VATICAN CITY, 15 MARCH 2010 (ZENIT)
Here is the second Lenten sermon of Capuchin Father Raniero
Cantalamessa, Papal Household Preacher, delivered Friday at the
Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Curia.
* * *
1. The Novelty of the Priesthood of Christ
In this meditation we wish to reflect on the priest as
administrator of the mysteries of God, this time understanding
"mysteries" as concrete signs of grace, the sacraments. We
cannot reflect on all the sacraments; we will limit ourselves to
the sacrament par excellence which is the Eucharist. So also
does "Presbyterorum Ordinis," which, after speaking of
presbyters as evangelizers, continues saying that "their
ministry, which begins with the evangelical proclamation,
derives its power and force from the sacrifice of Christ."
These two tasks of the priest are those which the Apostles
also reserved for themselves: "But we" says Peter in Acts, "will
devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word"
(Acts 6:4). The prayer of which he speaks is not private prayer;
it is community liturgical prayer which has at its center the
breaking of bread. The Didache enables one to see how in the
early times the Eucharist was offered precisely in the context
of the prayer of the community, as part of it and its
As the sacrifice of the Mass is not conceived save in
dependence on the sacrifice of the cross, so the Christian
priesthood is not explained save in dependence on and as
sacramental participation in the priesthood of Christ. It is
from here that we must begin to discover the fundamental
characteristic and the requirements of the ministerial
priesthood. The novelty of the sacrifice of Christ vis-a-vis the
priesthood of the old covenant (and, as we know today, vis-a-vis
every other priestly institution also outside the Bible) is
highlighted in the Letter to the Hebrews from different points
of view: Christ had no need to offer victims first of all for
his own sins, as every priest does (7:27); he had no need to
repeat the sacrifice more times, but "as it is, he has appeared
once and for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the
sacrifice of himself" (9:26).
However, the fundamental difference is another. Let us hear
how it is described: "[b]ut when Christ appeared as a high
priest of the good things that have come [...] he entered once
for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and
calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats
and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the
purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of
Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without
blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve
the living God!" (Hebrews 9:11-14). Every other priest offers
something outside himself, Christ offered himself; every other
priest offers victims, Christ offered himself as victim! St.
Augustine contained in a famous formula this new kind of
priesthood, in which priest and victim are the same thing: "Ideo
victor, quia victima, et ideo sacerdos, qui sacrificium:
conqueror because victim, priest because victim."
Observed in the passage of sacrifices prior to the sacrifice
of Christ is the same novelty as in the passage from the law to
grace, from duty to gift, illustrated in a previous meditation.
From work of man to placate the divinity and be reconciled with
it, sacrifice becomes gift of God to placate man, to make him
desist from his violence and to reconciled him with Himself (cf.
Colossians 1:20). Also in his sacrifice, as in all the rest,
Christ is "totally other."
2. "Imitate that which you celebrate"
The consequence of all this is clear: to be a priest
"according to the order of Jesus Christ," the presbyter must,
like Him, offer himself. On the altar, he does not only
represent the Jesus who is "high priest," but also the Jesus who
is "supreme victim," the two things being inseparable. In other
words he cannot be content to offer Christ to the Father in the
sacramental signs of bread and wine, he must also offer himself
with Christ to the Father. Taking up a thought of St. Augustine,
the instruction of the Holy Congregation of Rites, "Eucharisticum
mysterium," writes: "The Church, the spouse and minister of
Christ, performs together with Him the role of priest and
victim, offers Him to the Father and at the same time makes a
total offering of herself together with Him."
That which is said here of the whole Church, is applied in an
altogether special way to the celebrant. At the moment of
ordination, the bishop addresses to those being ordained the
exhortation: "Agnoscite quod agitis, imitamini quod tractatis":
"Realize what you will do, imitate that which you will
celebrate." In other words: you do also what Christ does in the
Mass, namely, offer yourself to God in living sacrifice. Saint
Gregory of Nazianzus writes: "Knowing that no one is worthy of
the grandeur of God, of the Victim and of the Priest, if he has
not first offered himself as living and holy sacrifice, if he
has not presented himself as reasonable and acceptable oblation
(cf. Romans 12:1) and if he has not offered to God a sacrifice
of praise and a contrite spirit
the only sacrifice of which the author of every gift asks to be
how will I dare offer him the external offering on the altar,
that which is the representation of great mysteries?"
