The ineffable miracle of the Eucharist is that Jesus is truly, completely, totally present.  Catholic theology teaches that Jesus’ presence in the Sacrament, and the efficacy of the Sacrament, is not dependent on the sinless state of the priest. This is another miracle of the Eucharist: even if the priest is a criminal, a child-rapist, God’s grace is still present and available to us in the Sacrament. How can that be? Because it is not the authority, or worthiness of the priest that “makes Christ present,” it is the desire of God that makes God’s Son present to us in the Eucharist. This is the root of the Eucharistic miracle, not the priest as a person, or the recitation of certain words by a human being. To place sole emphasis on the authority of the priest to make Christ present through the words of consecration is to think magically; we cannot manipulate God through certain words or gestures.  The Catholic Catechism supports this theology in the following quote from John Chrysostom,

1375 . . . Thus St. John Chrysostom declares:  It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s.

Rather than focusing on the role of the priest in the Eucharist, we should focus on giving thanks for the gift offered to us in the life of God’s Son, a gift that continues to be experienced “wherever two or more are gathered” in Jesus’ name. This is, after all, the meaning of Eucharist—giving thanks.

According to the teaching of Vatican II (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy par.7), the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is to be understood in four ways: Jesus is present in the consecrated bread and wine, and in the person of the priest, but also in the Word of God and the faith of the community. So the mystery and miracle of the “Real Presence” is not just the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine but also within each one of us, in all our imperfections, inadequacies, and sin.  It is through this theology of the presence of Jesus in sinful human beings that I believe healing is possible for the Church. We need to re-image the priest as a member of the community of faith.

Priests do have a special sacramental role, but they are first and last sinful human beings like the rest of humanity.  Only by shifting focus onto the ordinary, human limitations and frailties of priests, and their shared need for forgiveness and reconciliation, only by placing them before the altar with other members of the community, both theologically and physically, can we hope to heal the profound trust-wounds in our Church community. Victims need to see members of the priesthood and the hierarchy of our Church identifying with the hurting community, not holding themselves above the community. We need to see a closing of the distance between priests and laity, not an emphasis on the superiority of priests. We need to be removing visible and theological obstacles to community, not restricting the role of lay eucharistic ministers. 

The Eucharistic presence of Jesus calls forth from each of us the presence of God within (our intrinsic God-like-ness), and creates a longing that only God can fulfill. In the words of the author of Psalm 42, “As a deer longs for running waters, so my soul longs for you, O God” (42:1). As Augustine also wrote, “Our souls are restless until they rest in theeConfessions, Bk 1, Ch.1.

But there is more to the Eucharist than this. The challenge is more than simply recognizing and receiving the presence of Jesus, remembering our God-like-ness and desiring to grow closer to God. The challenge is to “re-member” Jesus, to become, as Paul taught us, the very Body of Christ, the living embodiment of Christ in our communities. As we become the hands and feet of Jesus, we live out his mandate to love others as he loved us, because as Jesus taught: whatever we do to others, we are in fact doing to him.

This is where I believe people miss the point of the Eucharist completely.  When Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me”  what did he mean?  Could he really have meant to simply repeat a ritual with bread and wine? For Jesus, were religious rituals ever the primary focus?  Can we really believe that the actions of a priest at the altar totally fulfill this imperative?

We have been taught that by simply repeating the words of institution, the priest has the power to bring forth the Eucharistic presence of Christ in our midst. This focus on liturgical action has led many Catholics to conclude that by receiving the consecrated host, we satisfy our most important duty as Catholics.

Was Jesus ever that superficial? What basis is there in the scriptures for this interpretation of the “Jesus principle”? Surely an interpretation that would be more consistent with the rest of his ministry and teaching would be that the imperative “Do this in memory of me” be understood as a challenge to live, and, if necessary, to die for God. In these words Jesus was surely indicating his fidelity to God and God’s Truth and to those who suffer, not simply his actions and prayers over bread and wine.

The 20th century witnessed some development in the Catholic theology of the Eucharist. Vatican II presented an emphasis on the priesthood of the whole people of God, and the role of the priest not only as the representative of Christ to the Church but also of the Church as a whole, “in persona ecclesiae” not just  “in persona Christi”  (CCC, nos. 1552-1553). Yet more recent proposals regarding the celebration of the Mass seem to be a return to a more pre-Vatican II view of the priesthood. New instructions place emphasis on the superiority of the priest apart from the community; lay eucharistic ministers are to be visually separate and physically below the priest when gathered at the altar. And it has been proposed that, whenever possible, only priests should wash the sacred vessels. Gone, apparently, is the theology of the priesthood of the people.

When I read these instructions, I was saddened. Whatever happened to Vatican II?  It is my deepest hope that common sense and good theology will triumph in our understanding of the priesthood and of the Eucharist. However, with regard to our attitude to the priesthood, we have shown a historical deficiency in both.