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Dr. Jan Nieuwenhuis

Sixty years of election

It was the first of August 1948. I was 24 years old and had six years of Dominican training behind me. It was the day that together with eight classmates I was to be ordained. Ordination always had to take place on the name day of one of the apostles, and the first of August  figured on the ecclesiastical calendar as Saint Peter in Shackles. The apostle Peter, according to the story in The Acts of the Apostles, was captured by King Herod and incarcerated in the Jerusalem prison, but one night an angel appeared to him there who broke his shackles and set him free (Act, 12). Those broken shackles are still on display under the altar of the San Pietro in Vincoli, the church where The Moses of Michelangelo stands.

The first of August then was the day of my ordination. All eight of us had been issued for the occasion with brand new habits, sewn by brother-tailor. In these white habits we looked like newly created angels. In procession we moved into the chapel of the Albertinum monastery in Nijmegen. The service started with the sung litany of All Saints. During the singing we had to lie prostrate on the floor, arm wide as in a live but silent supplication that all the saints – and they were many -  would stand by us in what was about to happen. After this we had to kneel down in front of the bishop who anointed our hands with olive oil and bound them together with a white linen cloth. Thus we had to wait for what was to come with hands tied together; we were like Saint Peter himself. Next we had to kneel down in front of the bishop again who untied our hands – and subsequently the Prior of the monastery cleaned them then – and then the bishop laid his hands on us again one by one. This was the real moment of the ordination: I was now priest for ever. All eight of us then celebrated the Eucharist (at the time still called the ‘Mass’) together with the bishop. We pronounced with him the institutional words – “this is my body, this is my blood” – and the miracle happened: we were able to do something that nobody else in the chapel could or was allowed to do: we were ordained. Et factum est ita. It had happened.

After the ordination we each went to the parlour where we met with our family. When I entered my father and mother, brother and sister, uncles and aunts fell to their knees to receive my priestly blessing. My dear aunt Annie, my mother’s youngest sister who was a nurse and helped to bring me into this world and held me during my baptism, could not restrain herself and called out: “Oh gosh, my little Johnnie!”.  From this little Johnnie I had turned into something quite different, an almost heavenly creature. I had been given a power which made me rise above the others, I was now sacerdos in aeternum, priest for ever. I had been transformed, henceforth I was ‘reverend father’, I had a title.

This was the first of August 1948. Since then I have performed many super terrestrial acts, from celebrating daily Mass to forgiving sins, performing wedding services, baptising children and burying the deceased. Here in the Dominicus church I had my own confessional with my name on the door and a little bell for people who wished to call me in to forgive their sins. In the days before Christmas and Easter, when you spent hours and hours in the confessional the housekeeper always cooked a steak for us in the evening to help us survive this exhausting pardoning. As you see, as a priest one had certain prerogatives. It was indeed a prerogative to be chosen. Today it is sixty years since the day I was chosen. Sixty is a special number in the Scripts. A sower went out to sow his seed, and “that which has been sown in good soil is, he who hears the word and understands it, and subsequently bears fruit and produces a hundred-, sixty- and thirty-fold” (Mt 13, 23). Sixty-fold. A reason to be thankful and that I am today. In spite of, or perhaps because of, all the changes in those sixty years, it therefore is for me today a day to remember. Remember what? I propose to you now to muse, or perhaps to dream, a bit with me on what I started sixty years ago: the priesthood. Allow me to go back in history with you to see where and how this priesthood came to be, what it was and what it is today, what it could and should be. Allow me a moment to sink into thought over this.


The first time the word ‘priest’ occurs in the Scripts is in the story of Abraham. At the command of the Almighty, Abraham has returned from Egypt and pitches his tent in the Land of Kanaän close to the oak of Mamre near Hebron; there he sets up an altar in honour of the Almighty. Four foreign kings in the neighbourhood attack Abraham and capture his brother. In order to liberate him Abraham gathers a small army of seasoned men, chases the enemy and defeats them. He returns and he is met by Melchisedek, the king of Salem. Melchisedek offers him bread and wine. He, Melchisedek, is (so it says) priest for God in the highest, and he blesses Abraham and says: “Blessed be Abraham before God in the highest, founder of heaven and earth! – and blessed be God in the highest who delivered your attackers into your hands! And he gives him a tenth of everything” (Gn 14,19-20). This story of Melchisedek, this offering of bread and wine is portrayed here on this ancient communion rail in front of the platform.

