DURING THIS YEAR FOR PRIESTS,
there is one place in the Bible where
we can perhaps learn the most
about where our ideas of priesthood
came from. That is the Letter to the
Its unique presentation of Jesus Christ as the
great High Priest has inspired Christians through the
ages to reflect upon what God has given the world
in the gift of his own Son.
A People Persecuted
Many scholars consider the Letter to the Hebrews
a sermon or homily. Although the date, authorship,
source and destination of Hebrews are contested, it
was probably written sometime between 60 and 100
A.D. The author was likely an educated, Jewish
Christian, who was addressing a community in
danger of experiencing apostasy, the defection of
some of its members from the faith.
Written in elegant Greek (the best in the New Testament),
Hebrews has only the loose form of a letter
and is best described in its own terms as "a
message of encouragement" (13:22, New American
Bible) or a "word of exhortation" (13:22, New Revised
Standard Version). Remaining Scripture quotes in this
article are from the NRSV.
There can be no doubt about the respect the
author has for the Word of God, which indeed is
"living and active, sharper than any two-edged
sword" and "able to judge the thoughts and intentions
of the heart" (4:12). The argument he presents
is thoroughly rooted in the Old Testament traditions
This isn't theology for its own sake, though. The
author desires to exhort, to encourage, to strengthen
and to bolster a community being tested. With the
persecutions comes a temptation to renege on the
faith in the face of danger.
We see that, for example, in Chapter Two of the
letter when Christ's priestly identity is already
stated. Christ's suffering is acknowledged precisely
because "he is able to help those who are being
The final chapter is also strongly encouraging and
is oriented toward our heavenly future: "For here
we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the
city that is to come" (13:14). In Hebrews, talk of a
heavenly future (what scholars call eschatology) and
strong encouragement (exhortation) merge.
The goal: to keep the focus on hopeful anticipation
as we make our way toward perfection. That's
a prominent theme in Hebrews, following Jesus
the High Priest himself. Hebrews can consequently
be considered a document of hope, something to
which Pope Benedict XVI calls attention with great
frequency in his 2007 encyclical, Spe Salvi (In Hope
We Are Saved).
Scholars generally agree that the main contribution
of the Letter to the Hebrews is its unique and highly
developed notion of Jesus Christ as the great High
Priest. Hebrews begins with the announcement of
Jesus as the Son of God, a "high Christology" that
shows Jesus as higher than the angels, those divine
beings who surround God and act as his messengers.
Jesus is now the messenger "much superior to
Although Hebrews acknowledges implicitly Jesus'
divine Sonship in terms of incarnation (Jesus coming
into the world), exaltation after the sacrifice of the cross is most relevant in this New
Jesus' Sonship is intimately connected
with his priesthood. As a faithful
Son whose identity comes from his
Father, he is nonetheless made a priest,
a man called, set apart and imbued
with holiness, to make intercession for
Jesus suffered death, Son though he
was, and in doing so was made perfect
through suffering (2:8b-10). He offered
himself as the sacrificial victim. He
tasted death for all (2:9b) and was one
like us in everything but sin (4:15). His
experience, then, was intimately close
to our own, which enabled him both
to understand us and to assist us in our
One cannot exaggerate the influence of
this letter on the Catholic Church's
theology of the priesthood. From its
liturgical rites of ordination to its Catechism to its official documents on the
priesthood, the Church has used the
theology of Hebrews to great effect.
We should note, however, a striking
truth. In the development of its theology
of the priesthood, the Church has
gone where Hebrews itself never went.
Nowhere in Hebrews (or in the New
Testament) is there an application of the
High Priesthood of Jesus Christ to the
Indeed, when leaders in the community
are mentioned in Hebrews, the
terminology used is much more vague.
They are called "leaders" (Greek,
hegoumenoi [13:7,17,24]), and no description
of their duties is given. They
are not called "priests," a term that in
the New Testament is never applied to
Christian leaders, but only to Old Testament
figures and to Jesus.
In the Old Testament, priests are by
definition intermediaries ("ones in the
middle") between God and humanity,
between the spiritual and the secular.
They are by nature called to a special
holiness, set apart for service, which
allows them to perform their cultic
rites, their sacred duties, as intermediaries.
They are supposed to be avenues
to the divine.
Whereas in the past there were priests
(plural) to take on this role, now in
Jesus Christ there is but one priest, the
great High Priest who, as God's Son,
fulfills this role perfectly.
Yet there are good reasons that the
Church came to apply this same terminology
to its ministers. Believing in
the guidance of the Holy Spirit, over
time the Church came to use the term
priest (another word for presbyter from
the Greek presbyteros, "elder") for its
ministers by analogy, or close resemblance.
