The Purity of the Priesthood

Father John A. Kiley

Catholic Christianity has truly inherited much of its beliefs, morality and worship structure from ancient Judaism. A belief in One God, probably unique in the ancient world, is clearly a Christian inheritance from Hebrew tradition. Elemental morality with its twin objectives — love for God and justice toward neighbor — is at least as old as Sinai and is just as binding today. Jewish Worship, whether it be a service of the Word in a synagogue or a ritual sacrifice in the Temple, is audibly and visibly retained today in the Catholic Mass.
One notable aspect of Catholic Christianity that, at first glance, seems to have no foundation in Old Testament life is the celibate priesthood. Jewish priests were by Divine decree all descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. “Aaron and his sons you shall also anoint and consecrate as my priests (Ex.30:30).” The Jewish priestly office was thus handed down from father to son and was exercised solely by these filial descendants of Aaron from the desert experience until the destruction of the Temple. No progeny, no priesthood. Celibacy was certainly not in God’s plan for his Chosen priestly people.
Yet, while Jewish priests were not expected to be celibate, they were expected to be chaste. And priestly chastity is no more clearly evidenced than when the sons of Aaron were officially ministering as priests in the Temple. Dominican Father Anthony Giambrone, Steubenville Professor John Bergsma, and University of S. Florida Professor Jacob Neusner have lately in various works taught that the book of Leviticus makes explicit the requirements that priests who ministered at the Meeting Tent and later at the Temple of Jerusalem had to manifest an obvious ritual purity. Ritual purity affected every dimension of their lives, from birth through marriage to death. To enter the Temple, priests had to exhibit proper genealogical credentials: they had to be sons of Aaron. To enter the Temple, priests had to avoid not only unclean food and animals but even the corpses of loved ones, they had to be ritually pure. And, most pertinent, the active Jewish priest had also to refrain from all marital activity and seminal emissions. So while ministering as priests, the sons of Aaron were indeed celibate.
The ritual and even the physical purity of the ministering priest was further emphasized by the clothing the priest wore while at the altar. A tunic, perhaps similar to the Catholic alb, was made of pure white linen with a box-stitch and was seamless, as was the garment of Christ wore just before the crucifixion. It extended from the neck to the toes and wrists, modestly covering the entire body. Even more emphatic of the purity necessary for the proper administration of the priestly function, were the under garments worn at the time of sacrifice. Ancient society did not regularly were underclothing so these pants made of pure white linen, reaching from the waist to the knees, were worn to emphasize both ritual and physical purity. The authors noted that white linen represented the priest’s physical anatomy, “which must be pure and untarnished.” The white undergarments especially hindered any sexual transgressions. The white tunic covering the entire body was an added symbol of unworldliness and total dedication to the work of worship.
The psalm response for this coming Sunday’s Mass are verses taken from Psalm 63 and they speak eloquently and touchingly of the total dedication that a celibate Christian believer, and perhaps especially a priest, might utter affirming his commitment solely to the Lord. “O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water. Thus have I gazed toward you in the sanctuary to see your power and your glory, For your kindness is a greater good than life; my lips shall glorify you. Thus will I bless you while I live; lifting up my hands, I will call upon your name. As with the riches of a banquet shall my soul be satisfied, and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you. I will remember you upon my couch, and through the night-watches I will meditate on you: You are my help, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.”
In the Old Testament, the ritual purity of the priesthood, especially when ministering at the Temple, symbolized the desired sanctification of all Israel. In the New Testament, the celibate state of the Catholic priesthood should signify the whole Church’s complete and total dedication to God commencing in this life and hopefully fulfilled in the life to come. Today, the Lord is the priest’s lot; one day, the Lord will happily be everyone’s inheritance.