The name Melchisedek means: ‘my name is justice’. And Salem is an early contraction of the word ´Jeroesjalajiem´: city of peace. This Melchisedek gives, in contrast with the other kings who only take, and steal and ransack. He gives bread and wine, signs of Shalom. His act is a vision of the city of my heart, with its houses, shoulder to shoulder, the new heaven and the new earth – the vision the Scripts start and end with, the city where stand the seats of Justice and where the same Almighty will wipe all our tears from our eyes. This is the beginning and this is the first and only gesture of the priest.


Then, time goes on, as does our story. When, many centuries later, the Israelites also return, from Egypt and roam through the desert, the Almighty gives them the following task: “You will be unto me a royal line of priests, a people of sanctification” (Ex 19,16). In Egypt this people had already seen priests (Gn 41, 45 and 50; 46, 20; 47, 22 and 28), they knew the priest of Midian (Ex 2.16), but now the Almighty is about to establish the priesthood in Israel. All the people will be priests, but Moses not only has to ask his brother Aäron, the Levite, to speak on his behalf with the Pharaoh (Ex 4,14), but this same Aäron has to approach Moses together with his sons from the midst of the children of Israel in order to make them priests in their sacred garments, and to perform the sacred worship. They are ordained (Ex 29) and perform the worship in the tent of the Almighty, who travels along with them. They make the sacrifices and serve as a kind of Salvationists, for those who suffer from disease must show this to the priest (Lv 13,49-59), they carry the Ark with the tablets during the crossing of the River Jordan to the promised land (Js 3,10; 6,12-13), in short: they have been delegated, on behalf of the people, and in their mandate to perform their liturgical duties and, like Melchisedek so long ago, to give and to heal, to conduct services and to cure. Their main task is their duty to bless the children of Israel, a blessing that is literally dictated and taught by the Almighty: ‘Thus thou wilt bless the children of Israel by saying to them: the Eternal will bless you and guard you! – the Eternal will show his countenance unto you and have mercy upon you! – The Eternal will show you his countenance and give you peace! (Nu 6,24-26).

It is, therefore, like in the beginning with Melchisedek: the priesthood is to give and to heal, to remedy and perfect, to bless and to consecrate. The priest is the hand of the Almighty. He is his assistant, his saving angel, his associate and second. That is what he is elected for.


In Jesus’ time, this priesthood in Jerusalem has deteriorated. It has been corrupted into a clique that he abhors and detests and that he does not hesitate to call hypocrites (Mt 6,2) and even a brood of vipers (Mt 12,34), whitewashed graves and snakes (Mt 23), ‘cursed they are’ (Jo 7,49). “Have not you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the sanctuary desecrate the Sabbath with impunity? – but I tell you that there is something here that is greater than this sanctuary; if you had recognised it for what it is – it is compassion that I want, not sacrifices – (Ho 6,6)” (Mt 12,5).

Jesus does observe the rule that a sick man who has been cured by him, first has to show himself to the priests in keeping with the law (Mt 8,4; Mc 1,44; Lc 5,14 and 17), but in all the stories about him there lurks a growing and finally deadly conflict between him and  the priesthood around the temple. These priests become more and more irritated with Jesus’ conduct (Mt 21,15) and ask questions about his authority and his origin (Mt 21,23; Mc 11,27-28; Jo 1,19) and are on the lookout to arrest him (Jo 7,32 and 45). They scheme to capture him and put him to death. (Mt 26,3-4).

This occasion and this scheme do materialise, for they find Judas Iscariot willing to betray Jesus; and Judas comes “accompanied – it says – by a large band of people with swords and bludgeons, sent by the high priests and the eldest of the people”(Mt 26,47; Mc 14,43; Jo 18,13). These high priests sentence Jesus to death (Mt 27,1), they mock him (Mt 27,41) they stir up the people (Mc 15,11), and they are the opposition party, literally Jesus’ arch-enemy.

The conflict culminates and comes to a definitive explosion during the trial by Pontius Pilate when the high priests – they are mentioned by name (in John there is no people and no forecourt) – answer Pilate’s ultimate question: “Do you want me to crucify your king?” with: “We have no other king than the emperor”(Jo 19,15). In doing so they exchange the foundation of the Jewish faith and the Torah for a collaboration with those in power. For, in the Jewish faith there is but one king: the Eternal himself (Ex 15,11; Jd 8,23; Ps 93,1; 1S 8,6-7; 2S 7,11-16). In the ‘Eighteen Prayer’ prayed daily by the Jews, it said irrevocably: “Be our king, Lord, you only, in solidarity and compassion”. It was the foundation of the Jewish faith, the first article of faith in the Torah.

