The Priesthood and the Eucharist
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The priesthood in the Catholic Church is identified with many things because over the centuries in the Church’s history there have been priests engaged in a variety, a bewildering array of enterprises.
As I look over the roster of the great Jesuits in the last four centuries it is unbelievable what kind of occupations and works the priests of the Society were involved in. There have been priests who were scientists, explorers, poets and even artists. There have been priests in the Church who were great preachers like John Chrysostom, great theologians like Thomas Aquinas, great mystics like John of the Cross, and, I shouldn’t forget, Ignatius of Loyola. But none of these professions, as we know, identifies what is the principal reason for the priesthood. Moreover, in our day a priest may be engaged in any one or several different pursuits that can occupy most of his time. He can be pastor or teacher or counselor or writer, administrator or social worker. The man who examined me for the Society, a Fr. Quinlan, there were four official examiners, and one of them, Fr. Quinlan asked me, would I be ready to do anything that superiors gave me later on? I couldn’t imagine what I wasn’t ready for. “Now, don’t be so sure,” he said. “What if they made you a treasurer?” By the way, he was the treasurer.
A priest can be working in a chancery or a publishing house — no matter. The main reason he has been ordained is because of the Eucharist. So true is this that if we would specify the heart of the priesthood we would have to say it is the Eucharist: the Eucharist as Presence, and the Eucharist as Sacrifice.
Each of these levels of the Holy Eucharist is totally dependent on the priesthood — no priesthood, no Real Presence and no Eucharistic Sacrifice (and no Holy Communion, either). But what may be less obvious, having given by now many conferences to priests, and I suppose some thousands of hours of classroom lectures to them, I have also told them that if the Real Presence and the Mass depend on priests, priests depend on the Real Presence and the Mass, and I’m not sure which dependence is more absolute.
Without the Eucharist, the priesthood is doomed to failure, and as history by now sadly testifies, to extinction. Because, you see, the priesthood has become extinct in not a few parts of the world where it had once gloriously flourished. That, then, which the priests create they also require for their survival.
First, then, the priest and the Real Presence. In the late eleventh century, to be exact in the year 1079 A.D., a certain French priest by the name of Berengar (more commonly known as Berengarius) was required to sign a solemn profession of faith in the Real Presence. His problem was that he was a theologian. As a theologian he had difficulties, which is not surprising. But what was unfortunate is that having difficulties he began to talk and teach and write about these difficulties regarding the Real Presence. His problem could not have been more fundamental. How is it possible, he asked himself, and he would ask his listeners and readers, for the same Jesus Christ, mind you the same, to be at once in heaven and also on earth? He was on earth, so Berengar said, during His stay before His death and even for a short time after His Resurrection, and then He ascended into Heaven! So He had been on earth, but He went to heaven. Where, then, he asked, is Christ? In heaven. Where can He also not be? He cannot also be on earth.
I had this brought home to me very strongly when I was asked to contribute an article on the Catholic doctrine on the Real Presence to a special issue of the Ecumenical Review published at Temple University to coincide with the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. I was asked if I did not mind if after I wrote my article that I would share it with a Baptist theologian counterpart and have him write another article answering mine. I said I would allow this, provided that I could answer his reply. The editor agreed. I wrote my article, sent it in. He wrote his. And would you believe it, this nationally recognized Baptist theologian said he respected the faith of Father Hardon, but he cannot for the life of him (that is, the Baptist life of him) understand how Christ can be both in heaven and on earth at the same time. My answer was very short: Who said you can understand it? The point is, is it true?
The Sixth Council of Rome was presided over by Pope St. Gregory VII in 1079 A.D. Berengar was summoned and was told to sign the following statement: “I, Berengar, firmly believe and confess with my mouth that the bread and wine which are laid on the altar by the mystery of sacred prayer and the words of Our Redeemer are substantially changed into the very flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ true and life giving; and that after the consecration it is the true body of Christ, which was born of the Virgin, which was offered as a sacrifice on the Cross for the salvation of the world, and which sits at the right hand of the Father, and the very blood of Christ which flowed from His side” (Denzinger
This profession of faith in the Real Presence has ever since been the touchstone of Catholic orthodoxy. Those who believe this are Catholic; those who do not are not.
It was not coincidental that the Holy See had to exact this attestation of belief in the Real Presence from a priest in the eleventh century, for the priest’s statement has been quoted in countless documents of Popes and Councils because it is precisely here that, how well I know, that the priest’s first test of faith is to be found. I’ll change that. This is where his constant test of faith is to be found.
How well I know the act of faith that this requires. The act that I had to make the first time I consecrated the host and knelt down before what I believed was God in human form. He was brought down on the altar by the words that I, a sinner, had pronounced. I have struggled with too many priests far into the night, or with theologians preparing for ordination, not to know that this, ah, this is the crux of a priest’s faith.
A priest, therefore, makes the Real Presence possible, and no one, no king or prince or genius, nor the will of a thousand people or the combined efforts of a whole nation, can substitute for the power of a priest’s consecrated words: “This is my body. This is the chalice of my blood.”
And as the Fathers of the Church do not hesitate to say, there is no less a miraculous change taking place on the altar than took place in the womb of Mary at the moment of the Incarnation. Before she pronounced her words, there was no Christ on earth. The moment she did, He took dwelling in her body. The moment before the words of the priest are pronounced over the elements of bread and wine, there is just bread and wine. He pronounces them and then divine power — it has to be divine power — changes the substance of bread and wine into the very living Body and Blood of the living God.
