Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is Consecrated Virginity a Viable Form of Consecrated Life?

Here is a question from a reader on my last post:

‘The earliest precursors to religious life were the primitive rules (such as the rule of St. Caesarius of Arles) written for communities of consecrated virgins or hermits as means for them to live their original commitments more faithfully.’

This would indicate to me that consecrated virginity lived in the world has something lacking. If the first nuns were consecrated virgins who started to live in community under a rule of life so they would be more faithful to their consecration, what does that say about the modern resurgence of consecrated virgins who live on their own with no one to answer to, no rule of life, doing their own thing? Is this a healthy, viable way to live consecrated life? Can it last, or will it die out like it did in the early centuries of the church?” –Anonymous

I have often received comments and questions very similar to this one in real life (including from a professor at my thesis presentation!), so I’m glad to have the chance to address some of these issues. This particular question actually touches on serveral separate but related points, which I’ll address one-by-one:

1. First of all, the development of new forms of consecrated life does not negate the earlier forms. For example, the advent of non-cloistered, “active” Sisters in the 1600’s does NOT make the more ancient vocation of cloistered, contemplative nuns any less valid or valuable; on an objective theological level you can’t say that active religious life, having evolved out of older forms of religious life, is somehow “more complete” than religious life devoted entirely to contemplation. Both forms of religious life have their own special place within the Church.

With this in mind, I feel that this same dynamic is in place regarding consecrated virginity lived “in the world.” That is, I don’t believe that the development of organized monastic life indicates that consecrated virginity is not a full, distinct vocation in its own right.

I can see how some might want to ask the question of whether or not the millennium-long veritable discontinuation of the practice of consecrating non-monastic virgins* suggests that consecrated virginity lived “in the world” may not actually be a true expression of consecrated life. But, the fact of the matter is that by including consecrated virgins in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the contemporary Church has indeed recognized the Patristic-era Order of Virgins as legitimate, and not merely as a “provisional,” form of consecrated life.

2. Likewise, consecrated virginity does involve a unique “charism.” That is, consecrated virginity as a state in life does have a very distinct identity in the Church.

For one thing, consecrated virginity lived “in the world” is one of the only forms of consecrated life which involves a direct, continuative bond with the local diocese and the diocesan bishop.

And, reception of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity is different from the profession of religious vows, in that whereas religious vows are essentially promises one actively makes to God, virginal consecration is a solemn blessing passively received from God through the ministry of the bishop. This might seem like an overly technical distinction, but it does have implications for the spirituality of consecrated virgins.

Also, while I believe that it is highly appropriate for women in all forms of consecrated life to embrace a “bridal” spirituality, consecrated virginity is the only vocation which by its very nature involves a call to a spousal relationship with Christ. Canon Law describes consecrated virgins as being “mystically betrothed to Christ, the Son of God,” but it actually does not use nuptial imagery to describe women religious. (But this does not mean that women’s religious life is somehow anti-spousal, only that spousal imagery is not absolutely essential to the vocation. In theory, it’s possible than a women could have a vocation to religious life without necessarily experiencing a call to be a bride of Christ.)

Finally, consecrated virginity has a particular connection to the early Church and the ancient virgin-martyr saints, and consecrated virgins are commissioned in a special way to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

3. With regard to the desirability of community life, it’s good to remember that certain customs and practices can be devoutly helpful to individuals as they seek to best live out their vocations, without those practices being therefore intrinsic to a particular vocation.

For example, many Catholic married couples find that saying a daily rosary with their children is helpful in fostering an atmosphere of joyful Christian family life. It’s easy to see how such a practice would greatly assist individuals in living out their vocations to matrimony and parenthood. Perhaps some spouses and parents would even say that they found they personally “needed” their family rosary in order to maintain a decent spiritual life or to remain faithful to the obligations of their state.

However, at the same time you couldn’t say that a family rosary was intrinsic to the sacrament of matrimony or Catholic parenthood, in the sense that the practice of a family rosary isn’t a sacramental or canonical requirement for a valid marriage.

