“Jesus as Priest for Our Time: According to the Order of Melchizedek” by Father Bernard Bonnot. AUSCPicious Publishing (Struthers, Ohio, 2020). 237 pp., $19.95.
Father Bonnot thought through and wrote this book as a meditation upon the meaning of his 50 years as a Catholic parish priest. Jesus, he notes correctly, was not a priest among his own people, not a descendant of Aaron.
He was a layperson with no appointed role in the Temple to offer sacrifice. Indeed, like many Jews of his time, he was critical of the Temple priests for their collaboration with Rome, as his dramatic cleansing of the Temple illustrates.
Jesus was closest to and may have been a Pharisee, which is why the New Testament shows him so often in spirited dialogue with Pharisees. It is important to note, though Father Bonnot does not go into this in sufficient detail, that with one exception (divorce), Jesus affirms the understanding of the spirit of the law/Torah held by the Pharisee followers of Hillel as opposed to the more restrictive understanding of Shammai.
Interestingly, Rabbinic Judaism also follows the Hillelite interpretation, so Christianity and Judaism to this day have a very similar understanding of how to live out our respective understandings of being in covenant with the one God of Israel. The book would have been deepened by this larger context, since Jesus lived and died a faithful Jew of his time, affirming the law/covenant and demanding, like the Hebrew prophets before him, that his followers fulfill the law by living it in their hearts and in in their deeds, caring for those in need.
Jesus did not in any sense “destroy” the law by “radicalizing” it, as Father Bonnot states. He deepened our understanding of it and what is central to it, love of God and neighbor (Lv. 19:18, Dt. 6:5).
The key biblical passages behind the title are those in Genesis, where a non-Jewish priest, Melchizedek, comes out to congratulate Abraham on his victory in battle, and the references to it in Psalm 110 and Hebrews 7. Father Bonnot goes into detail about the biblical understandings of priesthood in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament.
He goes through the lengthy history of the development of the understandings and practices of priesthood in Christianity, breaking down the key understandings and sometimes misunderstandings in various periods.
Although the Church’s views on priesthood became frozen at the Council of Trent reacting to the Protestant Reformation, they were radically re-understood by the Second Vatican Council and subsequent official statements, culminating in Pope Francis’ emphasis on priestly ministry as a pastoral rather than hierarchical calling.
Throughout the book Father Bonnot illustrates his interpretations of priestly ministry with the understandings he has gained from his half-century of parish service to the priestly people of God, the Church.
He notes, accurately, that in the United States and worldwide, there is a crisis of fewer men believing themselves to be called to the priesthood, which has had consequences such as the closing and consolidation of many parishes, making it more difficult for Catholics to come together and celebrate the Last Supper, death and resurrection of Jesus.
He urges the ordination of married men, noting that the apostles were married; the ordination of women as deacons, noting that the early Church had many women deacons; and even the ordination of women as priests, since none of these are doctrinally defined.
(On April 8, 2020, Pope Francis announced creation of new commission to study the ordination of women as deacons. But he has reiterated the Church’s ban on women priests, citing St. John Paul II’s declaration on it in the document “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” though this could be overturned by a future pope because it was not formally, solemnly proclaimed as infallible.)
Father Bonnot’s book should be read not only by priests but by laypersons, and could well serve as a text for an ongoing communal dialogue within parishes. It could help dedicated laypersons to understand better their priestly role within the community and in the celebration of the Eucharist, which was and is a communal meal, not simply the action of a single person.
Fisher is a professor of theology at St. Leo University in Florida.