The first priest that Garry Wills takes aim at isn’t a man in a clerical collar. It’s Christ.
A significant proportion of Wills’ new book Why Priests? A Failed Tradition is spent disputing Jesus’s lineage as a priest in the order of Melchizedek (as laid out in the Letter to the Hebrews), but Wills isn’t trying to strip Jesus of titles. He means to recast Jesus in a role he respects more—not a priest, but a Jewish prophet. Quoth Wills:
Jesus was a radical Jewish prophet. And like many Jewish prophets, he was against the Jewish ruling structures of his time… “the classical prophets,” as they were called, were normally harsh critics of ritual that was only ritual… Prophets were originally God’s messengers, called to rebuke those who were forgetting or defying his commands.
One of Christ’s most striking acts in this tradition is His cleansing of the temple. He overturns the corrupt structures that stand between the people and God. But Christ doesn’t come to reform the intermediaries; he comes to replace them and transfigure them.
Prophets recur in the Old Testament. Ezekiel followed Jeremiah who followed Isaiah, all sent to the people of Israel to bring her people back into the proper relationship with God. Man is fallen, and our tendency toward moral entropy means we constantly forget or neglect God. But in the Christian tradition, no prophet followed Christ. Without the regulatory function of prophet as critic, we rely on something else to remain in communion with God. In Wills’s tradition—the Catholic tradition—our safeguard is Communion in the Eucharist, transubstantiated by the priests who stand in persona Christi.
But Wills doubts that anyone can stand in the place of Christ without supplanting Him. He worries that priests have become modern-day temple merchants—standing between the people and God and forcing the masses through meaningless ritual and obstacles. He takes particular umbrage at the baroque trappings of the priesthood. Wills rattles off the list of arcane sounding vestments that priests and bishops wear (amice, alb, maniple, fascia, chausible, biretta, simar, rochet, etc.) and declares:
Everything about the priest and the sanctuary (which could not be entered but by the priest and his acolytes) proclaimed this was a very special person, made different by the special task he had to perform. That is why he was wrapped and enclosed like a human treasure.
Wills sees the pomp and circumstance of church as drawing our attention away from the God who became Man and directing it towards just one particular man, swathed in robes and standing front stage center. But when an actor puts on costuming and grease- paint, she does it to become someone else, both to the audience and to herself. A director I worked with once told me to start working on a show by getting different shoes, or, failing that, by putting a pebble in mine during rehearsals—anything to set this space off from ordinary life.
A priest doesn’t vest to draw attention to himself, but to what he does. In vestments, priests become a little anonymous. The sacraments work ex opere operato, from the work done, not the merits of the person carrying it out. The ornate robes tell us what work the priest is prepared to do, just as oxygen tanks and helmets mark out firefighters.
The uniform of a first responder is functional and battered. But Wills is correct to note that vestments are superfluously beautiful. They are more than seems necessary, more than we would ask for ourselves. They are meant to remind us of grace.
The Sacraments, which are (primarily, but not exclusively) administered by priests, are outward signs of inward grace. A sinner may be forgiven without the sacrament of reconciliation; the ritual is, to a certain extent, superfluous. Ritual doesn’t limit the ways God can act in the world, but it expands humans’ ability to understand or address the Infinite.