The Gift of the Priesthood
"The Eucharistic Sacrifice is the source and summit of the Christian life (Vatican II, Lumen Gentiumhereafter, LG11). This truth is the common and well-known experience of so many Catholics who find the strength to carry out their Christian duties as well as their joy and place of rest in the weekly, if not daily, participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Christ in the holy Eucharist is our life and the life of the Church. This is sense of the first line and title of our Holy Fathers latest encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia: "The Church draws her life from the Eucharist" (EE, 1).
The Attack on the Necessity of the Ministerial Priesthood
In the days of the Protestant Reformation, and even earlier, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharista teaching which had been upheld and gradually defined by the Church since the times of the Apostlesbecame a key point of dispute. While Calvin and many of his followers denied the Real Presence altogether (for them, Christ became present only figuratively and spiritually in the hearts of those who had faith), Luther was more subtle. He attacked the Eucharist at its source, the ministerial priesthood.
For Luther did not deny the Real Presence (at least, not for as long as the duration of the "Eucharistic assembly"); rather, he denied the unique power of the ministerial priesthood to confect the Eucharist. The Eucharist, he claimed, came to be through the power of the entire assembly, what in the Church we would call the common priesthood of the faithful. This loss of the ministerial priesthood and the Sacrament of Orders is still today the chief point of separation of the Catholic Church from her Protestant brethren (cf. Vat. II, Decree on Ecumenism, 22).
But even within the Church herself, there is a growing tendency to be satisfied with the "Eucharistic services" without the presidency of a priest. As our Holy Father warns in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, "When, due to the scarcity of priests, non-ordained members of the faithful are entrusted with a share in the pastoral care of a parish, they should bear in mind thatas the Second Vatican Council teachesno Christian community can be built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 6). They have a responsibility, therefore, to keep alive in the community a genuine hunger for the Eucharist, so that no opportunity for the celebration of Mass will ever be missed, also taking advantage of the occasional presence of a priest who is not impeded by Church law from celebrating Mass" (EE, 33).
Indeed, one of the chief points of John Paul, II in his encyclical on the Eucharist is to link the Holy Sacrifice to the ministerial priesthood. "The ministry of priests who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, in the economy of salvation chosen by Christ, makes clear that the Eucharist which they celebrate is a gift which radically transcends the power of the assembly and is in any event essential for validly linking the Eucharistic consecration to the sacrifice of the Cross and to the Last Supper" (EE, 29). The celebration of the Eucharist, moreover, is not just one duty among many of the priest. Rather, as the making-present of the sacrifice of Calvary, the Eucharist "is the principle and central raison dêtre of the sacrament of priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist" (John Paul, II, Dominicae Cenae, 2; cited in EE, 31).
If then, the Holy Eucharist as the "source and summit of the Christian life" is Christs greatest gift to His Bride, the Churchthe gift of His very self, His presence among us always (cf. Mt 28:20)it is only thanks to His prior gift of the priesthood and the Apostolic succession that we have the Eucharist in the Church today. Our love, then, for Christ in the Eucharist will be linked to a profound and holy love for the priesthood, for priestsfor those men who have sacrificed their own ambitions to follow Christs call to serve His Church.
The Dignity of the Priesthood
Let us consider for a moment the dignity of this calling. Just as at the Incarnation, the divine WORD passed over the choirs of Angels to become man, so too, passing over the Angels again, Christ identifies Himself again with man. For the priest, acting in persona Christi, as our Holy Father repeatedly points out, "means more than offering in the name of or in the place of Christ. In persona means in specific sacramental identification with the eternal High Priest Who is the author and principal subject of this sacrifice of His, a sacrifice in which, in truth, nobody can take His place" (Dominicae Cenae, 8; cited in EE, 29). The priest, then, at the altar in a certain sense becomes Christ.
Grace and Responsibility
This great dignity and gift of God to the priest, however, bears with it also the burden of responsibility. For how many souls will each priest be held accountable on the day of judgment? Yet as was seen, the gift of the priesthood is not a gift to an individual or individuals, but to the entire Church. For through the priest we receive the Eucharist, the Word of God and all the other Sacraments. But as we share in the grace, so, too, do we share in the responsibility. We, too, must bear the burden with our priests.
As the Second Vatican Council points out, the common priesthood of the laity and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained minister serve one another and are mutually ordered to one another. "Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teachers" (LG, 32). Thus, while the whole of the authority and ministerial power of the priest is ordered to the service and sanctification of the faithful, in turn, the faithful serve and support the priest by their submission and cooperation, directly and indirectly, materially and spiritually, in his ministry. "This very diversity of graces, ministries and works gathers the children of God into one, because all these things are the work of one and the same Spirit (1Cor 12:11)" (ibid.).
What We Can Do
Through our participation in the Crusade for Priests, we join in this beautiful, harmonic cooperation between the priesthood and the laity. Our prayers and sacrifices lend support and strength to priests who are, as it were, on the front line in the battle between Angels and demons. For the evil one knows that in bringing down a priest he brings down a whole train of souls with him. Let us join ranks, then, with the holy Angels who fight in hiddenness and humility for the salvation of souls and for priests. Let us offer our hidden sacrifices and fervent prayers for bishops, priests and seminarians, through the hands of Mary, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary and Mother of Priests, in order to uphold and support this great gift of God to His Church: the priesthood.
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