Priests’ or Servant Leaders?

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2009 »Volume 46 2009 Number 3 »Priests Or Servant Leaders

By Joseph Mattam, SJ

Joseph MATTAM, SJ, an emeritus professor of theology and librarian of Sneh Jyoti and Gujarat Vidya Deep Seminary, Ahmedabad, also teaches in the training centres for young religious at Bhopal, Hyderabad, Goa and Bangalore. He obtained his doctorate in sacred theology at the Gregorian University, Rome (1972). His latest book, co-edited with Joseph Valiyamangalam, SJ, is Building Solidarity, Challenge to Christian Mission (2008).


The Church is rightly very enthusiastic about celebrating the Year for Priests. This is a good opportunity for us to take a hard look at the facts we find in the NT, to see whether we are celebrating what Jesus wanted or what we have become on our own. My main contention in this short article is that what we are celebrating is not what Jesus wanted, but what we have become on our own.

Did Jesus ordain ‘priests’?

Is the claim made by the Magisterium that Jesus ordained ‘priests’ before his death tenable? By Jesus’ time, the OT priesthood had become almost exclusively a sacrificing priesthood, as the teaching function was taken over by the Scribes (Soares, 2003). Jesus had a very poor opinion of the [temple] priests of his time (cf. Lk 10:29f). He often said that God did not want sacrifice but fidelity, mercy and love (cf. Mt 9:13). The image of God that Jesus gave us shows that God does not need sacrifices from sinners, but that they accept God’s merciful love (Lk 15; Lk 7:36ff.; Jn 8:1ff. and many other texts). Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman also show that the worship of God in "spirit and truth" was a totally new type, without the need of priests or sacrifices (cf. Jn 4:24). The cleansing of the temple and the prediction of its destruction also point in the same direction. Jesus never spoke of himself as a priest, nor considered any of his followers as priests. Jesus was a thoroughly secular person, a layman. If Jesus had used the term ‘priest’ for himself or his disciples, it would have led to a total misunderstanding of his person and mission. To speak of Jesus ordaining anyone is sheer anachronism, as the idea of "ordaining" (entering into the order/rank) came in only around the 4th century based on the class divisions or orders in the empire (grades ― like senators, nobles, etc.); the whole system of the empire was taken over by the Church from the 4th century onwards. If at all we want to see an "ordination" in the NT, it is in the story of the foot washing (cf. Jn 13) ― but it would not be proper to say that it was an "ordination."  Jesus does not seem to give importance to cult; when he went to the temple it was primarily to teach and not to take part in the sacrifices. In the Last Judgment story, not a single cultic item is mentioned (cf. Mt 25:31f). Given this background, it is highly unlikely that Jesus ordained ‘priests’ before his death.

Due to historical reasons, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews called Jesus a priest. The ex-Jews of his community wondered: "How could they be considered as belonging to a religion, since they had no priest and no sacrifice"? To answer and assure them the author of "Hebrews" made Jesus a High Priest and his very secular ‘murder’ a sacrifice, but Jesus had not seen himself or his disciples as cultic priests.

Leaders Jesus left behind

There are many ideas in the Bible that can be disputed; even in the New Testament there are areas of confusion, but there is one area where no ambiguity is possible: that is, about the nature and functioning of authority and leadership in the Church. In no other area was Jesus clearer than on this. Jesus did envisage a group of people who would be leaders in his community, and he had laid down very clear instructions as to how they were to function. His understanding of leadership in the community was very distinct; he differentiated it from the way people exercised authority in the world. "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…"; "The Kings of the Gentiles…but I am among you as one who serves" (Mt 20:24ff.; Luke 22:24-27; Mt 23:8ff.; Mk 10:41ff.). The visual image of John 13, where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and affirms his role as the Master, can hardly be missed. "The Twelve" were to represent the 12 patriarchs, and were to be the judges of the 12 tribes; hence we do not find women among them. 

