2nd Lenten Homily 2010

Author: Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.


Father Cantalamessa's 2nd Lenten Homily

"Christ Offered Himself to God"


Here is the second Lenten sermon of Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Papal Household Preacher, delivered Friday at the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Curia.

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1. The Novelty of the Priesthood of Christ

In this meditation we wish to reflect on the priest as administrator of the mysteries of God, this time understanding "mysteries" as concrete signs of grace, the sacraments. We cannot reflect on all the sacraments; we will limit ourselves to the sacrament par excellence which is the Eucharist. So also does "Presbyterorum Ordinis," which, after speaking of presbyters as evangelizers, continues saying that "their ministry, which begins with the evangelical proclamation, derives its power and force from the sacrifice of Christ."[1]

These two tasks of the priest are those which the Apostles also reserved for themselves: "But we" says Peter in Acts, "will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4). The prayer of which he speaks is not private prayer; it is community liturgical prayer which has at its center the breaking of bread. The Didache enables one to see how in the early times the Eucharist was offered precisely in the context of the prayer of the community, as part of it and its culmination.[2]

As the sacrifice of the Mass is not conceived save in dependence on the sacrifice of the cross, so the Christian priesthood is not explained save in dependence on and as sacramental participation in the priesthood of Christ. It is from here that we must begin to discover the fundamental characteristic and the requirements of the ministerial priesthood. The novelty of the sacrifice of Christ vis-a-vis the priesthood of the old covenant (and, as we know today, vis-a-vis every other priestly institution also outside the Bible) is highlighted in the Letter to the Hebrews from different points of view: Christ had no need to offer victims first of all for his own sins, as every priest does (7:27); he had no need to repeat the sacrifice more times, but "as it is, he has appeared once and for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (9:26).

However, the fundamental difference is another. Let us hear how it is described: "[b]ut when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come [...] he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God!" (Hebrews 9:11-14). Every other priest offers something outside himself, Christ offered himself; every other priest offers victims, Christ offered himself as victim! St. Augustine contained in a famous formula this new kind of priesthood, in which priest and victim are the same thing: "Ideo victor, quia victima, et ideo sacerdos, qui sacrificium: conqueror because victim, priest because victim."[3]

Observed in the passage of sacrifices prior to the sacrifice of Christ is the same novelty as in the passage from the law to grace, from duty to gift, illustrated in a previous meditation. From work of man to placate the divinity and be reconciled with it, sacrifice becomes gift of God to placate man, to make him desist from his violence and to reconciled him with Himself (cf. Colossians 1:20). Also in his sacrifice, as in all the rest, Christ is "totally other." 

2. "Imitate that which you celebrate"

The consequence of all this is clear: to be a priest "according to the order of Jesus Christ," the presbyter must, like Him, offer himself. On the altar, he does not only represent the Jesus who is "high priest," but also the Jesus who is "supreme victim," the two things being inseparable. In other words he cannot be content to offer Christ to the Father in the sacramental signs of bread and wine, he must also offer himself with Christ to the Father. Taking up a thought of St. Augustine, the instruction of the Holy Congregation of Rites, "Eucharisticum mysterium," writes: "The Church, the spouse and minister of Christ, performs together with Him the role of priest and victim, offers Him to the Father and at the same time makes a total offering of herself together with Him."[4]

That which is said here of the whole Church, is applied in an altogether special way to the celebrant. At the moment of ordination, the bishop addresses to those being ordained the exhortation: "Agnoscite quod agitis, imitamini quod tractatis": "Realize what you will do, imitate that which you will celebrate." In other words: you do also what Christ does in the Mass, namely, offer yourself to God in living sacrifice. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus writes: "Knowing that no one is worthy of the grandeur of God, of the Victim and of the Priest, if he has not first offered himself as living and holy sacrifice, if he has not presented himself as reasonable and acceptable oblation (cf. Romans 12:1) and if he has not offered to God a sacrifice of praise and a contrite spirit — the only sacrifice of which the author of every gift asks to be offered —, how will I dare offer him the external offering on the altar, that which is the representation of great mysteries?"[5]