The Church might strongly recommend devotional practices such as a family rosary, but she does not strictly demand them. A person can even become a canonized saint without having adopted any specific set of devotional prayers.**

While certainly we can’t regard community life in the same way as we would devotional practices—since community is intrinsic to religious life, societies of apostolic life, and in some sense secular institutes, and as such does contribute in a major way to the theological identity of these forms of consecrated life—my thought is that community life probably functioned in a similar way for the early consecrated virgins (and perhaps could function in a similar way for modern consecrated virgins…but I’ll get to that in my next point).

That is, while some Patristic-era consecrated virgins and the earliest consecrated virgin-nuns did live in community, I think this was simply because they found it to be personally helpful, and NOT because their membership in a community was a determining or fundamental aspect of their vocation. A consecrated virgin is a consecrated virgin regardless of whether or not she lives on her own, with family, or with other consecrated virgins; whereas a woman religious is by definition one who belongs to a religious community.

4. Modern consecrated virginity is not actually anti-community life. While consecrated virgins are free live on their own, they are not required to do so. Although the small number and geographical dispersion of today’s consecrated virgins makes residential community life somewhat of an impractical proposition at the time of this writing, there is nothing to stop a group of modern consecrated virgins from living under the same roof for purposes of mutual support. In fact, some commentators understand the second paragraph of canon 604,*** which explicitly opens the possibility for consecrated virgins to associate, to allow for this specific sort of arrangement.

Naturally, as a matter of prudence, anyone presently seeking to become a consecrated virgin should have the emotional and spiritual resources to be capable of living a consecrated life with only a minimum of external human support. But on a theological (if not a practical) level, a call to consecrated virginity is not identical with a special call to solitude or independence.

5. And, it would seem to be possible to live a truly consecrated life without the benefit of day-to-day community support.

Or at least, the Church seems to think it is. Aside from the restoration of a non-monastic Order of Virgins, the fact that the Church endorses the existence of secular institutes and eremitic life, as well as the fact that she does not mandate that the diocesan clergy should live together, seems to indicate that the Church believes that it is possible to be faithful to a life of celibacy and prayer without necessarily living in a community of like-minded individuals.

We also have the example of numerous saints to further attest to this possibility. For example, St. Genevieve of Paris (my patroness!) was a consecrated virgin in the fifth century. While she lived at about the time when the first true religious Orders were forming, she herself never joined any formally organized community. Yet, throughout almost her entire ninety-year life, she was known as a strikingly exemplary consecrated virgin.

Of course, subjectively an individual woman might feel that she herself would be unable to live a consecrated life outside of a community, and in my opinion this is a legitimate reason for entering religious life instead of becoming a consecrated virgin. But, such cases would not disprove the objective possibility of living a truly consecrated life as a consecrated virgin in the world.

Conversely, it’s also good to keep in mind that, while community life could surely be a great help remaining faithful to one’s vocation, in and of itself it isn’t a fool-proof guarantee that one will live a fervent consecrated life, or even that one will attain to the level of charity required of all Christians. Just simply living in community doesn’t automatically make one a saint!

6. Most importantly, it is a serious mistake to see consecrated virgins as normatively having “no one to answer to, no rule of life, [and] doing their own thing.” I would be the first to agree that this would not make for a “healthy, viable way to live consecrated life.” And if consecrated virginity is understood this way in some places, then my thought is that this is actually an abuse of the Rite of Consecration.

It is true that consecrated virgins do have much more freedom than do most religious in the ways in which they can structure their day-to-day lives. However, it’s totally inimical to the concept of consecrated life in general to enter into a public state of consecration with an attitude of “doing my own thing.” When a person becomes consecrated in a public manner through the Church’s liturgy (versus, for example, dedicating one’s life to God through a private vow of celibacy or virginity), in a very real way he or she no longer “belongs” to oneself, but to God and His Church.

As I see it, if a consecrated virgin is living a life that could rightly be considered “consecrated”—i.e., if she is living out her vocation the way it is ordinarily supposed to be lived—then she should truly be organizing EVERY aspect of her life around her commitment to the Church. As I have mentioned before, this is one major reason why I strongly believe that consecrated virgins should, under normal circumstances, be “dedicated to the service of the Church” in as direct and literal a way as possible.

