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'Tis only the first day of January and I am marshalling DVD & CD-rom educational courses, already-written computer articles, and placing on a book shelf just above my PC books that contain information about the office of ministerial persons; the gathered material will be credited as the series unfolds; my own personal 70-year knowledge of ordained Roman Catholic priests will guide me throughout the series which I have promised to Catholica Australia in 2008. At age 10 my first conscious appreciation of a Catholic bishop and church power came when my mother was secretary to Thomas Arthur Connelly, pastor of Mission Dolores, San Francisco and eventually Archbishop of Seattle. I shall add to the collection of 45 books already assembled THE VALLEY OF THE HORSES, when I find such, hoping I did not loan this work to one of the many who promised to return years ago; Jean M. Auel's work takes me back to the beginning of semi-organized tribal religion, a fictional account of primitive illiterate humankind. Someone's got WHY PRIESTS by Hans Kung (Amazon wants $40 for a used copy of this gem) … my memory is keen on what Hans writes. I have been reading books on priests for 60 years; I have been a priestly person since I was a little boy.
While in major seminary (1948-1954) old Spook Powers S.S. had me read the entire bible word for word three times; I recall Genesis 22: v2 "Take your son," God said, "your only child Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a burnt offering on a mountain I shall point out to you". Aspiring to be a Roman Catholic priest, eventually to offer the holy sacrifice of the mass, I puzzled how I might avoid this demanding God and I did eventually follow Abraham's change of heart. To this day, 2008, I remain horrified that the Jewish people would catalogue this story of a schizophrenic god among their sacred truths; I do appreciate Abraham the polytheist in this conversion story to monotheism. I see Abraham as a bronze age priest. In THE SOURCE James Michener gives a more complete description of the tribal customs where the shaman/tribal priest demands the sacrificial throwing of all 2-year-olds into a fire pit to appease the gods of war, such being a convenient way to downsize the number of future soldiers and pacify one's enemies; religion and politics seem to blend well from the beginning. My interest here is the callousness of the gods and their priests, as well as who chooses or appoints these sacrificers; always the tribe or community must approve, perhaps in fear and ignorance.
In THE VALLEY of THE HORSES the shaman picks a crippled child as his successor, teaching the boy the magic of potions, spells, and incantations; custom would leave the child to die in the desert rather than risk his genes from being passed on in the tribal system. In Genesis 14: v18 Melchizedek, King of Salem brought bread and wine, he being a priest of God Most High. The honey one (Mel) pronounces a blessing on Abraham and God Most High for handing over Melchizedek's enemies … and of course Abraham "gave him a tithe for everything". I have often wondered about the saying "you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek" and how it applies to modern day clergy; bread and wine are the only connection and these two signs are universally present to the human experience. Melchizedek was more than likely a polytheist.
We have the ancient Torah accounts of the Jewish priest Aaron and subsequent Arc of the Covenant protectors who eventually become the temple priests in Jerusalem. The high priests and their political affiliation with the Romans play a significant role in the passion of Jesus. Certainly the tradition is ancient, yet little is said of the person or training of the Jewish priest; we do know that those conscripted to temple service during Passover were to arrive on temple grounds, alone and separated at least a month from their wives. Ritual purity would carry over into the Christian era, even though early Christians wanted little to do with temple priesthood. The word sacerdos (holy one) is not found in early Christian scriptures. Only the God of Jewish Jesus was whole, holy.
A human middle-person set apart in the tribe…
Enough now of bronze-age clergymen, a title I time-wise misuse as clerkman comes into vogue around the Industrial Revolution, common era; let me simply say that as long as humans deal with the spirit world and the great mysteries of life and death, humans will see to it that there is a human middle-person set apart in the tribe to deal with the realms of the unknown and mysterious (the god/spirit world); the cover of January 2008's National Geographic reads INDONESIA'S RING OF FIRE …VOLCANO GODS and on page 56 a picture of Gatekeeper Maraijan leading a procession of people to the top of volcanic Mount Merapi, "his mission: to placate the spirit believed to dwell in the mountain "….. frightened human beings will have a place of respect for the "man upstairs" (as do major league baseball players hoping to hit a home run) and his earth agents will live apart and privileged. The latin word religare means to tie together, like shoelaces; religion binds the supernatural to the human, always with a designated person who knows how to make the spiritual knots. The history of religion shows that the tie often is a mixture of harsh and gentle, depending on the god involved and the social upbringing of the go-between; usually the "priest" is reserved, distant from community, secretive, and in male-dominant religions separated from women. I have always had difficulty with the human use of the word supernatural; how is something above nature (super), if the words to describe such are from nature itself? The mystery of the gods will mask much of the human; the Wizard of Oz is a fitting example.
