Priesthood and the Eucharist

Gary Wills, in a large opinion piece in The Boston Globe on January 4 (“Celibacy isn’t the problem; the priesthood is”), wrote, “The priesthood is itself an affront to the Gospel,” arguing that the priesthood was a mere invention of the Catholic Church, done against the will of God. Later in his column he also denied the reality of the Eucharist being the Body and Blood of Christ.

It is understandable why the Globe has done such extensive coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. When he was bishop here in Fall River, Cardinal Sean O’Malley said more than once that perhaps God was using the news media to purify the Church, as God used pagan kings to purify Israel in Old Testament times. In both situations, God’s followers had strayed very far from the path of righteousness and had ignored God’s repeated warnings. Only an external attack on Israel or the Church might (we say “might,” since it is apparent that not everyone has awoken) somehow wake them up and get them to return to holiness.

However, it does seem strange that a secular newspaper would give such prominence to an attack on two key aspects of our religion — the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist. It is hard to remember any other religion’s basic beliefs criticized in such a prominent way in the Globe. Of course, Wills self-identified as Catholic, so it is not a criticism from the outside, but from within.

In his attack on the priesthood from a Biblical perspective, Wills wrote, “Jesus is only called a priest in the late and suspect anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, where He is made a priest in the line of a mythical non-Jew, Melchisidek — and even there He is the sole and final priest.” 

First of all, Wills thinks that we should reject Hebrews’ testimony, and yet this is a New Testament book which all Christians — be they Catholics, Orthodox, mainline or Evangelical Protestants — accept as Divinely inspired. There is some difference in the ways in which the various denominations interpret this book, but none of them deny that the Holy Spirit inspired its author.

Secondly, Christ’s priesthood, which Hebrews describes at length, is the priesthood which all Christians enter into through Baptism. It is not the ministerial priesthood of the ordained (which Wills denies is Divinely inspired). Christ’s priesthood was preceded by the Old Testament’s priests of the Jewish temple. Our baptismal priesthood is higher than that ancient priesthood (not that that was an evil priesthood, but it was just a preparation. The priests of the Jerusalem temple offered to God the blood of animals, while baptized Christians offer Jesus up to the Father in His one sacrifice). 

At Vatican II, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium #21, the Church taught, “In the bishops, therefore, for whom priests are assistants, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Supreme High Priest, is present in the midst of those who believe. For the discharging of such great duties, the Apostles were enriched by Christ with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit coming upon them, and they passed on this Spiritual gift to their helpers by the imposition of hands.”

Wills claims that “the priesthood was gradually developed in the Middle Ages,” although there is evidence from the first centuries of true distinctions between bishops, priests and deacons. He believes that this supposed development “tended to subordinate all Christian activity to priestly superintendence. No wonder Church leaders would try desperately to protect this imperial rule over the whole of Catholic life.” While it is true that the laity have often been treated as “second-class” Christians, this does not mean that this was willed by God nor that such an abuse is a proof that the priesthood is not of Divine origin.

In terms of his denial of the Eucharist, Wills discussed a conversation he had with Stephen Colbert while on his old show, “The Colbert Report,” and after they had gotten off the air. Colbert was defending the reality of the priesthood and asked if Wills would want a priest to be available for him at the hour of his death. Wills said no, since he did not believe in the priest’s power to do anything. Then Colbert asked about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and Wills also denied that.

Wills acknowledged that Jesus did break bread at the Last Supper and say, “Take and eat,” but then Wills wrote, “His real body was there, offering bread as a symbol. If they were to eat the real body, they would have to chew on the offering hand, not the offered bread.” 

Of course, Christ did not intend for us to eat parts of Him — as if Jesus were a steer which we would carve up, following one of those old maps of the animal which were used as place mats at the old Hilltop restaurant on Route 1. In Holy Communion, we are taking the entirety of Jesus into us — His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. He came to save us in our bodies and souls (both have dignity, given to us by our Creator, restored by the sacrifice of Our Redeemer on the Cross) and so He desires to be in Communion with us through this Most Blessed Sacrament.

Jesus said, “I am the living Bread that came down from Heaven; whoever eats this Bread will live forever; and the Bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).

Wills claimed, “Augustine knew, in the fourth century, that the Eucharist was not the real body of Jesus.” He then offered a quote, but we can also quote this saint in his Sermon 228: “Receive and eat the Body of Christ, after which you have become parts of the Body of Christ. Since you possess life in Him, you will be with Him in a single flesh. That is what the Scriptures proclaimed and the Apostle [Paul] repeated, ‘The two will become one flesh’ (Eph 5:31). He added, this mystery of Christ and the Church is great.”

The first Biblical account of the Christ bequeathing the Eucharist to us is found in 1 Corinthians 11. St. Paul there handed down to us what he had received from others (since he was not at the Last Supper, but the Holy Spirit inspired him to write down what he had heard from other Christians). Paul quotes Jesus twice, after both offering us His Body and His Blood, saying, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” The Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Church) does this daily at the altar, where Christ is made present through the ministry of priests. As has been true since Pentecost, our priests need to grow in holiness, but all of us need to grow in our appreciation of the great gift of Christ in the Eucharist (and pray for those who do not believe in it).

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts