The Eucharist in the Life of the Priest
Seeing our priesthood in light of the mystery we celebrate
Father Royce Gregerson Comments Off on The Eucharist in the Life of the Priest
At the very heart of the life of every priest is the celebration of the Eucharist. There is nothing more essential to our identity as Christ’s priests than the celebration of the mystery of his body and blood. It is in the context — the celebration of the Eucharist — that we received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and our first priestly act was to join the ordaining bishop and the college of priests in offering the immaculate Victim to the Father.
For this reason, when we think about the Eucharistic Revival currently underway in the Church in the United States, we are necessarily called to a revival of our priesthood. We are called to see our priesthood more clearly in the light of this greatest mystery we celebrate, to renew the call we received at our priestly ordination: “Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross” (Rite of Ordination).
To be a priest, of course, is to be another Christ. The Lord Jesus is present to us in many different ways in our priesthood. We encounter him at prayer, in the people we serve and in the Scriptures we proclaim and teach. But it is in the celebration of the Eucharist that we most fully enact who we are.
I recently read Father Thomas Weinandy’s excellent commentary on the synoptic Gospels, “Jesus Becoming Jesus” (The Catholic University of America Press, $34.95). The title sounded strange at first, but Father Weinandy’s central insight is that in his own life and ministry Jesus is enacting his name: “YHWH-saves.” Just as in every moment of his life recorded in the Gospels Jesus is enacting his name, becoming YHWH-saves, so too is the priest in a continual process of becoming who he was remade to be at his ordination: another Christ.
At the Last Supper, the apostles were not only the first to be given the body of Christ to eat, but were themselves to be transformed into that body, ordained priests at that same last supper, the first to become the body that would be given as spiritual food to billions until the end of time. “The priest is a man eaten,” the Frenchman Father Antoine Chevrier asserted.
No doubt we have all experienced this in many ways in our priesthood. We have lived the mystery of the Eucharist by being the man eaten by hours in the confessional, by sleepless nights near a hospital bed, or — most challenging of all — eaten by seemingly endless administrative tasks. All these ways in which we are eaten by the consuming fire of priestly, pastoral charity flow from our encounter with Christ in the Eucharist and lead back to it.
Father François-Xavier Durrwell, in his classic work “In the Redeeming Christ” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95), observes an important way in which we become what we are as priests. For Christ’s redemption to be communicated to and through us, he writes, “Christ must in some way enter our substance; our personality must be laid open to his.”
I have been a priest only seven years, and I tremble at the notion that my experience could inform priests who have lived this mystery of conformity to the mystery they celebrate so much longer and so much more faithfully than I.
But one personal experience seems helpful: I have spent most of my priesthood so far working in a parish blessed with a beautiful Hispanic community. To many, I am not “Father Royce” or “Father Gregerson.” I am just “The Father.” At times, I wonder if they even know my name. At other times, I am sure that they don’t. It can be irritating just to be The Father. I have a name, a personality, a history. I am a human person with needs and desires, hopes and dreams. And yet, I am The Father. To be so is to be invited to dissolve into him.
Nowhere is this shedding of our own identity, our history, our worldly ambitions realized more perfectly than in the Eucharist. And nowhere is this reality more intimidating. Surely, when I am introduced at a retreat as The Father, I am unworthy to fulfill this exalted role, unworthy and unable to be a perfect image of Christ. How much more unworthy and incapable are any of us to melt into him than in his real presence in the Eucharist?
These sentiments are admirably expressed in a prayer attributed to St. Ambrose, which for centuries the Church has proposed as a preparation for the priest’s celebration of the Eucharist: “Who could worthily celebrate this sacrifice unless you, almighty God, made him worthy to offer it? I know almighty God … that I am not worthy to approach such a mystery on account of my many sins and my infinite negligence.”
In reciting these words, we tremble before the majesty of God, and the greatness of what he has called us to do, and it is with great trepidation that we can continue, “But I know, and truly I believe with my whole heart, and now I confess, that you can make me worthy.” At these words, the trepidation and fear of priests turn to joy as we rejoice in the mercy of the Father who alone can transform the guilt of sin into a manifestation of his greatness in pardoning the sinner.
