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Dr Philippa Martyr: Amnesia about priesthood

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PHOTO: Nazim Coskun/Unsplash

To understood priesthood, we need to look at its origins

I used to be a great reader of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy series. His view of religion was cynical, but sometimes very funny.

One thing he got right was the priesthood. In his fantasy world, priesthood was a job that needed a rubber apron and a lot of sacrificial stone-scrubbing. I’m continuing my thoughts on the forthcoming Vatican symposium on the theology of priesthood.

We’ve largely lost the idea of the Catholic priesthood as offering a sacrifice, for a number of reasons. The first is that we’ve eclipsed its ancient origins in the Jewish priesthood. And that goes back to before the Temple – to the time when God lived among His people in the desert.

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The best book I’ve read on this is Emeritus Pope Benedict’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. He beautifully describes the incredible process by which God told humanity how He wanted to be worshipped.

We tend to think of ‘primitive Church’ worship as very barefoot and improvised. You know – rough-hewn clay vessels and hessian (and probably felt banners as well). Actually the first ‘primitive Church’ – the Jewish people wandering in Sinai – were given a reasonably complex and detailed form of worship directly from God. This was given when Moses was on the mountaintop, covered by the Shekinah – the cloud of God.

There was no hessian involved. There were golden vessels, incense, lighted lamps, rich vestments with bells on (literally) – and plenty of blood from lots of animal sacrifices.

Either you believe this, or you don’t. There are Catholics who believe that Jewish ritual was developed over centuries, and then the story was backdated, probably because of the Jewish version of clericalism.

We tend to think of ‘primitive Church’ worship as very barefoot and improvised. You know – rough-hewn clay vessels and hessian (and probably felt banners as well).

I have no problem believing it’s literally true. The persistence of the Jewish priesthood and liturgy, and the horrors that it took to interrupt them, speaks for itself.

The historical chain of worship was broken more than once, and the Temple had to be founded and re-founded. The People of God had to be purified and reconsecrated to God because of their unfaithfulness.

Jewish priests were men, and men only. They were priests by descent from Aaron, the brother of Moses, and the tribe of Levi. They had to be ‘intact’ men (no eunuchs) in good physical and mental health. Jewish priests were held to a higher standard of morality and behaviour than ordinary men, and a higher standard of marital purity.

Being a priest was not a job or a career. It was a full-time way of being. It was born into your very bones, and it was an utterly serious duty. The holiness of the Jewish people and the Covenant depended on it.

And the tribe of Levi was the only tribe of Israel not given a portion of the Promised Land for their inheritance. This was because God Himself told them that He wanted to be their inheritance.

See any parallels? Next week I’d like to look at the priesthood in the early Church. How did we get from there to here?


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Philippa Martyr: What only priests can do

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