Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | December 29, 2014


Christ08-Jesus Christ Our Great High PriestIn recent weeks I’ve been reflecting on the nature of Christian priesthood. For some, these reflections won’t be traditional enough. For others they’ll probably be too traditional. I’m sure to land in some hot water, but I’ll forge ahead and adopt as my own the terrific insight of G. K. Chesterton: “I believe in getting into hot water. It helps keep you clean.”

Let’s begin with an historical perspective and confess the obvious. The first Christians had no priests, unless of course there were Jewish priests who had joined the Jesus movement. Gathering around the tables in their homes, the earliest followers of Jesus would not have recognized any notion that they were making a sacrificial offering of bread and wine to God. They gathered for fellowship and to remember the Lord Jesus (Luke 24:30-35). The only priests who appear in the canonical gospels are Jewish priests. Although pious tradition points to the Last Supper as the time when the Christian priesthood was instituted, that claim cannot be substantiated historically. It’s an interpretive tool overlaid onto the Last Supper in the light of later theological developments.

Despite this fact, an honest assessment must recognize that what Christ Jesus is portrayed to have done in the gospel accounts is very priestly. He made a sacrifice of himself in view of his understanding of the divine purpose. If you have ever sacrificed your own desires for a spouse, a child, or a beloved friend, you may have some small inkling of what it meant for Jesus to make this offering of self. Given the Jewish context of the life and ministry of Jesus and the temple worship prevalent in Jerusalem at the time, it’s no stretch to recognize that sacrificial imagery would readily present itself to early Christians reflecting on their faith.

Thus we must take note of the Epistle to the Hebrews (really an early Christian sermon) and the First Epistle of Peter (which was written considerably later than the life of Peter). These delightful canonical texts give us evidence of what surely must be some of the earliest strands of insight regarding the Christian understanding of priesthood. The Epistle to the Hebrews applies the Jewish idea of the high priest to Christ and to his salvific work. Christ is “exalted above the heavens” because he made the perfect sacrifice of his life in obedience (see Hebrews 7:26-28). 1 Peter concentrates on a spiritual priesthood and situates it in the entire Christian community. All believers share a priestly dignity. Christians are “living stones” who are “built into a spiritual house” intended as “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Furthermore, they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” and “God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9).

These early strands simply cannot be dismissed. This fact was recognized by the bishops of the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Writing in Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), the bishops reminded Catholics of their status as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation (LG 9). In an amazing admission that is often overlooked by those who are not Catholic, the bishops insisted that there are two forms of priesthood in the church, the baptismal priesthood shared by all believers and the hierarchical priesthood exercised by the ordained. The two forms of priesthood are distinct and differ in essence, they wrote, but they remain interrelated (LG 10).

It is my belief that this renewed appreciation of the baptismal priesthood goes a long way to break down the walls of division left to us by the Reformation. It recognizes that the Protestant reformers had a valid point when they argued for the priestly nature of the baptized community as a whole.

Perhaps when speaking of the Christian understanding of priesthood we can validly speak of a certain tension that exists–a creative tension. This would appear to be true for communities that speak of ordained priests. The earliest term for this office was presbyter (presbyteros in Greek, meaning “elder”). Jewish synagogues in Greek-speaking cities had elders, presbyteroi, reminding us of the roots of Christianity. Another reminder of this early term can be found in the “presbyteral councils” of the Roman and Anglican communions.

Later developments imposed a hierarchical notion of priesthood upon the presbyteral office, one that emphasized the ordained priest as a necessary mediator between God and the faithful with a special power to consecrate the eucharist. Excessive emphasis on the priestly office of the ordained eventually resulted in a sad state of affairs where the laity rarely received from the eucharistic table and performed their own private devotions at mass, nearly oblivious of what was taking place in the sanctuary. This gave rise to some unusual developments, such as the ringing of bells (to alert the faithful that Jesus had suddenly become present on the altar) and attempts to visit as many churches and chapels as possible to see Jesus lifted up for adoration (a form of eucharistic piety that lost all resemblance to the early fellowship meal of the first Christians). It was just such abuses as these that were rejected by the Protestant reformers and even by reformers within the Catholic Church at times.

Where does this leave us with regard to today’s understanding of the priesthood? Does the priesthood of the ordained make sense any more? I sincerely believe that it does, but we must speak carefully. We must honor the apostolic tradition as found in scripture while appreciating the legitimate development of tradition. For my own understanding of ordained priesthood I am indebted to L. William Countryman for his insightful book, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. What follows is a blend of his insights, along with my own.