The NT offers us the following data. We find The Twelve, the apostles, the deacons, the elders and overseers. None of these was a cultic figure; none among these was a sacred person, no more than any other. The Twelve and the apostles are the foundation of this new community; a foundation is a once for all reality, not followed by others. The elders, overseers and deacons, all very secular terms, arose as a response to the situation and needs of the community (cf. Acts 6). All these were at the service of the "body of Christ" – the Church. Their function was to build up and serve the community, by preaching and proclaiming the Gospel, by celebrating the sacraments and by personal life witness.

The early Christians saw themselves as a ‘priestly nation’ (1 Pet 2.9). They recognized only the community as priestly, as a people set apart for God, holy. This priestly community was to be a community of mutual service, patterned on Jesus’ foot washing. In this community all were equals, "You are all brothers/sisters" (Mt 23:8; Gal 3:27ff). No one was to be given any title, not even ‘father’ or ‘teacher..

Jesus had envisaged a community of equals, at the service of one another and he entrusted the continuation of his mission to the whole community without any reference to gender, class, tribe, nation, etc., for the Spirit is the source of mission and all are baptized into the same Spirit. Baptism is for mission. The members of this community were like the members of a body: each member contributes to the well being of the whole, at the service of one another, like the colors of a rainbow, each color contributes to the overall beauty of the whole. Paul was explicit in this matter: each member has a charism, a gift at the service of the Church, the Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12, Rom 12:4-8, Eph 4:4-6; Col 3:11) without any claims to any type of superiorityThe charisms were to ensure that the mission of the Church is carried on by all the members without any reference to gender or race.

What happened in the Church?

A few developments in the early Church led to the present situation. First of all, the murder of Jesus was interpreted as a cultic sacrifice offered to God, due to the inability of the Jews to understand a crucifixion which for them meant a man cursed by God (cf. Deut 21:23).  As Jesus could not have been cursed by God, they interpreted the very secular murder as a sacrifice offered to God ignoring the image of God that Jesus gave (see Mattam 2005: 181ff.). 

The expression "Body of Christ" which was used for the Church and for the Eucharistic body of Christ would eventually be used exclusively for the Eucharist, and the Church would become the "Mystical Body of Christ." In the early Church one who presided over the community, presided over the "Breaking of the Bread" as it was an orderly community action; the whole community offered the eucharist along with their president (H.-M. Legrand, 1979: 413-438). I am not aware of any reference to The Twelve having to preside over the Breaking of the Bread.   Incidentally, Paul does not refer to leadership in the community among the charisms, nor does he regard presiding over the Breaking of the Bread in homes as a special function, as it was done by the head of the family where the believers gathered, precisely as head of the gathered community.  The Eucharist which was understood by Paul as a new covenant meal of equality and fellowship (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-34) would be interpreted as sacrifice requiring a priest. With the above changes, the leaders saw themselves primarily as the "confectors" of the Eucharist (to use a term very dear to the Roman Congregations); they saw themselves in cultic terms.

The type of legitimization that happened among the Jews also happened in the Church. In the OT the people of Israel understood themselves as a priestly people (cf. Ex 19:5ff.; Deut 7:6ff.), and the traditional priestly functions were carried out by the head of the family, the king, and the like. But in the monarchical and post-Exilic period there would emerge a priestly class who would claim to come from the time of Moses, or even earlier (Soares-Prabhu), and then the God who was with the people accompanying them day and night, as cloud and fire, would be "fixed up" in a temple where only the high priest could enter once a year. People had no more access to God except through the priests.

With regard to the priesthood we have to become aware of the process of legitimization that goes on in every society. By the 2nd century the overseer would be called episcopos in almost the present day sense of the word, precisely because he was seen as the center of unity in the community. Besides, thanks to the Letter to the Hebrews, and St. Cyprian’s predilection for OT terminology, Old Testament language began to invade the Christian community. Yet, even up to the time of Augustine, no one but the bishop is called a priest (cf. Schillebeeckx, Moehler, Osborne). But gradually what happened is unfortunate. The term priest which belonged to the community is taken over exclusively by some men. Today in the Catholic Church out of the 1,114 billion Catholics, some 405,450 men alone are considered priests. They hold all the authority and power over the life and mission of the Church, which in the beginning was meant for all, without any distinction of gender. Their understanding of power changed radically as we shall see below.