That is to say, the priesthood today
is a participation in the one priesthood
of Jesus Christ. This participation, of
course, is a part of every Christian's
Baptism, but, as we will see, the priest
participates in a unique way.
Our use of the Letter to the Hebrews
obviously does not provide a total theology
of the priesthood, but we should
note its fidelity to the spirit of that letter,
especially in the balance between
the humanity of the priests and their
sacred duties. Jesus Christ is the model;
he is the one who provides the sanctity
we ourselves can never provide.
Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II's
1992 Apostolic Exhortation on Priestly
Formation, quotes or alludes to Hebrews
more than a dozen times. The opening
paragraphs of Pastores Dabo Vobis (PDV)
immediately connect the title in
Hebrews of Christ, "the great shepherd
of the sheep" (13:20), to God's promise
recorded in Jeremiah to give shepherds
for the flock (Jeremiah 3:15; 23:4) and
to the image of the "Good Shepherd"
from John's Gospel (John 10:11; see
Pope John Paul also emphasizes in
this document the human dimension of
the ministerial priesthood. He does so
by using two quotations from Hebrews
(5:1; 4:15), stating explicitly at the
beginning of Chapter One: "The Letter
to the Hebrews clearly affirms the
'human character' of God's minister."
Pastores Dabo Vobis is the first official
teaching of the Church to emphasize
human formation as one of the four
main pillars of priestly formation and,
in fact, as foundational to forming good
priests. This orientation in Pastores Dabo
Vobis is quite remarkable, not only for
its emphasis on the human qualities
needed for priestly ministry, but also for
its fidelity to Hebrews, which, as we
saw earlier, in fact blends well the
human and divine aspects of the ministry
of Jesus the High Priest.
Church teaching emphasizes the necessity
of priests being formed by other
priests. There is no substitute for good
That, however, does not mean laity
play no role in priestly formation. On
the contrary, the U.S. bishops' Program of
Priestly Formation (Fifth Edition) recognizes
the significant contribution laity
can make to priestly formation (#308, 349-350).
Laywomen and laymen contribute to priestly formation in at least
three ways. First, there are some professionally trained lay experts who
teach in seminaries. They provide important input for future priests
in many areas, such as theology, catechetics, counseling and pastoral
Second, many seminarians working in parishes or other pastoral
assignments benefit from lay support groups organized to offer
encouragement and constructive criticism as they learn concretely
about the demands of pastoral ministry.
Third and most important, the laity can promote priestly vocations
through prayer and careful discernment of young men who may
have the capacity and the call to the priesthood.
In addition to this basic stance, Pastores
Dabo Vobis also applies Hebrews
quite directly to the ministerial priesthood
in three other important ways:
Ministerial priests are configured
to Christ, shepherd and head of the
Church, and thus participate in mediating
the direct access to God that Christ
has achieved as High Priest. Christ fulfilled the Old Testament roles of mediation
previously performed by kings,
priests and prophets; ministerial priests
now share this ministry (PDV #13;
Hebrews 8—9, especially 9:24-28).
Priestly vocation is a mysterious
call by God's grace which must be
answered with full freedom. Christ
makes up for our weaknesses even as we
are called to perfection (PDV #20;
Christ is the definitive Word of
God. Priests should be formed well to
communicate faithfully the true wisdom
of God (PDV #53; Hebrews 1:1-4).
It is noteworthy that Pastores Dabo
Vobis develops much more thoroughly
a theology of the priesthood that puts
flesh on the bones and provides a
greater understanding of Vatican II's
teaching. While it is filled with doctrinal
insight, its pastoral sensitivity is
equally apparent. It's a style that blends
well with the character of Hebrews. In
what follows, we'll look at some of the
letter's messages for today's Church.
First and foremost, in Hebrews the focus
is on Jesus. The call to perseverance in
the faith is accompanied by the invitation
to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus,
"the pioneer and perfecter of our faith"
Nothing could be more important
today in the life of priests. Jesus surely
is our model for the priesthood and
its perfect embodiment. Hebrews helps
us to understand this in a contemporary,
yet traditional theology of the
priest as "another Christ" (in Latin,
A second application stems from the
unique emphasis on the kind of priesthood
Jesus had. Unlike the priests of the
Old Testament, Jesus' priesthood was
not hereditary. It was rooted in the
mysterious call of his Father, in the
mold of Melchizedek, who had no lineage
but was a chosen king and priest.
Our theology of priesthood rightfully
emphasizes the mystery of a vocation.