Let’s start by defining what a priest does. I enjoy asking about this in my college theology classes. “What is a priest? What makes a priest a priest?” My students readily offer up all sorts of replies, to which I usually must answer that they are correct, but still on the periphery. What it is that makes a priest a priest, not just a Christian priest, but any priest? What one thing is central to the priesthood of anyone who considers himself or herself to be one? The answer, of course, is sacrifice.

A priest offers sacrifice.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives a definition for sacrifice that is particularly good. It’s described as “an act of offering to a deity something precious.” If all baptized Christians are priests, what precious thing are they called to offer? They offer their lives, their work, their struggles, their love for God and for others. Their sacrificial tables–their altars–are all around them. An accountant’s desk can be her altar. A teacher’s white board or chalk board can be his altar. A mother who lovingly changes a baby’s diaper stands at an altar of service for her child. The altars on which we offer up our lives are all around us. Our days on earth are numbered; our lives are the precious things that we offer. In our baptismal covenant with God in Christ Jesus we are members of the body of Christ, joining our existence and our work with his. In light of this everything takes on new significance. What is already precious becomes all the more obvious to us, and so its preciousness is increased.

The job of the ordained priest is not to give meaning to this. The meaning already exists and is rooted in Christ. The ordained priest doesn’t deliver holiness or stand between the believer and God. The job of the ordained is to help fellow believers see and appreciate what is already present in their lives. The ordained person is not some “super believer” who is better, holier, or more perfect than the rest (though obviously we hope that an ordained person avoids being a cause of scandal). The ordained serve as our gatherers, helping us to channel our strengths and vocations into a common effort for the Kingdom of God. Like conductors of great orchestras, they direct our efforts toward a melodious harmony that works only because the note produced by each instrument is different.

The most splendid sign of this is when the faithful–God’s chosen people and royal priesthood–gather for worship around the table of Christ, celebrating eucharist, making eucharist, being eucharist together. At the end of each festive gathering we are sent out to see Christ in the world, and to be Christ in the world.

As explained elsewhere in this blog, I have long felt a call to the ministry of ordained priesthood. It’s not because I feel holier than anybody else. To the contrary, I feel uneasy with my weaknesses and oddly enough as an extrovert, I rarely enjoy being the center of attention. My aspirations for ordination to the priesthood arise from a desire to liberate people, to empower them in every way that such empowerment can strengthen and embolden them for living lives of meaning, authenticity, justice, and service to others. My own weakness and sinfulness provide a stimulus for this vocational desire.

As Countryman has suggested in his book, sacramental service doesn’t make much sense unless the ordained priesthood is understood in the wider context of the baptismal priesthood. “Priestly life,” he correctly writes, “is nothing more nor less than the fulfilling of our deepest longings, rooted in our capacity for being human” (175). If the ordained priesthood can’t advance the human fulfillment of everyone (believers and non-believers alike), then what’s the use of an ordained priesthood at all?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

L. William Countryman, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. Morehouse Publishing, 1999.

Gary Wills, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. Viking Penguin, 2013.


  1. “The job of the ordained is to help fellow believers see and appreciate what is already present in their lives.”


    I really feel moved by your comments on the priesthood. I would be interested, perhaps outside the boundaries of this essay, to hear you share about where you nest the message of the Gospels in this understanding of the priesthood. I felt Countryman glossed over this point. Similar to the “priesthood of all,” I don’t necessarily see it as belonging solely to the ordained; however, I do look to the ordained for direction in understanding the work of the Gospels in our contemporary life as Christians. I feel called to evangelization (not simply words), I’m just not certain where that belongs on “the boundaries of the holy.”

  2. Thanks John for this thought provoking essay on being a “priest.” As a lay ecclesial minister the Diocese assistant makes it clear that we don’t do the real thing. I am helping a small church in Rosedale MS stay afloat. There are about 25 with 12- 20 regulars, but no kids. The diocese wants viability which = money and not souls I fear. I prefer keeping my lay status hoping to eventually be “ordained” inforally to lead a “real” liturgy. Right now we just pray and reflect on the scriptures whose reflections I prepare. I do love it. I loved your humble reflections –feel the same way. I loved Willis’s book Why Priests. Gotta get the Countryman book. I am a devout Catholic I think, but may have thrown in with thr reformers. Complicated stuff. Reading Karen Arrnstrong’s Fields of Blood. getting insights on force and evil.

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