Our hearts rejoice to affirm, “You can make me worthy.”And, “Therefore, I ask you, my God, that you allow me to celebrate this sacrifice with fear and trembling, with purity of heart and a fountain of tears, with spiritual joy and heavenly gladness.”
These words, although attributed to the great St. Ambrose, and likely are of more medieval origin, betray a certain piety that might seem worn out or of the past. But they express a sentiment that is essential for the priest and an interior tension that must be felt in every priestly heart — the fear and trembling brought on by our unworthiness, and the joy of being invited to celebrate a mystery so far beyond our feeble human capacity. Father Durrwell sums it up perfectly: “A fearful mystery of faith, but a mystery of joy too. It is what gives the Church her exultant joy and her hope; it is her one treasure.”
Spirit of Contrition
To revive the mystery of the Eucharist in our priestly hearts, then, is also to revive the spirit of contrition for our sins. It is to revive our pursuit of holiness and our devotion to the immense mercy that makes us worthy to approach the Lord’s altar, especially as experienced in the Sacrament of Penance. Our first act as priests was to celebrate the Eucharist together, and now that Eucharistic communion is lived out in the humility of receiving the ministry of a brother who forgives my sins. In so doing, we imitate the humility of the God who takes flesh again under the appearance of common bread and wine.
The priest, though, as we have observed, is not only becoming the priest when he celebrates the Eucharist, but in every moment of his priesthood. We take all the experiences of “being eaten” throughout each day back to the altar. That prayer continues, “And because you have willed me to be in the midst between you and your people, I bring to you, Lord, the tribulations of the people, the perils of the nations, the groans of prisoners, the misery of orphans, the necessities of strangers, the helplessness of the weak, the depression of the weary, the infirmities of the aged, the aspirations of the young, the vows of virgins, and the lamentations of widows.”
When priests extend their hands over the sacrificial offerings, we usually teach that the gesture recalls the sending of the Holy Spirit, who will transform those offerings into the Eucharist. And yet, there is another tradition, more ancient according to some authors, that sees in this gesture the action of the Jewish high priest placing his hands on the sacrificial victim, transmitting the guilt of the people. In this moment, the Eucharist not only reaches out to inform the rest of our lives, but we bring all of those moments of being eaten by the worries and sufferings of the world back to the Eucharist, asking the Lord to redeem and transform them as he transforms the Eucharistic elements into the source of all true joy.
In so doing, we play a critical role not only in the priest becoming a priest but in the Church becoming the Church. Father Durrwell explains, “Thus the Mass is celebrated in order that the Church may become the Mass, the one sacrifice of Christ still forever present on earth.” The Church becomes the Church when the Church becomes the Mass, which is to say when the Church makes herself a sacrifice pleasing to the Father.
Becoming Who We Are
Just as Jesus becomes Jesus, becomes the salvation of God in his saving actions and in his very person, to revive the mystery of the Eucharist in ourselves as priests is to become more fully who we are. I humbly submit the following practical suggestions:
— We must intentionally and purposefully pray before celebrating Mass. Whether it is with the traditional prayers found in the Roman Missal or words of our own devising or the Spirit’s inspiration, prayerful preparation for Mass brings the Eucharistic moments in our life back to the Lord’s altar.
— We must adore the Lord in the Eucharist outside the celebration of Mass. Adoring and contemplating his presence will lead us to a deeper encounter with him as we celebrate his sacrifice.
— We must revive the mystery of the Eucharist in ourselves by allowing the Lord to revive the spirit of holiness in our hearts, especially through the humble recognition of our own sinfulness in the Sacrament of Penance and in striving for holiness every day of our priestly lives.
FATHER ROYCE GREGERSON is a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Goshen, Indiana.
Serving the Church and the World
Pope St. John Paul II writes of the priest’s role of serving the Church in the apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, and quotes the synodal fathers in saying: “We derive our identity ultimately from the love of the Father, we turn our gaze to the Son, sent by the Father as high priest and good shepherd. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are united sacramentally to him in the ministerial priesthood. Our priestly life and activity continue the life and activity of Christ himself. Here lies our identity, our true dignity, the source of our joy, the very basis of our life” (No. 18).