I do hesitate to say that consecrated virgins should have a “Rule of Life” per se. My main objection to this is that the following of a set, specific Rule would seem to be an element uniquely proper to religious life and diocesan hermits (similar to the way in which following the spirituality of a specific founder of foundress is a constitutive aspect of religious life, but not consecrated virginity).****

Yet at the same time, if a consecrated virgin made it a priority to:

- attend daily Mass if it was at all humanly possible;
- pray the Liturgy of the Hours;
- work for the Church full-time in so far as she was capable, or otherwise to devote a comparable amount of time to volunteer service in the Church;
- make time for private prayer, spiritual reading, and studying the faith;
- live a demonstrably simple lifestyle;
- and to engage in some type of appropriate penance or sacrifices;

…then it would seem to me these commitments would serve the same purpose as a Rule, in that they would ensure that the consecrated virgin was living a life readily identifiable as being “consecrated.”

Finally, consecrated virgins do have someone (besides the Lord!) to “answer to”—their bishop. This is evident in the general introduction to the Rite of Consecration, which states that it for the bishop to determine the conditions under which women living in the world are to undertake a life of consecrated virginity.

Of course, consecrated virgins don’t vow obedience in the same way that nuns and Sisters do; which, among other things, means that the bishop would not be nearly as involved in the smaller, mundane decisions of every-day life. For example, the bishop obviously would not determine things like what time precisely to say Vespers, where to go grocery shopping, how often one could visit family and friends, ect. Nor would a consecrated virgin need her bishop’s approval to engage in the many smaller acts of charity that present themselves over the course of the day. E.g., a consecrated virgin would not need to be “commissioned” to do something like bring food to a sick parishioner or to check in regularly on an elderly neighbor.

However, this does NOT mean that the evangelical counsel of obedience has no place in the life a consecrated virgin! The bishop should, either personally or through a delegate (like a Vicar for Religious or Episcopal Delegate for Consecrated Life) be aware and approve of the general shape of a consecrated virgin’s consecrated life.

Likewise, my belief is that all of a consecrated virgin’s serious decisions—such as where to go to school, what job to take, whether or not to engage in a major project like writing a book or starting a charitable organization—should be mutually discerned by the consecrated virgin and her bishop or the bishop’s representative. Additionally, a consecrated virgin should be completely open to her bishop’s suggestions as to how she could best serve the needs of her diocese, or his requests for a particular form of service to the local Church, even if these go against the consecrated virgin’s own personal preferences or inclinations.

So in a nutshell, consecrated virginity lived “in the world” is a true and valid vocation, which subsequently should entail the same level of commitment, self-sacrifice, and responsibility as any public state of consecrated life within the Church. Any woman hoping to become a consecrated virgin in today’s world should sincerely intend to offer her life to Christ and His Church with as much totality as a strictly-cloistered nun offers hers—that is, an aspiring consecrated virgin should truly strive to give everything.

While it’s understandable that consecrated virginity may not yet be fully and appropriately understood by many Catholics, I think that it would have disastrously negative spiritual consequences for both individual consecrated virgins as well as for the wider Church if consecrated virginity were to be regarded as something like a less demanding “alternative” to
religious life.


* Although incidentally, the conferral of the solemn virginal consecration on women living outside of religious communities was not officially forbidden until the year 1926—less then fifty years before the promulgation of the revised Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, which contained a form intended explicitly for women “living in the world.”

** Of course, this is referring to specific devotional practices (e.g., the brown scapular, various Fatima devotions, the Divine Mercy chaplet, the St. Louis de Montfort Consecration to Mary, ect.), and not to the liturgy, sacraments, or to prayer in general. These latter things, in contrast with what we would call “devotional prayers,” are truly indispensable for living a good and fruitful Catholic life!

***Canon 604 §2 reads: “In order to observe their own resolution more faithfully and to perform by mutual assistance service to the Church in harmony with their proper state, virgins can be associated together.”

