From ADISTA news n.73 – 4th July 2009

By don Vittorio Mencucci

A debate is set about the crisis of priesthood, priesthood to women, celibacy for priests… anyway priesthood is the point where everything rotates. I think that this point is not stable at all, and that it is necessary to bring it into question, because all the different problems depend on it: does the figure of a priest make sense in the Christian horizon? In the Gospels the term is never used to refer to Jesus’ s disciples. Priests always represent the counterpart, connoted with a negative opinion, until the insult: “The publicans and the whores will precede you in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 21,31). The term priest appears in Peter’s letter, but it expresses the universal priesthood of all the believers. While it is more used in the Letter to the Hebrew where the figure of Jesus is interpreted with the priestly categories of Jewish culture. The author is an expert of Hebraism, maybe a priest converted to Christianity, who writes to the other priests, who formerly converted to Christianity, as we are told by The Acts of the Apostles, now miss the solemn rites celebrated in the temple and are tempted to go back to Hebraism. The author wants to explain that there is no need of priests and their sacrificial rites anymore because Christ high priest and victim has redeemed the whole mankind with his sacrifice on the cross, once forever.

Christ did not talk about priests and yet he could not because the priests is the manager of the sacred and in Christianity there is no sacred at all. What sacred is, deserves a different study, here it is enough to underline Jesus’ criticism. There will not be a stone of the temple left, and He will be substituted by mankind that die on the cross and after three days resurrect. Once He dies the veil of the temple tears up from top to bottom, meaning the end of its role. The criticism to ritual legislation is strong, represented by the priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan parable. The pure and the impure that follow the sacred and the profane categories are held up to scorning. Even the untouchable sacredness of sabbatical rest is subordinated to the man, that is it loses the main characteristic of sacredness. As judge of history Christ will ask us if we have recognized Him in the face of the last ones, but nothing about taking part in the rites of the temple.

The word priest appears in the third century. For the first time Tertulliano distinguishes two orders within Christian community: priesthood (the chosen ones) and plebs. Within the priesthood the word priest becomes dominant taken by the Old Testament and configured with the same characteristics (Tertulliano, Cipriano, Origene, Ippolito). The use of the word priest depends on the different way to interpret Eucharist. Jesus, in order to leave a memory of Himself and to continue His presence among people, thought about the simplest and the most human act: to sit together and share the bread. Even if the model of supper and shared bread is dominant, from the very beginning the sacrificial language is present, typical of the cultural context the evangelists write about. In the third century the sacrificial language becomes exclusive, that is why the supper becomes sacrifice, the table becomes an altar and, who presides (apostle or old = presbyter) becomes a priest. Because a sacrificial priest, he himself has to make a sacrifice of his life. The sacrifice needs a ritual purity, mainly meant as abstinence from sexuality. Here it comes continuously the Mosaic legislation. In the past the issue was if baptism could be meshed with a sexual life in the same marriage. Now he solution lies in the distinction between the orders. The simple believers, although they are exhorted to be pure, can live their married life, indispensable for the reproduction; the priests, even when they have their wives, have to be abstinent. Sexuality is not considered as immoral in itself, as the hereticals said (this would have led to a condemnation of marriage), but as a consequence of the original sin. The fact is that, as S. Girolamo said: “Omnis coitus immundus” (sex is a dirty thing)                      the incompatibility between the saint and the dirty is a common topic in this period.

A similar question happens with the military service. In the primitive communities it seemed to be incompatible with Christian faith. S. Massimiliano claims that: “Christianus sum, mihi non licet militari” (I am a Christian, I am not allowed to be a military) and coherently faces martyrdom. However after the victory of Constantine at Ponte Milvio (312) the militancy becomes a must to defend the Christian Empire. The dilemma is solved: the prohibition of the weapons remains for those who belong to the priesthood, called to be evangelically perfect; while the simple believers have to do their duty with the military service to defend faith and to build a long lasting peace.

All this process makes the gap between two orders deeper, as in the Decretum Gratiani, while the Church identifies itself in the priesthood organized in a strictly hierarchical structure, according a feudal mentality further codified by Pseudo-Dionigi: De celesti hirarchia, De ecclesiastica hierarchia.

I think this process is legitimate because it gives an answer to pre-understanding, that is the culture typical of that time. However we modern men have the right to think about the Christian message in relation with our culture: this was the “interrupted path” of the II Vatican Ecumenical Council.


This article is available in Italian too