Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, speaks at the International Eucharistic Conference in Dublin, Ireland, June 13. Photo courtesy of Saltandlighttv.com.
Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, delivered this speech on day four of the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.
Dear friends in Christ gathered this afternoon at this truly magnificent Eucharistic Congress:
The Eucharist, as we have been hearing throughout these grace-filled days, is a gift that the Lord continues to give to us, so that we might have “life, and life in abundance” (Jn 10:10). Without the Eucharist, we would die of hunger, for it is through this saving sacrifice of Christ made present on our altars that we enter into communion with him and with one another in the Church.
This afternoon’s catechesis focuses on ordained priests, those chosen instruments (cf. Jn 15:16) whom the Lord has delegated to feed his people with the Bread of life (cf. Jn 6:35-59). I begin by affirming that the ministerial priesthood is born from the Eucharist, is directed to the Eucharist and bears fruit because of the Eucharist. In this presentation I will make three major points about the priesthood: first, ministerial priests are at the service of the priesthood of all the faithful; second, priests are men of communion called to foster unity and healing in the ecclesial community; and third, priests, as servants of the Eucharist, provide the laity with the strength to carry out their mission in the Church and in the world.
I. The Ministerial Priesthood Serves the Common Priesthood 1. One Priesthood Shared in Different Ways
In the Church all the people of God are priestly; they are called to holiness of life, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to the Father through Jesus Christ, and to proclaim to the world the greatness of the One who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light (cf. 1 Pet 2:5,9). Baptism initiates us into this one priesthood of Christ, giving to each of the baptized a share in his priestly, prophetic and kingly mission. But a question arises. Does the ordained or ministerial priest have a distinct role in Christ’s mission and, if so, how does this role relate to the Eucharist?
The Fathers at the Second Vatican Council – that providential event of grace whose opening the Church will celebrate this October by launching a “Year of Faith” – put the distinction this way: “Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated; each in its own way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.”
In order to understand this affirmation from Lumen Gentium, which has subsequently been frequently repeated in papal teaching, two clarifications are in order. First, we need to put aside associating the word “hierarchical” with “domination” or “power.” The real meaning of the word “hierarchical” refers to the fact that whatever authority an ordained priest exercises does not come from himself, but from God, who confers it through the sacrament of Holy Orders. Ordination entails subjection, to be sure, but it is that of the priest to Christ; it makes of him a servant, not an autocrat.
Second, let there be no mistake about who is to serve whom through the priesthood. The ministerial priesthood emerges from within, and is sustained by, the wider faith community. Christ, “with a brother’s kindness . . . chooses men to become sharers in his sacred ministry.” The ordained priesthood is, therefore, “a particular gift” which God provides for the good of the Church, so that it “can help the people of God to exercise faithfully and fully the common priesthood which it has received.”
The distinction between the common and ministerial priesthood can never justify antagonistic divisions among members of the community. Differing gifts and functions in the Church are simply that: different; they are complementary, not adversarial. In fact, we can say that “the more the laity’s own sense of vocation is deepened, the more what is proper to the priest stands out.”
2. Different Roles in the Eucharist
Now let’s describe the distinctive role of ordained priests in the celebration of the Eucharist.
In virtue of their royal priesthood, the faithful, as Vatican II teaches, truly “share in the offering of the Eucharist.” But is there a unique – even an absolutely necessary – role for the ministerial priest whenever Mass is offered? Yes, there certainly is: “the Church teaches that priestly ordination is the indispensable condition for the valid celebration of the Eucharist.” This intrinsic relationship between the Eucharist and the sacrament of Holy Orders clearly emerges from Jesus’ words at the Last Supper in the upper room: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). Thus, as Blessed John Paul II beautifully summed up the Church’s great tradition, “there can be no Eucharist without the priesthood, just as there can be no priesthood without the Eucharist.”
