Crusade Meditations: Winter 2003

The Priesthood and the Holy Eucharist

In this issue of the Crusade for Priests we present our readers with an excerpt from a keynote address given by Cardinal Dulles at Blessed John XXIII Seminary in September, 2000, on the theology of the priesthood as it specifically relates to the celebration of the Eucharist. It is hoped that this presentation will provide ample material for meditation, as well as a deeper understanding of the priesthood. (M.H.)

The priest succeeds to the threefold office of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. In the Middle Ages, when consciousness of the sacred was exceptionally high, the priestly or cultic dimension predominated. At Vatican II and in the years since the Council, the Magisterium has attempted to affirm all three aspects of the pastoral office in a balanced way. While giving due scope to the ministries of preaching, teaching, and pastoral governance, these documents continue to affirm the priority of the sacred and liturgical aspects of ministry, which are basic to the definition of priesthood in all religions.

According to the common understanding, priesthood at its heart is cultic—it has to do with the mediation between the human community and the transcendent God. As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifice for sins” (Heb 5:1). The mediation goes in two directions: from humanity to God and from God to humanity. The “upward” mediation consists in offering prayers and sacrifices in the name of the people. The “downwad” mediation takes place when the priest transmits the blessing of God, which occurs, especially in the Catholic Church, through the Sacraments.

Contrary to the popular impression that Vatican II gave priority to other aspects of priestly ministry, it in fact affirmed the centrality of prayer and sacrifice. It teaches that priests exercise their sacred functions “most of all in eucharistic worship” when, “acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming His mystery,” they sacramentally actualize the sacrifice of Christ and make its fruits available to the people of God.

The Decree of the Life and Ministry of Priests declares that it is in “the mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice that priests fulfill their highest office.” The Decree goes on to say that the eucharistic sacrifice is the center and root of the priest’s entire life. The Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity likewise speaks of the ministry of the priest as being “centered chiefly on the Eucharist, which brings the Church to perfection.” The Council goes so far as to say that the Eucharist is the “source and culmination of the entire Christian life.” For, as St. Thomas Aquinas explained, all the other sacraments and indeed all the ministrations and apostolic works of the Church derive from, and lead toward, the Holy Eucharist. Since Christ himself is truly and substantially present in it, the Eucharist contains the whole spiritual treasure of the Church.

The teaching of Vatican II on the centrality of the Eucharist has been repeated in many post-conciliar documents. The document of the Ministerial Priesthood issued by the Synod of Bishops in 1971 states that “the priestly ministry reaches its summit in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the source and center of the Church’s unity.” The Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests, published in 1994, calls the Eucharist “the heart and vital center” of priestly ministry. Pope John Paul II in many of his annual Holy Thursday letters says the same In Dominicae Cenae (1980) he declares that the Eucharist is the principal reason of the priesthood. So profoundly interconnected are priesthood and Eucharist, he says, that “there can be no Eucharist without the priesthood, just as there can be no priesthood without the Eucharist.”

In his general audience talks on the priesthood, the present Pope insists that the priest is not just a functionary working for the church as an institution. He is a “man of the sacred” consecrated to the worship that ascends to the Father and to the evangelizing mission by which the truth of revelation and the grace of God are disseminated. “This is the priest’s true identity, this is the essential requirement of the priestly ministry in today’s world.” Even more pointedly, the Pope later declares: “I reaffirm with conviction and deep spiritual joy that the priest is above all a man of the Eucharist.”

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