Thursday, March 15, 2007

Visible Point of Unity and the Empty Altar

This morning I arrived at my parish for 7:00 a.m. Mass and realized that something was amiss when I saw the weekday sacristan scurrying around just a few minutes before the hour appointed.

The priest hadn't shown up and so our parish's faithful Deacon Rich was called into service, holding forth with a fine homily. We all received the precious Body of Christ and went forth strengthened for daily service. Still, I felt a little "let down" that it was a communion service rather than Mass. Then, I started thinking about why this is so.

As a Catholic convert I have been taught that when administering sacraments the priest acts "in persona Christi", that is, in the person of Christ. My spiritual director, who is also my pastor, often speaks about the Bishop and (by extension) the pastor as visible points of unity for the faithful.

My disappointment this morning wasn't intellectual or theological, however. Both of these ideas coalesced together in my meditation enough for me to realize how incredibly important a locus the priestly presence is in my life. When Father Charlie blesses me, I am blessed and feel that way. When he pronounces the "te absolvo" in Reconciliation it is Christ who blesses and forgives me. I take this presence so seriously that when it is absent I feel like something is missing. Yes, Christ is still with me, and I am just as holy, and just as guided, and perhaps just as well off as I would have been had a priest been available. But there is just something different, and I'd say qualitiatively better, about seeing and hearing God's absolving word spoken to you by another human being appointed to represent the invisible Christ. Similarily, the priest functions not as a replacement for but as an amplifier of God's love. For me, the Eucharist is the highest expression of that love.

Benedict XVI seems to be moving along these lines in yesterday's audience, when he spoke of that early "bishop's bishop," Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius is one of my favorites anyway, since he is an early witness to the presence/idea of the apostolic succession among the Church. But in this case, Ignatius serves as a mirror of this idea of the unity between external heirarchy and the inward perpection of God's love. In Catholic thought the two are never to be separated or opposed to each other. Period.

Benedict XVI, From Zenit:

"In general, in Ignatius' letters, we can see a sort of constant and fruitful dialectic between the two aspects characteristic of Christian life: on one hand the hierarchical structure of the ecclesial community, and on the other hand, the fundamental union that links all the faithful in Christ. Therefore the roles cannot be opposed."

On the contrary, the insistence on communion of the faithful among themselves and with their pastors is continually formulated through eloquent images and analogies: the harp, the chords, the tone, the concert, the symphony."

The Pope contended that the "specific responsibility of the bishops, the presbyters and the deacons in the building of the community is evident. To them above all, the invitation to love and union is valid"

The Holy Father called Ignatius a "doctor of unity," and said that his example "invites the faithful of yesterday and today, invites us all, to a progressive synthesis between configuration to Christ -- union with him, life in him -- and dedication to his Church -- union with the bishop, generous service to the community and to the world."

"In other words, one must achieve a synthesis between communion of the Church within itself and the mission of proclamation of the Gospel to others, until one dimension speaks through the other, and believers are evermore 'in possession of that indivisible spirit that is Jesus Christ himself,'" the Pope added. Benedict XVI concluded, praying "that the Lord may help us in achieving this unity and to be found without sin, because love purifies the spirit."

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