John the Baptist’s Example for Priests
Seven aspects of John to emulate
Father Ronald D. Witherup Comments Off on John the Baptist’s Example for Priests
Every priest knows that John the Baptist is a major figure in the liturgical season of Advent. He is hard to miss. A dominant image in all four canonical Gospels, John looms large in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, primarily because of his important role as the forerunner of the Messiah. Yet we can properly ask ourselves if, beyond this perspective, John can offer any valuable lessons for priestly ministry and life today. I believe he does.
To begin, let’s first place John the Baptist in a proper historical perspective. Each of us has a personal history, which has largely shaped who we are and how we view ourselves. The same can be said for John.
Let’s first recall that even if we did not have the four Gospels to provide information about John the Baptist, we would still know of him. He features in the writings of Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish-Roman historian and apologist, who recounts the basic outline of John’s history in his important writing “Jewish Antiquities” (Nos. 18.116-19). Josephus describes John as a “good man” who preached to the Jews the necessity of a virtuous life. He also acknowledges John’s ministry of “washing” (baptism), not only for the forgiveness of sins, but also for the “purification” of the body. Josephus further records John’s imprisonment by Herod Antipas in one of his fortresses, Machaerus, where he had John put to death, because he was fearful of John’s strong influence on popular opinion.
This brief overview of John the Baptist’s life largely aligns with the information from the Gospels, which nonetheless adds an essential religious perspective. All four Gospels place John in the role of a prophet, one who preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. They describe his baptismal ministry at the Jordan River and Herod’s somewhat fearful respect for him because of the awe in which the crowds held him.
Luke’s Gospel provides the most explicit historical setting for John’s personal story. Luke mentions that John’s elderly father, Zechariah, was a righteous priest who served in the Temple. His elderly mother, Elizabeth, thought to be sterile, miraculously conceives the boy and, in accord with an angelic message, names him John. Luke explicitly lays out this extraordinary history in a parallel fashion to Jesus’ own miraculous conception and birth.
So far, so good. But what does this have to do with priests today? We know that, unlike the Jewish priesthood in John’s day, our priestly identity does not come from family heritage. In fact, nothing indicates that John himself was a priest. Rather, he was an ascetic prophet. His clothing, his diet and his stern prophetic preaching all point to someone who lived a marginal life in the desert to call people back to God and to a righteous life.
Some modern scholars have sought to place John in the context of the Qumran community near the Dead Sea. Even Josephus mentions an ascetic group called “Essenes” who upheld their own strict observance of the Jewish Law. While it is possible John belonged to such a group, this is speculative. It does not feature in the Gospels’ telling of John’s story.
Nonetheless, I think we can now turn to a more explicit explanation of how John the Baptist can provide priests with a helpful model for priestly ministry today. Let’s look at seven aspects of this.
At first glance, it might seem odd to root John’s identity in the notion of a vocation. But what is important in this notion is that John did not simply choose his identity. As noted above, Luke parallels John’s origins with those of Jesus to point out how God’s power directed their destinies. Yet, note that John’s parents dedicate him to the Lord’s service without hesitation, as a sign of gratitude for the unexpected grace they received.
In essence, John’s identity was a gift, one to which he responded wholeheartedly. In our day, we are fond of insisting that a priestly vocation is not a career choice. It is a gift to which we respond. With proper discernment and formation, it becomes a reality and bears fruit. The 2016 revised Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, on priestly formation, on which the sixth edition of the U.S. Program of Priestly Formation is based on, is even titled “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation.” John provides a model for responding to such a precious gift.
To call John a prophet is a truism. But what kind of prophet? He is not identified with the great classical prophets of the Old Testament, though his message relates to Isaiah’s. At one point, Jesus calls John the greatest of all who are born of a woman, yet even the “least” (a favorite Matthean term for Jesus’ own disciples) in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (cf. Mt 11:11).
Clearly, Jesus recognized John’s important ministry. He even submits to John’s baptism, though in Matthew’s version of the story John resists because of his own unworthiness. Nonetheless, John’s prophetic identity was widely recognized in his day. But we must recall that it was not something auto-proclaimed. In fact, true prophetic identity is not something we place upon ourselves. Rather, it is an identity that originates from outside, from external perception. Beware of self-proclaimed prophets! More often than not, they are frauds. In contemporary theology of the priesthood, we assert our participation in Jesus’ own high priestly identity as priest, prophet and shepherd. It is not a choice, but rather an identity bestowed.
