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The Holy Eucharist, The Passion, And The Priesthood

June 10, 2021 Featured Today No Comments


On May 29 I had the privilege of attending in New York the Ordination of ten men to the priesthood at St. Patrick’s Cathedral — six men for the Archdiocese of New York and four for the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
Even with all the dire news of current evils besetting our country and the Church, an Ordination remains a powerful reason for hope. By the end of the morning there were ten more priests in our world, ten more priests to celebrate countless Masses over the decades to come, to heal the spiritually ill and raise the spiritually dead in the confessional, to witness and bless Catholic marriages, to baptize untold numbers of babies, and to anoint those preparing to pass from this life.
Having arrived at the cathedral over an hour ahead of time, I had the opportunity to take my own photographs of the cathedral’s interior. Although St. Patrick’s has been photographed countless times, with pictures readily available in books and on the Internet, there is something special about capturing in a snapshot something of one’s own personal experience of such a sacred place.
The cathedral is a very fitting image of the unutterable depth and breadth of what was going to happen to these ten men when Timothy Cardinal Dolan would impose his hands upon their heads and afterward recite the prayer of Ordination.
A Gothic cathedral — in this case a neo-Gothic cathedral — could be said to be a profession of the Nicene Creed hewn from stone, an architectural incarnation of everything we believe as Catholics. The massive upward thrust of its pillars and vaults, evoking the vastness of the universe, is set in motion by the tiniest of treasures, and yet the most sacred of all, the Pearl beyond Price that we adore upon our altars, the Sacred Host. A cathedral is a testament to what the Mass truly is, and an expression of what man’s grateful response to such a gift ought to be. And this gift of God comes to us through His gift of the priesthood.
We speak of our Lord’s sermon on the Blessed Sacrament in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel as His “Eucharistic Discourse.” But it could also be said that our Lord’s words following His institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, likewise recorded by St. John (chapters 13-17), constitute in a way a second Eucharistic discourse. For the bond of intimacy between the soul of the believer and Himself of which He speaks so beautifully on this occasion is accomplished most perfectly in the Holy Eucharist.
Many of us know St. Augustine’s famous expression for the Holy Eucharist — “vinculum caritatis” — the “bond of charity” — understood to refer particularly to the bond the sacrament accomplishes among believers, uniting them in a communion of love. Yet over and above this is the “vinculum caritatis” that the Holy Eucharist effects between Christ and us, in fulfillment of His words, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5).
Rightly we have understood that each and every Mass brings us back, as it were, to Calvary, that in witnessing the Mass we are witnessing a re-presentation of the sacrifice of our Lord on the cross. But have we ever considered that our Lord in His Passion foresaw and foreknew all of us and all the worship we would render Him in the Holy Eucharist? If as St. John Henry Newman (+1890) has movingly observed our Lord foreknew all our sins as He prayed in Gethsemane (Newman’s discourse, “Mental Sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion”), it would likewise be so that in His divine nature He knew everything about us, including every instance of our participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and every visit we have ever made to Him in the Blessed Sacrament.
When our Lord celebrated the very first Mass at the Last Supper and soon afterward offered Himself on the cross, in His divine nature He would have foreknown and foreseen each and every Mass that would be celebrated over the many centuries afterward, each and every priest who would stand in His place to confect the sacrament, and each and every communicant who would approach the altar rails to receive Him. Indeed, at the Last Supper He expressly mentions and prays for all of us, as recounted by St. John: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word” (John 17:20).
When our Lord was praying in Gethsemane and saw His apostles nodding off to sleep, He would have foreseen by contrast the very many who centuries later would faithfully keep watch with Him in the Repository in their parish churches on Holy Thursday night, those who in so doing would add their share to the comfort the angel brought Him during His agony:
“And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43).
