Either a short time before or after my conversion, I was sitting on the couch with Lindsay watching an episode of The Colbert Report. The featured guest that night was Gerry Willis, and he was promoting his new book Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. (I’m not going to discuss or debate the contents of this book, because honestly I haven’t read it.) It’s interesting that on that night I happened to see that particular episode, because the question the title proposed — the literal words printed on the cover — struck a nerve, reminding me of a critical question that resonated throughout my years as a Protestant: “Seriously? Why priests?”
As a Baptist, I considered the priesthood unnecessary and, perhaps, blasphemy. Why did I need someone to talk to God for me? Why did I need someone to forgive sins for me? The crucifixion made it so that all could approach God directly, so I don’t a Priest, right?
Of course now I look back and realize how uninformed I was.
The process for becoming a priest is significantly different than — say — a Baptist preacher. Priests are required to obtain eight years of education after high school — four of which are theology-based at a seminary; then they serve as a Deacon in a parish before being ordained. For Baptist ministers, it depends on the church. Some require seminary education and some don’t. Baptist ministers (well, most Protestant ministers actually) are called Brothers, while Roman Catholics priests are called Fathers. That is because the priesthood is a lifetime commitment and complete dedication to God, the Church, and the parish they serve–very much like a parental commitment. It is such an important responsibility in the Catholic Church that it is one of the seven sacraments — The Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry.
Through this sacrament men are given the humble and holy opportunity to share in the mission that Christ entrusted to His apostles, and they lead us, His servants, in our spiritual life. Priests do not try to stand in the doorway between God and the people. They kick the door wide open and usher us through the threshold!
For Catholics, Priests are absolutely necessary as they are the ones who administer the other six Sacraments to the rest of us—especially confession, confirmation, anointing, and the Eucharist— all which are necessary for our continuous salvation. Priests also administer the sacraments of Baptism and Marriage, but they aren’t the only ones who can. Catholic Deacons have that authority as well. Also, it’s interesting to note that only Bishops can administer the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
There are always going to be those who wish to challenge the priesthood, and, as usual, the harshest criticisms come from those outside the Catholic Church. Most notoriously is the fact that we have not, do not, and never will ordain a woman as a Priest. Now, it is necessary to stress that this is in no way rooted to some sexist idea in the Church that men are the only ones capable of authority. (I mean, come on. Critics can’t have it it both ways — denouncing Catholics for not ordaining women while simultaneously denouncing Catholics for giving the Virgin Mary too much respect.)
Christ chose men to form the apostles, and the Church recognizes that to be a choice made by the Lord, and we keep to it. Besides, women are not prevented from a lifetime commitment to serve the Lord. They are also called to Religious Life as convents across the globe can attest.
The second most common criticism is the issue of celibacy; the fact that a priest may not marry. Critics call it unnatural, but in this respect, the Church allowed Jesus himself to set the example. In his time on Earth, he never married, and we Christians would never refer to Christ’s life as “unnatural.” Neither would we say that about Paul.
For the priesthood there is a deeper theology that I find even more beautiful. We Catholics refer to the Church as a mother — a “she.” In Catholic discussions regarding marriage you will often hear it said that a Priest is “married” to the Church. Much in the way I gave myself fully and completely to my wife when we received the Sacrament of Marriage, so does a Priest to the Church. You’ll often hear a parish referred to as a family, and that’s exactly what we are — in Christ. The Church is our mother — loving, caring, and nurturing for both our physical and spiritual life, and as I stated earlier, the priest is our Father who leads us, guides us, and walks with us on our earthly journey to God.
Though I will almost certainly never receive this Sacrament, it has still had a profound affect on my spiritual life. The Priest at my parish is one of the most welcoming, understanding, and intelligent people I know. He played a significant role in my conversion as my teacher and as the one who confirmed me. He administered the Sacrament of Marriage to my wife and me. He baptized my son. He led me through my first Sacrament of Reconciliation, and he is one of the reasons I’m writing this blog today.
And to think — I once viewed Priests as unnecessary factors in my spiritual life. Now I can’t imagine my life without one.
This sacrament configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ’s instrument for his Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church, in his triple office of priest, prophet, and king.—The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1581