**** But I would see no problem if some consecrated virgins found it personally helpful to write, with the help of her spiritual director or bishop, her own informal private “rule” or “plan of life” to serve as a basic set of guidelines for the daily living out of her vocation. But a situation would be much different from a consecrated virgin attempting to do something like follow the Rule of Saint Augustine or Benedict; or from enshrining an official rule as a major component of the spirituality of consecrated virginity in general.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Various Forms of Consecrated Life within the Church

Since starting this blog and becoming a consecrated virgin, I’m often asked—in blog comments, emails, and in real life when I try to explain my vocation to people—about the differences between the various forms of consecrated life within the Church. Often, Catholics are fairly aware that there are different kinds of religious communities, but have a harder time grasping the idea that there are actually other ways of being in a public state of consecrated life which, while being in altogether separate canonical categories from religious life properly so-called, are still just as valid of a “consecrated” witness in the life of the Church.

So, in an attempt to illustrate the richness of the Church’s understanding of consecrated life as it developed over the centuries, here is the basic “story” of the various forms of consecrated life recognized by the Church today. (Long time “Sponsa Christi” readers: please bear with me as I go into yet another explanation of consecrated virginity. I just wouldn’t want to leave consecrated virgins out of a discussion on consecrated life on my own blog! ;-) ):

In its legislature pertaining to consecrated life, the Church refers to five different forms of consecration: the diocesan eremitic life, consecrated virginity, religious life, membership in secular institutes, and membership in societies of apostolic life. All of these forms are outlined in the 1983 Code of Canon Law and are also included in the discussion on consecrated life in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as in more pastorally-oriented documents such as the 1996 post-synodal exhortation Vita Consecrata.

Consecrated virginity is the oldest form of consecrated life canonically recognized by the modern Church. (See Code of Canon Law, canon 604; Catechism of the Catholic Church 922 – 924.) The choice of life-long virginity is praised several places in the New Testament, and the greeting to the “virgins called widows” at the conclusion of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Smyrnaeans strongly suggests that women dedicated to a life of virginity were already recognized as a distinct class within the Church of the late first century.

The fourth century in particular witnessed a flowering of this “Order of Virgins,” reflected in many of the Church Fathers’ writings on virginity. St. Ambrose’s work De Virginibus, written in the year 377, gives us some evidence that a solemn liturgical rite for the consecration of virgins existed during this period, although our earliest written copies date back only to seventh and eighth-century sources.

The early consecrated virgins were not nuns or religious Sisters, as religious life properly so-called did not come into existence (at least in the Latin Church) until the sixth century. But with the continued development and growth of monastic religious life in the subsequent centuries, reception of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity eventually came to be exclusively associated with the solemn profession of vows in a religious Order. And so the practice of consecrating virgins living outside of monasteries gradually fell into disuse.

However, when Sacrosanctum Concilium called for a revision of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity as a part of the liturgical reforms of the second Vatican Council, the resulting revised rite included versions for both nuns as well as for women living “in the world.” Consequently, in an action perhaps somewhat parallel to the re-institution of the permanent diaconate, the Patristic-era Ordo Virginum was restored to the life of the contemporary Church.

Similarly, recognition of the vocation to the eremitic life in the 1983 Code of Canon Law was presumably also intended as a means of bringing an ancient form of consecrated life into accord with the Church’s modern legislature and theological classifications. (See can. 603; CCC 920 – 921.)

The Church’s earliest hermits, such as St. Anthony of Egypt, were men (or sometimes women) who retreated into the deserts in order to dedicate their lives to Christ in an especially focused way, through a life of constant prayer, solitude, silence, and ascetical discipline. The rise of a specifically eremitical way of life is generally thought to have been a response to the cessation of the official Roman persecutions of Christianity, as the life of a hermit gave the most fervent Christians a way to “lay down their lives” for Christ, without suffering the physical death of actual martyrdom.

While the first hermits apparently developed their way of life under the more or less direct inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, (see, for example, St. Athanasius’ account St. Anthony’s vocation in his work, The Life of Anthony) eventually systems of eremitical “apprenticeship,” loosely-structured communities designed for fraternal support, or set “rules of life” were developed to ensure a healthy, well-balanced, and spiritual fruitful ascetical lifestyle.