The Passion dimension of the Holy Eucharist, that it is a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, can’t be emphasized enough, especially now. For several decades we have seen a concerted effort to downplay the Church’s traditional focus upon the Passion and the sacrificial nature of the Mass. This claim seeks its justification in part by pointing to changes in the manner of depicting Christ on the cross, that because crucifixes during the Middle Ages became increasingly realistic in their depiction of Christ’s sufferings on the cross one can infer that the early Church lacked the intense Passion focus found in later centuries.
The intended conclusion of this claim is that the medieval Church lost touch with the pristine faith of the early Church in which everything was really about being happy “Easter people” who had largely put the Passion behind them. This line of reasoning, however, ignores inescapable evidence to the contrary.
The huge amount of space that the four Evangelists devote to the Passion in their Gospels is unabashedly and purposefully “disproportionate,” a testament to just how central Christ’s suffering and death are to the Gospel message as taught by the apostles. Time and again the New Testament speaks of us being saved from our sins by the blood of Christ, by His sacrifice, by His death on the cross. Moreover, in any honest assessment of how the early Church understood the Paschal Mystery, there’s no getting past the intensely vivid second-century Passion homily of St. Melito of Sardis (+190), or the emotionally charged, Passion-focused Holy Week observances in fourth-century Jerusalem as witnessed and described by the Spanish pilgrim Egeria. There is also the seventh-century “Life of the Virgin” attributed to St. Maximus the Confessor (+662) that is totally unsparing and unflinching in its rendering of the sufferings of Christ and our Lady on Good Friday.
The dichotomy between an early “perfect Christianity” and a later “corrupted Christianity” of the Middle Ages is a totally artificial construct invented by the academes of the Protestant Reformation, made worse by their mythological projection of Protestant theological theories onto early Christianity, as if St. Paul and the early Christians were proto-Protestants, with glaring evidence to the contrary conveniently dismissed or ignored. The endlessly repeated dictum that Christianity was all about joy and glory until dour-faced medieval clerics made it all about the Passion in the thirteenth century is sheer nonsense. There was no paradigm change in the Church’s Christology in the thirteenth century.
In his hymn of the Holy Cross Pange lingua gloriosi lauream certaminis, St. Venantius Fortunatus (+609) proclaims, “Sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the burden they sustained” (verse 8). It is precisely through contemplation of the Passion of Christ and by actually sharing in His sufferings that we discover more than ever just how sweet is that “burden” the cross and the nails sustained, the sacred Body of our Lord as received in Holy Communion.
How very fitting it is, therefore, that the Mass, this re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, should come to us through the consecrated hands of men who have sacrificed everything they could have had in the world to become priests. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:25).
This gift of total self-donation given by the ordinands is brought out most vividly when during the Ordination rite they prostrate themselves in the sanctuary for the recitation of the Litany of the Saints on their behalf. Lying face down, they appear as though dead, dying to the things of this world that they might give to countless souls the holy things of Heaven.

“Seeing God”

The numbers of men entering the priesthood at the present time is appallingly small, a crisis we must all pray and work to reverse. Yet let us not lose hope, for each Ordination of a new priest that does take place is a reminder that our Lord will never leave His flock entirely devoid of shepherds. It is not unlike the promise the Prophet Elijah made to the poor widow of Zarephath who took from the very little she had for her son and herself to make him a bit of bread: “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel, ‘The jar of meal shall not be spent, and the cruse of oil shall not fail, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth’” (1 Kings 17:14).
In the early sixteenth-century church visitation records for Spain’s military-religious order known as the “Order of Christ,” priests are enjoined to celebrate Mass early in the morning in order that workmen might be able to “see God” before beginning their daily labors (Pedro Dias, Visitacoes da Ordem de Cristo de 1507 a 1510: Aspectos artisticos, Coimbra, Portugal, Universidade, Faculdade de Letras, Instituto de Historia da Arte, 1979, p. 36).
May our celebration of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi this year serve as a reminder to renew and deepen our gratitude for the opportunity afforded us daily of “seeing God” on the altar in the consecrated hands of our priests.

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