Homily of the Reverend Nicholas L. Gregoris, S.T.D., for Holy Thursday 2016 at the Carmel of Traverse City, Michigan.
Permit me to thank our dear Sisters for inviting Fr. Stravinskas and me back to preside at these our Christian high holy days. We were here two years ago and in a few months we will both be celebrating anniversaries of our priestly ordinations, so for us to be here tonight on Holy Thursday is indeed a special blessing.
Dear Sisters and friends in Christ, today is the only day of the liturgical calendar when the Church instructs the priest exactly what to preach about, namely, the institution of the Holy Eucharist; the institution of the Sacred Priesthood; and the fraternal charity encapsulated in Jesus’ gift of the New Commandment of Love.
The Second Vatican Council, citing St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas, provide us with arguably one of the most beautiful and comprehensive definitions of all that we are celebrating in the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This is cited in the Catechism of the
Catholic Church, paragraph 1323, where we read:
At the Last Supper, on the night He was betrayed, Our Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of His Body and Blood. This He did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet “in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
With this definition in mind, and placing ourselves in the Cenacle or Upper Room where the Last Supper was celebrated, let us examine this Eucharistic doctrine and devotion in greater detail in the hope that both will be renewed in our minds and hearts, in our families, and in our parish communities.
We can hardly imagine if our churches always had empty tabernacles as they do this evening. The early North African martyrs once exclaimed: “Without the Sunday Eucharist, we shall surely die.” St. John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, once remarked: “Leave people without a priest and in ten years you”ll find them worshiping beasts.” St. Teresa of Avila shares this mystical insight, connecting what we do and receive at Holy Mass with the overflow of its fruits through our life in the world: “Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes though which Christ”s compassion is to look out on the world; ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; ours are the hands by which He is to bless His people, now and to the end of the ages.”
St. John Paul II never failed to teach us about the inestimable gift and mystery of the Eucharist. His last encyclical was entitled Ecclesia de Eucharistia (“The Church is from the Eucharist”). Indeed, without the Eucharist, there would be no Church – and without the Church, there would be no Eucharist. Therefore, essential to the mysteries of the Eucharist and the Church is the mystery of the ministerial priesthood. All three mysteries – Eucharist, Church and Priesthood – find their origins in tonight’s celebration. It is the love of Christ, Priest and Victim, namely, the ultimate love of God for mankind, that not only makes possible these other mysteries but that will sustain them until Jesus comes again in glory at the end of time. Consequently, we have much for which to be grateful. After all, the very word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word “Eucharistia,” meaning “thanksgiving.”
If we truly understood the significance of the Lord’s Real Presence in the Most Holy Eucharist, we would be transported to the seventh heaven; we would be overcome by sheer joy and delight for our blessed communion with God, together with all His Angels and Saints, above all, with the Blessed Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, through whom the Word first became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. If we truly grasped this sacred mystery, our churches would be packed every Sunday and holy day of obligation, perhaps even daily. Parishioners would be clamoring for perpetual Eucharistic adoration and would flock to participate in Eucharistic congresses, processions and Forty-Hours devotions. The Catholic lay faithful and “those mysterious priests” (as Archbishop Fulton Sheen called us) who serve them would come to Mass properly dressed, wear full vestments, faithfully observe the rubrics of the Mass; no one would ever genuflect hastily and all would only receive the Lord’s Body and Blood in a state of grace and, when necessary, would have recourse to the Sacrament of Penance beforehand. If we truly appreciated the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet, which the Lord instituted on Holy Thursday evening, we would not dare to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion before adoring Him on bended knee and then cradling Him on our tongues, for as St. Augustine taught: “Let him only receive, who has first adored.”
True worship of the Lord in the Mass means that the roles of priests and lay faithful are not interchangeable. On the contrary, the priest is ordained, as were the original Apostles at the Last Supper, to act in the Name and Person of Christ the High Priest of the new and eternal covenant, ratified in His Most Precious Blood. Only a validly ordained priest can confect the Eucharist. And the priest’s hands are duly consecrated with sacred chrism not only to consecrate the species of bread and wine but also to distribute the fruit of the Holy Mass which is Holy Communion, as St. Thomas Aquinas would have us sing in his hymn, Sacris Solemniis: “As only the priest can consecrate, so only he can distribute.” This is both the priest’s solemn duty and privilege and should not be ceded to any other minister, unless absolutely necessary.