I permit myself to say how I myself discovered this dimension
of my priesthood because, perhaps, it might help to understand
better. After my ordination, see how I lived the moment of
consecration: I closed my eyes, bowed my head, tried to become
estranged from all that surrounded me to immerse myself in Jesus
who, in the Cenacle, pronounced those words for the first time:
"Accipite et manducate ...", "Take, eat ..." The liturgy itself
fostered this attitude, making one pronounce the words of the
consecration in a low voice and in Latin, bending down over the
species, facing the altar and not the people. Then, one day, I
understood that such an attitude, alone, did not express the
whole meaning of my participation in the consecration. He who
presides invisibly at every Mass is Jesus risen and living, the
Jesus, to be exact, who was dead but now lives for evermore (cf.
Revelation 1:18). But this Jesus is the "total Christ," Head
and body indissolubly united. Therefore, if it is this total
Christ that pronounces the words of consecration, I also
pronounce them with him. Within the great "I" of the Head, is
hidden the little "I" of the body that is the Church, and also
my very little "I."
Since then, while, as priest ordained by the Church, I
pronounce the words of the consecration "in persona Christi,"
and believe that, thanks to the Holy Spirit, they have the power
of changing the bread into the body of Christ and the wine into
his blood, at the same time, as member of the body of Christ, I
no longer close my eyes, but I look at the brethren before me
or, if I celebrate on my own, I think of them whom I must serve
during the day and, turning to them, I say mentally together
with Jesus: "Brothers and sisters, take, eat: this is my body;
take, drink, this is my blood."
Later on I found a singular confirmation in the writings of
the Venerable Concepcion Cabrera de Armida, called Conchita, the
Mexican mystic, founder of three religious Orders, whose process
of beatification is underway. To her Jesuit son, about to be
ordained priest, she wrote: "Remember, my son, when you hold in
your hands the Holy Host, you will not say: ‘Behold the Body of
Jesus and Behold His Blood,' but you will say: ‘This is my Body,
This is my Blood, that is, there must be worked in you a total
transformation, you must lose yourself in Him, to be ‘another
The offering of the priest and of the whole Church, without
that of Jesus, would neither be holy nor acceptable to God,
because we are only sinful creatures, but Jesus' offering,
without that of his body which is the Church, would also be
incomplete and insufficient: not, be it understood, to procure
salvation, but so that we receive it and appropriate it. It is
in this sense that the Church can say with Saint Paul: "in my
flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (cf.
We can illustrate with an example what happens in every Mass.
Let us imagine that in a family there is one child, the first
born, most devoted to the father. He wishes to give him a
present for his birthday. However, before presenting it to him
he asks all his brothers and sisters secretly to add their
signature on the gift. It then arrives in the hands of the
father as the indistinct homage of all his children and as a
sign of the esteem and love of them all but, in reality, only
one has paid its price.
And now the application. Jesus admires and loves the heavenly
Father. He wishes to give him every day, until the end of the
world, the most precious gift he can think of, that of his life
itself. In the Mass he invites all his "brothers," who we are,
to add their signature on the gift, so that it reaches God the
Father as the indistinct gift of all his children, "My and your
sacrifice," the priest calls it in the Orate fratres. But, in
reality, we know that only one has paid the price of such a
gift. And what a price!
3. The Body and Blood
To understand the practical consequences that derive for the
priest from all this, it is necessary to keep in mind the
meaning of the word "body" and of the word "blood." In biblical
language, the word body, as the word flesh, does not indicate,
as it does for us today, a third part of the person as in the
Greek trichotomy (body, soul, mind); it indicates the whole
person, in as much as he lives in a bodily dimension. (The Word
became flesh," means he became man, not bones, muscles,
nerves!). In turn, "blood" does not indicate a part of a part of
man. Blood is seat of life, that is why the effusion of blood is
the sign of death. With the word "body" Jesus has given us his
life, with the word blood he has given us his death. Applied to
us, to offer the body means to offer the time, the physical and
mental resources, a smile that is typical of a spirit that lives
in a body; to offer the blood means to offer death. Not only the
final moment of life, but all that which already anticipates
death: mortification, illnesses, passiveness, all that is
negative in life.
