke 22:19) – it does not have sacrificial nature as believed by Catholics (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1330), therefore they don’t need special priesthood to celebrate it.
The reason why there are three types of priesthood in the Catholic Church is because Catholics believe the priesthood of the Old Covenant is the one that prefigures that of the New. First the Priesthood of Christ is prefigured by that of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18, Hebrews 5:10, 6:20). The Old Covenant has priesthood of all Israelites (Exodus 19:6) that prefigures priesthood of all faithful in the New (1 Peter 2:5, 9 and Revelation 1:6). But in addition to this God chose Aaron and his sons to be His priests (Exodus 28:1, Number 18:1, 1 Chronicles 24:1-9) and appointed them and the tribe of Levi (to which Aaron belonged) for liturgical service in the Sanctuary. Thus priests and Levites, whenever these two appear in the Bible (1 Kings 8:4, 2 Chronicles 31:9, Ezra 6:20, Nehemiah 10:34, Luke 10:31-32, John 1:19), refer to these two groups specially chosen by God. Sanctuary (Hebrews miqdash) is the place where God was present with Israelites (Exodus 25:8). During exodus it was a tent, built and equipped following God’s instructions, recorded in Exodus 25:9 to Exodus 27:19. Later God chose Solomon to build Jerusalem (first) Temple to house the Sanctuary (1 Kings 6, 1 Chronicles 28:10). The Sanctuary has two parts separated by veil (Exodus 26:31-33, Hebrews 9:2-5), the (outer) Holy Place (Hebrew qadesh) and the (inner) Holy of Holies (Hebrew qadesh qadesh). Only priests are allowed to offer sacrifice in the (outer) Holy Place (Numbers 3:10, Hebrews 9:6). One of the priests will be appointed as High Priest and only he can enter the (inner) Holy of Holies and only once every year to offer blood atonement (Exodus 30:10, Hebrews 9:7). The Jews are still celebrating this Atonement Day (Leviticus 23:27), known as Yom Kippur, to this day – however there are no longer sacrifices and blood atonement because the Jerusalem (second) Temple was destroyed in c. 70 AD (Encyclopaedia Judaica Vol. 14 page 612). As for the Levites, they are in charge in lower duties in sanctuary (Number 3:28,32, 8:15, 31:40,47), assist priests (Number 3:6,8, 16:9, 18:2), take care the temple and service (1 Chronicles 23:28-32), and even act as chorister and musician (Ezra 3:10, Nehemiah 12:27). Other than priests and Levites God also chose seventy elders (Number 11:16, 24-25) who participated in sacrifice (Leviticus 4:15).
Catholics believe that the priesthood of Melchizedek prefigures that of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1544), while the priesthood of Aaron and his sons prefigures that of bishops, institution of seventy elders prefigures that of priests (the English word priest is derived from Greek presbuteros), the Levites prefigures the deacons (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1540) while priesthood of all Israelites prefigures the common priesthood of all faithful. Most, if not all, Protestants and “Bible only” Christians will argue that priesthood of Aaron or Levitical priesthood is abolished in New Testament. Yet Scripture prophesies (Jeremiah 33:18) that Levitical priesthood shall never lack a man in God’s presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn cereal offerings, and to make sacrifice for ever. This prophecy cannot be fulfilled in the Levitical priesthood of Judaism itself because without the (Jerusalem) Temple they can no longer offer sacrifice. Scripture also says in Isaiah 66:21 that God will take as priests and Levites from all nations, i.e. priests are no longer Jews who are descended from Aaron and Levites are not necessarily Jews from the tribe of Levi. Scripture nowhere says that all its prophecies must be fulfilled before New Testament books were written and/or must be stated inside those twenty-seven books. This should explain why New Testament does not apply the title hiereus to bishops and to elders/presbyters. In New Testament the titles elder and bishop are interchangeable, i.e. elders could be bishops (Acts 20:17, 28).
