Monday, April 15, 2019

There will be no Mass without the Priesthood

Maundy Thursday

Most people would focus on the foot-washing ritual when thinking about today’s mass. Few realise that the foot washing rite is actually optional and is not a central component. Rather, the rubrics clearly spell out the focus of the homily: we are called to shed light “on the principal mysteries that are commemorated in this Mass, namely, the institution of the Holy Eucharist and of the priestly Order, and the commandment of the Lord concerning fraternal charity.” Most people would have certainly heard about the Eucharist, but how about the priesthood? 

I would like to begin by being honest here. It’s been a bad year for the Church. But the truth is: it’s been a bad year for Catholic priests. If our Church has been getting a bad rap this past year, the clergy is to be blamed, no doubt about it. Our Holy Father identifies the problem as the sin of clericalism and describes it in this manner: “Clerics feel they are superior, they are far from the people; they have no time to hear the poor, the suffering, prisoners, the sick.” Clericalism is the cause why priests live a double life and why sometimes they band together to cover up their faults. But there is much more to be said about the problem. The issue just isn’t about our attitude, it has to do with sin. The problem of clergy abuse clearly stems from a sinful lifestyle, from immoral behaviour that is incompatible with the priestly life, with the Christian life.

But despite the clergy abuse scandal and sin of clericalism, the Church continues to celebrate today, the institution of not just one sacrament but two. It’s not coincidental that the priesthood and Eucharist are established simultaneously. And this is why today, we commemorate the institution of both sacraments – the priesthood and the Eucharist. Both are intertwined, one cannot exist without the other. Without the priesthood, there would not only be no Sacrifice of the Mass; there would be no Catholic Church. This may sound strange, even audacious. But the truth is that God became man in order to sacrifice Himself on the Cross by dying for the salvation of the world. Having died once on Calvary, He continues offering Himself in every Mass so totally that that sacrifice is made present once again every time that Mass is offered, even until the end of time.

So, what makes the Mass possible? On the one hand, the Mass is possible only because Christ’s death on Calvary is literally repeated in every Mass. But the Mass is only possible if you have a priest because only the priest can offer the bloodless sacrifice of the Mass, for he not only stands in the person of Christ, but is wholly configured to Him; he is another Christ, Alter Christus. Though I may risk sounding arrogant, the truth is that there can be no Mass without the priesthood. That is why Christ instituted the Sacrament of the priesthood, to ensure that His sacrifice on Calvary would be renewed and repeated in every Mass until the end of time.

It is obvious that we can associate the Eucharist with the Last Supper, but how about the Priesthood? We can see this in the action of our Lord washing the feet of His disciples. Most people would easily recognise this as an example of Christ’s humility. This is true but there is more to it.  This action of washing appears to be a deliberate echo of the washing of the hands and feet done by the sacrificial priests of the Old Covenant. 

The washing was not just a practical and hygienic preparation for offering sacrifices at the altar of the Temple, but this washing symbolised the priest’s unworthiness to approach the Lord, so it’s fitting that the washing of feet occurs at the same time that the Apostles are entrusted with the Eucharist (they too are unworthy men).  But notice what’s different: the Old Covenant focused on self-purification. Priests performed ablutions to purify themselves. But the New Covenant is focused on sanctifying others.  We unworthy priests are washed, we are purified, in order that we may now purify, wash, and sanctify others. In fact, some commentators see in the term “bath” (used by the Lord) as an echo of Baptism (which can only be administered once) and subsequent “washings” to the sacrament of Penance.

Having established all of this, consider Christ’s dual commission. Both commissions find its source in these theologically powerful words of our Lord: “Do this in memory of Me.” The key words which solemnise the institution by Christ of the ministerial priesthood in its eternal relation to the Eucharist. Immediately after instituting the Eucharist, the Lord in other scriptural texts orders the Apostles: “do this in memory of me” (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24).  That doesn’t mean “treat this as a symbol.” The memorial offering of Christ’s Body and Blood actually is, Christ’s Body and Blood, it is making present His Death on Calvary.

But there is a second commission which is found only here in the Gospel of St John. It comes at the end of the washing of the feet. When he had washed their feet, the Lord said to them, “Do you understand … what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” One may paraphrase this by using the same words of Christ, “do this in memory of Me.” This is the mandate (mandatum) that gives Maundy Thursday its name. 

So, the first commission recorded by St Luke and St Paul, “do this in memory of me,” refers to the Eucharist. But this second commission, refers to the priesthood. Most Christians read the washing of feet as simply a nice gesture, a sign of humble service to others. But Christ makes it clear that it’s so much more. It is about the sacrificial priesthood, about the priestly ministry of offering not only the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but also forgiveness of sins in the sacraments of Baptism and Penance. And our Lord’s second commission is therefore a mandate to the Church to pass on the gift of the priesthood, without which, there would be no Eucharist, there would be no forgiveness of sins, there would be no Church.

In this day and age, there is so much pressure from people for priests to adopt their way of acting, their attitudes and habits, their agitated lives and occupations. But is this what is really needed?  Pity the poor priest, forced to prove his worth and justify his existence by his affability or other skills, rather than by his priesthood in offering the Sacrifice of the Mass, which is seen as innately worthless in an unbelieving world. Sometimes, I feel that so many of us priests often attempt to conform ourselves to these standards that we forget this one simple truth: the priest exists for one main purpose: to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass. When we forget this, then the cultic nature of the priesthood is diminished at the expense of making him a better manager or a better public speaker. Better managers and better speakers we have aplenty. But only a priest can do what a priest does best – offer the sacrifice of the Mass faithfully and diligently.

So tonight, I ask you to pray for your priests. Pray for us because we are sinners and not saints. If we were saints you would be praying "to" us. We priests are indeed weak, sinful men, men who have failed Christ, our vocation and our flock many times and sometimes in the most scandalous ways. The first "priests", the Apostles, were no different - one betrayed our Lord, another denied Him, and and others fled like cowards. Our ordination may have configured us to the person of Jesus Christ, but it is certainly not a canonisation. The light of Christ has shown in our hearts but as St Paul puts it, “we hold this treasure in pots of earthenware, so that the immensity of power is God’s and not our own.” We priests alone can offer the sacrifice of the Mass but we can take no credit for it. It is the audacity of God’s generosity who chose to make weak unworthy men like us His ministers.   Never cease praying for us because your prayers encourage and support us in times of trial or discouragement, so that there will be good and holy men called to priesthood to ensure that you should always have the Eucharist and the forgiveness for your sins.

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