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The Eucharist and the Priesthood

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The priesthood in the Catholic Church is identified with many things. The priest can be pastor, teacher, counselor, writer, administrator, or social worker; but the main reason he has been ordained is because of the Eucharist.

So true is this that if we would specify the heart of the priesthood we would have to say it is the Eucharist: the Eucharist as Presence and the Eucharist as Sacrifice. Each of these levels of the Holy Eucharist is totally dependent on the priesthood. Without the priesthood there is no Real Presence, nor Eucharistic Sacrifice. But what may be less obvious is that if the Real Presence and the Mass depend on the priest, the priest also depends on them. And I am not sure which dependence is more absolute.

Profession of faith in the Real Presence is the touchstone of Catholic orthodoxy. Those who believe in the Real Presence are Catholics; those who do not, are not Catholics. This Profession is also where a priest’s constant test of faith is to be found.

A priest makes the Real Presence possible and no one, no king, no genius, not even the will of a thousand people, or the combined efforts of a whole nation, can substitute for the power of a priest’s consecrated words: “This is My Body...This is the chalice of My Blood.”

As the Fathers of the Church do not hesitate to say, there is no less a miraculous change taking place on the altar than took place in the womb of Mary at the moment of the Incarnation. Before she pronounced her words there was no Christ on earth. The moment she did, He took dwelling in her body. The moment before the words of the priest are pronounced over the elements of bread and wine there is just bread and wine. He pronounces the words, and then divine power changes the substance of bread and wine into the very living Body and Blood of the living God.

But the priest’s power to make the Real Presence real is not the same as keeping alive his own faith in what, except for him, would not even exist on earth. The priest must sustain this faith in this same Real Presence. He has no choice. He must spend some time every day before the Blessed Sacrament. If he earnestly does, the more surely will his faith be strengthened and his effectiveness in carrying on Christ's work among souls be increased. Depending on how constantly his faith is nourished at the feet of Christ Whom he brought down on the altar, the more his faith will give faith to those who do not believe, and strengthen the faith of the others whose faith may be weak.

No less than the Real Presence, so the Mass is impossible without the priest. In fact, it is only at the Mass that the Consecration takes place, changing bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Yet, we know that the Mass is not merely the Eucharistic Consecration. The Mass is not only a means to give us Christ's Presence, it is also Christ's Sacrifice.

The Mass is simply and unequivocally the sacrifice of Calvary repeated, reenacted, re-presented. The Mass reenacts Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Jesus Christ, really present in His human nature and, therefore, with His human will, is capable of offering Himself no less really now than He did nineteen centuries ago, because the heart of sacrifice is in the will.

Christ's willingness to die, His readiness to shed His Blood, is no less real now than it was when He actually died. As the Church tells us, the only reason He does not die is because being immortal and glorified He cannot die. But the fact that He now has an immortal Body has not deprived Him of a human free will. It is with that will that He re-offers Himself to His Father, not now to merit the grace which had been gained for us on Calvary, but to dispense the grace; to channel what had been gained; to distribute what had been won; to confer that for which He had died.

On Christ's side, the Mass which the priest offers is, as the Church further tells us, unbloody. It is the same sacrifice because it is the same priest, Jesus, and the same victim, Jesus. But no less than as the lips of the human priest make possible the Real Presence, so his words of offering Christ to His heavenly Father and separately consecrating bread and wine make the real sacrifice possible. But the one who is really making the sacrifice is Christ, through the instrumentality, as the Church’s doctrine tells us, of His human priest.

As the Real Presence is to nourish the faith of the priest, so the real Sacrifice of the Mass is to enable the priest to be a priest; one who sacrifices and who is willing to sacrifice himself. A priest must live up to what his name signifies: one who surrenders himself completely as no one else on earth is expected to surrender.

The life of a priest should be a life of continual sacrifice. This means the sacrifice of his time for the people committed to his care. It is really not his time, it is theirs. It means, too, the sacrifice of his talents, the sacrifice of his preferences, conveniences, place of living and form of ministry. It means that a priest is to totally spend himself for the souls that Christ entrusted to his care.

The Church desperately needs priestly vocations, and She will get them on one condition: provided priests are what they are supposed to be, men who do not shrink from hard work, do not hesitate to undergo inconvenience and even pain; men whose one preoccupation is to save souls, to bring back sinners or to elevate the weak and the timid to sanctity; men who in the words of Saint Ignatius fight and ignore the wounds; who labor and ask for nothing except God's love in return. In a word, priests who are not afraid of sacrifice; whose Mass is not only their liturgy but their life. For such priests we should pray, and beg the great High Priest to send such laborers into His harvest.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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