I permit myself to say how I myself discovered this dimension of my priesthood because, perhaps, it might help to understand better. After my ordination, see how I lived the moment of consecration: I closed my eyes, bowed my head, tried to become estranged from all that surrounded me to immerse myself in Jesus who, in the Cenacle, pronounced those words for the first time: "Accipite et manducate ...", "Take, eat ..." The liturgy itself fostered this attitude, making one pronounce the words of the consecration in a low voice and in Latin, bending down over the species, facing the altar and not the people. Then, one day, I understood that such an attitude, alone, did not express the whole meaning of my participation in the consecration. He who presides invisibly at every Mass is Jesus risen and living, the Jesus, to be exact, who was dead but now lives for evermore (cf. Revelation 1:18).  But this Jesus is the "total Christ," Head and body indissolubly united. Therefore, if it is this total Christ that pronounces the words of consecration, I also pronounce them with him. Within the great "I" of the Head, is hidden the little "I" of the body that is the Church, and also my very little "I."

Since then, while, as priest ordained by the Church, I pronounce the words of the consecration "in persona Christi," and believe that, thanks to the Holy Spirit, they have the power of changing the bread into the body of Christ and the wine into his blood, at the same time, as member of the body of Christ, I no longer close my eyes, but I look at the brethren before me or, if I celebrate on my own, I think of them whom I must serve during the day and, turning to them, I say mentally together with Jesus: "Brothers and sisters, take, eat: this is my body; take, drink, this is my blood."

Later on I found a singular confirmation in the writings of the Venerable Concepcion Cabrera de Armida, called Conchita, the Mexican mystic, founder of three religious Orders, whose process of beatification is underway. To her Jesuit son, about to be ordained priest, she wrote: "Remember, my son, when you hold in your hands the Holy Host, you will not say: ‘Behold the Body of Jesus and Behold His Blood,' but you will say: ‘This is my Body, This is my Blood, that is, there must be worked in you a total transformation, you must lose yourself in Him, to be ‘another Jesus."[6]

The offering of the priest and of the whole Church, without that of Jesus, would neither be holy nor acceptable to God, because we are only sinful creatures, but Jesus' offering, without that of his body which is the Church, would also be incomplete and insufficient: not, be it understood, to procure salvation, but so that we receive it and appropriate it. It is in this sense that the Church can say with Saint Paul: "in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (cf. Colossians 1:24).

We can illustrate with an example what happens in every Mass. Let us imagine that in a family there is one child, the first born, most devoted to the father. He wishes to give him a present for his birthday. However, before presenting it to him he asks all his brothers and sisters secretly to add their signature on the gift. It then arrives in the hands of the father as the indistinct homage of all his children and as a sign of the esteem and love of them all but, in reality, only one has paid its price. 

And now the application. Jesus admires and loves the heavenly Father. He wishes to give him every day, until the end of the world, the most precious gift he can think of, that of his life itself. In the Mass he invites all his "brothers," who we are, to add their signature on the gift, so that it reaches God the Father as the indistinct gift of all his children, "My and your sacrifice," the priest calls it in the Orate fratres. But, in reality, we know that only one has paid the price of such a gift. And what a price!

3. The Body and Blood

To understand the practical consequences that derive for the priest from all this, it is necessary to keep in mind the meaning of the word "body" and of the word "blood." In biblical language, the word body, as the word flesh, does not indicate, as it does for us today, a third part of the person as in the Greek trichotomy (body, soul, mind); it indicates the whole person, in as much as he lives in a bodily dimension. (The Word became flesh," means he became man, not bones, muscles, nerves!). In turn, "blood" does not indicate a part of a part of man. Blood is seat of life, that is why the effusion of blood is the sign of death. With the word "body" Jesus has given us his life, with the word blood he has given us his death. Applied to us, to offer the body means to offer the time, the physical and mental resources, a smile that is typical of a spirit that lives in a body; to offer the blood means to offer death. Not only the final moment of life, but all that which already anticipates death: mortification, illnesses, passiveness, all that is negative in life.

