20 May 2009

Holy Eucharist: Central to all forms of priesthood

Francis writes in the "Letter to the Entire Order."
Look at your dignity, you brothers who are priests and be holy since He is holy (cf. Lev 19:2). And as the Lord God has honored you above all other persons because of this ministry, so you should love, reverence, and honor Him above all others. It is a great misery and a miserable weakness that when you have Him present with you in this way, you concern yourselves with anything else in this entire world.
Francis' reverence for the priesthood and the Holy Eucharist is well known. As a priest, I find myself embarassed by his statement that the Lord God has honored me "above all other persons." I'm not sure that this should be applied to the ordained priesthood, so much as the royal priesthood in which we all participate in virtue of Holy Baptism. It is through the action of the assembled Body of Christ, working together with the Holy Spirit that indwells us, that the Lord "is present on the altar in the hands of a priest."

And yet we ordained priests ought not avoid the dignity that is ours through holy orders. Like it or not, we play a certain indispensable role in the symbolic economy of the sacrament. First, insofar as we represent the bishop, as successor to the apostles and as Catholic person connected with all other bishops and all other Christians throughout time and space. The Eucharist is not something that we can do for ourselves. It comes from those who are commissioned, set apart, and sent, by the Lord and his Church. It comes as pure and unmerited gift. Second, insofar as we priests represent Christ himself at table--taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing. The other functions of priesthood--in the ordinal, we speak of "pastor, priest, and teacher"--flow from this mystery. The authority of the ordained priesthood, including "binding and loosing" comes from this sacramental role. So too, the ministries of the baptized, in collaboration with their pastors, are grounded in participation in the Eucharistic Assembly.

Many priests are a disgrace, and there have been times when I have been ashamed of myself. But the purpose of contrition is to drive us back into the arms of the Lord. Francis said that he would kiss the hands of even the worst priest in the world, because these hands handle the body and blood of Jesus. I remember when +Dorsey Henderson, Bishop of Upper South Carolina, anointed my hands at my ordination, to bless and heal.

The ordained priesthood is filled with humiliations, both small and large. I think Francis is reminding ordained priests of our central task, one of a very few reserved to us (as representatives of the bishop and therefore the Universal Church). He is reminding us of this, because of the many other roles that priests were asked to play in his day--and still are in ours. I wonder what this passage would say to the priest who finds himself or herself performing the functions of a branch manager or treated as an employee, a member of the "parish staff." A priest is a member of a community, in fact a called and chosen leader within the community, in communion with the bishop and in collaboration with the vestry and other lay leaders.

I am responding, in part, to the issues raised by Fr. John Julian's comments on Derek's post here. My own sense is that frequent communion would renew us all in the fundamental act that brings us together as Church. Hearing the caveats of Christopher and others, I'm willing to back off of any judgmental attitude, but I still think that John Julian is on to something important. The Church is undergoing fundamental changes. The survival of the Church depends on us putting Eucharist first, at least as the norm.

The answer to many of our challenges, I think, is to come back to the Eucharist and the absolutely free gift we find there. Properly understood, the whole rite is the Gospel lived out, including the mystery of the Church. The Eucharistic gift not only saves us; it also orders us into a coherent Body. We priests ought to find both our dignity and our humility here, rather than in worldly terms. In this sacrament, all are made brothers and sisters. One presides; all celebrate. None ought to forget his or her proper dignity within the Body.

Francis continues:

Let the whole world of humankind tremble
the whole world shake
and the heavens exult
when Christ, the Son of the living God,
is present on the altar
in the hands of a priest
O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!
O sublime humility!
O humble sublimity!
That the Lord of the universe
God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself
that for our salvation
He hides himself under the little form of bread!

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