Webster basically defines RITUAL as something set; how-to-do manuals pervade human cultures yet I sense primitive illiterates followed the actions of another, this modeling becoming set ways or Rites; the Roman Church will use the word canon or fixed ("set in concrete") in speaking of its rites. Melchizedek might have been the first to offer bread and wine and loyal subjects will follow the king; around the campfire Bedouin tribesmen would exchange and preserve these ancestral stories, particularly about historically important events, eventually becoming word and action rituals The Passover meal memorializes the Hebrew Exodus (now under such heavy scrutiny); set foods, words, customs carry their triumphal message through thousands of years. Until the 21st Century few have had the courage and imagination to break ancient set patterns of worship; with new scientific data humankind has begun to look upon a different God than the great eye-in-the-sky that was seen as hostile to earth beings. A changing notion of God dictates a new concept of priesthood and ritual. In 2008 the world is taking a different look at the mystery of God. A modern-day people need to be educated into the time period when most of our rituals started.
In Ostia the followers of Mithra broke bread and drank wine in secret worship meetings in 71 ce. Study of the priests of Egypt has educated me to appreciate ancient cultures and to compare them to modern-day versions of roman priests; I see comparison to today's Roman Catholic celibate clergy to the clergy who served the Pharaohs, particularly in isolated style of life and the secrecy of ritual common to both. Egyptian priesthood was closely connected to men of great wealth, the word pharaoh meaning "great house". I see a connection to medieval bishops; the episcopal hat, called a mitre, is the 12th Century landowner's chapeau,the two flaps being the remnants of the rain coat that cover the horse's rump (I refer there only to the horse's rear end). Years of extraordinary preparation were involved before the Egyptian novice was introduced into the rituals of embalming the king and sending him off to his heavenly place among the stars. The 2004 funeral of John Paul the 2nd, a universal TV experience, was carried out by members of a secret cult; the world watched the funeral and resurrection of a myth figure, a sharp contrast to the human funeral of Princess Diane. In the pope's case an in-group buried a symbol, whereas in the latter the global village, acting as a community whole, wept and buried a person. We would say in Diane's case the people were priestly.
Every tribe, every culture has its priestly cast…
Even though Homer never uses the word there needs to be a silent priesthood in the story of the Trojan Horse, myth or truth, there is an underlying religious reason why Troy took in the Greek deception. The Trojans assumed that Agamemnon left the wooden horse on the beach as a token gift to the Greek gods; Troy in turn took the horse inside the city gates so as to offer it to their own gods. I wonder if they looked at the entrails of a slain chicken; the decision had to be a priestly one in conjunction with the city politicians. Each city had is own protector gods and each deity had its priests, often inter-religious rivals. Every tribe, every culture has its priestly cast and gender does not always play a role. A study of the struggle between Ramses II and the Egyptian priesthood is a carbon copy of the struggle that is going on today between the roman curia conservatives and Vatican Two liberals; Wikipedia says: "the Egyptian priesthood was the backbone of bureaucracy and virtual monopolizer of knowledge…" Remember the straw that broke the camel's back …. Is it?….. Rome carrying a lot of unhealthy baggage around the concept of ordained celibate and isolated clergy.
The Roman Pantheon was the temple for many gods, the hole in the roof a convenience to take out the smoke of the burning braziers**; Rome had twelve major gods and a thousand minor ones, all having a unique priesthood. Roman authority cared little what god you worshiped as long as you threw a bit of incense on the ceremonial fire and politically registered as people control. In The Source Michener offers good explanation of a temple priesthood, often female and there is the mystery here in the role of sexual intrigue; defilement of a roman temple vestal virgin was punishable by death. I sense that the fear of women, so deep in Vatican culture, has a sensitive connection to the fear of loss of power. There is something sacred and divine about the female body and its reproductivity … and her sensuous pleasures — a woman of the prehistoric period would marvel at the power of a vegetable seed and make a goddess of the moon. (** remind me of seminary story, later.)
Well now, in a few hundred words this old man of memories has walked us down the nostalgic path of old priesthoods, wandering around five-thousand years of "clergy" persons and a reader might ask what does this have to do with present-day roman Catholic priests. 30 years ago I thought that Jesus ordained the black suited fellows at the Last Supper; subsequently I came upon information about where bishops came from and how a Going-My-Way Crosby priest came about.
Tom McMahon, San Jose, Ca.
NEXT WEEK: I will offer Catholica Australia a paper I wrote in 1999 called THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK. I won't change a word in the original. Tom McMahon, ordained RC in 1954, reordained by Christian community in 1980, and every day doing my best to ordain myself to be a Jesus priest.
ARTICLE NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part I
©2009 Tom McMahon