With his ordination, a priest becomes capable of acting, as we say, in the person of Christ, in persona Christi. Why is he given this authority? Not for himself, but so that he can offer the Eucharist on behalf of all the people. Because he has received a participation in divine authority, the priest becomes “a sacramental representation of Christ, Head and Shepherd” of the Church. As the recently published Youcat expresses it: “Through his ordination, the transforming, healing, saving power of Christ is grafted onto him.”
On account of his ordination, a priest can speak with the “I” and the “me” of Jesus himself – something truly awesome. At the consecration of the Mass, the priest says, “Do this in memory of me.” He speaks Jesus’ words with a power that comes from on God. Likewise, in celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation, he says, “I absolve you.” In both instances it is as if Jesus were speaking with the priest’s voice.
Note carefully, however, just what this teaching means: that a priest “represents” Christ. In ordinary language, to “represent” someone usually means to be delegated to speak and/or act on behalf of someone else, someone who is absent. But, the priest does not represent the Lord in this way. Why? Because in the Church Christ is never absent; the Church is his living Body, and he is its Head (cf. Col 1:18), always present and ever active in a way that is unlimited by time and unconfined space.
When a priest offers the Eucharist, remember that it is always the Risen Christ who is acting through him as merely his representative. He, the Lord, is the one and only high priest of the new covenant (cf. Heb 5:10) who brings about what the ordained priest can never do on his own. In proclaiming the word and celebrating the sacraments, the ministerial priest always represents and speaks for Christ.
II. Priests Called to Live and Foster Communion
Now I will offer a few observations on the ordained priest as a man with the mission of fostering communion, a man called to promote unity and healing in the Body of Christ.
Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the Church’s vocation to further communion: “In her whole being and in all her members, the Church is sent to announce, bear witness, make present, and spread the mystery of the communion of the Holy Trinity.” As an icon on earth of the Trinity, the Church has the mission of fostering our communion with the Triune God and with one another. It is therefore the ordained priest’s responsibility to be a man of communion, himself “in communion with Christ the Head, (and) leading others into this communion.”
1. Communion with Christ: Foundation of the Priestly Ministry
In the rite of priestly ordination the Bishop lends his hands to those of Christ, so that the Lord himself can take possession of the newly ordained, claiming him as his own by placing his hands upon his head. At the Last Supper, Jesus explains the meaning of this traditional gesture, which dates from the apostolic community, when he calls his disciples his “friends,” because he has made known to them everything that the Father has revealed to him (cf. Jn 15:15). To be ordained as a priest is an invitation, even more, it is a command, to live a profoundly personal relationship with Jesus which is “a knowledge of the heart.” A priest’s friendship with the Lord is not, then, just knowing about him. It is, above all, a communion with him based on wanting and willing the same things that Jesus wants and wills.
If the priest is to foster in those he serves communion with God and among the faithful, his own friendship-communion with Christ must be nourished daily by the Eucharist. This Eucharistic intimacy with the Lord is the critical factor which enables his ministry to bear fruit for the Kingdom. That’s why prayer and adoration are not wasted time or a shirking of pastoral duties. On the contrary, they enable the priest “to be really in touch with the Lord, and thus to speak of the Lord to others from experience.”
To the extent that he assimilates the truth of the Eucharist in his own life, the priest likewise learns to love, to give away his life as Jesus did when he offered himself on the altar of the Cross. St. Thomas Aquinas expressed this truth very well when he wrote: “One cannot in fact be a good pastor, except by becoming one with Christ and with the members of his Body, through charity. Love is the first duty of the good pastor.”
2. Leading Others to Communion with God
From this personal communion with the Eucharistic Christ flows a priest’s energy to lead others to that same Heart. Those ordained lead by example. Priests don’t just preach about Christ; they are to model the Christian life for everyone they meet, wherever their ministry takes them. They are “walking billboards” that say, “this is how a Christian lives.”