Ministerial priesthood is not
self-chosen, but rather a call to which
A third lesson concerns the balance
between the human and divine, the
sacred and profane, that one finds in
Hebrews. On the one hand, as we have
noted, Hebrews has one of the highest
Christologies (interpretations of Christ)
of the New Testament. On the other
hand, the letter insists that Christ was like us in all things but sin. Even this
High Priest, unique Son of God that
he is, is chosen from among men and
can identify with our frailties, our sufferings,
our limitations. Priests are at
one and the same time called to a particular—not higher—holiness while acknowledging
their human limitations.
Fourth, Hebrews can teach our priests
about the wisdom of being "pastoral
theologians," for that is what I, as a
biblical scholar, think Hebrews' author
was. That is what priests are called to be.
The subtle blending in Hebrews of profound
doctrinal depth and sublime
theological understanding about Jesus
Christ himself was not simply a lesson
in theology. It served to inspire, encourage,
strengthen and challenge the people
for whom the message was first
written. It does the same for us, priests
A fifth teaching in Hebrews stems
from its eschatological, "end-times"
orientation, the context of trial and
tribulation that is an undercurrent in
the letter. The theology of Hebrews was
pronounced as a message of encouragement
to a community under stress.
That community faced the danger of
apostasy in light of impending persecution
or severe trials.
Hebrews exhorts the faithful to
remain steady in their stance of faith as
they journey toward perfection. The
goal is the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22).
Hebrews is intended to impart hope
to its hearers and readers. The message
obviously is phrased in various ways but
always with a combination of challenge
Finally, just as Jesus was both priest
and victim, priests today should reflect
on the radical nature of their call
to serve others. This message, of course,
is rooted in Jesus of Nazareth's own
teaching that he came to serve and not
to be served (Matthew 20:26-28; Mark
In Hebrews, Jesus as victim is tied
to his offering of his blood and his
flesh (incarnation), his sacrifice on the
cross (crucifixion), and his subsequent
vindication (resurrection) and exaltation
at God's right hand (glorification).
Priests today, naturally, do not make
the same sacrifice. But priests do make
it present through the power of the
Holy Spirit in the daily celebration of
Priests, nonetheless, are called to selfsacrifice,
to surrender to the will of the
Father and to follow the call of discipleship—even though it may lead to suffering.
We need to become, in a sense,
"victims" surrendering to the Father's
Sadly, the language of high priesthood
(alter Christus, "another Christ,"
etc.) and the exalted nature of priesthood
sometimes lead to feelings of entitlement—"
the world owes me"—rather
than to selfless service.
Some priests seem to lack the capacity
for true empathy with those who
suffer. Others, when things are simply
not going their way or when they meet
great challenges in pastoral ministry, fall
into the human trap of giving up, losing
hope or walking away. (Those are
temptations in any committed lifestyle.)
Worse for priests, perhaps, is falling
into the trap of clericalism—being in a
privileged class—which is a distortion
of the true priesthood.
Priests sometimes begin to see themselves
in this way. And it seems there are
always plenty of people—lay and clergy
alike—willing to put us on a pedestal.
This is a corruption of the genuine call
to the priesthood in the mold of the
High Priest, Jesus Christ.
The Letter to the Hebrews maintains
the balance between the beauty, even the
marvel, of leading the Church, and that
of humbly serving the down-to-earth
needs of the people. Priesthood, after
all, is about ministry. It's about serving
others in the person of Christ.
For more on the priesthood today, see "The Priesthood Today:
We're All in This Together" by James Martin, S.J.
When the author of the Letter to the Hebrews describes
Jesus' priesthood (4:14—5:10), it is in these terms:
• He exercises his ministry from heaven, where he has
already passed to exaltation and sits at God's right hand
(4:14; also 1:3,13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).
• He sympathizes with our weaknesses because he is exactly
like us, having been taken from among human beings, but
without sin (4:15; 5:1).
• He has not chosen his own identity but was called by
God and sent on mission (5:4; 3:1).
• Just as the High Priest of old entered the Holy of Holies on
the Day of Atonement and offered sacrifices for the sins of
the people (9:7), so Jesus Christ has entered a heavenly sanctuary,
having offered sacrifices for sin, offering himself as
victim (5:1; 9:12,14,25; 10:10).
• Jesus learned obedience through suffering (5:8).
• His sufferings made him "perfect" and the source of salvation,
redemption, purification, forgiveness, sanctification
and perfection for all (5:9; 10:18,22).
• As High Priest, chosen and exalted by God his Father,
Jesus is our forerunner (6:20).
• His royal priesthood has made him mediator of a new
and better covenant (7:22; 8:6,13; 12:24).
In essence, Jesus' priesthood both fulfills the Old Testament
priesthood and abolishes it in favor of a new priesthood,
modeled after Jesus himself (7:18; 8:13-14; 9:14; 10:9).