Source, Center and Summit
The Eucharist and Discernment of the Priestly Vocation
by Andrew V. Liaugminas
In his recently released encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II offers profound catechesis, meditation, reflection and exhortation on the relationship between our Church and the Holy Eucharist. With utmost awe and sincerity, our Holy Father frequently conveys the importance of the priest's role in providing the Church with the Body of Christ, and the centrality of the Eucharist in the priest's ministry and spirituality. As he stated in Dominicae Cenae, and repeats in this, his newest encyclical, the Eucharist "is the principal and central raison d'être of the sacrament of priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist".1 The mere fact that this encyclical on the Eucharist effectively replaces his annual Holy Thursday address to the priests of the Church on the nature of their priesthood -- unbroken since 1982 -- speaks subtle volumes about the magnitude of the interrelationship he sees between the Eucharist and the sacramental priesthood.
Beautiful as it is, the exclusive interrelationship has an inevitable negative clause -- no priests, no Eucharist. In former times, seminary enrollment was high enough to please any bishop, and thus the possibility of running out of priests to administer the sacraments was never a concern. Today, few American dioceses, if any, can boast of a significant net increase in active priests per year; quite the opposite is true -- a trend echoed throughout Europe and other former vocation mines. Critical shortages of priests and seminarians in certain areas have forced numerous parishes to close because of a lack of priest personnel.2 If the Church were a purely human organization, she would probably re-market the ministerial profession with an altered appeal, to attract new and different groups in the population with alluring job offers. But the Church is not purely human, the requirements of the priesthood are firmly set, and the priesthood of Christ already has the greatest appeal possible. So, what exactly should the Church do to help promote vocations to the priesthood?
Quite simply, promote the Eucharist. Promote the Eucharist in churches, in families, in schools and in society, and in the same way the numbers of men the Lord provides for the Church will be better disposed to hear their callings and respond with generous hearts. Our Holy Father echoes the inherent connection between promotion of the Eucharist and promotion of vocations in his newest encyclical, saying:
If the Eucharist is the center and summit of the Church's life, it is likewise the center and summit of priestly ministry... the centrality of the Eucharist in the life and ministry of priests is the basis of its centrality in the pastoral promotion of priestly vocations. It is in the Eucharist that prayer for vocations is most closely united to the prayer of Christ the Eternal High Priest.3
What could possibly top that?! Clearly, the Sacrament of the Eucharist is so interconnected with the priesthood that promotion of the Eucharist is promotion of the Eucharistic vocation -- that is, the ministerial priesthood.
As a seminarian for over four years now, I have come to see the magnitude of the interrelationship between the Eucharist and discernment of the priesthood both in my own vocational discernment and in that of a number of other seminarians and priests. From my experiences, I can say that three groups of influences consistently affect how a man encounters the Eucharist, and as a result, how he approaches discernment altogether -- namely: priests, family and society. These influences are crucial in effecting a young person's encounter with the Eucharist, and their related ability to recognize and respond to a call to the ministerial priesthood. They merit closer consideration.
The Influence of the Priest
If you were to poll a group of seminarians on the two most important factors in their decision to enter the seminary, more than likely the influence of a significant priest (or number of priests) will be listed among the two in almost all cases. Prod each respondent a little further and you will undoubtedly hear about a Father N. who was a good friend of the family and influential in one seminarian's youth; or possibly a Father X. who was truly a representative of Christ to another seminarian in action and word; or again a Father A. who led a life of heroic virtue and personal holiness.