Well then, this constitution, this foundation of the Jewish faith and the Torah is denied and betrayed by the high priests at the culmination of the Pilate trial. It was the greatest blasphemy that has ever been pronounced, much more heathen and atheistic than a simple: “There is no God”. The priests choose for complete and godless treason. It is the ultimate blasphemy, and it is they who do it.

Is it to be wondered at that in the parable of the Compassionate Samaritan, when along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho a man falls into the hands of highwaymen who leave him lying half dead in the ditch – is it to be wondered at that the first person to pass the victim is a priest, who gives the poor man a wide birth, thinking ‘I’m not going to be involved in this’ (Lc 10, 31). The priests get a merciless thrashing in the whole story of Jesus. They are the great anti-pole. “They talk but do not act; they bind heavy loads together and put them on the shoulders of the people, whereas they are barely prepared to move their index finger. All they do is done to be observed by the people; they love to sit in the front seats during public meetings, they are a brood of adders, blind signposts, and this is not how it should be among you” (Mt 23). All things considered, the whole of Jesus’ doings is one great scolding against those priests, a reprimand, and a rebuke. Perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that Jesus is against this priesthood right from the start and that he took his distance from this type of degenerated priests. What he wanted was, so I surmise, a community of brothers and sisters (Mt 23,8), “do not allow others to appoint you leaders” (Mt 23,10). So a community without priests.


Jesus, therefore, has never chosen priests, let alone ordained them. Of the Twelve not one was a priest. There was one tax-collector, though (Mt 9,9; Mc 2,14; Lc 5,27). During the Last Supper He broke the bread and handed round the cup saying: “Do this to think of me” (Lc 22, 19), thus repeating and re-enforcing the age-old gesture of Melchisedek: bless one another, do justice, be peace. That is their election and ordination.

After Jesus’ demise his followers and heirs fulfil this task: “they went to the upstairs room where they had been before and persist in collective prayer together with some women and Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers” (Act 1,13-4). Those who followed Jesus “persist in harmony and community, breaking bread from home to home in jubilation and simplicity of heart” (Act 2,42 and 46). What they do is simple and obvious. They go to a house where someone lives who puts it at their disposal, like in Joppa the house of Tabitha which in translation means dorkas (Greek), deer (Act 9,39), or in the house of Lydia in Thyatira, who sold purple cloth and was God-fearing (Act 16,14-15). They do so every first day of the week. (Act 20,7).

Such meetings or communities naturally developed a need of a certain amount of guidance. That is where the problem occurred: who could and had to be this? Apart from the apostleship of the Twelve, the communities had been given no church order whatsoever by Jesus. How to proceed? In the beginning the Twelve or the founder of the community automatically took the lead in what was barely a proper role. But in this period it is the community that is clearly the foundation and starting point and therefore often has the last word. The community has to judge eventually what is useful and constructive (1Cor 12,7-10; 14,3-5; 12,31-32).

In the course of time, as the communities grew, this function of leading becomes complex and is therefore split up. The early communities, of course, knew the Apostles, but also the prophets and the teachers (Eph 2,20; 1Cor 12,28), the evangelists and the shepherds (Eph 4,11). Nowhere are there any priests or – with a Greek term – presbyters, presbuteroi, literally: ‘eldest’. St. Paul nowhere mentions them.

Still, here and there in the oldest communities there are presbyters. After the Twelve, for instance, Jacob, ‘the brother of the Lord’ was the great leader in Jerusalem. He was surrounded by a college of presbuteroi (after a synagogal Jewish model) and took important decisions in consultation with them (Act 11,30; 21,28; 15,2). Thus, towards the end of the first century, in some communities there is a kind of church order which gives responsibility for the leading of the community to a group of ‘presbyters’ or elders (Act 14,23; 20,17,20-30; 1P 5,1). St Paul tells us that sometimes he performed the act of the laying on of hands with the presbyters (2Ti 1,6). These presbyters had to follow a course in preparation of their function (1Ti 3,1-13). The handing on of responsibility in he communities was thus gradually institutionalised. The leader chosen by the community received the necessary grace through ‘prophetic words’ that were pronounced by the Council of Elders during the laying on of hands ceremony.

But – and this is essential – from the beginning the community is Jesus’ community, that is: those who followed Him, themselves as a group the basis, the foundation and thus also the appointer and elector of the management and the leader. During the first century, and perhaps longer the whole community as a group are the temple of the Holy Spirit and the body of the Messiah. The early Christianity, we may safely say, is not a monarchy, but a commune: all are equal, everyone can and may act, there is no first and last, I am like you and you are like me.

