For anybody who has just undertaken any sort of sacrament prep class, we are all taught a threefold definition of what a sacrament is:
- An outward sign
- Of an inward grace
- Instituted by Christ
And it’s this third part of the definition of a sacrament that I want to focus on tonight. At this Mass, we remember and celebrate the moment when Christ instituted two of the seven sacraments: Holy Orders, and the Holy Eucharist. These two sacraments were instituted in that upper room where Jesus celebrated the Passover meal before he died. The priesthood and the Eucharist are inextricably linked to one another, not only because they began on the same night, but because they represent in a most profound way the enduring presence of Jesus Christ among us.
The Institution of the Priesthood
Yes, it was on this night that our Lord instituted his sacred ministerial priesthood. And he does so in a remarkably simple way: by the washing of the Apostles’ feet.
Our Holy Father has often given us an example of this call to service. Whether he is opening a homeless shelter or bending down to wash a prisoner’s feet, the pope gives us a picture of how the Church operates at her best. Now, the pope has many titles—e.g. Bishop of Rome, Supreme Pontiff, His Holiness—but when a pope issues a decree naming a new bishop, he begins it by stating his name and a particular title: Servus Servorum Dei, Servant of the Servants of God. This is significant because it shows his relationship to the bishops, the priests, the deacons, and the lay faithful. It shows the Church hierarchy in the way it was intended to be: like an upside-down pyramid. Let me explain.
In any business, there is a sort of hierarchy, especially in large corporations. You have the CEO at the top, then top management, followed by middle management, local management, local employees, etc. This hierarchy looks like a pyramid on an organizational chart. The peak points up, because there’s ultimately one person in charge. Each successive level is supported by those who serve at his pleasure. Each employee serves the wishes of the manager just above him. The corporation works because of obedience and service from the many to the few.
The Church, on the other hand, is an inverted pyramid. It is the pope who is on the bottom, serving the college of bishops. The bishops are servants of the priests, the priests the servants of the laity, and the laity servants of one another and of the broader community. It is an upside-down organizational chart, since it reflects not a top-down model of pure authority, but a bottom-up model of service.
Many of you know that I went to business school before entering the seminary. I earned a master’s degree, then I worked for a large corporation for one year. Probably owing to my educational background, I often hear friends and even relatives tell me, “You know, Joe, the Church is really just like a business—it has a CEO, it has regional managers, it has branches and services that it offers, and I’m so glad you found a job that suits you.” I hear these words often, and I know that my relatives mean well. They are trying to relate to me using terms from the corporate world that they understand. But if I’m going to be honest, it stings to hear these words. It cuts to my heart because it lays bare so many misunderstandings of what the Church is.
The Church is not a business—it’s a body. It is Christ’s body, his hands and feet. It reaches out to heal the sick, set addicts free, bring forth fruit from the land. It opens its mouth to proclaim the truth, govern the state, and console the afflicted. It is composed of members, each unique and unrepeatable. It is a family, wherein we call each other brother and sister, mother and father. It is a bride, beautiful and adorned with works of charity, holding a lighted lamp, ready and waiting to meet her groom, Jesus Christ, when he comes again. It is a mother, bringing forth new life in the waters of baptism, feeding, strengthening, and teaching her children. She teaches them to speak in the language of the family, that is, to pray. She teaches them to call God, “our Father,” and Jesus Christ, “our brother.” I defy anyone to show me a business that does all of that.
But the words doubly cut me to the heart, because the priesthood is not just a job. It is a vocation, a call, and that call comes from Jesus Christ. It is not a job that begins at 9:00 and ends at 5:00. It is not something the priest puts on and take off, like the vestments he wears. The priesthood entails a radical conformity of oneself to Christ, an intimate friendship and an imitation of his life so profound that the priest mystically becomes the presence of Christ on earth.It is to be Christ in persona Christi capitis—to be in the person of Christ, the head of the body. The priest, by exercising the sacraments, is called to be a generous distributor of God’s manifold graces—that is, the sacraments. The priest pronounces the very words of Christ, assuring the faithful that God is pouring grace into their souls. When the priest says “This is my body,” he makes present again Christ the priest, who offered himself in sacrifice. And what priest can utter these words day after day without thinking of the sacrifice he makes of himself, offering himself physically, spiritually, and emotionally in service of Christ’s people. This is not a mere job. It is to participate in the priesthood of Jesus Christ himself.
St. Jean Vianney said it best: “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.” And in the center of that heart is charity. That is what Jesus showed his disciples when he washed their feet. Their lives were to be conformed to his, their hearts conformed to his. Their ministry was to be one of service and charity. And so with these words, he commissions them: “As I have done for you, you should also do.”
But the institution of the priesthood was not yet complete with the washing of the Apostles’ feet. Indeed, the Lord then entrusted the ministry of the Most Holy Eucharist to his priests with the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
The Institution of the Eucharist
The Eucharist is called “The Most Holy Sacrament,” and fittingly so, because the Eucharist, in a most profound way, is the mystical presence of Christ on earth. Even more profound than the presence of Christ in his minister, the priest, is his presence in this simple host and in this precious chalice. Our Lord comes to us on this very altar, under the appearances of bread and wine. It is not our senses that tell us Christ is present, but rather, our faith.
We call it the Most Holy Sacrament. Because in this sacrament, time and space collapse into one moment. The moment. The center and fulcrum of all human history.
When the priest says, “do this in memory of me,” he is not just telling us to remember Jesus. He is announcing the real presence of Jesus Christ here and now. In the Lord’s Supper, we find not only the memorial of the Passover of Jesus—his Passion, death and resurrection—but also the making-present-again of the Paschal mystery in different times and places, all along the course of history. The Eucharist connects us with every other Christian, past, present and future. It renews the reconciliation and forgiveness that God works thru his Church. It creates in each of us the resurrected life of Jesus Christ. In the words of St. Augustine, “The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity and the bond of love.”Because of this profound unity with Christ and with one another, we can say that the Eucharist is truly a foretaste of eternity.
It is fitting to celebrate together the priesthood and the Eucharist in one Mass, because without priests, there is no Eucharist.
The 20th century theologian Henri de Lubac wrote: “The Eucharist makes the Church, and the Church makes the Eucharist.” Yes, this is true. But I would add, in a more instrumental way, priests make the Eucharist, and the Church makes priests.
As we continue our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we give thanks to God for giving us the Eucharist as his presence among us. We thank him for the ministerial priesthood, by which he cares for his flock. We give thanks to God for calling us to be his people, his body, his Church.
In this Holy Mass, we pray in a special way for vocations to the priesthood. We pray for many young men from our parishes, even from our very families, to answer the call of Christ. To be a servant, bending down to wash another’s feet. To be a spiritual father, who provides the food that sustains the soul. To offer oneself in charity. To be Christ to a world that desperately needs him.