Throughout all ages of the Church, priests have influenced countless young imitators who have heard Christ's call to a vocation in the Church because of the example of one who represents Christ on earth. As the pope states in Pastores Dabo Vobis,
the history of the Church and that of many individual priests whose vocations blossomed at a young age bear ample witness to how providential the presence and conversation of a priest can be: not only his words, but his very presence, a concrete and joyful witness which can raise questions and lead to decisions, even definitive ones.4
Look into which priests were the most fruitful in inspiring young men to hear the call of the Lord to serve as priests, and you will find priests dedicated to their priestly identity in action and in spirit.5 In other words, priests who live their priesthood at all times - within and outside of liturgical contexts - inspire the admiration of young men, and prompt their openness to explore the source of such selfless love of God and service to His people. In his new encyclical, Pope John Paul II notes just this:
[T]he diligence of priests in carrying out their Eucharistic ministry provides young men with a powerful example and incentive for responding generously to God's call. Often it is the example of a priest's fervent pastoral charity which the Lord uses to sow and to bring to fruition in a young man's heart the seed of a priestly calling.6
By living out his Sacramental vocation in everything, with specific reverence to the Eucharist itself, the priest gives a potent witness to the priestly vocation in a way that exceeds words. Such devotion to Our Lord made manifest in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar facilitates a more genuine experience of the Eucharist; and with that, an intimacy with Our Lord that reveals His will to the heart and soul of all who enter into communion with Him in the Sacraments. As the Congregation for Clergy stated in The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, their reflection on the nature of the priesthood, true signs of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in the parish:
are possible only if the priest is a man of prayer and genuinely devoted to the Holy Eucharist. Only the pastor who prays will know how to teach others to pray and bring God's grace on those in his pastoral charge, thereby evincing conversions, more fervent resolution for life, priestly vocations and special consecration.7
Truly, by the vocation and the mission he received at ordination, the priest is called to live a Eucharistic life, characterized by selflessness, devotion and reverence that naturally inspires the admiration of youth, and gives testimony to the priestly vocation. Although this overall passive promotion of vocations to the priesthood does immense good, the priest must also take an active role in promoting vocations among his own flock. With an active witness to living the call of the Lord, a passive example of fidelity to that call, and a prominent presence of the Eucharist in the parish, the priest is certain to bring many young men to earnestly consider God's will for them, and eventually inspire what will be a small crop of priests for the Church.
The Influence of the Family
For most Catholics, it is within the context of the family that they learn the essential elements of the faith -- and if not directly from the family, from someone to whom the family has entrusted them for education in these truths (such as a teacher). Without doubt, one of the primary duties of the family is to ensure that the children are raised in the life of the Church, with ample opportunity for quality instruction in the faith. With this, it is the responsibility of the family to impart the first truths about the Sacraments to all their children. Catholic children attend Mass with their family, they learn what to do in church from the family, and eventually will likely ask their first questions about the Church of their family.8 Thus, it is naturally within the context of the family that children first experience the Eucharist and develop a kernel of understanding about its magnificence.
As expected, families that place a supreme importance on the Eucharist and on regular reception of the Sacrament yield a much greater harvest of young men and women receptive of, and ready to follow, the call of the Lord. With the selfless love that they learn from their parents, they can reply to the Lord's call with a response rooted in genuine love of God, and not concern for their own aspirations. So many young men are brought away from their divine calling in life by the self-interested lures of material prosperity and pleasure. This is why the strong example set in the family is so essential, to establish sympathy for needs of others and encourage practice of selfless acts from an early age. With an appreciation for the Sacraments and the beginnings of a life of virtue in place, the young person is well disposed to approach the Eucharist with an attentive mind and a willing spirit. Whenever the Lord speaks to him in Communion, he will be ready to listen and respond.
Speaking of the importance of the families in promoting vocations, Pope John Paul II states:
[F]amilies are called to play a decisive role for the future of vocations in the Church. The holiness of marital love, the harmony of family life, the spirit of faith with which the problems of daily life are confronted, openness toward others, especially towards the poorest, and participation in the life of the Christian community form the proper environment for their children to listen to the divine call and make a generous response.9
The Congregation for Clergy goes one step further: "it is almost impossible to have a blossoming of vocations without Christian families which are domestic churches".10
Truly, the families within which youth are raised are crucial to the germination of the seeds of their vocation. "[T]he first and most natural place where [vocations] should almost spontaneously grow and bloom, remains always the truly and deeply Christian family".11 With active promotion of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, a constant passive witness of dedication to the Church, reverence for the Holy Sacraments and fidelity to their vocation of marriage, parents are sure to raise great young men and women for service in the Church.