This view, this faith, this foundation is most strongly voiced in the first letter of St. Peter (1 P 1,1-5; 2,1-11; 5, 1-3), a letter that was presumably written in the second half of the first century from the community of Rome to the churches in Asia Minor, on the eve of  the persecution of the church under the emperor Diocletian:

Peter, apostle of Jesus Messiah, 
to the foreign people of the Diaspora in Pontus,
Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,
grace and peace to you all in abundance.

Blessed be God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Messiah,
who in the abundance of his compassion
has allowed us to be reborn
unto living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Messiah
from the dead,
to a non-perishable, untainted and
ever flourishing inheritance,
set aside in the heavens for you
who in the power of God through faith
are kept for a salvation
that is about to be revealed
in the last moment of time.
This is the word
that has been revealed to you.

Shed all viciousness and all deception,
pretence, jealousy and all slander
and be like new-born babes,
eager for the sincere milk of the word
so that you may grow thereon and be saved,
now that you have tasted
the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 34,9).
Come unto Him, a living rock, discarded by men,
but chosen by God, elected and costly,
and allow yourself to be living rocks
to build up the house of the Spirit
unto a holy priesthood
for the making of spiritual sacrifices
that are pleasing to God
through Jesus Messiah.

you are ‘a chosen generation,
a kingly priesthood,
a holy people, a community’s property’(Ex. 19,6)
to proclaim the virtues of him
who has called you
from the dark unto his wonderful light;
you who were once a ‘non-community’,
but are now the community of God
who were once outside God’s compassion,
but are now received in compassion (Hos. 2,1).

The eldest among you I call upon as fellow-eldest
and as witness of all the suffering of the Messiah
and also as companion in the glory that is to be revealed:
herd the flock of God who is with you,
not out of constraint but voluntarily, according to God’s will
and not out of greed of gain, but  well-disposed,
not playing the boss over the inheritance,
but as examples for the herd.

These greetings come to you from the co-elected in Babylon
and Marc my son;
greet each other with a kiss of love.
Peace be with you and all that are in the Messiah.


Right from the start, therefore, the priestly office did not develop out of and around the Eucharist or the liturgy, but through and out of the structure of the community through preaching, admonition and guidance. Who was to lead the service of bread and wine was not a separate problem for this community or for the so-called New Testament in its entirety. In the house community of Corinth the host and – so I expect – the hostess led the service of the table. This is not to say that any arbitrary member of the community could conduct a service –a certain amount of training was required as I stated above – but there was a deep conviction that in the communities of the Messiah all are equal; only the insignificant, the poor and oppressed are more equal; they are central: the leper, the man with a shrivelled hand, the unclean spirit, the man possessed by the devil, the naked man along the roadside, the flowing woman, the blind, the mute, the cripple, the dropsical – one long and endless procession of human suffering – they are the deputies of the Eternal and therefore the first.

But for their sake and because of them we are all equal. The Church Council of Chalcedon in 451 thus states that only (s)he who is called to leadership by a certain community received the ordinatio (that is not ‘ordination’ but ‘ordering’): the incorporation as office holder. This was not, or not necessarily, done by the laying on of hands but through the call from and incorporation into the community. The community celebrates, the priest leads in servitude. He can do no more than each of his community members, but receives his mandate from them. He is their mandatory.

It was as late as the twelfth and thirteenth century that this original ecclesiastical view of the priesthood is gradually broken during two ecumenical and especially Latin, western councils: the third and fourth Lateran Councils, respectively in 1179 and 1215. This forms a breach with Chalcedon. This means: the basis on which one was ordained according to Chalcedon i.e. only when one was called as leader by a certain community – which is essential for the ordinatio or incorporation – was fundamentally re-interpreted. According to the fourth Lateran Council (and not before) the Eucharist can only be performed by a legally ordained priest whose ordination had taken place according to set rules. We are then in the year 1215 and the reason for this change is mainly social and economical and is related to the priest’s income and his financial upkeep. The celebration of the Eucharist becomes entirely independent of the calling and mission of members by the local community. The ecclesiastical dimension of the Eucharist is shrunk and narrowed to the celebrating priest. The Eucharist becomes a potestas, a power. The leading priest is transferred to a different order of being on the strength of an ordination. He can do what no one else can.