Let us try to imagine the priestly life lived with this awareness. The whole day, not only the moment of the celebration, is a Eucharist: to teach, to govern, to confess, to visit the sick, also rest and recreation, everything. A spiritual master, French Jesuit Pierre Olivaint, said: "The morning, I priest, He victim; throughout the day He priest, I victim: in the morning (at that time Mass was celebrated only in the morning) I priest, He (Christ) victim; in the course of the day, He priest, I victim. "What good a priest does," — said the Holy Cure of Ars — to offer himself to God in sacrifice every morning."[7]

Thanks to the Eucharist, also the life of an elderly priest, sick and reduced to immobility, is very precious for the Church. He offers "the blood." Once I made a visit to a priest sick with a tumor. He was preparing to celebrate one of his last Masses with the help of a young priest. He also had an illness of the eyes, which made him weep continuously. He said to me: I never understood the importance of saying also in my name in the Mass: "Take, eat; take, drink." Now I understand it. It's all that remains for me and I say it continually thinking of my parishioners. I have understood what it means to be "broken bread" for others.

4. At the Service of the Universal Priesthood of the Faithful

Once this existential dimension of the Eucharist is discovered, it is the pastoral duty of the priest also to help the rest of the people of God to live it. The Year for Priests should not be an opportunity and a grace only for priests, but also for the laity. Presbyterorum Ordinis affirms clearly that the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the universal priesthood of all the baptized, so that they "can offer themselves as living, holy, and acceptable host to God (Romans 12:1). In fact: "It is through the ministry of presbyters that the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is rendered perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ, sole mediator; this sacrifice, in fact, by the hand of presbyters and in the name of the whole Church, is offered in the Eucharist in a bloodless and sacramental way, until the day of the Lord's coming."[8]

The constitution Lumen Gentium of Vatican II, speaking of the common priesthood" of all the faithful, writes: "[t]he faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, share in the oblation of the Eucharist... Participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice, source and summit of the whole Christian life, they offer to God the divine Victim and themselves with It; thus all, whether with the oblation or with holy communion, fulfill their own part in the liturgical action, not, however, equally, but one in one way and another in another."[9]

Hence, the Eucharist is the act of the whole people of God, not only in the passive sense that it redounds to the benefit of all, but also actively, in the sense that it is carried out with the participation of all. The clearest biblical foundation of this doctrine is Romans 12:1: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." Commenting on these words of Paul, Saint Peter Chrysologus, said: "The Apostle thus sees all men raised up to the priestly dignity to offer their own bodies as living sacrifice. O immense dignity of the Christian priesthood! Man has become victim and priest for himself. He no longer seeks outside of himself what he must immolate to God, but carries with him and in him what he sacrifices to God for himself ... Brothers, this sacrifice is modeled on that of Christ ...Be then, O man, sacrifice and priest of God."[10]

Let us try to see how the way of living the consecration that I have illustrated might also help the laity to unite itself to the offering of the priest. We have seen that the layman is also called to offer himself to Christ in the Mass. Can he do so using the same words of Christ: "Take, eat, this is my body"? I think nothing is opposed to this. Do we not do the same thing when, to express our abandonment to the will of God, we use the words of Jesus on the cross: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit," or when, in our trials, we repeat: "Let this chalice pass from me," or other words of the Savior? To use Jesus' words helps to unite oneself to his feelings. The Mexican mystic, recalled above, felt addressed also to her, not only to her priest son, the words of Christ: "I want you, transformed in Me by suffering, by love and by the practice of all the virtues, to raise heavenward this cry of your soul in union with Me: 'This is My Body, This is My Blood.'"

The lay faithful must only be aware that these words said by him, in the Mass or during the day, do not have the power to render present the body and blood of Christ on the altar. He does not act, at this moment, in persona Christi; he does not represent Christ, as the ordained priest does, but he only unites himself to Christ. Therefore, he will not say the words of consecration in a loud voice, as the priest does, but in his own heart, thinking them, more than pronouncing them.