Perhaps in no other area has the Church sinned more grievously than in the area of leadership (cf. Mattam, 2003: 203-224). For, from around the 4th century the Church took on the ways of the world and the leaders who were to be servants of the community began to be called and lived as lords, eminences, etc. Those who have important positions or functions (like the pope, bishops, clerics in general) are considered to be more than others, more respected and honored; they are Reverends, Lords, Eminences, and Excellencies. The ambition (often unconscious, of course) to be at least a monsignor, if not a bishop or a cardinal, is not altogether absent among the clergy. The Church has followed and does follow the outlook of the world which is based on one’s possessions, positions, actions, appearance and the like leading to competition; this is a sickly, self-destructive world, where people live in fear, hatred, enslaved by greed and ambition – a non-loving world. In this aspect the Church has failed Jesus; his new outlook has fallen on deaf ears. Due to the absence of Jesus’ outlook, the Church has defended and practiced discrimination on the basis of wealth, status, race, color, gender, the position one held in society, etc. This is one of the major failures of the Church.

It is regretful to think of the position, the titles, the dress, the way of life of the leaders of the disciples of Jesus. The early Church did have authority at its head, but that was an authority of leaders outstanding in spiritual gifts, of leaders of the spiritual life; the prestige of the leaders of God's people stood high, but we have no evidence that they used external means to support it. But in the new situation created by Constantine, external means of prestige were introduced (Congar, 1964: 114). The idea the Fathers of the Church had of the Church as life and fellowship in the Spirit soon disappeared. What has happened to the Church is that "if we are always attended by thurifiers, can we avoid acquiring a liking for incense?" (Congar: 112).

With the conversion of Constantine and other emperors, and the setting up of the Christian kingdoms, the practices of the feudal kingdoms and of the empire passed into the Church. The Roman civil administration had collapsed and the Church did fill in a social need and created a structure that helped society. While one appreciates this, one cannot exaggerate the evils that have entered the Church through the policies of the Emperor and of the empire. Under Constantine and after his time, the bishops were given privileges and honors; they were ranked in the Order of theillustri and took their place in the hierarchy of the State. Though not exactly sure, the pallium made its appearance in the 5th century, and the stola, the tiara, the red cloak and the red shoes were introduced as early as the 8th century. These were the insignia of high officials. The crozier came in Visigothic Spain in the 7th century, in Gaul in the 8th; it was unknown in Rome before the 11th century; the episcopal ring appears in the eighth century in Spain and Gaul. Thanks to the myth of the Donation of Constantine of honoring the pope with the emperor’s honors, the diadem, the phrygium, the shoulder scarf, the purple cloak and the red tunic ― in short, all the adornments of an emperor, even down to the sceptre were taken over by the Church; similarly the pope, like the emperor, was to have his senate and his legates (see Congar: 119-120).   The realities of the Church were modeled after the realities of the emperor: the genuflection and the kissing of the feet. Just as the feudal lords, the Church too had its vassals and tenants; she too had a hierarchy of nobles. She too had bishops who were princes or counts; she had chapters and abbeys varying in degree of dignity. The dress too was an important sign of the dignity and rank of the person (Congar: 122).  With the rise of secular power and status of the clergy, ambition and corruption at every level also entered the Church (Moehler,1979: 86ff.). All the attempts at reform failed. Pope Adrian VI (1522-23) said: "So much the vices have been taken for granted that those who are affected by them do not realize the stench of sin any more" (Lortz, 1964: 80).

