Focus on independent worship diminishes role of priesthood

Father John A. Kiley

During these summer months, the Church’s liturgy wisely focuses the worshiper’s attention on the Eucharist. Chapter six of St. John’s Gospel is a glorious exposition on the Eucharist as a sacred banquet, a memorial meal, a cause of grace and a pledge of future life.

These teachings would be incorporated by St. Thomas Aquinas into his antiphon for vespers on the solemnity of Corpus Christi, the popular motet O Sacred Convivium.

Not everyone looked as kindly on the Eucharist as St. John and St. Thomas Aquinas.

The 16th-century reformers proposed a radically different understanding of Holy Communion from the Church’s traditional teaching. Cranmer in England, Calvin in Geneva, and Luther in Germany rightly understood that the Eucharist and priesthood are intrinsically linked.

Modify the Mass and the priesthood was inevitably modified — in fact, it was eliminated.

The reformers did have their legitimate gripes. The Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and corruption in high places gave society a very grim assessment of human nature.

A private relationship with God replaced the notion of grace being mediated through an all too human Church.

The dissemination of vernacular bibles also made the priest seem less vital to the life of the Church.

Why listen to miserable sermons when you could read the very word of God at home?

In no small measure, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries was a repudiation of the Catholic priesthood. The chickens of high living and poor education were coming home to roost.

In 1520 Martin Luther — not the most radical of the reformers — published documents defining his positions and calling for action. In the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, he appealed to the German ruling classes to throw off the yoke of Rome.

He maintained that each believer is his own priest — a doctrine that is still yielding its results today. Luther meant that any layman could attain redemption independent of a priest.

The priesthood was only a special vocation not the mediation role to which Catholic theology adhered.

As historians note, with this stroke Luther broke the power of the Church over secular authorities — the power to give or withhold the means of salvation — and he encouraged the authorities to reform an erring church.

In “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church” it is noted that Luther attacked the sacramental system, denied four of the traditional sacraments, and kept only baptism, the Eucharist, and in a revised sense, penance. Confession was possible between laymen. Marriage was a civil affair to which the Church could give its blessing.

Ordination and confirmation were rites of the Church but were not sacraments. Extreme unction was unscriptural and, therefore, was wholly renounced.

As for the Eucharist, he wanted both the elements of bread and wine distributed to the laity, denied that the Mass was a reenactment of the sacrifice of the Cross, and deviated from the doctrine of transubstantiation, abandoning the Thomistic distinction between substance and accidents.

Christ was in, with and under the bread and wine. But Christ had not actually replaced the bread and wine as Catholics believed.

Luther was not as drastic as some other reformers in denying the Real Presence and his caution possibly led other Protestants to maintain at least some spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament.

The elimination of mediation, the priesthood, the Mass, and the Real Presence from the core of Christianity radically altered the nature of the Church.

If every man was his own priest, then the Church was hardly necessary at all.

The Church might support, encourage, guide, instruct and reprove, but basically each man stood alone before God.

The role of a mediator was banished. Sadly, this spirit of independence is overwhelming our Catholic Church today.

The preference for spirituality over religion is really a repudiation of the notion that the Church is God’s instrument of salvation in our midst.

God the Father chose to mediate his saving graces uniquely through his Son, Jesus Christ. Christ, in turn, handed his ministry of reconciliation uniquely over to the Church: “Receive the Holy Spirit etc. …” And the Eucharist is the Church’s supreme work of mediation.

Through the Mass and through the priesthood, the one mediator Jesus Christ essentially continues his divinely appointed task.