Let us try to imagine what would happen if also the laity, at the moment of the consecration, said silently: "Take, eat: this is my body. Take, drink: this is my blood." A mother of a family thus celebrates her Mass, then she goes home and begins her day made up of a thousand little things. But what she does is not nothing: it is a eucharist together with Jesus! A Sister also says in her heart at the moment of consecration: "Take, eat ..."; then she goes to her daily work: children, the sick, the elderly. The Eucharist "invades" her day which becomes a prolongation of the Eucharist.

But I would like to reflect in particular on two categories of persons: workers and young people. The eucharistic bread "fruit of the earth and of the work of human hands," has something important to say about human work, and not only about agricultural work. In the process that goes from the seed sowed in the earth to the bread on the table, industry intervenes with its machines, commerce, transport and an infinity of other activities, in practice all human labor. Do we teach the Christian laborer to offer in the Mass his body and his blood, that is, his time, sweat and toil. Work will no longer be alienating as in the Marxist view in which it finishes in the product that is sold, but sanctifying.

And what does the Eucharist have to say to young people? Suffice it for us to think of one thing: what does the world of boys and girls want today? The body, nothing else but the body! The body, in the mentality of the world, is essentially an instrument of pleasure and exploitation. Something to be sold, to squeeze while it is young and attractive, and then to be thrown out, together with the person, when it no longer serves these ends. Especially the woman's body has become merchandise of consumption. Do we teach Christian boys and girls to say, at the moment of consecration: "Take, eat. this is my body, offered for you." The body is thus consecrated, becomes something sacred, it can no longer be "given to eat" to one's concupiscence and that of others, it can no longer be sold, because it has given itself. It has become Eucharist with Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote to the first Christians: "The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord ... So glorify God in your body" (1 Corinthians 6:13.20). And he explained immediately two ways in which one can glorify God with one's body: either with marriage or with virginity, according to the charism and vocation of each one (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1 ff.).

5. With the Cooperation of the Holy Spirit

Where can, priests and laity, find the strength to make this total giving of self to God, to set off and be raised, so to speak, from the earth with one's own hands? The answer is: the Holy Spirit! Christ, we heard at the beginning from the Letter to the Hebrews, offered himself to the Father in sacrifice, "through the eternal Spirit" (Hebrews 9:14), that is, thanks to the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who as he aroused in Christ's human heart the impulse to prayer (cf. Luke 10:21), so He aroused in him the impulse and indeed the desire to offer himself to the Father in sacrifice for humanity.

In his encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Pope Leo XIII says that "Christ accomplished every work of his, and especially his sacrifice, with the intervention of the Holy Spirit (praesente Spiritu)" [12] and in the Mass, before communion, the priest prays saying: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who by the will of the Father and the cooperation of the Holy Spirit (cooperante Spiritu Sancto), by dying you gave life to the world ..." This explains why there are two "epiclesis," in the Mass, namely two invocations of the Holy Spirit: one, before the consecration, on the bread and on the wine, and one, after the consecration, on the whole Mystical Body. With the words of one of these epiclesi (Eucharistic Prayer III), we ask the Father for the gift of his Spirit to be in every Mass, like Jesus, priests and at the same time, sacrifice: "May he make us an everlasting gift to you and enable us to share in the inheritance of your saints, with Mary, the virgin Mother of God; with the apostles, the martyrs, and all your saints, on whose constant intercession we rely for help."

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[1] "Presbyterorum Ordinis," 2.

[2] Didache, 9-10.

[3] Augustine, Confessions, 10, 43.

[4] "Eucharisticum mysterium," 3; cf. Augustine, "De Civitate Dei," X, 6 (CCL 47, 279).

[5] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 2, 95 (PG 35, 497).

[6] Conchita. A Mother's Spiritual Diary, ed. by M.-M. Philipon, New York, Alba House 1978, p.87.

[7] Quoted by Benedict XVI in the Letter for the Opening of the Year for Priests.

[8] "Presbyterorum Ordinis," 2.

[9] "Lumen Gentium," 10-11.

[10] Peter Chrysologus, Sermo 108 (PL 52, 499 f.).

[11] Conchita, op. cit., p. 161.

[12] Leo XIII, Encyclical "Divinum illud munus," 6.


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