We all know that we have to go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, which are the Assumption (August 15), All Saints Day (November 1), the Immaculate Conception (December 8), Christmas (December 25), and the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (January 1). Have you ever wondered why? In the next few weeks I’ll answer that question and other related to the Mass and the Sacraments.
The Second Vatican Council was a gathering of all the bishops of the Catholic Church to discuss certain issues affecting the Church and society, including the liturgy and sacraments of the Church, the Bible, evangelization, the relationship of priesthood and the laity, and modern society and technology, among other things. It began in October of 1962 and ended in December of 1965. One of the most important topics the Council Fathers (the bishops who attended and voted on the acceptance or rejection of the documents) covered was the Mass.
They called the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life,” because the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the presence of God Himself. God is the source of all things, but in a special way He is the source of the Christian life because He sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts to unite us to Christ. Whenever we receive the Eucharist we are more and more closely united to Jesus Christ. God is also the summit of the Christian life, meaning that He is our goal. The reason that we are Christians is to grow closer to God. That’s what holiness is: closeness to God. The Eucharist is the best way to grow in holiness because we are never closer to God than we are when we receive Communion.
In his letter to the Ephesians St. Paul writes about marriage and the responsibility of husband and wife to love one another. At the end of that passage he writes this, “’For this reason a man shall live faith and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:31-32). St. Paul is saying that the love of a husband and wife for one another should be an image of the love that God has for the Church.
In His love for us Jesus descended from heaven to become one of us, fully human as well as fully divine, He lived among us, and them He died and rose again for us. He loves us fully and completely, holding nothing back. We are called to love Him the same way, to live for Him as He lived for us, and to give our lives for Him as He gave His life for us.
Marriage is meant to be a sign in the world of God’s love for us. We should be able to understand a little of God’s love for us by seeing how a husband treats his wife and how a wife treats her husband. This is why the Church focuses so much on marriage and family.
This would be a good examination of conscience for married people. Do you try to imitate Christ’s love for us in your relationship? Do you love without counting the cost, or do you keep score? Do you forgive completely, or do you hold on to things? Do you have unreasonable expectations of your spouse? When was the last time that you did a good thing for your spouse unexpectedly?
The Sacrament of Marriage is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Through it He allows us to see selfless, life-giving love in action, so that we can learn to love all people just a little bit better.
Next Week: The Domestic Church
Fr. Bryan Recommends
The Priest is Not His Own
by Archbishop Fulton Sheen
I’ve recommended books by Archbishop Fulton Sheen before, and when I was thinking of books on the priesthood to recommend it didn’t take long to settle on this one. He was born in 1895 and ordained a priest on September 20, 1919. He was consecrated a bishop in 1951 and archbishop in 1969. He is most famous for His television show, Life is Worth Living, which ran from 1951 to 1957, and a followup show from 1958 to 1968. The viewing audience is estimated to be as at least 10 million or as high as 30 million viewers every week.
His book on the priesthood is not really a theological explanation of what the priesthood is, but it’s more of a spiritual look at the priesthood. He writes about who the priest is, why we need priests, what priests do, and how priests should live. He gives practical advise to priests on how to grow in holiness, and how to draw souls to Christ.
He focuses on the fact that the priest is meant to imitate Christ, to be an alter Christus. Christ came as a victim offering Himself for our sins. He was born in order to die, and He died for us, to save us. If Christ came to offer Himself for us, His flock, then every priest is called to do the same, to offer Himself for his flock. Hence the title, The Priest is Not His Own.
This book is really written for priests and seminarians, but if you want to understand the priesthood better, then this is one of the best places to start.
Next Week: Three Kinds of Love
The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony
We’re coming to the end of this series of bulletin articles on the Seven Sacraments which began on September 3 and will finish in May with the articles on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. In my article about Holy Orders, I mentioned that Marriage is a Sacrament of Service calling husband and wife to serve one another and their family in love and help one another get to heaven. Today, we’ll go a little bit more in depth on what marriage is.
