Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Priesthood, the Mass & the Eucharist (Corpus Christi homily)

Today we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, which is Latin;
translated, it means, the Body of Christ.
Until 40 years ago, there was another feast for the Precious Blood of Christ,
which was on July 1.
But really, today, what we are focusing on today is the whole Eucharist –
the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

If you look closely at the readings, they are more about something else:
and that is the priesthood.
Both the Genesis reading and the Gospel mention bread or wine;
but that isn’t the Eucharist – not yet. 

Let’s look at Genesis first. What we do see is a priest:
Melchizedek, who makes an offering of bread and wine.
Now, what really is a priest? A priest has one, essential role:
it is to sanctify the people of God.

A priest is a mediator: a go-between from God to us, and us to God. 
And at the center of that, the priest offers sacrifice.
That’s what Melchizedek did. Notice the psalm we prayed.
It said: “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
This psalm is a dialogue between God and King David –
and it is God who says this to David.
But of course, David died; so in what sense is this true?
It was understood as a prophecy: his descendant would be that “priest forever” –
and we know who that is: Jesus Christ!

This is important background for what happens at the Last Supper.
Jesus says to the Apostles: This is my body, this is my blood…
“do this in remembrance of me.”
The Greek word that Paul uses for “remembrance” is very special: 
This not only means “remember,” but more like, 

When God’s People kept the Passover down through the centuries, it was an anamnesis — 
the saving actions of God were made real and present in their midst. 
The word was used in the (Greek) Old Testament to refer to sacrifice. 
So the full sense of what Jesus said to the Apostles is this: 
You are to offer a sacrifice that makes my sacrifice on the Cross real and present, 
wherever you are. 

 And of course, that is what the Holy Mass is.
And if the Apostles offer a sacrifice, that makes them – and their successors – priests. 
We cannot rightly understand the Eucharist without the priesthood. 
In fact, there simply is no Eucharist without the priesthood. 

And so this is why I must now explain some things that we don’t talk about often. 
And I don’t do this to be hard on anyone, but to clarify confusion 
about what we believe as Catholics about the priesthood, and the Mass, and the Eucharist, 
and what the various Protestant churches believe, 
which many of our friends and relatives belong to. 

The sad reality is that when the Protestant Reformation took place, 
every single group that emerged in those days rejected three things 
which we believe Christ taught: first, that the Holy Mass is truly a sacrifice – an anamnesis; second, that there is a sacramental priesthood, handed down through the church; 
and third, that the Eucharist is the true and real Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ 
as the Catholic and Orthodox Churches teach. 

Now, I know many times we have conversations,
or we visit folks at their places of worship,
and our Protestant friends will talk about communion, 
or the Lord’s Supper, in very similar ways. 
Or they’ll come to our Mass, and say, I believe that. 

Now, I know many times we have conversations, or we visit folks at their places of worship, 
and our Protestant friends will talk about communion, 
or the Lord’s Supper, in very similar ways. 
Or they’ll come to our Mass, and say, I believe that. 
And, I think quite a lot of individual members of these churches do believe things 
about the Eucharist that goes beyond what their churches believe corporately. 
And, I might add, I am not doubting their sincerity, or their devotion, to our Lord. 

Still, there is no getting around the fact that the Christian movements 
that we loosely call Protestant or Evangelical
have fundamentally different beliefs on these matters, 
even if some language sounds similar. 

And this is at the heart of why when we Catholics attend a Protestant worship service, 
we do not receive communion in their churches; and why, when we have Mass,
only Catholics in a state of grace are to receive the Eucharist. 

*(Remember what I said, there are three things here. First is the priesthood. 
Only in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches do you have a sacramental priesthood. 
While the Anglican or Episcopal churches will use the term “priest,” 
if you dig deeper, you’ll find out that the Anglican understanding of their ordained ministers
is essentially the same as that of the other Protestant movements.
Meanwhile, other Christian bodies make no bones about it:
they don’t have priests, because they don’t believe in a priesthood, 
apart from what we all share in baptism. 

(Similarly, you may find the word “Mass” used occasionally
by some other Protestant churches; but not often.
In any case, they don’t believe it’s truly a sacrifice, as we do. 
The leaders of the Protestant movement insisted that there is no continuation, 
or making-present, of the Sacrifice of the Cross; it’s all in the past. 