Let us try to imagine the priestly life lived with this
awareness. The whole day, not only the moment of the
celebration, is a Eucharist: to teach, to govern, to confess, to
visit the sick, also rest and recreation, everything. A
spiritual master, French Jesuit Pierre Olivaint, said: "The
morning, I priest, He victim; throughout the day He priest, I
victim: in the morning (at that time Mass was celebrated only in
the morning) I priest, He (Christ) victim; in the course of the
day, He priest, I victim. "What good a priest does,"
said the Holy Cure of Ars
to offer himself to God in sacrifice every morning."
Thanks to the Eucharist, also the life of an elderly priest,
sick and reduced to immobility, is very precious for the Church.
He offers "the blood." Once I made a visit to a priest sick with
a tumor. He was preparing to celebrate one of his last Masses
with the help of a young priest. He also had an illness of the
eyes, which made him weep continuously. He said to me: I never
understood the importance of saying also in my name in the Mass:
"Take, eat; take, drink." Now I understand it. It's all that
remains for me and I say it continually thinking of my
parishioners. I have understood what it means to be "broken
bread" for others.
4. At the Service of the Universal Priesthood of the Faithful
Once this existential dimension of the Eucharist is
discovered, it is the pastoral duty of the priest also to help
the rest of the people of God to live it. The Year for Priests
should not be an opportunity and a grace only for priests, but
also for the laity. Presbyterorum Ordinis affirms clearly that
the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the universal
priesthood of all the baptized, so that they "can offer
themselves as living, holy, and acceptable host to God (Romans
12:1). In fact: "It is through the ministry of presbyters that
the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is rendered perfect in
union with the sacrifice of Christ, sole mediator; this
sacrifice, in fact, by the hand of presbyters and in the name of
the whole Church, is offered in the Eucharist in a bloodless and
sacramental way, until the day of the Lord's coming."
The constitution Lumen Gentium of Vatican II, speaking of the
common priesthood" of all the faithful, writes: "[t]he faithful,
in virtue of their royal priesthood, share in the oblation of
the Eucharist... Participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice,
source and summit of the whole Christian life, they offer to God
the divine Victim and themselves with It; thus all, whether with
the oblation or with holy communion, fulfill their own part in
the liturgical action, not, however, equally, but one in one way
and another in another."
Hence, the Eucharist is the act of the whole people of God,
not only in the passive sense that it redounds to the benefit of
all, but also actively, in the sense that it is carried out with
the participation of all. The clearest biblical foundation of
this doctrine is Romans 12:1: "I appeal to you therefore,
brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a
living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your
spiritual worship." Commenting on these words of Paul, Saint
Peter Chrysologus, said: "The Apostle thus sees all men raised
up to the priestly dignity to offer their own bodies as living
sacrifice. O immense dignity of the Christian priesthood! Man
has become victim and priest for himself. He no longer seeks
outside of himself what he must immolate to God, but carries
with him and in him what he sacrifices to God for himself ...
Brothers, this sacrifice is modeled on that of Christ ...Be
then, O man, sacrifice and priest of God."
Let us try to see how the way of living the consecration that
I have illustrated might also help the laity to unite itself to
the offering of the priest. We have seen that the layman is also
called to offer himself to Christ in the Mass. Can he do so
using the same words of Christ: "Take, eat, this is my body"? I
think nothing is opposed to this. Do we not do the same thing
when, to express our abandonment to the will of God, we use the
words of Jesus on the cross: "Father, into your hands I commend
my spirit," or when, in our trials, we repeat: "Let this chalice
pass from me," or other words of the Savior? To use Jesus' words
helps to unite oneself to his feelings. The Mexican mystic,
recalled above, felt addressed also to her, not only to her
priest son, the words of Christ: "I want you, transformed in Me
by suffering, by love and by the practice of all the virtues, to
raise heavenward this cry of your soul in union with Me: 'This
is My Body, This is My Blood.'"
The lay faithful must only be aware that these words said by
him, in the Mass or during the day, do not have the power to
render present the body and blood of Christ on the altar. He
does not act, at this moment, in persona Christi; he does not
represent Christ, as the ordained priest does, but he only
unites himself to Christ. Therefore, he will not say the words
of consecration in a loud voice, as the priest does, but in his
own heart, thinking them, more than pronouncing them.
