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Quinn: “Do you think that the papacy, well, it certainly is not irrelevant to a lot of people now, but do you think it’s headed in that direction?”
Wills: “Yeah, it is irrelevant to a lot of people and becoming more so, even to people who don’t even recognize it. One of the reasons they don’t recognize it, is that the priests … the bishops have to uphold what Rome says or they’ll get their knuckles rapped, and priests have to agree not to go against what Rome says. But they don’t actually preach what Rome says.
“I’ve asked many, many Catholics, ‘When’s the last time you had a priest in the pulpit preach against contraception?’ And they say, ‘never.’ There are other practices that are just falling out of use without even people … people, for instance, will not say that they deny transubstantiation, but in fact, the usage says that.
“For instance, when I was young, we used to have frequent benediction, that is, the host would be put in a great big display case called a monstrance, and people would come in and incense it and kneel and pray to it for a half hour or so, worshipping God and the host. Well, we don’t do that anymore, simply because it’s, people don’t really believe that anymore.”
Quinn: “You know, you talk about transubstantiation in the book and, basically, you’re saying that’s the main role of priests is because they are in the position, ordained priests, and they’re the only ones who can perform this miracle of changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.”
Wills: “Yeah, and that’s the basis for all of the priestly acts, really, his power over the Eucharist developed over centuries, not all at once, into his control of all the other sacraments. Only he can forgive your sins, God acting through him, in the confessional. Only he can give you the last rites, only he can marry you.
“All of those are really based on the fact that he’s the sole conduit of grace coming down physically onto the altar as the real body and blood of Jesus. That was something that didn’t exist in Paul’s time. When Paul wrote to a community, he never wrote to the leaders, he wrote to the community, Galatians, Corinthians. He said, ‘The spirit has many activities among you. You have healers, you have teachers, you have readers, you have prophets, you have exorcists.’ No priests.
“But all of those ministries, all of those charisms, gifts of the Spirit, were all monopolized by the priests over time, so he’s the only one who can really do any of the acts of the Spirit. So not only was the power over the Eucharist the kind of thin end of the wedge, but it grew into a monopolization of grace. So that if … Catholics were taught if we show up for Mass and no priest comes, if we go to the church and there’s no priest in the confessional, or if we call for last rites from the church and there’s no priest that can reach us, forget it, you know. He’s the only one. He’s the source of all grace. Well, that’s a little absurd that God has turned this monopoly over to one person in a community.
“And at the beginning, the community chose its people. They recognized the gifts of the Spirit. And the first things that were chosen were servants who provided food, diakonoi, and they were translated deacons. And then overseers who were largely ambassadors to other Christian communities, episkopoi, are overseers in Greek, and that became bishops. Priests came in much later.
“But the idea that the community is the thing that is inspired by God, not some one person brought in from outside the community, was so strong for centuries still that when bishops were chosen, even if they didn’t want to be bishop. Ambrose in Milan didn’t want to be bishop, fought it, said, ‘I’m not worthy, I’ve got other things to do.’
“They said, ‘It doesn’t matter, God speaks through us. We’re the people of God, and we say you have to be our bishop.”’And when you are chosen, you belong to those people. Augustine, for instance, could not leave his Hippo, his diocese, without permission to go to a local council.
“And through all the Middle Ages, no bishop could become pope, because he couldn’t leave his people. Canons of cathedrals became popes, and abbots of monasteries, and nephews of Roman aristocrats, but no bishop. You belong to your people. They were the people, they were the voice of God. And when Augustine gave out communion, he would say, ‘Receive what you are, the body of Christ. You’re the body of Christ. You appointed me, you’re my boss. This is nourishment for you in your role as the body of Christ.’”