The vocabulary in the Church was influenced by the court: the gospel became a "law"; God is the supreme emperor of the world, and the angels his ministers, Peter and Paul are the princeps (princes) or senatores mundi ― high dignitaries of the world (Congar: 117). Titles like Dominus, "Dom so and so," and "my Lord Bishop" entered the Church. Eminence and Excellency came from the Byzantine court. To the pomp of Renaissance times we owe many of the forms of ceremonial and protocol used today by the papal court. Much of this is changed in Europe and in the Latin Church, but in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches one can see the remnants of the court dress (Congar: 126). Similarly, the liturgy changes its nature: now it began to develop a splendid ceremonial, many of its elements being borrowed from the court: processions, luxurious vestments, gold furnishings and vessels ― all the rich display of liturgical ceremonies (Congar: 116).  

Though claiming to have authority from the Gospels, it was in fact the feudal authority that justified the use of the titles and insignia and the whole system, and the day to day administration of the Church on feudal lines come from this period. The Dictatus Papae, the list of propositions drawn up by Gregory VII in 1075, represents the legal basis of the claims he wished maintained. "Quod solus (Papa) possit uti imperialibus insigniis. Only the Pope is entitled to use the imperial insignia" (Congar: 123). Gradually the cardinals, who elected the pope without any intervention of the lay people, were assimilated into the senate of the Church, and the word curia was introduced to designate the services of the pontifical administration and the pope's entourage. St. Bernard repudiated the term as an indication that secular usages were invading the Church (Congar ibid). 

St. Bernard wrote to his former subordinate Eugenius III (pope from 1145-1153): "When the pope, clad in silk, covered with gold and jewels, rides out on his white horse, escorted by soldiers and servants, he looks more like Constantine’s successor than St Peter’s," and about bishops he said, that they "looked like young brides on their wedding-day" (Congar: 125). 

The scholastic ecclesiology was entirely preoccupied with powers and rights. In order to extricate the Church from subjection to secular powers, Pope Gregory VII wanted to strengthen the power of the papacy; he sought the help of canon law. The struggle between popes and secular princes leads to the understanding of the Church in extremely juridical terms, namely, of authority and powers. "With Roland Bandinelli, who became Alexander III (1159-1181), canon law was firmly established on the pontifical throne. For two centuries thereafter, almost all the popes were canonists, sometimes doctors in utroque jure, in both Roman law and ecclesiastical law (Congar: 104).  

In the context of the pope’s struggle against Henry IV, Gregory VII spoke of the Church as "ecclesia non est ancilla, sed domina - the Church is not a servant but a mistress" (Congar: 105), while perhaps justifiable in the context, it is directly opposed to what Jesus desired, and it has led the Church away from what Jesus wanted. 

Generally speaking, feudalism is a thing of the past. And yet surely there still clings around bishops and the Curia an aura of feudal privilege expressed in dress, insignia, retinue, the deference paid to them, all the trappings of heraldry and the titles. The economic and social structures of feudalism have disappeared, but some vestiges still remain on the surface, and occasionally titles and privileges still have some real value (Congar: 122-123).   

 The modern states have rejected what they have borrowed from the Church, but the Church has not rejected what it has borrowed from the state. It is unfortunate. Nowhere is a servant called "Lord, Eminence," etc., except as a joke or an insult. If we use insignia or dress they ought to be intelligible to the people of the day, less weighted with history and always commensurate with the office, which is service, and therefore all these require a drastic revision and discarding.  

"Surely it is high time, and surely it would be to everyone’s advantage to shake off the dust of the Empire that has gathered since Constantine’s day on the throne of St. Peter" (John XXIII, quoted in Congar: 127). These words of the great Pope John are yet to be heeded and acted upon. There is no harm at all in dropping the titles like Reverend, Lord, Eminence, the bishops’ special rings, mitre, the red head cap, etc. These have to go ― they have no right to exist except as remnants of the Roman Empire which has nothing to do with the Church of the poor Galilean. There is nothing to commend the present practice. A radical re-thinking is needed. What Vatican II did was a good beginning; it spoke of the Church as the people of God, but it is only too obvious how it has been effectively negated in the Church since then. That concept has been buried and its presumed hierarchical nature gained predominance. We need to return to the Gospels and the very early Church in order to properly understand the nature of the Church and of its leaders. Only when the Church becomes what Jesus had envisaged it to be, namely, a servant Church, the leaders becoming true servants and ceasing to be Lords, then the Church regains its authority to speak for God and in God’s Name.  

