What follows is an excerpt from Fr. Bob Bonnot’s latest book, Jesus as a Priest for Our Time according to the Order of Melchizedek, along with selected highlights from a video interview with Fr. Bob this past December. The excerpt comes from a chapter entitled “Judgment: Ordained Priesthood Is an Incarnated Ministry of Remembering Jesus and Reminding Others of Him,” and builds on Fr. Bob’s “core judgement” of the ordained priesthood that resounds throughout the book: “Ordained priesthood in the Catholic Church is an incarnated ministry of remembering Jesus and reminding others of him, both within a community gathered by Jesus and beyond; a ministry that serves to help people come to know God in Christ and to live the life of God, whose reality and life is Triune communion, the essence of which is self-giving love.” We are grateful to Fr. Bob for sharing his time and insight with us, and for his continued good work with the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests—Ed.
Jesus was not sent among us to die. Our creed asserts that “for our sake and for our salvation he came among us.” I believe he was sent to lay down his life in loving service that we humans might have life and have it in abundance. His death by crucifixion was an unmerited and unmitigated tragedy. It attains meaning only in the context of Jesus’s overpowering love of God and others. That love transformed the hateful violence that Jesus absorbed in his body into the forgiving love he breathed out even on those who killed him, as they killed him. The dynamic power of Trinitarian love transformed Jesus’s tragic, wholly to be regretted, and premature death into a risen life that abides and is ever to be shared with others. It enables the achievement of God’s real goal in all this: the sharing of the Trinity’s own life of love, the fulfillment of God’s creative intention. Bringing the whole human community and with it all of creation into that life takes time. God is still at it. So must we be.
Any sound concept of priesthood in Jesus’s name must, before all else, glorify Yahweh-God’s generous sharing of life and love. It must fit God’s purpose and plan. Sacrificing life, human or other, in love’s name, contradicts God as love. Remember here Abraham’s priest-like readiness to sacrifice Isaac. God, through an angel, arrested Abraham’s compelling but false sense that God wanted him to do that. That impulse likely had its origin in the depths of the old Abram, Abraham’s human self. It likely emerged in him because he was surrounded by cultures and religious traditions that made it a common practice. It clearly took strong hold even of Abraham, a man convenanted with and blessed by the God self-named Yahweh. Happily Abraham’s deeper faith sense ultimately prevailed. He trusted the One who called him forth and promised that he, Abraham, would share life and love with others as countless as the stars, and that Isaac was the way that would be realized. His faith and his love overcame his impulse. He remembered the plan. He did not sacrifice his only son.
I judge that the concept of priesthood as incarnated remembering and reminding embraces all that is valid in the evolution of priesthood through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, through the history of the Catholic Church, and through my own experience as a priest. Just as Jesus came not to destroy but to fulfill the Law, so I believe that this understanding does not destroy but fulfills them, enriches them, and brings them to a greater fullness of meaning.
Jesus both destroyed and fulfilled the Law by radicalizing it. He went beneath and behind the way it was understood and lived by those of his time, calling them to a more godly way of understanding what Yahweh was asking of them. For me, understanding priesthood as incarnated remembrance of Jesus’s invitation to the life of the Triune God does the same for the Catholic tradition of priesthood in which I was grounded and which I am blessed to exercise. This understanding eliminates none of the fundamental roles of Catholic priesthood—preaching the Word, presiding at Eucharist and other sacraments, forgiving sins, leading communities, anointing the sick—but it can, I believe, cut off some of the toxic side effects of less adequate understandings, those roles distorted through entanglement with extraneous systems and values. Hopefully, it foregoes focus on one’s status as a cleric, a special and distinct kind of human, a mediator, a law-giver, an official in a hierarchical institution, one preoccupied with sacrifice rather than one facilitating human transformation toward love.
To illustrate, let us take the concept of what ordination was considered to be by most people, including myself, in 1967 when I was ordained. The ability “to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass” was at the front of my understanding of what was then expected of me. That was what I was ordained and expected to do, every day. That was what I was for—to say Mass.
And that defined what I was to be. People came asking me to say Mass and to pray for someone deceased or for some special intention. I was to be a mediator, an important link in their relationship to God, presumably because I now had special pull with God. I was a special creature. I could somehow do for them something they could not do by and for themselves. In that view, my saying Mass, offering the sacrifice, and forgiving sins were important factors in keeping God’s grace and the church, if not the universe, functioning properly.