Generally, the early-hermit saints highly esteemed—and they themselves were often highly esteemed by—their local bishops. Yet the consecrated lives of these early hermits seem to have been largely a private endeavor in the sense that they did not seek or require an official “authorization” from the intuitional Church in order to embrace their special vocation. This is in contrast to the consecrated virgins of the same era, whose consecration was formally dependent upon the action of the local bishop.

Additionally, the ancient eremitical life does not seem to have the explicit profession of any kind of permanent commitment as a constitutive element. That is, an individual could be considered a hermit simply insofar as he or she was living a truly dedicated ascetical life.

The modern diocesan eremitic life envisioned in the most recent Code of Canon Law retains the major identifying elements of the original ancient eremitic life, in that it calls modern hermits to a consecrated life dedicated to solitude, prayer, and penance, but apart from any association with a particular religious community. (Although many religious Orders, such as the Carthusians and Carmelites, have a strong eremitical emphasis as a part of their spirituality; and while other Orders, such as the Franciscans and some Benedictines, have provisions in their Rule for members who feel called to live as hermits after many years of community life; individuals in these cases would be properly classified as religious, and not as canonical hermits.) But, the eremitical life described in canon 603 is more in accord with modern definitions and practical means for guidance of the consecrated life, as it requires that the hermit write a rule, remain under the direction of the local Ordinary, and profess definitive vows.

Religious life is the most familiar form of consecrated life, encompassing a variety of different forms, from strictly-cloistered monks and nuns to religious dedicated to active works of charity. (See can. 607 – 709; CCC 925 – 927.) The defining characteristics of religious life are: a life lived in community under the authority of a superior; the following of the special “charism” or spirituality of a particular founder or foundress; adherence to a specific rule of life and set of constitutions; publicly vowing to observe the evangelical councils; and a certain separation from the world in accord with the character of a particular institute.

The earliest precursors to religious life were the primitive rules (such as the rule of St. Caesarius of Arles) written for communities of consecrated virgins or hermits as means for them to live their original commitments more faithfully. However, the first example of true religious life—that is, communal consecrated life which includes a founder, a rule, a distinct spirituality, and perpetual vows—in the western Church would be the Order of St. Benedict, established around the year 530.

As St. Benedict himself was originally a hermit who founded his community primarily for the purpose of mutual support and guidance among other contemplative hermits or monks, the Benedictine Order was established to enable its monks (and soon after, its female nuns as well) to praise God continually by means of a balanced life of prayer and work. Likewise, generally the religious Orders founded prior to the second millennium were contemplative, or (at least de jure) dedicated to prayer alone.

The Middle Ages saw the development of the mendicant Orders, such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans. In these new Orders, the male braches were dedicated to preaching and apostolic works in addition to leading a quasi-monastic lifestyle. The female mendicants continued to live the life of enclosed contemplative nuns, although their monastic life was given a new “apostolic” focus. For example, the nuns of the Dominican Order were founded for the express purpose of spiritually supporting the friars in their preaching and educational apostolates. The Franciscan Poor Clares obtained permission to subsist solely on donations and the works of their own labors, instead of relying on landed endowments as did the nuns of older Orders.

During the counter-Reformation era, new missionary Orders, such as the Jesuits, came into being. And within the next few centuries, the Church witnesses the flowering of religious congregations, such as St. Vincent de Paul’s Daughters of Charity, which were dedicated primarily to active good works and sought to ameliorate in a direct manner the sufferings of the poor, the sick, the ignorant, and the misfortunate.

Although the “active,” or apostolic, congregations could be either male or female, the vast majority of these new communities were comprised of women religious. But because these religious Sisters lived consecrated lives very different from that of cloistered nuns, the Church would only allow them to profess simple, and not solemn, religious vows. Consequently, Sisters in apostolic congregations were not considered canonical “religious” until the year 1901.* However, congregations dedicated to works of charity now make up the majority of the number of religious institutes throughout the world. (For instance, all of the women’s religious communites which make up the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious or the Leadership Conference of Women Religious fall into this category.)

Societies of apostolic life are communities in which the members share life in common and are dedicated to a shared apostolic purpose, but in which the members do not profess religious vows. (See can. 731 – 755; CCC 930.) Since the counter-Reformation era, different societies of apostolic life were founded for a variety of reasons, each having their own specific mode of community life.