At the end of the day, what do people really want from their priests? Again and again we hear that, above all, they want them to be “specialists” in the search for God; they want priests to bring them to know the person of Jesus Christ, who “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Pope Benedict often points out that the faithful neither ask nor expect a priest to be an expert in finances, construction, social services, or politics. Rather, they want him to be an expert in the spiritual life, a master of prayer. They come to him with questions about the meaning of life. They want to get closer to God, to pray better, to feel God’s presence and know his forgiveness in their daily lives. They want their faith to be relevant to their families and their work – and they often don’t know how. People want their priests to point out to them the path to Jesus Christ, who is the way that leads to the Father, the truth that sets them free, and the life that fills them with gladness (cf. Jn 14:6).
How can a priest ever meet such expectations? I daresay, on his own, he cannot. But, whenever he celebrates the Eucharist with his people, he opens the way to communion with the very life of Jesus. Indeed, we receive him in Holy Communion. As is so often the case, St. Augustine helps us to understand the profundity of what this reception of the Eucharist means. In his Confessions, the great Doctor of the Church refers to a vision he had about the meaning of Holy Communion, in which Jesus said to him: “You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me.” What is Augustine getting at? While ordinary food is assimilated by the body and nourishes it, the Eucharist is completely different; it is the “living bread . . . from heaven” (Jn 6:51). We do not assimilate it. On the contrary, it assimilates us; so that when we receive Holy Communion we abide in Jesus Christ and with members of his Body. This is decisive: it is Christ who, in Eucharistic communion, transforms us into himself. By receiving his Body, we gradually acquire his attitudes and his sentiments; we learn to see people and judge events through his eyes. Our way of thinking and acting is gradually freed from its self-centeredness and placed in the Heart of Jesus, who in turn is himself immersed in communion with the Triune God.
3. Leading Others to Communion with One Another
A priest is called to lead the people entrusted to his care to God, to be the instrument through which “by partaking in the Body and Blood of Christ,” they “may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.” In order to guide them into this communion, he must strive to establish authentic relationships with them, knowing his people “by name” as does any good shepherd (cf. Jn 10:3). His role as a man of communion is to be, as the Holy Father has written, “open to all, capable of gathering into one the pilgrim flock which the goodness of the Lord has entrusted to him, helping to overcome divisions, to heal rifts, to settle conflicts and misunderstandings, and to forgive offences.”
Insofar as he unites the family of God through his ministry, the priest is a bridge between his people and God, serving them as a brother and shepherd. He builds up the Church by fostering harmony in the wonderful diversity of vocations, charisms and services among his people, some of which might well be far outside his “comfort zone.” Ever the reconciler, the priest calls the faithful to unity around the Eucharist that the community celebrates together and over which he presides.
Whenever factionalism, grumbling and bitter divisions get the upper hand within parish or other communities and local Churches, the ecclesial communion which the Eucharist should manifest is weakened. It is to be expected, of course, that healthy tensions exist within the Church-communion. But when acrimony replaces charity, and diatribes take the place of listening, the priest, as the man of communion, must remind his community that they are one body, for they all partake of the one Eucharistic Bread (cf. 1 Cor 10:17).
To preserve and strengthen ecclesial communion is a priestly responsibility. He accomplishes this, at least in part, by serving as the “memory” of the community, recalling for it that the Eucharist sows in the minds and hearts of believers the desire for authentic communion.
As men formed by communion with Christ and leading others to share in that communion, priests are also acutely aware of instances where they have failed, thereby causing untold suffering and disorientation, and betraying the fundamental obligation of the priestly ministry itself.
The Church of our own day is everywhere urgently appealing to her priests and bishops to work towards healing “the wounds inflicted on Christ’s body,” by fostering “unity, charity and mutual support in the long-term process of restoration and ecclesial renewal.” We are being admonished to be “spiritual physicians” who mend not only the souls of others but also their minds and hearts. In a word, the present moment in the Church’s life calls for priests to be men of reconciliation. Moreover, I believe that we can effectively accomplish this ministry of healing because we know ourselves to be “wounded healers,” burdened by our own failures and sins, but buoyed up by confidence in the forgiveness offered by the Lord who is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4).