But, and what an adversative this is, having the power to make the Real Presence real is not the same as keeping alive his own faith in what, except for him, would not even exist on earth. The priest therefore — and this, therefore has been learned from much experience from the hundreds of priests whom I have taught, from the more hundreds I have counseled — the priest must sustain this faith in this same Real Presence. He has no choice. He must spend some time each day before the Blessed Sacrament. If he does, and the more earnestly he does the more surely will his faith be strengthened and his effectiveness in carrying on Christ’s work among souls be increased.
I will say more. Depending on how constantly his faith is nourished before the feet of the Christ whom he brought down to the altar, the more his faith will even give faith to those who don’t believe and strengthen the faith of others whose faith may be weak.
Some time before Archbishop Sheen was hospitalized for heart surgery, I visited him. All I can tell you — he was a kindred spirit. As soon as I walked into the apartment, the very first thing he did was to trek into chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. As he told me, “This is where I do most of my work.” I told him that this is “where I do my best work, too.”
That is the first level of our reflections — the Priest and the Mass. No less, then, the Real Presence so the Mass is impossible without the priest. It, in fact, is only at Mass that the consecration takes place, and when bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Yet we know that the Mass is not merely the Eucharistic consecration. I am afraid some people, through no fault of their own, just not knowing, think of the Sacrifice of the Mass as a kind of a means to an end. We need the Mass to have the Real Presence. Well that’s true, but hardly adequate. The Mass is not only a means to give us Christ’s Presence, it is also Christ’s Sacrifice. No less than having carved in marble the clarity of the Real Presence, so the Church has lucidly defined what the Mass is: It is simply and unequivocally the Sacrifice of Calvary repeated. Let’s not fear the verb. Re-enacted. Let’s use the word re-presented. The Mass reenacts Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross. Jesus Christ really present in His human nature, therefore with His human will, is capable of offering Himself no less really now then He did twenty centuries ago, because you see the heart of sacrifice is in the will. Christ’s willingness to die, His readiness to shed His blood is no less real now than it was when He actually died. And, as the Church tells us, the only reason He does not die is because being immortal and glorified He cannot die. But the fact that He now has an immortal body has not deprived Him of a human free will. It is with that will that He re-offers Himself to His Father, not now to merit the grace which had been gained for us on Calvary but to dispense the grace, to channel what had been gained, to distribute what had been won, to confer what had been died for.
On Christ’s side, therefore, the Mass, which the priest offers and as the Church further tells us, is unbloody, it is the same Sacrifice because it is the same priest, Jesus, and the same victim, Himself. But no less than the human lips of the human priest make possible the Real Presence. So His words of offering Christ to His heavenly Father and separately consecrating the bread and wine make the real Sacrifice possible. While the one who is really doing the Sacrifice is Christ through the instrumentality as the Church’s doctrine tells us of His human priests.
So much for the priest and making the Holy Real Sacrifice possible. But once again, no less than the Real Presence is to nourish the faith of the priest so the real Sacrifice of the Mass is to enable the priest to be a priest, that is one who sacrifices and sacrifices himself. He must then live up to what his name signifies: one who surrenders himself as no one else on Earth is expected to surrender.
During a five-day stay in Rome, besides spending time with various Congregations of the Holy See, I spent time a delightful evening with a priest friend of mine who is, if you wish, one of the exorcists of Rome. He drives out the devil. Over the evening snack we had together, I was telling him I thought he was working too hard. He said, “Well maybe I am, but I can’t forget what a priest-teacher and counselor told me in the seminary. ‘A priest should be eaten up by his people.’” The life of a priest should be a life of continual sacrifice: this means the sacrifice of his time to the people committed to his care. It’s not his time; it’s theirs. The sacrifice of his talent as I have told so many theologians. The only reason you have been studying all those long dreary years. Look, it’s not for you — you’re not worth it. It’s for the people who will need even things you think you won’t need. That’s not the point. They will need it.
This means the sacrifice of his preferences, his conveniences, his tastes, his place of living, and his form of ministry is to be directed under the form of obedience to that which he is assigned and to the utmost of his human capacity strengthened by the grace of God.
I admire priests who die working. St. John Francis Regis, how delightful, he died in the confessional. And a fellow Jesuit in Cincinnati died teaching class. My pastor in Cleveland and he was just the type, when I came to tell him that I was going to be a Jesuit, he congratulated me and for the first time in years he told me you know I wanted to become one myself. But they told me, “You are too much an individualist.” A great man! His priesthood gave me mine. He died of all places on the stage, distributing prizes to graduates from the commercial high school in the parish. Beautiful.
A priest is to totally spend himself for the souls which Christ has entrusted to his care. There is a great shortage to the priesthood in many countries and in many dioceses in the United States. Among the reasons I would especially assign this one the young men in whom may be the first flowerings of a priestly vocation have not been sufficiently inspired by the priest who entered their lives. The Church desperately needs priestly vocations. And she will get them on one condition, provided priests are what they are supposed to be. Men who do not shrink from hard work, do not hesitate to undergo inconvenience and even pain, men whose one preoccupation is to win souls, to bring back sinners or to elevate the weak and the timid to sanctity.
Men, who in the words of St Ignatius, fight and ignore the rules, who labor and ask for nothing except God’s love in return. In a word, priests who are not afraid of sacrifice, whose Mass is not just their liturgy, but their life. For such priests, we should pray and beg the Great High Priest to send such priests into the harvest.