That understanding of priesthood manifested itself architecturally in the multiple altars in the undercroft of the North American College chapel where I and my classmates, once ordained, each said private Masses daily. With time, concelebration by many priests at one Mass became (and happily remains) and option, but not to say Mass daily was seen as somehow a failure and denial of what I was ordained to be, a priest, and do, say Mass. I was to be a sacrificer. The presence of others was encouraged, at least symbolically in the person of at least one altar server, but with or without a server it was important that I offer the sacrifice daily once ordained. I lived with that sense of reality and role for decades.
With time, that mindset and sense of responsibility was alleviated as new understandings emerged, new directives were issued, and the notion took hold that one should not say Mass privately if there is no congregation, no one else present. That certainly suggested that there was something more to my being and role than to offer sacrifice. In terms of the concept I find meaningful, saying Mass privately may have been an aid to my own remembrance of Jesus and his call to Trinitarian communion, but it certainly was not reminding anyone else. And I found myself feeling somewhat foolish in doing this ritual, this liturgy, this “work of the people,” alone. There were, it seemed to me, other and equally effective ways for me to enter into communion with Jesus and to remind myself of what he called me to be about.
Today I find daily celebration of Mass with a community deeply meaningful, enriching, and worthwhile, especially if I am presiding and/or am expected to break the bread of the Word. I do not find it enriching, meaningful, or important to say Mass daily for the sake of offering sacrifice by myself. It does not have meaning. If there is no breaking and sharing of the Word, the bread and the wine, what is accomplished?
I stand on a conviction that “saying Mass”—better, “presiding at liturgy”—is an important and valuable service to the community of Jesus’s disciples. I accept as valuable and meaningful making myself available to lead a community that wants to gather in prayer, even each day, to open their lives to the light and love and life of God. I stand convinced that this and all that goes with it or follows from it is a special and worthwhile role that requires most fundamentally a relationship with God, but also training and skill to do it well and properly, and commitment. I accept that this special role has been entrusted to me and that the community has trained me in it. I accept that the community has a right to expect me to serve them by leading them in their efforts to remember Jesus accurately, to learn from him clearly, to follow him nearly, and to live in him lovingly and meaningfully in the circumstances of their lives. They have a right to look to me for leadership in gathering the community, opening the scriptures, and breaking the bread. I am happy to do that. It is worth my life. And the faithful have a right to expect me personally to live what we gather to hear and remember to do. I strive to do that too. It brings me peace and joy.
I am also happy to help people remember others in the context of their faith in God and following of Jesus. Memorial Masses and Masses for special intentions can help people remember the presence of God in the lives of their loved ones and of their own. I am happy to preside at them, especially when I myself remember something of the person or know something of the situation for which we pray when gathered. I am uncomfortable, however, with the practice of people paying a stipend for this service of “saying Mass” or “offering the sacrifice” for the deceased, most especially when they do not bother to be present personally. “Who’s benefitting?” I ask myself. Yet this practice and the stipend for it is built into the daily pattern of nearly every Catholic parish (and shrine) in the world. It remains a significant factor in the cash-flow dynamics of parishes, of priests’ compensation, of religious monasteries and shrines and groups who make such service a primary mission.
More meaningful and worthwhile, in my judgment, is the voicing of a person’s remembrance and/or concern during the Prayer of the Faithful so it truly is that—a prayer of and from the faithful. Having said that, it is also true to say that sometimes people cannot be physically present at a Mass they have requested but are mindful and intentionally present in prayer from wherever they are when the Mass is being said.
The multiplication of private Masses became a common practice in monasteries during the Middle Ages and then became a matter of abuse when the Masses were increasingly said outside monasteries for the stipend attached. The spiritual justification was that it somehow built up the church’s spiritual treasury. Indeed, men were ordained solely to say Masses. This led to simony, the practice of taking payment for a spiritual service. The Reformers were right to blow the whistle on that distortion of Christian faith and practice, that understanding and exercise of Jesus’s priesthood. Since 1967 I have come to understand that the priesthood is about a lot more than saying Mass, being a special kind of creature, and representing an institution. ♦
Bob (Bernard R.) Bonnot is a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, now retired, and is the former Executive Director of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests. He has previously written on the book of Genesis, the Lucan canticles and the Liturgy of the Hours, and the special power of the name “Yahweh” for Today’s American Catholic.