When you see a marriage ceremony on TV or in a movie, there is a moment when the person officiating, the priest or judge, says, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” If you’ve been to a Catholic wedding you may have noticed that this doesn’t happen. The priest is there to witness the exchange of vows on behalf of God and the Church and offer God’s blessing to the newly married couple, but he doesn’t pronounce them married. The bride and groom are married in the moment when they exchange vows with one another. The blessing, exchange of rings, and prayers of the Church are important, but far more important is the exchange of vows. Through those vows, made honestly and with good intentions in the presence of the Church and the community, God unites man and woman in the bond of marriage and gives them grace to live out those vows.
In the marriage vows a husband and wife basically promise three things, called the “three goods” of marriage. First, they promise to be open to life. The priest or deacon asks, “Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” and the couple respond, “I am.” The intention to accept children lovingly from God and to raise them lovingly is at the heart of marriage. Just as God shared His love with us by creating us and bringing us into His family, so married couples are called to imitate God by being open to the new life that God wishes to give them and expanding their families.
Second, they promise to be faithful to one another. In their vows husband and wife promise to be faithful “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love you and to honor you.” It’s relatively easy to be faithful in good times and in health, but it’s much more difficult in bad times and in sickness. This promise is not just to not mistreat one another or cheat, but it is something positive as well. They promise to love and honor one another, which is to put the good of your husband or wife first.
Finally, they make these promises “all the days of my life,” or, in the other version of the vows, “until death do us part.” The vows are not meant to be temporary. Some people think that it’s too much to expect people to keep a promise like this for their entire lives, but God and the Church have a higher view of humanity. We know that a husband and wife can, with the help of God, love and honor one another for their entire lives. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but it’s definitely worth the sacrifice. For my part, one of my greatest joys as a priest is to see families growing together in love, whether they’re just starting out or have been together 50 plus years. Witnessing their joy and love for one another motivate me and give me encouragement for the future.
Next Week: Fr. Bryan Recommends
Celibacy for the Kingdom
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ speaks of those who choose to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. The practice of celibacy has endured in the Roman Church and in the Greek Churches to this day; however, there has always been debate about it. There are those who wish to end clerical celibacy, or at least to make it optional, but I fear they don't understand what they wish to do away with. The question is not whether it is useful or not, Christ himself recommended it (Mt. 19:12), the question is why.
In the seminary, we were often told that priests are "in the world, but not of the world." Priests live in the world, in the midst of the secular culture, the media, and the everyday lives of normal people, but we are not of the world. We live in the world as those who are about the business of God the Father. Celibacy is one of the main ways that we live this reality, as well as detachment from material possessions and obedience.
The Catechism of the Catholic Churchsays, "Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church's minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God (CCC 1579)." This statement gives the main reason for the practice of priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church: complete dedication to the Lord.
The life of celibacy allows the priest to be completely devoted to the service of God and of His Church, and to the service of the people entrusted to His care. It allows us to order our lives to God instead of to the world. Instead of worrying about raising a family and all of the concerns that go with it, we focus on prayer, the sacraments, and the care of souls.
Although the practice of priestly celibacy is primarily a theological concern, there are also practical benefits from it. Priest are payed by and taken care of by the Church, because being a priest is a full time job. If priests had families, we would need a much bigger salary because, as you know, children are very expensive, or we would need to be part time, but then our parishioners would suffer. However, this is a minor reason, the Eastern Orthodox Churches have married priests and they make out just fine.
This reminds me of another reason that some people want to allow priests to marry. They say that more people would want to become priests if they could also get married. However, the Eastern Orthodox Churches show that this is false. They allow priests to choose marriage or celibacy and most of them have a shortage of priests just like we do. This shows us that the priesthood is not chosen by people, but that priests are called by God; our job is to respond to that call.
An important part of Catholic culture is sacrifice. We fast during Lent to prepare ourselves for the Resurrection of the Lord, we fast out of sorrow for our sins, and we fast to increase our desire for God by denying ourselves. Priestly celibacy is also a fast, or a sacrifice; it is abstaining from marriage. When we fast from anything, we choose something that is good, that we like, to fast from. We don't fast from bad or evil things, because we're supposed to avoid those anyway. Fasting from something good is our way to saying that God is better than that thing, than chocolate, or television, or meat. Priestly celibacy is not forced on the priest, it is something that we choose; it is a sacrifice that the priest makes because he puts God first in His life, above everything else, even above having a wife and children.