Let us try to imagine what would happen if also the laity, at
the moment of the consecration, said silently: "Take, eat: this
is my body. Take, drink: this is my blood." A mother of a family
thus celebrates her Mass, then she goes home and begins her day
made up of a thousand little things. But what she does is not
nothing: it is a eucharist together with Jesus! A Sister also
says in her heart at the moment of consecration: "Take, eat
..."; then she goes to her daily work: children, the sick, the
elderly. The Eucharist "invades" her day which becomes a
prolongation of the Eucharist.
But I would like to reflect in particular on two categories of
persons: workers and young people. The eucharistic bread "fruit
of the earth and of the work of human hands," has something
important to say about human work, and not only about
agricultural work. In the process that goes from the seed sowed
in the earth to the bread on the table, industry intervenes with
its machines, commerce, transport and an infinity of other
activities, in practice all human labor. Do we teach the
Christian laborer to offer in the Mass his body and his blood,
that is, his time, sweat and toil. Work will no longer be
alienating as in the Marxist view in which it finishes in the
product that is sold, but sanctifying.
And what does the Eucharist have to say to young people? Suffice
it for us to think of one thing: what does the world of boys and
girls want today? The body, nothing else but the body! The body,
in the mentality of the world, is essentially an instrument of
pleasure and exploitation. Something to be sold, to squeeze
while it is young and attractive, and then to be thrown out,
together with the person, when it no longer serves these ends.
Especially the woman's body has become merchandise of
consumption. Do we teach Christian boys and girls to say, at the
moment of consecration: "Take, eat. this is my body, offered for
you." The body is thus consecrated, becomes something sacred, it
can no longer be "given to eat" to one's concupiscence and that
of others, it can no longer be sold, because it has given
itself. It has become Eucharist with Christ. The Apostle Paul
wrote to the first Christians: "The body is not meant for
immorality, but for the Lord ... So glorify God in your body" (1
Corinthians 6:13.20). And he explained immediately two ways in
which one can glorify God with one's body: either with marriage
or with virginity, according to the charism and vocation of each
one (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1 ff.).
5. With the Cooperation of the Holy Spirit
Where can, priests and laity, find the strength to make this
total giving of self to God, to set off and be raised, so to
speak, from the earth with one's own hands? The answer is: the
Holy Spirit! Christ, we heard at the beginning from the Letter
to the Hebrews, offered himself to the Father in sacrifice,
"through the eternal Spirit" (Hebrews 9:14), that is, thanks to
the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who as he aroused in
Christ's human heart the impulse to prayer (cf. Luke 10:21), so
He aroused in him the impulse and indeed the desire to offer
himself to the Father in sacrifice for humanity.
In his encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Pope Leo XIII says that
"Christ accomplished every work of his, and especially his
sacrifice, with the intervention of the Holy Spirit (praesente
Spiritu)"  and in the Mass, before communion, the priest
prays saying: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who by
the will of the Father and the cooperation of the Holy Spirit (cooperante
Spiritu Sancto), by dying you gave life to the world ..." This
explains why there are two "epiclesis," in the Mass, namely two
invocations of the Holy Spirit: one, before the consecration, on
the bread and on the wine, and one, after the consecration, on
the whole Mystical Body. With the words of one of these epiclesi
(Eucharistic Prayer III), we ask the Father for the gift of his
Spirit to be in every Mass, like Jesus, priests and at the same
time, sacrifice: "May he make us an everlasting gift to you and
enable us to share in the inheritance of your saints, with Mary,
the virgin Mother of God; with the apostles, the martyrs, and
all your saints, on whose constant intercession we rely for
* * *
 "Presbyterorum Ordinis," 2.
 Didache, 9-10.
 Augustine, Confessions, 10, 43.
 "Eucharisticum mysterium," 3; cf. Augustine, "De Civitate
Dei," X, 6 (CCL 47, 279).
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 2, 95 (PG 35, 497).
 Conchita. A Mother's Spiritual Diary, ed. by M.-M. Philipon,
New York, Alba House 1978, p.87.
 Quoted by Benedict XVI in the Letter for the Opening of the
Year for Priests.
 "Presbyterorum Ordinis," 2.
 "Lumen Gentium," 10-11.
 Peter Chrysologus, Sermo 108 (PL 52, 499 f.).
 Conchita, op. cit., p. 161.
 Leo XIII, Encyclical "Divinum illud munus," 6.