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Think Twice Before Burning Your Censer Before the Lord

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 12, 2004

Priests have taken a big hit over the past couple of years, as if they didn’t have enough problems before that. For the past generation, they’ve faced a continuous redefinition (and watering down) of their role under the pressure of the prevailing culture, both outside and inside the Church, which understands neither sacraments nor hierarchy but places great stock in democracy and sociology.

This same culture is obsessed with – and understands nothing about – human sexuality. Since the Church is inevitably influenced by the larger culture, our priests have also faced the pollution of their ranks at the hands of theologians and seminary superiors who, as creatures of their culture, understand neither purity nor moral theology but prize dissidence and self-expression.

The Long Lent

Then came what Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (articles) has aptly described as the long Lent of 2002, with daily news of scandals which surprised nobody who has been a close observer of ecclesiastical affairs during the preceding period of infection. But perhaps the most heart-breaking result of the long Lent has been the frequent abandonment of priests by bishops in the throes of damage control, attempting to cut their losses by treating their dioceses as corporations and their priestly sons as liabilities.

All of this has left many wondering whether we really need priests who are set apart. After all, the entire Catholic community is the people of God. We all share in the universal priesthood of Christ. There are ordinary souls among us who wish to play a leading role in religious life. Women, particularly in our age of equality, also feel called to lead. Shouldn’t we facilitate the emergence of natural leaders by doing away with this exclusive caste of priests chosen God knows how by God knows whom?

The Challenge

There is a fascinating and frightening section of the Old Testament which deals with this very issue. In the Book of Numbers, while Israel is still wandering in the desert, some of the Levites -- some 250 “leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men” -- became discontented and challenged the exclusive priestly prerogatives of Moses and Aaron, saying: “You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”

Scripture tells us that when Moses heard this, “he fell on his face.” He replied that the Lord Himself would show “who is his, and who is holy”. Seeing that his challengers coveted the priestly prerogatives, he told them all to take censers, “put fire in them and put incense upon them before the Lord,” a quasi-sacramental task reserved exclusively to priests.

The next day, when all lit their censers at the appointed time, the Lord told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the challengers and to warn the rest of the congregation to separate themselves as well. Then the earth split open and swallowed up the supporters of the rebels with all their earthly goods, and “fire came forth from the Lord, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense”. (Numbers 16:35)

Priestly Fruitfulness and Power

The account continues in the next chapter, describing how God instructed Moses to collect a staff representing each tribe and place it in the sanctuary so that He could demonstrate to Israel whom he had chosen for priestly service by causing the chosen staff to flower and bear fruit. The rod of Aaron alone “sprouted and put forth buds, and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds.”

Just before this episode, the special role of the priesthood was emphasized. When the people complained that Moses and Aaron had been responsible for the deaths of “people of the Lord”, God’s anger flared at their continued rebellion. Therefore, he sent a plague among them. What happened next is highly instructive: “Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and lay incense on it, and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them; for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, the plague has begun.’ So Aaron took it as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and among the people; and he put on the incense, and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped.”

God Knows How and God Knows Whom

The message of the Book of Numbers is unmistakeably clear. Priests are specifically chosen by God. This has nothing to do with desire or ability. God’s choice alone is determinative. Even among those closest to liturgical service (the Levites), the choice to be a priest is not theirs but the Lord’s. Moreover, the reason there is a priesthood in the first place is that God desires a portion of the people to be in an exclusive relationship with Himself in order to bring salvation to all by offering atonement for sin.

Properly understood, a special priesthood chosen "God knows how by God knows whom" is precisely what we must cherish, honor and support. The consequences of a false view of priesthood are devastating. For the rest of us, the priest stands “between the dead and the living” to stop the plague.

Further information on the priesthood at CatholicCulture.org:

  1. Vatican II Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis), 1965
  2. John Paul II, I will Give You Shepherds (Pastores Dabo Vobis), 1992
  3. Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest: Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community, 2002
  4. John Paul II, Holy Thursday Message to Priests, 2004
  5. Arbp. Elden Curtiss, The Formula that Works is Based on Fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium, 1995
  6. Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, Our Priesthood on the Couch, 1999
  7. Institute on Religious Life (web site)

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