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The Holy Eucharist and Holiness in Priests

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

No one familiar with the present age has any doubt that the Church has been going through a grave crisis for over a century. Some consider it the gravest in the Church’s history and certainly its impact on the Church and her institutions has been drastic in the extreme. Under the general name of secularism, it is the philosophy which claims that there is no other life than “this life” and no other world than “this world.” If there is an afterlife, and the secularist is ready to grant the possibility, it is so uncertain and improbable that the hypothesis has no practical value in determining a person’s behavior. By now there are a variety of secularisms in the world. But they all have this in common: they hold the meaning of the world to lie within itself.

It would be unrealistic to expect the Church to remain unaffected by present day secularism. Catholics are too much a part of the culture in which they live and too exposed to the ideas of their day not to be influenced by what they experience. Add to this secularism the rise of the communications media in the twentieth century and we get some idea of how inevitably the Church has suffered by contact with the unbelieving world in which she lives.

Among the Church’s institutions, the priesthood has been especially vulnerable. This may be partly explained by the fact that priests are the Church’s divinely established leaders of faith and morals, but mainly by the strategy of the evil spirit, who could be expected to intrude himself into the ranks of Christ’s chosen ones. For even as the Church’s greatest pride is in the sanctity of her ordained bishops and priests who lead the people of God in the paths of holiness, so they have been the Church’s greatest sorrow when they abandoned their high calling and turned their backs on the Savior who ordained them.

The modern popes have been eloquent in stressing the grave need of a strong priesthood to resist the pressure against the faith in our times. Leo XIII and Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII have pleaded time and again with bishops and priests to resist the seductions of a godless world and remain firm in their loyalty to Christ and His Church. No one could be clearer than Paul VI when, on the occasion of ordaining ten priests to the episcopate, he urged them to remain constant in their faith. “It is the gift of Christ to His Church,” he said. “It is the virtue that the Church needs today, assailed as she is by so many forces that aim at defeating her, indeed weakening and destroying her firmness in faith.” It is faith, he told the newly ordained prelates, “that must protect us from our inner weakness and against the growing confusion of ideas of our world.” [1]

In the first year of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II wrote to the priests of the Catholic world, urging them to resist the temptation to compromise with the world. “What the people expect of their ordained leaders,” he said, “is above all a priestly personality that witnesses to a world beyond this one and to values that belong to eternity. Priests should not be deceived. Sometimes the people may want priests ‘to be in every way like them’; at times it even seems that they demand this of us.” A priest must be on his guard. “It is very easy to let oneself be guided by appearances and fall victim to a fundamental illusion in what is essential. Those who call for the secularization of priestly life and applaud its various manifestations will surely abandon us if we give in to the temptation. We shall then cease to be necessary and popular.” The Pope went on to explain how careful priests must be to avoid being manipulated and exploited by a world that wants to shape everyone, especially the Church’s leaders, to its own image and likeness. [2]

What then is the greatest single need in the priesthood today? It is holiness. What the Church and the world mainly need is holy priests. The next question is the hard one: How are priests to become holy? They are to become holy through the Eucharist. In other words, there is no holiness without the Eucharist.

We are now ready to answer a series of questions: What is holiness? How does the grace of holiness come from the Eucharist? What do we believe when we believe in the Real Presence? Why do we believe? How do we believe?

What the Church most needs in modern times is priests who have not been seduced by the ways of the world but have remained firm in their faith as ambassadors of Christ, chosen by Him to dispense the mysteries of salvation until the end of time. Only holy priests will not be seduced by the devil, who is the prince of this world. Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is the only one who can make priests truly holy.

Holy priests will sanctify the faithful. One of the glories of the Second Vatican Council was its outspoken insistence not only that holiness is a realistic goal, but that this is our special vocation as Christians. “All of Christ’s faithful,” we are told, “no matter what their rank or station, have a vocation to the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity.” In a word, we have all been called to become saints. But the sanctification of the world depends on the sanctity of Catholic bishops and priests. In God’s providence, we are to be the principal channels of holiness to the world in which we live.

What is Holiness?

In one sense, everyone who is baptized and in the state of grace is holy. But properly speaking, holiness is not only being in God’s friendship, it is being Christ-like.