Christ established New Covenant (Matthew 26:28, Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25) on the night he was betrayed and of which He is the mediator (Hebrews 9:15). The old covenant refers to the one God made with Moses, and it is to be replaced with the new and better covenant of Christ (Hebrews 8:6), prophesied in Jeremiah 31:33-34 (Hebrews 8:8-12, 10:16-17). The Old Covenant has Sanctuary, sacrifice, high priest, priests and Levites and so does the new covenant but they take new and better forms. The Sanctuary of the New Covenant is heavenly and not man-made, i.e. it is heaven itself (Hebrews 8:5, 9:11, 24). The sacrifice of the Old Covenant is animal who cannot take away sins (Hebrews 10:4,11) while that of the New is Christ Himself, un-blemish (Hebrews 9:14, 1 Peter 1:19) Paschal (1 Corinthians 5:7) Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Christ is the High Priest of the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:11) – belonging to the tribe of Judah He cannot become priest, thus Scripture testifies that His priesthood is according to that of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:17, Psalm 110:4) and it is superior than that of Levi (Hebrews 7:1-10). Christ offers His own Blood, which He shed on the cross, as atonement in heavenly Sanctuary. Because of this He needs to do it once for all (Hebrews 9:26, 10:12, 14), unlike the High Priest of the Old Covenant who must do it on yearly basis and with blood of animals. How to reconcile this once-for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross with prophecy of Jeremiah 33:18, that says Levitical priests shall make sacrifice forever? The Catholic Church teaching that Christ sacrifice is made present (not repeated) in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1545) is the only way to reconcile them. This is the reason why the Catholic Church has ministerial priesthood, chosen from all nations (Isaiah 66:21), who not only makes present the same sacrifice of Christ on the cross but also makes present His priesthood – Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1545). In the old Covenant priests offer sacrifice in the outer Sanctuary, veil separated it from inner Sanctuary into which only High Priest can enter. The torn veil as testified in Matthew 27:51 shows that in the New Covenenat there is no longer separation between sacrifice offered by priests and Christ, the High Priest.
How can we consider Christ’s offering of bread and wine in the last Supper as sacrifice when He was not even crucified yet? How can we believe that the same sacrifice is made present in every Mass celebration? To answer to first question, Catholics understand that when Melchizedek (who prefigured priesthood of Christ) brought bread and wine (Genesis 14:18), they prefigures Eucharistic sacrifice in the Last Supper. Protestants and “Bible only” Christians usually argue that they are meant for Abraham’s meal, not sacrifice. However, if they are meant for meal, why only bread and wine, considering all things Abraham did as recorded in Genesis 14:13-16? As priest of the Most High, instead of bringing meal or refreshment, Melchizedek must offer something as sacrifice – that’s what any priest is supposed to do. To answer the second question, while His crucifixion took place in around 30 AD, Scripture also says (Revelation 13:8) that the Lamb (Christ) was slain from the foundation of the world, i.e. from the time of creation. Greek word for “slain” is esphagmenou, the passive form in perfect tense of Greek verb sphazo. Unlike the English perfect tense, the Greek perfect tense indicates continuation and present state of a completed past action (Greek does not have perfect continuous tense). This is the reason why Catholics believe the same and single sacrifice Christ made on the cross can be made present in Eucharistic celebration of every Mass.
Catholics believe that Christ appointed His apostles to be the first priests of New Covenant. They in turn appointed bishops as their successors and so on – the so called apostolic succession (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 77, 1575 – 1576). Apostolic succession belongs to Catholic Tradition – it is not stated in New Testament other than appointment of Matthias as successor Judas (Acts 1:26) but apostle could be elder or presbyter (1 Peter 5:1) and elder could be bishop (Acts 20:17, 28). In the Catholic Church bishops, priests (presbyters) and deacons are ordained through Sacrament of Holy Orders but only bishops and priests (presbyters) are allowed to celebrate Mass – the deacons, like the Levites of the Old Covenant, is intended to help and serve them (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1554). The faithful (all Catholics) receive their common priesthood through Sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1546). Christ, being the only mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5), is the only true Priest. Both ministerial and common priesthood participate in this one priesthood of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1546-1547). To understand this statement consider the following parallel: in the Bible the title Saviour is only applied to Christ (Luke 2:11, John 4:42, Acts 13:23, Philippians 3:20) and to God (2 Samuel 22:3, Isaiah 43:3, Hosea 13:4, Luke 1:47, 1 Timothy 2:3, Titus 1:3), yet we can participate in salvation of others whenever we proclaim the good news and/or pray for other’s salvation and even by providing support to mission works – all without diminishing the role of Christ and God as the only Saviour.