When we talk about things that protestants don't understand about Catholicism, the number one question that comes up is: why are they always praying to Mary? What's up with that? Closely related to that question is the question of other intermediaries in the Catholic faith, persons and saints who stand between the people and God and facilitate blessing and dialogue, and it doesn't take long before we get from there to the role of the priest, which seems incredibly authoritarian (at the very least) to most of us outside of the Catholic church.
So let's back this thing up a bit and talk about it.
Remember that from the earliest days of Judaism, the people always had an intermediary between them and God. They had to. If you remember when Israel first came out of Egypt and entered into the wilderness, God met with Moses on the mountain. And the people were warned - do not come near the mountain. Do not even touch the base of it. Don't let your livestock graze on the grass that is on the mountain. For the mountain is holy, and God dwells here.
And the people didn't even really need more of an explanation than that. They could see that God dwelt there. They could see the smoke and fire. They could hear the rumbles of thunder as He spoke. They could feel the earth shake with the power of His presence. There was no question in their mind that God was there on that mountain, and they even begged Moses to continue to be their intermediary. "You go meet with God and tell us everything He says, and we'll do it. Whatever it is. Just don't let us be overwhelmed by His glory."
From the mountain to the tabernacle, this honor of meeting with God was starting to shift from Moses (who would eventually die) to the priest, Aaron, and his sons who would come after him as priests. It was the priest who offered the sacrifices, the priest who made atonement, the priest who cleansed the unclean, the priest who declared cleanness, the priest who stood between man and God. The very rules that God set forth about bringing an offering to Him ran right through the priesthood.
And if we're being technical, it still does. There are many of us in the Christian church who say that all of that isn't necessary any more because Jesus has come. Jesus has cleared the way to God. We read the stories of the crowds following Him around Galilee and Jerusalem, of persons pushing through just to touch Him, of even a Roman soldier declaring, face-to-face, that this was the Son - the glory - of God. So to us, we don't need all that priesthood stuff any more because, on account of Jesus, we just come straight to God. We just come right up onto the mountain.
But remember that Jesus is called a great high priest. Remember that He is called the most holy. We still depend on the priesthood, even if Jesus has changed the way that that looks for many of us.
In fact, the whole world still depends on the priesthood, for Peter has told us that we - Christians - have become a royal priesthood. We have become those who meet face-to-face with God, who converse on the mountain with Him, who reflect His glory, and who stand between God and men. We have become the intermediaries that the world needs.
And if the world still needs intermediaries, then why does it seem strange to us that the Catholic church actually uses them?
This is the foundation of understanding what's going on in the Catholic church right now with such a debate over what seems like so simple a word. Why can't "we" baptize you? Why does it have to be "I"? To understand, just imagine how Israel might have felt if Aaron had messed up the words. Imagine how Israel did feel when its priests went astray, as is recorded for us a handful of times in the Bible. Imagine how God's people have always felt when their intermediaries messed up protocol. For that matter, just look at how the people freaked out when Zechariah (in the early chapters of Luke) took too long in the Most Holy Place.
The people of God have always depended on their priests. The Catholic church (and a few protestant denominations) still do.
So do...many protestant Christians.... Stay tuned.