In this way it is also a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven. We give up marriage because we are not living just for this world and the things of this world (res mundi); we are living for God and the things of God (res Dei). We are living in the expectation of the Kingdom of God, of the second coming of Christ, and of the resurrection of the dead. More than just a sacrifice, celibacy is a witness that reminds everyone that God is with us, that He loves us, and that we are called to love Him "with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, and our whole strength."
The Priest as Alter Christus
Last week I wrote about how both Marriage and the Priesthood are calls to service, but what kind of service? What does the priesthood of Jesus Christ look like? The priest is ordained to be alter Christus, “another Christ,” both in celebrating the sacraments and in the way He lives His life. He is called to serve as Christ served, by laying down His life for the flock.
In his book on the priesthood, Fr. Jean Galot, S.J., writes, “If the priest is ‘another Christ’ in a special way, this is due not to a merely juridical delegation but to the figure of Christ Priest and Shepherd impressed in His soul.” In His ordination the priest is conformed to Christ as priest and shepherd, and this is why He is able to offer the Mass, to forgive sins, to bless, and to make Christ present for the people. The job of the priest is to be a middle man, or go between, to bring the people to God and to bring God to the people. It is not the priest who forgives sins, it is God who forgives sins through the priest.
There was an ancient heresy that only a holy Priest is able to offer the sacraments. Can you imagine if that was true? You would constantly be wondering, “Is this priest really holy? Am I really baptized? Are my sins really forgiven? Was that Mass valid?” No, it’s not the holiness of the priest that allows him to offer the sacraments, it is his ordination and the fact that God works through the priest.
But the priest isn’t only called to offer the sacraments; he is also called to live them. In the rite of ordination, after the gifts are brought up for the Mass, the bishop hands them to the new priests and says, “Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” The priesthood is not about power, authority, and privilege. It’s about conforming our lives to Christ, and offering our lives, as He did, to bring people closer to God. None of us are perfect, and all of us fail to live up to our calling in one way or another, but, by the grace of God, may we come closer and closer to it every day.
The Sacrament of Holy Orders
The last two sacraments are called the sacraments of service, Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. They are both all about serving others. In Holy Matrimony, husband and wife receive grace from God to better serve one another and their family, to treat one another with love, kindness, compassion, and generosity, and to help one another get to heaven. In Holy Orders, deacons, priests, and bishops receive grace from God to serve the Church, the people of God, to lead people in prayer and service to God, to help people to grow in holiness, and to help people get to heaven.
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is based on apostolic succession. Each bishop alive today was ordained by another bishop, who laid hands on his head and prayed over Him, and that bishop was ordained by another bishop, going back in a line all the way to the Apostles and before through them to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ gave the Apostles the authority to lead the Church, to perform the sacraments, to forgive sins, and to preach and teach in His name. They passed that authority on to their successors. Priests and deacons are ordained by bishops and receive from the bishop the right to lead prayer, administer the sacraments, give blessings, etc. When a deacon, priest, or bishop uses their authority and power in serving and leading the Church, it isn’t really their own authority and power; it’s the authority and power of Christ passed down to them through apostolic succession.
Some of the sacraments change the very soul of the person receiving them, like baptism and confirmation and Holy Orders. If you ever stop by St. Louis Cemetary No. 3, on Esplanade, just inside the front entrance is the priest’s mausoleum, where many priests of the Archdiocese of New Orleans are buried. On the font is has the inscription in Latin, “Tu es sacerdos in aeternum.” You are a priest forever. These three sacraments leave an indelible mark on the soul. They are, truly, eternal, because they connect us to Christ the High Priest, who is eternal.
The purpose of Holy Orders, of the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy (bishops), is to imitate Christ who “came to serve and not to be served.” We serve people by trying to help them to grow in holiness. Please pray for your clergy, deacons, priests, and bishops, that they may grow in holiness, too, so as to better help all people to grow in holiness.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.