Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: Gn. 14: 18-20; Ps. 101: 1-4; I Cor. 9: 23-26; Lk. 9: 11B-17. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/060213.cfm
Today is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. I can’t review the prescribed readings without relating them to the question of the Roman Catholic priesthood which I embraced as my vocation from the age of 14 when I entered the junior seminary to my ordination on December 22, 1966, to when I finally the formal priesthood ten year later.
The readings remind me of why I entered the priesthood, and why I left. (If interested, see my blog entries on the topic under the “Personal” button just below the blog masthead.)
My reasons for entering the priesthood are connected with the vision of Melchizedek referenced in today’s first reading from Genesis and in the responsorial Psalm 101. Melchizedek was the first one called “priest” in the Jewish Testament.
The idea of a great priesthood going back to early biblical times was the one impressed on me when I first became aware of priests at St. Viator’s Catholic grammar school on Chicago’s Northwest Side. There I was taught for nine years by the wonderful Sisters of St. Joseph who were responsible for my earliest ideas about priests and God. (I remember those sisters each by name – Helen Clare, Mary Jane, Loyola, Rose Anthony, Mary Paul, Rita Marie, Cyril, Irma – every morning in my prayers.)
Those good sisters encouraged me to attend Mass each day, and to become a “Knight of the Altar” eventually advancing me to the exalted rank of “Vice Supreme Grand Knight.” That had me “serving Mass” regularly and watching the priest at close range rehearse each morning the narrative Paul recalls in today’s second reading. “On the night before he died,” Paul says, “Jesus took bread into his hands, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying ‘Take this all of you and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you’.”
The St. Joseph sisters told me that those words transformed bread into the very body of Jesus. Similar words changed wine into Christ’s blood. The Mass, the sisters taught, was a “sacrifice” – the re-presentation of Jesus death on the cross. It was the “holy sacrifice of the Mass” making present for us each morning Jesus’ heroic act which his Father’s justice demanded because of the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve.
Priests not only had the power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, they could also forgive sins in the Sacrament of Penance. Moreover they participated in Christ’s “sacrifice” by giving up marriage and family in order to imitate Jesus and dedicate themselves more completely to the service of God.
I believed those things with all my heart. I wanted to please God. Nothing else could possibly be as important. I loved the sisters who taught me; I admired fathers Burke and Fitzpatrick. It all made me want to be a priest. That’s why I decided to enter the seminary.
My reasons for leaving the priesthood are connected with Luke’s account of the feeding of the 5000 related in today’s gospel reading.
You see, during 13 years of preparation for the priesthood – four in St. Columban’s high school seminary in Silver Creek New York, four in the Columban College in Milton, Massachusetts, one in our “spiritual year” (a kind of novitiate) in Bristol, Rhode Island, and four more years of theological training also in Milton – my ideas matured.
Especially those final years in the major seminary, with their daily classes in biblical studies, raised questions for me. So did the Second Vatican Council, which ran its course (1962-1965) just as I was approaching ordination in 1966. The Council and the debates surrounding it seemed to call into question everything the sisters had taught me. Those questions were sharpened for me when I was sent to Rome for more study (1967-’72) following ordination.
The Rome I found was still electric with the aftershock of Vatican II. The questions I had vaguely become aware of in the seminary were now shouting in my ears each day as I attended class and widened my study and reading to include Protestants and non-Christians including atheists. And besides, my uncertainties within spread as my own experience of life outside stretched beyond the hothouse atmosphere of the seminary where I had lived during my most formative years.
How exactly was the Mass connected with Calvary and Jesus’ sacrifice? After all, what Paul recounts was a final meal shared by Jesus and his friends, not some kind of sacrifice. And why did God require the death of his son anyway? That didn’t seem very loving or God-like. And by the way, why mandatory celibacy for priests? (I had learned that the reasons had more to do with protection of church property from the potential claims of pastors’ heirs than with the following of Jesus who might well have been married anyway.)
In the end, I realized that “priesthood” and sacrifice are misplaced in Christianity. True, the early church used the imagery of “sacrifice” to make sense out of Jesus execution by Rome. But that was an image – a metaphor – which the church subsequently and inappropriately took literally – just as it did the words attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper.
In fact, I concluded, that was the root of so much of what was wrong with the church – taking metaphor and interpreting it literally. Metaphor, image, myth and story I realized, were beautiful and necessary elements of human expression. They are the only language we have at our disposal for thinking and speaking about the Transcendent, the divine. But to take metaphors literally distorts and misleads.
And that brought me to the question of God himself. First of all I realized that God was not a “himself;” that too was imagery bequeathed by the extremely patriarchal culture found in the Bible. And so were the ideas I had inherited which put God “up there” as a person in the sky. God was not a person, I realized. “Person” is a category completely wrapped up in human experience. “Existence” was similar; it was too human and finite to apply to the divine. I found myself agreeing with the theologians I was reading who observed that it is truer to say God does not exist than that “he” does. Was I becoming an atheist?
Not really. I was coming to embrace the truth of Paul’s words about God’s subtlety and omnipresence: God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We live in God. We are part of God just as we are of our parents. We best relate to God in meditation and contemplation rather than as Knights of the Altar.
What then of the Mass? Today’s gospel reading gives us a clue about its nature. “The Lord’s Supper” is a recollection of the fact that when human beings share bread and wine, God happens. That’s what Jesus meant by those words at the Last Supper as recalled by Paul this morning.
Sharing food and the most palpable experience of God is what the feeding of the 5000 in today’s gospel s about. It’s what church is about. When strangers gather in small groups intimate enough for everyone to introduce themselves and get to know one another (in today’s reading, Jesus put the number at 50), Church happens. Sharing happens. God happens.
In the end, then, since there is no need for sacrifice, there is no need for priesthood. We ourselves are the body and blood of the Lord for each other. The Lord is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Jesus provides the example of the consciousness of unity with God that each of us can make our own. Jesus’ example of sharing and self-giving shows us how to get from here to there.
Coming to those realizations caused me to leave the priesthood – and to continue my vocation in its present form.
Have you made a similar journey? What were its steps? Please share.