One well-known society of apostolic life is the Oratorians of St. Philip Neri, which is comprised of secular priests who exercise their ministry solely within the context of an autonomous local community or “Oratory.” Other famous societies of apostolic life include the Mill Hill Missionaries and Maryknoll missionary Fathers, which are both priestly societies dedicated to foreign missionary work. In cases such as these, members of societies of apostolic life are secular priests (i.e., priests not professing religious vows) who are typically incardinated in the institute of their society, as opposed to a diocese.

Although many societies of apostolic life have the practice of some form of definitive commitment, such as promises or oaths, because they do not require vows per se the individual members are generally not considered to be “consecrated” in a formal canonical sense. However, societies of apostolic life mirror the structure and organization of religious institutes, and were founded for reasons similar to those of many apostolic religious congregations, and so are therefore (in my opinion, anyway) appropriately categorized along side true institutes of consecrated life.

Secular institutes are the newest form of consecrated life in the Church. (See can. 710 – 730; CCC 928 – 929; and also the website for the United States Conference of Secular Institutes.) While some preliminary steps were taken towards the development of secular institutes as early as the latter part of the nineteenth century, and while they were in some sense anticipated by the various kinds of lay fraternities that had existed in the Church since the high Middle Ages, secular institutes as such were only formally recognized by the Church in the year 1947, with the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia.

The specific vocation of members of secular institutes is to live a life fully engaged in the temporal affairs of the world, while observing a private commitment to the evangelical councils in as radical a fashion as their fully secular status permits. Through this way of life, members of secular institutes aim to act as “leaven” in the world, bearing a deep Christian witness in areas of society which would normally be inaccessible to those with more public, visible roles in the Church.

While members of secular institutes do profess the evangelical councils through “vows or other sacred bonds,” they do never do so openly. Many institutes have customs of discretion on the part of their members regarding their incorporation into the institute. Canon 714 further adds that: “Members are to lead their lives in the ordinary conditions of the world according to the norm of the constitutions, whether alone, or in their own families, or in a group living as brothers or sisters.”

Largely because of the unambiguously non-public character of this vocation, and in a situation somewhat similar to that of societies of apostolic life, there is some debate as to what degree, if any, members of secular institutes may properly be considered to be “consecrated.” Another common argument for the technical non-consecrated status of secular institutes is found in canon 711, which states: “The consecration of a member of a secular institute does not change the member’s proper canonical condition among the people of God, whether lay or clerical, with due regard for the prescripts of the law which refer to institutes of consecrated life.”

Additionally, although Provida Mater Ecclesia is typically held to have established secular institutes as a recognized state in life, the actual document focuses less on the nature, purpose, and ecclesial significance of secular institutes as it does on the necessity for the development of guidelines in order to prevent intentional or unintentional abuses. That is, it does not seem totally clear that the Church actually intended to recognize secular institutes as being properly institutes of consecrated life.

But despite this, the self-understanding of secular institute members is that they are called to live out their vows to poverty, chastity, and obedience in just as much of a full and true sense as do religious, only in a different manner and from within a different sphere.** And so because secular institutes do present themselves as a means of offering God and the Church a complete gift of self, it would seem appropriate to categorize secular institutes among the forms of consecrated life, at least in a general sense for the purposes of this post.

*More information on this point can be found in the essay collection, The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision, by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
**N.b.: While it might in some contexts be reasonable to question whether the “ordinary” or “non-special” nature of a secular institute-lifestyle might lend itself to a lax or “soft” observance of the counsels, when considering this issue it would be important to distinguish between human weakness and failure in attaining an ideal versus intrinsic problems with the ideal itself.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

“In What Sense Is Jesus a Priest?”

Here is the Holy Father’s homily for this year’s celebration of Corpus Christi, our annual feast in honor of Christ’s real presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

This address is sort of on the long side, and theologically it’s rather dense, but definitely worth the effort it takes to read all the way through!

Emphasis, in bold, and comments, in red, are mine.