What do we mean when we say that we are as holy as we are like Christ? We mean that Jesus Christ is the pattern for us to follow. The more we become like Him, the more holy we are. This stands to reason since Christ is God, and of course, a person is only as holy as he is like unto God.

What we are saying is not as obvious as may seem. No doubt expressions like “the imitation of Christ,” or “the following of Christ,” or “walking in the footsteps of Christ,” are familiar enough. But what do they say? They affirm the astounding fact that when God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that man was literally God walking on our earth, eating our food, breathing our air, and living in every way, except sin, the human life that we live. He did so not only to redeem us from Satan and hell, but to show us how we can, with His grace, become like Him in virtue.

When we are born into the world, we already have the same human nature that Christ had, and this through no effort of our own. But we do not have the same holiness that He had, nor shall we ever achieve it. Nevertheless, we can and should become ever more like Him, who is God, since this is the main reason He became like us, who are creatures and not God.

Time and again, He bade us become like Him, “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart … If I, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example, so that you may copy what I have done to you … I give you a new commandment: Love one another just as I have loved you.”

So the litany of Christ’s formula for sanctity goes on. Study the conduct of Christ, and strive to do the same. If you do, insofar as you do, you will become holy.

Grace for Holiness from the Eucharist

All that we read in the Gospels about following Christ in order to become like Him would be, from one viewpoint, so much inspiring invitation, and from another viewpoint, so much hopeless depression. Where, dear Lord, where can we obtain the light and strength we need to follow in your footsteps, and thus become holy? His answer is, “From me!”

The same Jesus whom we are called upon to imitate and become like Him in sanctity is the Jesus who is on earth in the Holy Eucharist.

It is now more than thirty years that I have been working for the Holy See. Most of my assignments will never be publicized. But there is one order I have received that must be shared with you. I have been told to do everything in my power to restore the faith of American Catholics in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Thank God there are, I trust, not a few professed Catholics who still believe in Christ’s real, physical presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Yet all the evidence indicates that many may still say they believe and might even be offended if we questioned their faith. But in their minds, they do not accept the following definition of the Council of Trent, “In the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist, there are truly, really, and substantially contained the Body and Blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore the whole Christ.”

Our subject for this chapter is The Holy Eucharist and Holiness of Priests. Another way of saying this is, “No Priestly Holiness Without Jesus Christ.” Let’s be sure we know what we are saying. Jesus Christ lived on earth in visible form in order to teach us what it means to become holy. We become holy by accepting His teaching and following His example.

But the big question still remains. How, how can we humbly accept what Jesus taught us and faithfully live up to the example which He gave us? The answer is through the Eucharist.

There are at this point three questions we should ask ourselves about the Holy Eucharist and holiness. On the answer to these questions depends whether we shall only know about holiness but also attain it, whether holiness will remain only an idea, or whether we shall actually become holy. What a difference! The questions are these:

  • What do we believe when we believe in the Real Presence?

  • Why should we believe it? And,

  • How should we priests put our belief into practice to become holy?

What Do We Believe?

The simplest way to express what Christ asks us to believe about the Real Presence is that the Eucharist is really He. The Real Presence is the real Jesus. We are to believe that the Eucharist began in the womb of the Virgin Mary; that the flesh which the Son of God received from His Mother at the Incarnation is the same flesh into which He changed bread at the Last Supper; that the blood He received from His Mother is the same blood into which He changed wine at the Last Supper. Had she not given Him His flesh and blood, there could not be a Eucharist.

We are to believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ – simply, without qualification. It is God become man in the fullness of His divine nature, in the fullness of His human nature, in the fullness of His body and soul, in the fullness of everything that makes Jesus Jesus. He is in the Eucharist with His human mind and will, united with the Divinity, with His hands and feet, His face and features, with His eyes and lips and ears and nostrils, with His affections and emotions and, with emphasis, with His living, pulsating, physical Sacred Heart. That is what our Catholic faith demands of us that we believe. If we believe this, we are Catholic. If we do not, we are not, no matter what people may think we are.

