Catholic priesthood should go back to its origins in the eucharistic life of the Church, not as a special caste of men carrying out their cultic ministry, but as “fellow-sinners” and “fragile disciples” breaking their own bodies and spilling their blood in memory of Jesus, according to an Australian biblical scholar.
Professor Francis J. Moloney, SDB, AM, a senior fellow of Catholic Theological College in Melbourne, told the Auckland Priests Assembly that because of the “notorious problems” arising from the sexual abuse cases and consequent cover- ups, “all priests sense that they are ‘under a shadow’”.
The Auckland Priests Assembly was held at the Waipuna Hotel and Conference Centre on September 10.
“The current crises now present in every corner of the Catholic Church demand that we look at ourselves again, and engage in a genuine ‘conversion’, a metanoia, as the New Testament would call it — a ‘turning away’ from much current thought and practice,” he said.
Fr Moloney said while it is attractive to think of the Last Supper as the moment when Jesus “ordained” the 12 apostles, “there is no literary or historical evidence for this tradition” in the New Testament.
He said there was only one priest in the New Testament, and that was Jesus.
“Jesus Christ gave us a meal that we celebrate in his memory. He did not ordain priests. A New Testament reflection on the priesthood must look through the lens of the New Testament’s eucharistic teaching. There we will find what a eucharistically-oriented priesthood looks like,” he said.
Early Christian practice
Fr Moloney noted that in 1 Corinthians St Paul addressed the problematic
celebration of the Lord’s supper by the early Christian community.
“The Lord’s supper was supposed to be a common meal, but Paul has heard
that this has become impossible at Corinth because such divisions between
the wealthy and the poor have arisen that no one was concerned about the other,”he said.
Fr Moloney said Paul’s call to the community is to “practise at the level of life what they proclaim at the level of ritual”.
“To celebrate Eucharist is to commit oneself to a discipleship which remembers Jesus — not only in the breaking of the ritual bread and sharing the ritual cup — but also in imitation of Jesus, in the ongoing breaking of one’s own body and spilling of one’s own blood in remembrance of Jesus,” Fr Moloney explained.
“Christians are called to repeat the self-gift of Christ,” he stressed.
Fr Moloney said in Mark’s Gospel the recipients of the bread and cup are the “fragile disciples” who would betray, deny and abandon Jesus.
“The body broken and the blood poured out sets up a new covenant with
the fragile disciples who were the first recipients of that bread and cup.”
In the story of the journey to Emmaus, he noted that the two disciples were “walking away from Jerusalem, the central point of God’s story, away from the God’s design of the journey of the Son of God from Nazareth to Jerusalem”.
“He [Jesus] has come to meet them, to make himself known to them and to draw them back to the journey of God through opening the word of God to them and through the breaking of the bread,” Fr Moloney said.
Jesus knew who he chose: the betrayer, the denier, those who would abandon him and those who were ignorant. Yet, he sent them out to proclaim both himself and the Father.
“It is precisely in this unconditional gift of himself to people who do not love him that he reveals who he is,” Fr Moloney explained.
Fr Moloney said this is the priest’s primary mission: “to reach out to those
most in need; those reaching out for God’s goodness, love and forgiveness”.
“The hunger for the transcendent is a genuine poverty that crosses all ages
and all social, ethnic, religious and economic boundaries. It is this hunger that a eucharistic ministry must serve, not only in the ritual but, above all, by the priest’s understanding what he does and imitating what he handles.”
He said the Catholic tradition caught the symbolic and sacramental importance of the relationship between the Eucharist and priesthood.
However, for a whole host of reasons, a “special caste of distinct and much-respected men” emerged, resulting in clericalism.
Clericalism, according to Fr Moloney, bestowed upon a priest an authority
based on superiority and exercise of power that betrayed the true eucharistic nature of the Catholic priesthood.
“There is no place within a eucharistic community for a privileged caste. Priests, like everyone else who prays that God’s will be done and God’s kingdom come, as Jesus taught us, are called to recognise their own brokenness,” he said.
“It is as fellow-sinners, on a shared eucharistic journey toward the parousia
(Second Coming), that priests will respond to their vocation to be ministers.”