(Also…special congratulations and heartfelt prayers for a long-time “Sponsa Christi” reader, the newly-Ordained Father Corey Campeaux, who celebrates his first Mass today in the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana!)

From “”:

VATICAN CITY, JUNE 4, 2010 - Here is a translation of the homily Benedict XVI delivered Thursday at the Mass preceding the Eucharistic procession held on the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. The Pope presided at the Mass in the courtyard of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and the procession that followed via Merulana and ended at the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

The priesthood of the New Testament is closely bound to the Eucharist. Because of this, today, on the solemnity of Corpus Domini and almost at the end of the Year for Priests, we are invited to meditate on the relationship between the Eucharist and the priesthood of Christ. Oriented in this direction also are the first reading and the responsorial psalm, which present the figure of Melchizedek.

The brief passage from the Book of Genesis (cf. 14:18-20) states that Melchizedek, king of Salem, was “priest of God Most High,” and because of this “offered bread and wine” and “blessed Abram,” returning from a victory in battle; Abram himself gave him a tenth of everything. The Psalm, in turn, contains in the last verse a solemn expression, an oath of God himself, who declares to the King Messiah: “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4); thus the Messiah is not only proclaimed king, but also priest.

From this passage the author of the Letter to the Hebrews takes the cue for his ample and articulated exposition. And we re-echoed it in the refrain: “You are a priest for ever, Lord Christ”: virtually a profession of faith, which acquires a particular meaning in today’s feast. It is the joy of the community, the joy of the whole Church that, contemplating and adoring the Most Blessed Sacrament, recognizes in it the real and permanent presence of Jesus as High and Eternal Priest.

The second reading and the Gospel, instead, draw attention to the Eucharistic mystery. The First Letter to the Corinthians (cf. 11:23-26) treats the fundamental passage in which St. Paul recalls to that community the meaning and value of the “Lord’s Supper,” which the Apostle had transmitted and taught, but which risked being lost. The Gospel is the account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, according to St. Luke: a sign attested by all the Evangelists, which announces beforehand the gift that Christ will make of himself, to give humanity eternal life.

Both of these texts highlight Christ’s prayer, in the act of breaking the bread. Of course there is a clear difference between the two moments: When he multiplies the loaves and fishes for the crowd, Jesus thanks the heavenly Father for his Providence, confident that he will not have food lacking for all those people. In the Last Supper, instead, Jesus transforms the bread and wine into his own Body and Blood, so that the disciples can nourish themselves from him and live in profound and real communion with him.

The first thing that one must remember is that Jesus was not a priest according to the Jewish tradition. His was not a priestly family. He did not belong to the lineage of Aaron, but rather to that of Judah; hence, legally, he was precluded from the way of the priesthood. The person and activity of Jesus of Nazareth were not placed in the line of the ancient priests, but rather in that of the prophets.

And in this line, Jesus distanced himself from a ritual conception of religion, criticizing the approach that valued human precepts linked to ritual purity rather than the observance of God’s Commandments, that is, love of God and of one’s neighbor, which, as the Gospel says, “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). Even inside the Temple of Jerusalem, sacred place par excellence, Jesus carries out an exquisitely prophetic gesture, when he chases the moneychangers and animal vendors, all things that served for the offering of traditional sacrifices. Hence, Jesus was not recognized as a priestly Messiah, but as prophetic and royal. Also his death, which we Christians rightly call “sacrifice,” had nothing of the ancient sacrifices; rather, it was completely the opposite: the execution of a death penalty by crucifixion, the most infamous, which took place outside the walls of Jerusalem. (In his theology, Benedict XVI/ Joseph Ratzinger does this a lot—he seems to follow, for a while, the same line of reasoning a his critics might tend to, only to bring that train of thought to a totally orthodox conclusion! Here, Benedict might appear to be entertaining the same prejudices as proponents of the historical-critical method of Biblical exegesis, by seemingly “arguing” against the priesthood of Christ. But watch where he goes with this…)

Now, in what sense is Jesus a priest? The Eucharist itself says it. We can begin from those simple words that describe Melchizedek: he “offered bread and wine” (Genesis 14:18). It is what Jesus did in the Last Supper: He offered bread and wine, and in that gesture he summarized all of himself and all of his mission. In that act, in the prayer that preceded it and in the words that accompanied it, is all the sense of the mystery of Christ, as it is expressed in the Letter to the Hebrews in a decisive passage, which it is necessary to quote. “In the days of his flesh,” wrote the author referring to Jesus, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” (5:8-10).

