The Vice President presides over the U.S. Senate. The Speaker of the House presides over the U.S. House of Representatives. To preside is “To hold the position of authority; act as chairperson or president.”
In a previous article, I expressed my exasperation with the use of the term presider to describe the priest who celebrates the Mass. In his homily at Holy Thursday Mass, our local pastor fleshed out my thoughts in a way that no layman ever could, for—as flesh, blood, and soul living in persona Christi—he literally fleshes them out every day of his priesthood. In short, Holy Thursday is not only the celebration of the institution of the Eucharist, it is the celebration of the establishment of the priesthood of the new covenant: two inseparable elements.
Our Fr. Joseph, a humble servant of God, has a strong Indian accent, prompting the parish to supply Mass attendees with a printed copy of his homily every Sunday, fortuitously allowing me to quote him with perfect accuracy. His homilies are never longer than the front and back of a single sheet of paper, making them short, simple, and direct.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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What was outstanding about this homily was that it should not be outstanding; that is to say, there would have been nothing particularly outstanding about such a homily when I was a child. But for the last fifty years or so, it sometimes seems that we have had a priesthood that is busy apologizing for the priesthood. What is calling a priest a presider if it is not a demotion?
The Mass is not the meeting of a committee; nothing is decided; it is not a public forum or public debate—it is an ancient rite instituted by Christ and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, molded by the Church. What about it requires presiding? The Mass is the perfection of the ancient Judaic sacrifice, the offering up of the Lamb of God rather than an actual lamb. Judaic sacrifice had no presider, no president, only a priest, a consecrated man set aside from the bustle of life—not necessarily a holier person, but one consecrated and set aside for a single glorious purpose: to offer sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people.
He did not preside, he served—he got his hands dirty. He consecrated the utensils, the altar, and the people by sprinkling them with the blood of the sacrifice! Our priests offer the Eternal Sacrifice, serving us in persona Christi, that is, as representatives of Christ, the servant of all, serving the people by giving up their very lives. Christ did not reinvent Judaism; He perfected it.
A Roman Catholic priest sacrifices everything—marriage, family, generally wealth, and most importantly, his time. His life is not his own. His example should be the model for our lives, for no Christian’s life is truly his own: it is Christ’s. In a recent video that I viewed, a priest related his experience of the priesthood in answer to a question that was put to him concerning his initial expectations as opposed to the actuality of the priestly life as he had experienced it. He said, with no small joy in his countenance, that the life was far more rewarding than he had imagined, and far more difficult than he had expected.
To borrow from a common axiom—no pain, no gain—it would seem universal that there is a positive correlation between life’s difficulty and the joy it can bring. Indeed, there are never-ending examples of people who live a life of ease, having everything physically imaginable, and yet experience relatively little joy.
Returning to Fr. Joseph’s homily, after a brief recounting of the biblical story of the Passover meal and how it was a remembrance of that last supper before leaving Egypt for the promised land, he related how it corresponded to Jesus’ last supper before leading the way to our eternal promised land, accomplished by conforming His will to that of the Father and becoming the new Pascal Lamb.
Here are some excerpts from that homily:
Jesus transformed his Last Supper into the first Eucharistic celebration—pay attention to those beautiful words—“While they were eating Jesus took the Bread, said the blessing, broke it and giving it to his disciples, said, ‘Take and eat, this is my Body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and gave it to them saying, ‘Drink from it all of you, for this is the blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.’” By saying these words Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. And with the command “do this in memory of me” he instituted the ministerial priesthood.
The Eucharist and Priesthood—these two are interrelated. St. Pope John Paul II said that “There can be no Eucharist without the priesthood, just as there can be no priesthood without the Eucharist.” St. John Mary Vianney said, “the priest is not a priest for himself—he is for you. After God the priest is everything” The priesthood is not a job but a privilege and a special blessing.
He went on to recount several of his encounters with parishioners while administering the sacraments, sometimes to the sick and dying, and the wonderful blessing that it has been for both those he serves and for himself. He held up his hands and said, “This is not a job but a privilege and a blessing. You receive Christ through these hands. You receive God’s graces through these hands.”
There was a time when it was common practice for the faithful to kiss the hands of the priest—to love and cherish the sacraments so much as to deeply cherish the consecrated hands by which God had deigned to provide them. Is there perhaps a false humility afoot in the Church, a humility that diminishes the gift along with the gifted? Have we developed an outlook of a sort of zero-sum economy of salvation? A need to demote the ministerial priesthood in order to elevate the common priesthood? If so, shame on us, for when the former shines, the latter glistens. When the troops are well fed, they march to victory. Recognizing the true glory of the priesthood is a win-win.
I know that Fr. Joseph’s words are a very basic explanation of both the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, but I would not be surprised to learn that he recognizes that basics seem to be what we are lacking and that reverence is the most basic element of all: reverence for self, others, the sacraments, the priesthood, the Church, and God.
Yes, we share a common priesthood—all are called to be priest, prophet, and king—something accomplished in us in as much as we are members of the Mystical Body of Christ. As part of that Mystical Body, we sacrifice our lives with His. In this common priesthood, the Church finds our ability to baptize and to pledge ourselves to one another in Holy Matrimony, those sacraments articulated by Christ to the community at large. It is not so simple for the rest of the sacraments, which were placed under the scrutiny of the apostles and come to us via the Spirit’s guidance of the Church.
The seventy-two disciples were recognized by Christ as ready and worthy of being sent out to spread the word of His coming kingdom, and yet none of them were invited to the Last Supper. None of them were included when Christ said, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained,” or “Do this in memory of me.” Nor were they addressed directly, as was St. Peter, to lead the Church. The ministerial priesthood is not, as some suggest, a means of controlling believers, a monopoly of sorts on the sacraments. It is, quite simply, the priesthood as Christ instituted it and as the Church has always understood it.
To dilute that understanding is to dilute the Faith. To diminish the ministerial priesthood to that of a presider—to an administrative function—is to diminish what Christ taught and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church’s understanding of those teachings. Priests are not perfect; some of them are not particularly holy, or smart, or kind. And yet they are part of God’s plan, consecrated by the successors of the Apostles, set aside to administer the sacred rites of the Church. Loving and supporting them is not optional simply because the sacraments are not optional—they bring the power of the Holy Spirit to our lives.
[Photo Credit: Unsplash]