This change of view is shared by many and is considered, perhaps also by people amongst us, to be an ecclesiastical dogma. It is not a dogma, however, but has, since 1215, been largely the official and most inviolable teaching of the Latin-Western church. How inviolable it is has been proved by events in the church in recent years. This church of  St. Dominic, where for years the community has elected members to preach and lead services (perhaps not yet as evidently as wished for) is known to have existed for as many years outside the diocese and sometimes even outside the church. Officially we are declared to be schismatic, dissident or, at best, as marginal. For the official church, we do no longer form part of it.


My firm conviction is that the opposite is the case. In the beginning of the 70s this church of St. Dominic has gradually passed from the traditional idea that only priests ordained by the bishop can lead Eucharistic services, to the original custom that ministers (male and somewhat later female) elected by the community itself, could and were allowed to perform this role. As the community of St. Dominic, we have, in fact, returned to insights and practice common in the early centuries of what we now call Christianity. This happened, almost willy-nilly, on the basis of  the developments, the questions and the religious instincts of the community itself. It was not really planned or determined. We were and are no modernists, but old-Christians, although at the time we were not really aware of this. At the moment, and certainly today, we know better. We have not strayed from the great church, on the contrary. We have, with growing conviction tried to establish within the church a refuge that does try, for better or for worse, to repair the original experiences and the original faith of our forebears shortly after Jesus himself. We are no modernists, but restorers. What happens here are repair works. Perhaps – God knows –  this is why this church is so filled with faithful people, Sunday after Sunday. “What always was, from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have witnessed and our own hands have felt concerning the word of life”(1Jo 1,1-2), is what we are doing here, or rather what we try to do here, by hook or by crook, but harmoniously and well-disposed., “so that our joy be complete” (1 Jo 1,4).


Sixty years ago I celebrated here, on the high altar there my – as it was then called – my first solemn holy mass. Together with altar boys and bridesmaid, with deacon and sub-deacon, with the then pastor Meijer as presbyter assistens in cope, with all the paraphernalia. After the service there was a reception in the big hall of the presbytery. I shall never forget that when the former seamstress of the family, whom we called miss Sol, came in and knelt before me to beg my blessing. That was sixty years ago.

Today, I stand before you in the same but meanwhile completely reborn St. Dominc’s. Nobody here has ever knelt before me, but I have been allowed to bless some of you. Actually, I have never been called and asked to lead your services, for, in 1964 I was dropped here from a heavenly helicopter. As time went on the community has accepted me and given me a place on this miraculous life raft, perhaps because I myself gradually became shipwrecked in search of a new shore and a new earth.

Many of you have supported and accepted me, if only by being willing to listen and join me in my (and your own) song full of dreams.

Today is a day to thank you for all this from the bottom of my heart and to praise you that you have been willing to bear with me and tolerate me. Just like my family and like our family seamstress long ago, I bless you sincerely and unreservedly. Let us celebrate this day because of our concord and – I do not hesitate to use this word – our attachment. Let us celebrate today our ´kingly priesthood´. I suppose, no, I know, that together we are truly church, a body in commemoration of Him, you know who, with many imperfect hands and feet, but, I think, full blooded and unhampered. You cannot give me a greater blessing than by pressing on on this road and hold on to each other, whatever may come. From the beginning the highest and really only dignity of the religious community is: giving love. The rest is second hand. My mother always said: “John, keep your eyes on God”. Today I say the same to you: Stand firm courageously.

Let me finish by quoting a line from that miraculous fisherman’s son from Capernaum at the Lake of Galilee, who, - I suppose – as a fifteen year old, followed Jesus and outlived him by more than sixty years. It is my firm conviction that he had understood and seen what Jesus was all about. He has taken me by the hand and I cannot let him go. I praise my father and mother for giving me his name from my first breath. What was I to do without him? He ends his story and the whole of the Holy Bible with one line that contains, sums up and blesses everything, a line that I would like to greet you with (Apk 22,21):

“The grace of the Messiah Jesus be with you all!”.

Jan Nieuwenhuis

Dr. Jan Nieuwenhuis o.p. (° 1924) is united to the Dominic Community of Amsterdam. He was appointed  in 1964 as member of the pastoral team of the then parish of St. Dominic which has been inspired by the Second Vatican Council and became gradually an open faith community for which, since about 1990, the diocese of Haarlem did not want to be anymore accountable. The faith community is member of the Council of Churches of Amsterdam.

Translation: Gerard Willems.


Het was weldadig dit stuk van Jan Nieuwenhuis te lezen. Ik dank er hem hartelijk voor. Mijn gelukwensen voor hem en zijn priesterschap.
theresia saers jmj - 's-Hertogenbosch

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