Our faith is belief because we do not see what we believe. We accept on Christ’s words, that all of this is there, or rather, here in the Holy Eucharist. Faith must supply what, as the Tantum Ergo sings, “the senses do not perceive.” And faith must reveal what the mind by itself cannot see. Let us never forget this phrase, first in Latin, lumen fidei, the light of faith. Faith reveals, faith discloses, faith enlightens, faith empowers the mind to see what the mind without faith cannot see.

Strange as it may sound, when we believe in the Real Presence, we believe in things twice unseen. We see only what looks like bread and wine, and yet we are to believe that behind these physical appearances is a man. Faith number one. And we are further to believe that behind the unseen man is God. Faith number two.

Is it any wonder the Church calls the Eucharist Mysterium Fidei, the Mystery of Faith? Those who accept the Real Presence accept by implication all the cardinal mysteries of Christianity. They believe in the Trinity, in the Father who sent the Holy Spirit. They believe in the Incarnation, that the Son of God became man like one of us. They believe in Christ’s divinity since no one but God could change bread and wine into His own body and blood. They believe in the Holy Catholic Church which Christ founded and in which through successive generations is communicated to bishops and priests the incredible power of making Christ continually present among us in the Blessed Sacrament. They believe, against all the betrayals by the Judases of history and all the skepticism of Christ’s first disciples, in an unbroken chain of faith ever since Peter replied to Christ’s question whether he and his companions also wanted to leave the Master. What a chance Christ took. “Lord,” Peter looked around, “whom shall we go to?” (And he spoke for all of us.) “You have the message of eternal life, and we believe, we know that you are the holy one of God.”

There is a prayer in the Coptic Liturgy that I think perfectly answers the first question we are asking, “What do I believe when I believe in the Real Presence?” The prayer goes as follows, a little long, but worth it:

“I believe and I will confess to my last breath that this is the living bread which Your only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, took from our Lady and the Queen of Mankind, the holy, sinless Virgin Mary, Mother of God. He made it one with His Godhead without confusion or change. He witnessed before Pontius Pilate and was of His own free will condemned in our place to the holy tree. Truly I believe that His Godhead was not separated from His manhood for a moment, not even for the twinkle of an eye. We have His body for the remission of our sins and for eternal life to those who partake of this body. I believe, I believe, I believe that this is in very truth that body. Amen.”

That is your faith and mine.

Why Do We Believe?

Why do we believe that the selfsame body that Christ had in His visible stay on earth is the body, now glorified, that we worship and receive invisibly on earth today? You see, Christ is on earth! The final reason is, of course, because this is what He told us. What He said must be true because Christ who is God cannot lie.

But why do we believe in terms of the promises He made? What blessings and benefits did He assure those who believe in this Eucharistic Mystery? All the blessings that Christ promised to those who believe in the Holy Eucharist are summed up in His own masterful promise of life. Those who believe will receive life, and the life that He promised was zoe – the kind of life that belongs to God, the kind of life that Father, Son and Holy Spirit shared and interchanged from all eternity. Those who believe will receive this life. Those who do not believe will die. What kind of life was Christ talking about? It must have been the supernatural life of grace in our souls, of participation in His own divine life.

Suppose we go on asking a series of questions where the answer can be yes or no:

  • Is it possible for a person to be physically alive, but spiritually dead? Yes or no? YES.

  • Is it possible for a person to be just barely alive? Yes or no? YES.

  • Is it possible for a person to be more alive than just scarcely breathing supernaturally? Yes or no? YES.

  • Is it finally possible for a person to be very alive with divine grace, vitally alive, brimming, tingling, vibrant, bursting with God’s life in his soul? Yes or no? An emphatic YES!