I do not blame the bishops for this anomaly; often they are ignorant. Once I was at a meeting in Mumbai with the bishops of the Western Region. The question of the titles for the leaders of the Church came up; one of the bishops of happy memory said: "Your Grace, My Lords and Rev. Fathers, you do not know what you are talking about; it is not that we want to be called Lords, etc., but it is what the Lord Jesus wanted" ― some of us looked at one another and smiled; all kept quiet about the matter. In a recent meeting I had with the bishops and seminary formation personnel of Madhya Pradesh about priestly formation, the question of the titles again came up; I asked them what prevented the bishops in India taking a decision for the new millennium that they would not be called Lords, Graces, Eminences, but simply brother so and so? They all agreed that there was nothing to prevent them from doing it, but who will bell the cat? I further added: we speak to the seminarians and theologians about priesthood as service, not as honor, prestige, and power. But they look up to the Lords whom they now serve in the Church and are waiting to become like them, the moment they are ordained. Hence, if a radical change in the understanding of the leadership in the Church is to be effected, at least in this matter a change has to come from the top. We are only too aware of how the priesthood was seen in terms of who has more power: the pope, the bishop or the priest, and finally concluded that the bishopric was not an order because the bishop had no more power than a priest to consecrate the Eucharist.  

The reluctance on the part of the hierarchy even after 20 centuries to give up this ‘pagan’ custom and to become ‘brothers’ and ‘servants’ to one another is baffling, to say the least. I hope, one of the first things that would happen in the new millennium is that beginning with the bishop of Rome all the Church authorities would revert to Jesus’ understanding of authority and its ways of exercising it.

Servant Leaders

How do we look at ourselves as leaders of the Christian community? We have to keep our eyes on Jesus and see what kind of a person he was and what his mission was (Mattam, 2005: 104-119). Thanks to his Abba experience he was a man rooted in God, who was totally free of the outlook of the world: free from greed, lust, hatred, fear, attachment, and he loved all and opted for the poor. He saw his mission as one of service: service of the Father in the service of his fellow humans; he reveals the Father through parables and through his life and table fellowship. The title ‘priest’ does not help us to understand Jesus, or us. This title has in fact misguided us. Also seeing ourselves primarily in cultic terms does not help.

Leadership in the Church is for service as friends and equals (Jn 13:1-17) as Jesus’ life was, and all the gospels show in no unclear terms that Jesus’ life was one of service and that whoever wishes to follow him will have to be a servant of all. This service does not depend on the gender of the person, but on being a disciple of Jesus and is willing to serve the community. The focus is on building up the community. The Church has to become more like the Servant Master. The fact that false claims have been defended over the centuries is no reason for carrying on with them.

Obviously the term ‘service’ is used in the Church and even the bishop of Rome calls himself a servant of the servants, but that is service of un-equals, of the high and the low, of the haves and the have-nots. Jesus meant service as friends, as equals, though with distinct and different functions. Jesus’ thought about his followers is precise: "You are all brothers, you have no master except the Christ" (Mt 23:8f) - the words of the Master are loud and clear. Obviously there are distinct functions in the Church which Jesus himself claimed when he washed the feet of his disciples (cf. Jn 13:13-14). Once the concept and practice of hierarchy and the present understanding of leadership based on power, honor and prestige are given up, there is a chance for the Church to become a brotherhood/sisterhood. A participatory decision-making pattern has yet to be worked out.  

