Ex-Atheist Leah Libresco reviews Gary Wills' "Why Priests?"
Wills sees the pomp and circumstance of church as drawing our attention away from the God who became Man and directing it towards just one particular man, swathed in robes and standing front stage center. But when an actor puts on costuming and grease- paint, she does it to become someone else, both to the audience and to herself. A director I worked with once told me to start working on a show by getting different shoes, or, failing that, by putting a pebble in mine during rehearsals—anything to set this space off from ordinary life.
A priest doesn’t vest to draw attention to himself, but to what he does. In vestments, priests become a little anonymous. The sacraments work ex opere operato, from the work done, not the merits of the person carrying it out. The ornate robes tell us what work the priest is prepared to do, just as oxygen tanks and helmets mark out firefighters.
The uniform of a first responder is functional and battered. But Wills is correct to note that vestments are superfluously beautiful. They are more than seems necessary, more than we would ask for ourselves. They are meant to remind us of grace.
The Sacraments, which are (primarily, but not exclusively) administered by priests, are outward signs of inward grace. A sinner may be forgiven without the sacrament of reconciliation; the ritual is, to a certain extent, superfluous. Ritual doesn’t limit the ways God can act in the world, but it expands humans’ ability to understand or address the Infinite.