The healing of broken relationships of trust is a lengthy process of re-establishing communion. Reconciliation always remains a work in progress: a mission to be carried out in order to strengthen communion where it is weakened and surmount the divisions that impair it.
The strength to accomplish this will only come from women and men who are profoundly rooted in friendship with Christ and find their nourishment in the Eucharist.
Indeed, as the Pastoral Reflections prepared for this International Congress put it, the Eucharist “enables us and invites us to live out this communion in our lives. This implies a logic of reconciliation, forbearance and mutual being for one another.”
III. Fostering the Vocation and Mission of the Laity
Now I would like to move to the third point of today’s catechesis: how do priests fulfill their role as men of communion by fostering the mission of lay women and men in the Church and the world?
Since apostolic times, and following our Lord’s example, those called to lead others in the community are “to exercise their responsibility by serving.” The Church is called and commits herself to exercise authority as service. Moreover, she exercises it not in her own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ, who received from his Father all authority in heaven and on earth (cf. Mt 28:18).
Integral to this ministry of serving is the priest’s mission “to see to it . . . that each member of the faithful shall be led in the Holy Spirit to the full development of his [or her] own vocation in accordance with Gospel preaching, and to sincere and active charity.”
1. Priest as Servant
Priests are servants of the Eucharist. As such, any preoccupation with power, prestige or privilege contradicts the call to a ministry of service. In all their activities they are to imitate Christ, who made “servant” his highest title of honour. Pope Benedict could not be clearer: “Jesus does not come in the guise of a master of this world, but the One who is the true Master comes as a servant. His priesthood is not dominion but service.”
St. John’s narration of the Last Supper does not record Christ’s words over the bread and cup as do the three synoptic evangelists. Instead, we have the account of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet, an act which sheds light on how we are to understand the Eucharist. Not only were the disciples to transform bread and wine into his Body and Blood “in remembrance of him” (cf. 1 Cor 11:25), by washing one another’s feet (cf. Jn 13:14-15) they were to imitate their Master’s example as one who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life [as] a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45; cf. Mt 20:28).
By stooping down to wash the dirty feet of his surprised disciples, Jesus embodies the kind of transforming effect he has in mind when he instituted the Eucharist as the sacrament of love: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15). The Eucharist is a gift of his love which, in turn, calls forth a response of love from those who receive it.
Whenever he offers the Eucharist, the priest is fulfilling the primary act of his being a servant. In doing so, he carries out a service which immerses the faithful in communion with God and with one another. He does this as Christ’s humble servant, imitating his bent-over Master in the upper room.
To Christians gathered for the celebration of Mass, “Be what you can see,” St. Augustine said, “and accept what you are.” These strong words invite us to respond vigorously to the appeal to “be Christ” for those around us. We are now his Body in the midst of the world. To paraphrase a famous saying attributed to St. Teresa of Avila: we are the eyes with which Jesus’ compassion looks at those in need; we are the hands he holds out to bless and to heal; we are the feet he uses to go and do good and we are the lips through which his Gospel is proclaimed.
Moreover, it is important to realize that when we share in the Eucharist, we are not paying tribute to the memory of a dead hero by merely prolonging what he has done. On the contrary, through the ministry of the ordained priest, Christ becomes alive within us, his Body, the Church, his priestly People. “By nourishing ourselves with him in the Eucharist and by receiving the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we truly form the Body of Christ that we have received, we are truly in communion with him and with each other and genuinely become his instruments, bearing witness to him before the world.”
2. Serving by Fostering Co-Responsibility with the Laity
In the Church today, it is vitally important that priests and laity base their relationships with one another on their shared understanding of the Eucharist as an impetus to communion and service. Concretely this means that teamwork, complementarity and mutual respect should mark their interactions. More than ever, the priest’s role of shepherding entails listening to what “the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 2:7); that is, calling forth and affirming the charisms and gifts from those whom he serves.