Hence as leaders of the community we will have to be representatives, the living presence of this Master who emptied himself taking the form of a slave and washed the feet of his disciples and left for us a pattern to follow (cf. Phil 2:6ff.; Jn 13). We have to pattern our life on Jesus’ and in every way be like him. We are to be lives offered in love and service; ready to lay down our life for God’s people; answerable to God and the people. The only power we have is the power to love endlessly, love all and be for all, manifesting the possibility of true love in the world.

Why is it important that we recognize that we have gone astray from what Jesus wanted? At present we find our dignity and worth as persons in the function (position) we have in society, the respect people give us because of our position; this has not helped the servant leaders to become true to their vocation, the living presence of Jesus. Jesus had emptied himself, became a slave and never had any authority that came from society; so the Pharisees and other authorities often questioned him about his authority in doing what he did or said. Jesus’ authority was not from the institution but from his being rooted in the Abba. As long as we claim special powers which make us be above the community, we are not likely to be interested in becoming what we are to be as servant leaders. This is the more important reason for going back to the roots.

The servant leaders will have to discover their true identity as servants of the community ― not masters and lords. They will have to move away from a culture of command and control by threats and punishments to a culture of service and friendship as equals, answerable to the community.

When our leaders accept that we all make mistakes and are ready to own them up, abandoning all false claims and legitimization process that goes on in every society, the Church will become more humane, more approachable, less threatening and more like the servant Master, and we have a chance to become the kind of leaders Jesus envisaged. The Church has to accept that the arrogance of the Roman bureaucracy entered into the functioning of the Church authorities, and those who claim to be the direct successors of the Apostles have committed many blunders ― which is certainly not surprising. Jesus himself made mistakes and was ignorant of certain things, which was not considered an imperfection in the Son of God. Every-body knows that mistakes have been made in the past and will be made in the future ― there is nothing strange in accepting them, repenting of them, and starting anew. Then she will be able to help fallible and weak humans, who would otherwise be intimidated by an infallible Church. Jesus opted to be like us, instead of threatening us with his formidable divinity. The fact that false claims have been defended over the centuries is no reason for carrying on with them. The first pope was told immediately after he was given the mission to be the rock on which Jesus would build his Church, and the power to bind and lose (see Mt 16:17f),"Get behind me Satan, you are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men" (Mt 16: 23). The first pope had his failures, and so have those who followed him and no one needs to be surprised.

Hence in this Year for Priests, my prayer is that we revert to Jesus’ understanding of leadership in the Church and abandon the empire system we have inherited; and that the leaders give a lead in becoming true followers of Jesus. They would not be known any more by titles and their special dress, but by their self-giving love and dedication to the cause of Jesus and the well being of humans.



1964 Power and Poverty in the Church. Baltimore: Helicon.

LEGRAND, HervÉ-Marie

1979 "The Presidency of the Eucharist according to the Ancient Tradition," Worship 53: 413-438.

LORTZ, Joseph

1964 How the Reformation Came? New York: Herder & Herder.

MATTAM, Joseph

2003 "An Inculturated Servant Church," in Bend without Fear: Hopes and Possibilities for an Indian Church. Ed. Kuruvilla Pandikattu and Rosario Rocha. Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, 203-224.

2005 "Witnessing to Jesus Christ through a Relevant Theological Language: An Indian Approach to New Language in Theo-logy," Jeevadhara (May): 181-199.

2005a "Priests Today," Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection 69: 104-119.


1970 The Origin and Evolution of the Priesthood. New York: Alba House.

OSBORNE, Keenan B.

1988 A History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Tradition. New York: Paulist.


1981 Ministry. New York: Crossroad. 


2003 "An Inculturated Servant Church," in Bend without Fear: Hopes and Possibilities for an Indian Church. Ed. Kuruvilla Pandikattu and Rosario Rocha. Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, 203-224.

n.d. "Biblical Doctrine of Christian Priesthood" (mimeographed notes).

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