The Influence of Society
The previous two instances have focused on influences that are traditionally positive toward the Eucharist, discerning God's call, and responding to the vocation of the priesthood and religious life. Yet, at the same time, one cannot ignore the manifestly negative influence of society toward these matters. Cultures that were once saturated with the Catholic faith -- where the traditions of the culture were inseparable from Catholic tradition -- enjoyed abundant vocations to the priesthood, as well as the religious life in all its forms. Within such genuinely Catholic cultures, the call to give one's life in service of the Church could be heard with much greater clarity against the congruent backdrop of an exhaustive education in the faith, early introduction to personal piety, and appreciation for the mystery of the Sacraments.
Today, even the slightest hint of such catholicity in mass society is a rare find. Instead, the contemporary Western culture marches strong to the drumbeat of worldly "-isms": individualism, materialism, consumerism, secularism, rationalism, scientism and hedonism. Each system of thought -- manifested in our society as general tendencies in thought and behavior -- essentially orients the person toward ends that are either short of God, or away from Him, as incredibly impoverished substitutes for the presence of God.
More explicitly, individualism turns the person in on himself by making the self the primary focus and source of all behavior -- fabricating a god out of the self; while hedonism follows by orienting the person to seek pleasure above all, which is the worship of that god of the self. Rationalism directs the person exclusively to his own reasoning in approaching sacred things; while scientism then gives such thought a concrete method. Materialism focuses the person exclusively on the material world; while consumerism directs that focus to inordinate purchase of goods. Secularism permeates, and is fed by, all of these systems, and with them, fills man's natural aspiration for God with empty replacements.
Empty replacements saturate our secular Western culture. They pervade all forms of media, popular entertainment, and advertising -- from the sub-culture of children and youth through that of adults. With such enticement to follow the voices of the world, it is no wonder that the voice of Our Lord is so often unheard in the lives of youth. Pope John Paul II speaks of these challenges to vocations in our Western society:
The rich young man in the Gospel who did not follow Jesus' call reminds us of the obstacles preventing or eliminating one's free response: Material goods are not the only things that can shut the human heart to the values of the Spirit and the radical demands of the kingdom of God, certain social and cultural conditions of our day can also present many threats and can impose distorted and false visions about the true nature of vocation, making it difficult, if not impossible, to embrace or even to understand it.12
The only remedy for the empty substitutes for God that divert young men from discernment of their vocation is refilling oneself entirely and exclusively with God Himself:
Hence the urgent need that the Church's pastoral work in promoting vocations be aimed decisively and primarily toward restoring a "Christian mentality", one built on faith and sustained by it. More than ever, what is now needed is an evangelization which never tires of pointing to the true face of God, the Father who calls each one of us in Jesus Christ. Only thus will the indispensable foundations be laid, so that every vocation, including the priestly vocation, will be perceived for what it really is, loved in its beauty and lived out with total dedication and deep joy.13
If our solution to vocation shortages lies in redirecting young men to "the true face of God, who calls each one of us in Jesus Christ", in what better way can we see the face of God and His Son than in the Eucharist?! Where better can we redirect our lives to the only truly filling end, God Himself, than in Holy Communion? Truly, the Eucharist is the perfect remedy for the disoriented behaviors and desires that are so prevalent throughout our society.
In reception of the Eucharist, the young man receives his Lord as Mary received Him incarnate; and in reproduction of that intimate communion in bearing the Son of God, the man will grow in union with God, and can then begin to imitate Mary's wholehearted acceptance of the will of God for her life.14 The Eucharist is not only a strong counterbalance for the negative sway of society, as it redirects us to His divine presence, but it is moreover a perfect remedy for the selfishness of our society, as it envelopes us in the awesome mystery of God's selfless love for us -- love that brought Him to send His Son to endure suffering and death for our sake.
This perfect paradigm of selflessness inspires imitation of that love in the hearts of those who are drawn closer to it. While the society moves the hearts and minds of young people inward upon themselves, the Eucharist moves them in the exact opposite direction - focused on the Lord, and the needs of others in Christ. With divine influences overcoming those internal self-centered influences prevalent throughout society, many more young people will respond to the Lord with selfless love with the gifts of their lives.