Three years ago, the Holy Father, talking to a gathering of clergy, consecrated persons and laity in his own Diocese of Rome, posed a question which each of us priests and bishops this afternoon would do well to address: “In living my ministry, to what extent do I recognize and encourage the pastoral co-responsibility of all, and particularly of the laity?” Besides encouraging a renewal in the spiritual life, the Pope said something very important that all of us clergy should take to heart:
it is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted, with respect for the vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of lay people. This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as “collaborators” of the clergy but truly recognized as “co-responsible,” for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity. This common awareness of all the baptized of being Church in no way diminishes the responsibility of parish priests. It is precisely your task, dear parish priests, to nurture the spiritual and apostolic growth of those who are already committed to working hard in the parishes. They form the core of the community that will act as a leaven for the others.
I daresay that every local Church and every parish community must answer this question of pastoral co-responsibility for itself. Compared to the number of baptized in our parishes, lay people who are encouraged to lead various initiatives are still too few and far between.
Every priest is an instrument through whom the Risen Christ himself loves, instructs, guards and guides his people so that, according to their abilities and gifts, “they may zealously participate in the saving work of the Church.” As a man intent on building ecclesial communion, a priest expresses his love for the Lord and for the Church by his positive and encouraging rapport with the lay faithful and consecrated persons. Aware of the profound communion which binds him to them, since he offers the Eucharist with them and for them, he makes every effort “to awaken and deepen co-responsibility in the one common mission of salvation, with a prompt and heartfelt esteem for all the charisma and tasks which the Spirit gives believers for the building up of the Church.”
A servant-priest “should uncover with a sense of faith, acknowledge with joy and foster with diligence the various humble and exalted charisms of the laity.” He inspires his people to discern and use their gifts, to assume their own responsibilities and initiatives. Neither authoritarian nor paternalistic, he offers his fraternal accompaniment and his counsel, as they journey together, seeking to live in communion with God and their neighbour.
3. Fostering Christ’s Saving Work in the World
Because the Eucharist unites us with Christ, whereby we become “one body, one spirit” in him,40 it strengthens us for a life of spreading the Gospel and imbuing society with its values. The Eucharist contains within it this call to action and co-responsibility. “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life” is one of the dismissals now proclaimed at the end of Mass. After the celebration is over, this injunction beckons all of us – clergy, Religious and lay faithful alike – to become “Eucharist” for others, to identify with them, “to share their joys and sorrows, to learn to think with their heads, to feel with their hearts, to live their lives.”
Participation in the Eucharist bids us who welcome, adore and receive the Lord to give ourselves to our brothers and sisters, just as he did. Together with Jesus, we are called “to be bread broken for the life of the world”: to nourish others as we have been nourished. While the Eucharist unites us personally and intimately to Christ, at the same time it opens us up to others, drawing us into deeper communion with them. As Pope Benedict wrote in his first encyclical,
Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become “one body,” completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbour are now truly united. . . . “Worship” itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. – And then the Pope concludes with words that are truly staggering: – A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.
A community of faith, gathered around its priest at the Eucharist, recognizes their brothers and sisters who are suffering, who are hungry and thirsty, who are strangers and naked, who are sick, imprisoned or unjustly treated in any way (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Those who celebrate and receive the Eucharist receive an impulse of the Spirit to become a promoters of communion, peace and solidarity. From the gift of Christ’s love made present in the Eucharist offered by a priest comes the responsibility of all Christians to build together a just and fraternal society, a culture of life and a civilization of love.
Allow me to conclude with one last thought. The ministerial priest is called to live intensely the Eucharistic mystery. This is at the heart of his mission of serving the faithful: to draw them into an intimate and personal relationship with the Lord and to build up the Body of Christ as a holy communion of people united with one another in service of the wounded Church and restless world which the Lord is drawing to himself from the Cross lifted high above the earth.