(And, then, third – and as a result of these first two differences –
among our fellow Christians, there are a wide variety of beliefs about communion, 
or the Lord’s Supper, even if some language sounds similar. 
After all, we’re reading the same Bible, but reaching very different conclusions.)

Sometimes, we will try to be agreeable, and say, oh well, we all believe about the same thing. 
But consider this. Lots of Lutherans, lots of Evangelicals, lots of Mennonites and others, 
have paid a great price for their own, particular beliefs. Many have died for them. 
It’s not really respectful to suggest that, in the end, 
they sacrificed, or died, over a mere quibble. 

One way to see clearly the difference between how Catholics understand the Eucharist,
and how our Protestant brethren understand communion, is to ask this question:
What happens to the items they use in communion after the Sunday service ends?
What do they do with what remains? 

You see what happens here: the Eucharist is treated with the greatest reverence, 
and placed in the tabernacle; otherwise, what remains is consumed. 
And then, we adore – that is, we give worship 
which only God can be given, to the Eucharist. What does that tell you?
That we mean what we say: this really is Jesus!

But if you visit many of these other churches, rarely will you see a tabernacle.
And many of our fellow Christians will say,
It’s only bread and wine – or grape juice – It’s only a symbol, nothing more. 

So let me conclude with some practical suggestions for ourselves,
in how we approach the Eucharist, so that we can fully express what we believe. 

First, while the bishops in this country allow receiving in the hand as an option,
there is a lot to be said for the traditional and ancient practice
that prevails throughout the world, which is to receive on the tongue.
When I am at the altar, I am careful 
not to allow even small fragments of the Host to be lost.
That’s why we use the patens, and that’s why I carefully wipe them off. 
I do find small fragments there – we use them for a reason. 
So to those who receive in the hand, may I ask:
do you carefully check to see if any small portion
of the sacred Host is left on your hands?

Second, I notice sometimes people will refer to receiving “the Eucharist” in the center,
and then receiving “the wine” over to the side. 
But when you come up for communion, there is no wine up here. 
We know it is the true Blood of Jesus Christ!

Several weeks ago, a first grader asked me: 
how many “bodies” does the bowl you use at Mass, hold? He got it: 
the hosts we distribute ceased to be bread when Jesus, 
 through the priest, called them, “My Body.” And it’s the same for the chalice. 

Of course, some say, it’s only bread and wine. 
And from time to time, Heaven sends a miracle to set us straight. 
Recently in Poland, one such miracle occurred: 
During Mass a host was found bleeding, and upon scientific examination,
it was found to be human flesh. 
Jesus, in his consideration for us, 
allows the Eucharist to keep its prior appearance, 
because the alternative isn’t so nice. 

But Jesus meant what he said: This is My Blood, shed for you. 
Because we believe this, we will bring Jesus to the streets of Russia 
right after the 11 am Mass. I hope you will join us.

* After the 5 pm Mass, I mostly left out this section for brevity's sake.


John F. Kennedy said...

Nice homily!

Anonymous said...

I'll say the same, again another good homily.

Bob said...

Dear Father Fox,

Thank you for your homily with people. It helps me a great deal as I strive to be a Catholic man, and it helps me as I reflect upon my time in college seminary years back.

Father, in regard to your statement about the Anglican understanding of priesthood, I have a dear friend who is a very Anglo Catholic Episcopal priest. His parish is unlike many "High" parishes; he celebrates the pre-1955 Holy Week rites (mostly in English) and Sunday services at his parish are ad orientem, and look very like the Traditional Latin Mass, but mostly in English. My friend seems to have a more Catholic view of Mass, the sacraments, and the priesthood. Yet I know that essentially he is a Protestant.

This being said, do you think, Anglo Catholicism in the Anglican Communion aside, that the fundamental Anglican understanding of the Mass, priesthood and sacraments is still essentially Protestant?

Thank you for taking some time today, Father.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for your comments.

Over a century ago, Pope Leo XIII oversaw a careful study of this issue, and famously ruled that Anglican orders are "absolutely null and utterly void." As far as I know, that remains the state of the question.

However, to confuse things: sometimes an Anglican minister will be ordained at some point by a bishop who belongs to a renegade group that, however whacked out its theology or morality, is himself a validly ordained bishop. In THAT instance, said Anglican cleric would be validly ordained, if he was otherwise eligible for orders. So...there probably are Anglican priests who really are priests as Catholics understand the matter; but this despite Anglican ordination, not because of it.