Likewise, altar boys should be the norm in our parishes because only they can discern a priestly vocation in the Catholic Church for a priest is an icon of Christ Jesus, the Bridegroom of the Church. Jesus washed the feet of twelve men on Holy Thursday. Why? He did this because in the context of St. John’s Gospel, the only Gospel in which this institution of the washing of the feet is mentioned, the washing of feet constitutes the ordination rite of the Apostles. It is this action, in the Fourth Gospel, which symbolized the humility and charity of Christ the High Priest, whose self-sacrificial love would be consummated on the altar of the Cross on Good Friday.
As part of the action of the Washing of the Feet, Jesus gave us a “mandatum novum” (a “new commandment”) to love one another as He Himself loved us. This is a love that is most fully expressed through Our Lord’s outstretched arms nailed to the tree of the Cross. In the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass, the priest, representing the Lord Jesus, re-presents that selfsame sacrifice in an unbloody (sacramental) way. Therefore, it is the priest more than anyone else who is called to love us as God Himself loved us in Christ, for he is the preeminent “alter Christus” (“another Christ”). For your part, dear lay faithful, as sharers in the one Priesthood of Christ through Baptism, you are called to promote numerous and holy priestly vocations in your families, for the family is the “domestic church.” Priestly vocations come from our families, and they can only be as holy as our families. Holy spouses help make holy children and potential holy vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Holy priests and religious help make men and women holier in their vocation to the married life. There is no contradiction here, only complementarity.
Our beloved Carmelite Sisters know this truth very well and we are grateful to them for sanctifying priests, religious and lay faithful, married and unmarried, from within their sacred confines. I would ask you all to offer your reception of Holy Communion at tonight’s Mass for their own particular intentions, especially for an increase in holy vocations to their community.
Our Catholic schools too must be holy, authentically and unabashedly Catholic, in order to produce a sufficient quantity and quality of priestly vocations. Tonight, we should re-commit ourselves to fostering priestly vocations by word and example, and most especially through our prayer to the Lord of the Harvest, who can and wills to raise up worthy ministers of His joy for His sacred altar; men who are gentle but ardent servants of the Gospel; faithful stewards of the mysteries of God and trustworthy administrators of the household of faith, which is the Church.
When a priest succeeds in his priestly ministry, we should thank and support him not only with our words but also by our deeds and sacrificial free-will offerings. If a priest should fail in his ministry, but should – like St. Peter the Apostle – repent of his sin and ask forgiveness of the Lord Jesus, we should be ready to forgive him as well. Sometimes, however, certain priests comport themselves like Judas Iscariot who betrayed Our Lord. In that case, while we must strive to forgive them from our hearts, even though the Church may have no choice but to remove them from public ministry. For these priests, who always remain priests in the core of their being, we beg God for mercy and eternal salvation. Praying for another’s salvation is often all we can do to express our love for people whom we may not like and whose sins and scandals we legitimately hate.
Tonight, in accord with Our Lord’s High Priestly Prayer, which He offered at the Last Supper, we beseech Almighty God that all Christians may become one as the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are one in the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. Holy Thursday, therefore, marks a new beginning. It is the beginning of a new and eternal covenant directly and forever linked to the priestly order of Melchizedek. May God in His infinite mercy continue to unite us in the bonds of fraternal charity, so that by our love those who do not believe, may know that we are truly Christians, who exercise with selfless and sacrificial love Christ’s own mission as priests, prophets, and kings “pro mundi salute” (“for the salvation of the world”).
May our humble worship and worthy reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in the Most Blessed Sacrament, the Sacrament of Sacraments, which we will take in procession to the Altar of Repose at the conclusion of tonight’s Sacred Liturgy, serve to increase our Eucharistic faith, hope and charity and likewise give increase to numerous and holy vocations to Christ’s Sacred Priesthood.
I would like to conclude our reflections this evening with a brief meditation on Holy Thursday taken from the writings of the great Benedictine – and Anglican! – liturgist, Dom Gregory Dix, in his seminal work, The Shape of the Liturgy:
Jesus told His friends to do this, and they have done it always since. Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need, from infancy and before it, to extreme old age and beyond it; from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph, or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremuously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop, who has hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk: gorgeously, for the canonisation of St. Joan of Arc – one could fill many pages with why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done just this to make the “plebs sancta Dei” – the holy common people of God.