The purpose of a priest is to lead his flock to Christ, who is the chief “shepherd and guardian” of Christians (1 Peter 2:25). So when a priest is guilty of the most heinous of crimes, there is a sudden pause in the Church, as if the entire Body of Christ stopped breathing. Its members start to weaken, become disjointed, and frantically start to find its life source.
With the recent reports of the Pennsylvania priestly abuse scandals, many Catholics are asking the question: Am I a member of a dead body?
Let me be upfront. This post is not directed towards the victims or their families but instead the typical Catholic in the pews who finds herself furious, confused, and doubting. If words can even begin to heal the trauma endured by the victims and their families, they surely will not do so through a blog post.
That said, it is important for the typical Catholic to think responsibly. We must not offer up easy excuses (Homosexuality! Celibacy! The Devil!). At the same time, we must not flee. You and I are as much part of the Body of Christ as are priests and bishops. We all are a priestly people, and we all are called to be reformers.
We must not leave Peter because of Judas. In fact, we must support Peter. And even when Peter screws up, we must cling to Christ, for the “gates of death will not prevail against” the Church founded by Christ on Peter (Matt. 16:18).
This past Sunday, the Gospel reading came from the climax of the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. In it, we find the very heart of the Catholic Faith: Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. At every liturgy around the world, these words of Jesus are fulfilled in the Eucharist. By consuming the bread and wine, we become partakers of Christ. This otherwise simple meal becomes THE chief means of communion with Christ. This is the chief reason we go to church.
And that is the chief ministry of the priest: to offer the Eucharist. During the liturgy, the priest acts as head of the congregation, and he also acts as Christ’s representative. But in that moment of consecration, when the bread and wine become the Eucharist, it is Christ who acts through the priest. The priest is merely his instrument.
Nice theological lesson. Now what’s the point? The point is that we don’t go to church to adore a man in vestments. Even the homily and hymns are only secondary in importance. When we go to church, we go to meet Christ, to commune with Christ, to be transformed by Christ.
In the fourth century, a group of North African Christians decided that sinful priests had no ability to celebrate the Eucharist. To these Donatists, the validity of the sacraments depended on the holiness of a priest. But that gets it all backwards! Christ is the source of our spiritual life — not priests, who are only his ministers. The mainstream Catholic Church maintained that Christ always comes to his people, even if through flawed human beings — and even through the worst of sinners. We must remember this ancient Catholic conviction today.
In these hard times, we need to remember that it is Christ who enlivens his Body. The Church receives its life and purpose from Christ, who nourishes his people. Through the Eucharist, the Church is made alive. Through the Eucharist, the members of the Body of Christ are nourished by Christ’s very own body.
This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
-John 6:50-51, 53-56