This, in homely language, is what the Savior promised those who believe in His Real Presence. He assured them and, therefore, assures us, that we shall be not only alive, but filled with His life, full to brimming and flowing over with strength and power and wisdom and peace and all manner of holiness. This is what sanctity is all about. It is the muchness of the good things of God. It is the more and more and still more of the life of God in our souls. More still, He promises that, provided that we believe in Him in the Eucharist, He will sustain this life in our souls into eternity. In other words, being alive now we shall never die. And most marvelous, He will even make this life pour from our souls into our bodies raised from the grave on the last day and glorified by the vision of God. No wonder the Eucharist is called panis vitae, the Bread of Life. It is that, and let us remind ourselves, and here is the condition, one condition, that before we eat this bread with our lips, we take it by faith into our hearts. Indeed, unless we first have faith, we shall, as Paul tells us, “eat it to our malediction.” Only believers can benefit from this Bread of Life, only believers can profit from the Blessed Sacrament, and only believers can grow in spirit by partaking of the Eucharist depending always on the measure of their faith. Those who believe deeply in the Real Presence will benefit greatly from the Real Presence; those who believe weakly will also benefit accordingly. The Eucharist is capable of working miracles in our lives. So it can – after all, the Eucharist is Jesus. He worked – changed the tense – He works miracles, but as it depended then (remember, Christ could not work miracles in certain places for lack of faith), the same now. It depends on the depth and degree of our faith.

How to Believe

This must seem like an odd question: how are we to believe in the Real Presence? By believing, we might answer. How else do you believe? True enough. But more concretely, how are we to express our belief? We are to express our belief by doing on our part what Christ does on His part. He comes to us. So we must come to Him, and this is not locomotion through space. He comes down to us. We must come up to Him. He is present in the Eucharist in order to be near to us. We must be present – change the accent – we must be present to the Eucharist in order to be near to Him. He went to the superhuman length of becoming man, then changing bread and wine into Himself, then giving His Apostles the power to do the same, then giving the power to pass on to others, that is to us priests, to do the same. And in virtue of that power, He is now here with us. He wants us, in turn, also now, here, to be with Him. Here nobody cheats. It is impossible in human terms to exaggerate the importance of being in a church or chapel before the Blessed Sacrament as often and for as long as our daily duties as priests allow. I very seldom repeat what I say. Let me repeat this sentence. It is impossible in human language to exaggerate the importance of being in a chapel or church before the Blessed Sacrament as often and for as long as our priestly duties allow. That sentence is the talisman of the highest sanctity.

What I am expressing is not a pious practice or a luxury of the spiritual life. I am talking about its essence. Those who believe what I am saying and act on their belief are in possession of the greatest treasure available to man in this valley of tears. As by now thousands of saintly men and women have testified from experience, this is somewhere near the key to holiness. For this reason, I strongly recommend that each of us make a resolution – no matter how much the decision may cost us – to make a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament exposed or reserved, if possible every day. Think of the empty hours that priests spend weekly before the television screen. God help America.

Someone may object, “But you are talking about mystics or saints, and I am neither. I am just an ordinary Catholic priest trying to save my soul.” My reply: there can be no ordinary Catholic priests today, not with the revolution through which society is passing and the convulsion in the Church on every level. The Church today needs strong Catholic priests, wise Catholic priests, priests who are not swayed by public opinion or afraid to stand up for the truth. She needs priests who are willing to suffer for their convictions and, if need be, shed their blood for the faith.

Where, we ask, can they obtain this strength and wisdom, this patience and conviction and this loyal love of God that is faithful unto death? They can obtain it from the one who said, “Have courage, I have overcome the world.” He is not two thousand years away, or absent from the earth in a distant heaven that cannot be spanned. No, He is right here in the Eucharist. And He wants nothing more than that we also be with Him as much as we can. If we are, and the more we are – as the great Eucharistic saints tell us – He will not only make us holy, but He will use us priests as He used the Apostles, who, when He first made the promise of the Eucharist, did not walk away. He will use us as channels of His grace even to the ends of the earth and until the end of time.


“Lord Jesus, You are on earth in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. We promise to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass and receive Holy Communion every day. We promise to spend some time in your Real Presence every day. We believe you are now on earth in the Holy Eucharist, just as truly as you were two thousand years ago in Palestine. You are here ready to perform the miracles you worked in Judea and Galilee. You are here, the divine Exorcist, ready to deliver so many people possessed by the evil spirit in our society.

There is only one condition: that we believe. We do believe, we do believe. Help our unbelief. Amen.”

[1] Homily in the Vatican Basilica, June 29, 1978

[2] Letter to all priests, Holy Thursday, 1979

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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