In this text, which clearly alludes to the spiritual agony of Gethsemane, Christ’s passion is presented as a prayer and an offering. Jesus faces his “hour,” which leads him to death on a cross, immersed in a profound prayer, which consists in the union of his own will with that of the Father. This twofold and unique will is a will of love. Lived in this prayer, the tragic trial that Jesus faces is transformed into offering, into living sacrifice.

The Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus “was heard.” In what sense? In the sense that God the Father delivered him from death and resurrected him. He was heard precisely because of his full abandonment to the will of the Father: God’s plan of love was able to be fulfilled perfectly in Jesus, who, having obeyed to the extreme point of death on the cross, became “cause of salvation” for all those who obey him. He became, that is, High Priest for having taken on himself all the sin of the world, as “Lamb of God.” It is the Father who confers this priesthood on him at the very moment in which Jesus goes through the passage from his death and resurrection. It is not a priesthood according to the order of the Mosaic Law (cf. Leviticus 8-9), but “according to the order of Melchizedek,” according to a prophetic order, depending only on his singular relationship with God.

Let us return to the expression of the Letter to the Hebrews that says: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Christ’s priesthood entails suffering. Jesus really suffered, and he did so for us. He was the Son and had no need to learn obedience to God, but we do, we had and always have need. Because of this, the Son assumed our humanity and for us let himself be “educated” in the crucible of suffering, he let himself be transformed by it, as the grain of corn which to bear fruit must die in the earth.

Through this process Jesus was “made perfect,” in Greek “teleiotheis.” We must reflect on this term because it is very significant. It indicates the fulfillment of a journey, that is, precisely the journey of education and transformation of the Son of God through suffering, through the painful Passion. And thanks to this transformation Jesus Christ became “High Priest” and can save all those who entrust themselves to him.

The term “teleiotheis,” translated correctly as “made perfect,” belongs to a verbal root that, in the Greek version of the Pentateuch, namely the first five books of the Bible, is always used to indicate the consecration of the ancient priests. This discovery is quite precious, because it tells us that the Passion was for Jesus as a priestly consecration. He was not a priest according to the Law, but he became so essentially in his Passion, Death and Resurrection: He offered himself in expiation and the Father, exalting him above every creature, constituted him universal Mediator of salvation.

We return, in our meditation, to the Eucharist, which in a while will be the center of our liturgical assembly and of the subsequent solemn procession. In it Jesus anticipated his sacrifice, not a ritual sacrifice but a personal one. In the Last Supper he acted moved by that “Eternal Spirit” with which he will offer himself later on the Cross (cf. Hebrews 9:14). Giving thanks and with a blessing, Jesus transformed the bread and wine. It is divine love that transforms: the love with which Jesus accepts in advance to give himself completely for us. This love is none other than the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, which consecrates the bread and wine and changes their substance into the Body and the Blood of the Lord, rendering present in the Sacrament the same sacrifice that is made later in a bloody manner on the cross.

We can conclude that Christ was a true and effective priest because he was full of the power of the Holy Spirit, he was the culmination of all the fullness of the love of God “on the night he was betrayed,” precisely in the “hour of darkness” (cf. Luke 22:53). It is this divine power, the same that brought about the Incarnation of the Word, which transformed the extreme violence and the extreme injustice [of his death] into a supreme act of love and justice.

This is the work of the priesthood of Christ, which the Church has inherited and continues to perpetuate, in the twofold form of ordinary priesthood of the baptized and that of the ordained ministers, to transform the world with the love of God. All, priests and faithful, are nourished by the same Eucharist, all of us prostrate ourselves to adore it, because present in it is our Teacher and Lord, present is the real Body of Jesus, Victim and Priest, salvation of the world.

Come, let us exult with hymns of joy. Come, let us adore! Amen.

[Translation by ZENIT]