The Priesthood in Light of the Eucharist

Author: Robert Imbelli

The Priesthood in Light of the Eucharist

Robert Imbelli*

Many theologians endorse the view that one of the characteristics of Catholicism is its instinct to emphasize "both/and". We confess Jesus both God and man; we affirm both Scripture and tradition; we insist that the Church lives both from invisible grace and visible sacraments. Yet, in practice, Catholics too often fall into binary modes of thought. One pervasive either/or regards the priesthood. We are often informed that Vatican II replaced a "cultic model" of priesthood with a "servant model" — thereby falling into an unhelpful "either/or".

The late Pope John Paul II never wrote an encyclical on the priesthood. But his last Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, stressed the intimate relationship between the Eucharist and the Church. He taught that the whole Church "draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist; by him she is fed and by him she is enlightened" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 6). He often reiterated that the Eucharist is "the center and summit of the Church's life" (n. 31).

Thus, had he written an encyclical on the priesthood, the Pope might well have called it: "The Priest within the Church whose Life Comes from Christ in the Eucharist". For the priest is certainly not outside the Church. He is one of the faithful: a member of the community of the baptized who have been washed in the regenerating waters of baptism. Like all his sisters and brothers, he is called by Christ to holiness of life.

At the same time, by virtue of his sacramental ordination, the priest is ordered to the Eucharist in a way that is distinctive and defining. He represents sacramentally Jesus Christ who, through his paschal mystery, has become Eucharist and continues to nourish his Church with his own glorified body. As Vatican II teaches: the ordained priest "acting in the person of Christ, brings about the eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people" (Lumen Gentium, 10). The priest's ministry is not limited to the eucharistic celebration in a narrowly cultic sense; rather, the Eucharist centers and orients the entire life and ministry of the priest. It is that from which everything else comes forth and to which all returns. The priest is pre-eminently the servant of Christ in the Eucharist.

Hence both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have frequently urged the priest, who presides at the Eucharist, to himself "sit at the 'school' of the Eucharist" so that he might instruct his people in Christ's eucharistic way. I suggest that the priest does so in three principle ways: by leading a prayerful celebration of the Eucharist, by forming eucharistic community, and by promoting eucharistic practice. Let me briefly comment of each of these exercises of priestly ministry.

First, by his prayerful celebration of the Eucharist the priest exercises a mystagogic function. Through the body language of fervor, reverence, and silence he orients the assembly beyond itself to find its center in Jesus Christ, the one bridegroom of the Church. The placement of the altar — whether ad orientem or versus populum — fades in importance compared to the priest's prayerfulness in evoking a sense of the transcendent Mystery in whom we live and move and have our being.

Second, the priest's sacramental representation of the presence of the living Lord in the midst of the community must, of its nature, inspire and support his ministry of enabling the community's growth into a eucharistic community. This includes but goes beyond promoting that "active participation" in the liturgy the Vatican Council so desired. It entails discerning and encouraging the sharing of the manifold gifts of the Spirit present in the community. The priest bears special responsibility to foster such eucharistic consciousness and sharing within the local community. Indeed, the concrete exchange of gifts serves as an important criterion for discerning the vitality of our actual communities.

Finally, sitting with his community at the "school of the Eucharist" will lead the priest to realize anew that the community's eucharistic celebration and contemplation must overflow into eucharistic practice. The liturgical proclamation, "the Mass is ended go in peace to love and serve the Lord", is a call to diaconal service, especially of the most needy. Certainly individual actions of outreach and
service to family, neighbors, and parish are the responsibilities closest to hand. However, in a time of growing interdependence and globalization, local communities need to engage in the more demanding task of structural discernment: reading the signs of the times in light of the Gospel.

To live ordained priesthood in the light of the Eucharist is to discover anew the mystical heart of the priest's life and ministry. Jesus Christ, truly present in the Eucharist, life-giving head of his body the Church, is the origin and goal of priestly existence. To preside and guide, teach and learn in the midst of the eucharistic community is the ordained priest's all-embracing vocation and endless joy.

*Priest and professor of theology at Boston College, USA

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 October 2011, page 17

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