In a talk he gave at an occasion to promote vocations, a bishop from my diocese boldly and confidently declared that there was no shortage of vocations to the priesthood whatsoever; but there is indeed a very critical shortage of men called to the priesthood actually responding to their God-given vocations. If all the men who are called to the priesthood really did hear and respond to this call with lives of service to God and His people, I do not doubt that the Church would have priests enough to fill every parish, with enough additional priests to staff schools and missions. Yet, it is a distressing but true fact of our present day that the influence of our Western society all too often dominates over the influence of exemplary priests and faithful families in the lives of young men. So, the call to the priesthood that a man may otherwise receive from the example of his parish priest or the good instruction of his family can easily be suppressed under the weight of the world's influence.
What, then, can remove the obstacles men encounter in responding to God's personal call to them? What can remedy the bad medicine of the world? What will bring more men to respond to the call to priesthood? Nothing less than the Eucharist. This Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood is the heart of the Church and is absolutely central in the life of the ordained priest. As it is the source and summit of God's grace and is a central task of the priesthood, the Eucharist must be the center and focus of all vocation initiatives, at all levels. It is clear how the two are co-integral -- without future priests, we would have no Eucharist, thus is the priesthood necessary for the propagation of the Sacraments.
Christ gave us nothing less than Himself with His gift of the Eucharist, so that we may grow ever closer to Him and live ever more faithfully to the will of the Father. The more central the Eucharist is in the life of a young man and the more he enters into communion with Jesus Christ by that Sacrament, all the more will the will of the Father be made manifest to him in the candid moments of true unity he shares with His Savior. With that divine unity in mind and heart, the Sacrament pours forth God's grace into the soul in communion with Him -- grace that makes possible the selfless spirit and charitable disposition that is necessary for a servant of God.
Indisputably, promotion of the Eucharist is promotion of the Eucharistic vocation -- the sacramental priesthood. When priests live in faithful dedication to their intrinsically profound relationship with the Eucharist and with deep reverence for the Sacrament itself in all they do, they give a powerful witness of their priestly calling to all they meet. When families raise their children with a deep love of God working in the Sacraments -- particularly, the Blessed Sacrament -- and a solid foundation in the truths of our faith, youth will be well prepared to grow into a more intimate and personal relationship with God through His divine presence in the Sacraments, and well equipped to give themselves to God wherever He might call them. The strength of these two sources of influence, among several others, gives young men spiritual armor strong enough to keep them dedicated to the Lord, despite the force of negative influences.
Truly, the Eucharist is just as much at the heart of vocations to the priesthood as it is the core of the sacramental priesthood and the soul of our Church. Our Church is a Church of the Eucharist, priests are ministers of the Eucharist, and young men called to the priesthood are inherently called to be men of the Eucharist -- focused on Christ, focused on the Church, focused on others. Then, when one day the Church calls upon them to receive priestly ordination, they will be ready in spirit to enter into the most profound relationship with their Lord by becoming living bearers of the Eucharist, which is Christ Himself. In so being, the next generation of youth will grow in relationship with God through this Eucharistic ministry of today's future priests -- seeing God through them as they, themselves, did once through another priest and through their family.
The Sacrament is propagated and the priesthood is perpetuated. In the mystery of the Eucharist, the Eucharistic Church lives on.
1 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Dominicae Cenae (February 24, 1980), n. 2.
2 "Frequently Requested Church Statistics". Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. http://cara.georgetown.edu/bulletin/index.htm.
3 John Paul II, encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (March 17, 2003), n. 31.
4 John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 39.
5 cf. Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium: Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacrament, and Leader of the Community (1999), n. 3.
6 Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 31.
7 The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, n. 2.
8 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (November 22, 1981), n. 60.
9 Message of His Holiness Pope John Paul II for the XXXIX World Day of Prayer for Vocations (April 21, 2002), n. 3.
10 Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest, Pastor, and Leader of the Parish Community (2002) n. 27.
11 Pius XI, Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii (December 20, 1935), n 80.
12 Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 37.
14 cf. Message of His Holiness Pope John Paul II for the XXXIX World Day of Prayer for Vocations, n. 4.
Andrew Liaugminas is a seminarian for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, in his first-year of studies at St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the son of Sheila Gribben Liaugminas, a member of the Voices editorial board.
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