The most obvious feature of John’s identity for Christians is that he was the forerunner of the Messiah. Note carefully how this works. Jesus was not his successor; John was Jesus’ forerunner! John understood well that his mission was one of preparation for someone greater than he. He was there only as a “voice in the wilderness.” He was there to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
We priests do the same thing in our ministry. By everything we do — sacramental ministry, preaching, teaching, comforting those in need — leads people to Jesus, the one who touches them through our words and deeds. We are mere instruments to bring people into contact with the way, the truth and the life in Jesus Christ.
To draw attention to John’s humility is almost an understatement. Not only did he see himself at the service of God the Most High, but he acknowledged his unworthiness even to carry the Messiah’s sandals (cf. Mt 3:11). This was not false humility. He saw his mission as truly at the service of the one greater than he. He was there to point to the Lamb of God, not overshadow him (cf. Jn 1:29).
Indeed, even more telling is John’s insistence that the Messiah “must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). This is reminiscent of a true servant or a waiter who does the service so effectively that those at table barely even notice what has been done, all to assure that their experience is an absolute success. Priests are also called to such humble service.
It could be easy to overlook another feature of the Baptist’s identity because it is rarely referred to in the Gospels. John was a man of prayer. Luke is the one who explicitly references this aspect in a passage describing Jesus at prayer: “He was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples’” (11:1). The disciple’s comment expresses an essential truth: John prayed and taught his disciples to pray. This request led Jesus to teach his disciples what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
John the Baptist as Forerunner of Jesus
Pope Francis invoked John the Baptist during a general audience on June 24, 2020, the solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, with these words: “Let us learn from the one who was the forerunner of Jesus the ability to bear witness to the Gospel with courage, beyond our own differences, while preserving the harmony and friendship that form the basis of any credible proclamation of the faith.”
This is not a mere side observation, however. We are never told the content or method of John’s prayer life, but there are hints in the Gospels. His simple clothing and diet (camel’s hair cloth, leather belt, wild honey), and the location of his ministry in the desert and around the Jordan River point to an ascetical bent. This has led some scholars to propose, as mentioned above, a possible connection with the ascetic community at Qumran near the Dead Sea. Be that as it may, the essential feature is that John was a man of prayer, one steeped in the Scriptures he proclaimed. Any priest worth his salt maintains a solid prayer life and embraces a simple lifestyle.
The Gospels uniformly associate the Baptist’s ministry with baptism to the forgiveness of sins. While he distances his own practice from the intense baptism that his successor, the Messiah, would bring (the Holy Spirit and fire!), he nevertheless called all around him to repent of their sinfulness. John called people to conversion.
Conversion requires that we recognize our failures and the need to change our lives. Advent, in fact, is at its foundation a season of conversion. For John, the call to seek forgiveness also encompassed warnings for not heeding this call. He warned people of the need for authentic reform, for producing “good fruit” and not merely a sham conversion. Matthew, in particular, emphasizes this point. John’s message and Jesus’ message were essentially the same: “Repent [metanoiete in Greek], for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 3:2; cf. also 4:17)
As is well known, we priests have always been called to the ministry of forgiveness. It includes both a call to a more righteous way of life and a reassurance that God’s mercy knows no bounds. Pope Francis has made this a hallmark of his papal preaching and teaching. One of the most profound aspects of our ministry is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It reassures people of God’s forgiveness but also reinforces the need to be transformed again and again by God’s grace.
We now arrive at the climactic example for priests from John: his martyrdom. As a former seminary professor, I remember having to preside at daily Mass on many occasions at the beginning of the academic year. We often celebrated the memorial of the Martyrdom of John the Baptist,which falls on Aug. 29 and was frequently when either orientation or the early days of the semester had just begun. It provided a kind of rude awakening for some seminarians, many of whom likely entered seminary with starry-eyed visions of what it would be like to be a priest. They had visions of the Roman collar, people’s adulation, immediate respect and the like. This feast so early in the academic year threw some cold water on any such delusional notions. (In the wake of the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandals among clergy, perhaps such positive images do not come to mind so easily! But that is another matter.)
This martyrdom is not meant to be taken literally. Fortunately, few priests will be called to sacrifice their lives in this fashion. Yet John serves as a reminder that priesthood is not meant to be an easy way of life. While it is true that priests are often held in high esteem by many people — not least their own parishioners — our promises of obedience, chaste celibacy and simplicity of life often demand more sacrifices than not. The Baptist himself was apparently held in high esteem. Even Herod Antipas feared him and only reluctantly beheaded him (according to the Gospels). But paying the ultimate price to serve the Messiah was John’s destiny, and his fate encouraged others to do likewise.
In sum, we priests can indeed find in John the Baptist a worthy model to emulate.
Sulpician Father Ronald Witherup is former superior general of the Society of Saint Sulpice and author of many books on biblical and theological themes.