The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 2, Chapter 4

The Priest's Communion

Chapter Four


The dogmatic teaching of the Church

Holy Communion must of necessity be received by all adults in virtue of the divine command: "You can have no life in yourselves, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood" (John vi, 54). There is also the precept of the Church (Denz. 437, 1205 sq).

Furthermore, St. Thomas maintains (Summa, Ilia, q. 73, a. 3) that Holy Communion is necessary for salvation independently of the divine command, for the Eucharist is in itself an essential means of sanctification, "of completing the spiritual life, and thus it is the end of all the other sacraments" in so far as of its very nature it increases charity in our souls and unites us to Christ the Saviour. "You can have no life in yourselves, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood" (John vi, 54). Therefore, according to St. Thomas, all the faithful without exception must receive the effect of Holy Communion by an implicit desire at least. The grace of Baptism is ordered to this effect in the same way as a child tends towards manhood. But if this is true for all the faithful in general, with even greater reason is it true for the priest.

Moreover, the celebrant's Communion is required for the completion of the sacrifice of the Mass; Christ is present under the species of the eucharistic sacrifice after the manner of food and drink, and so is meant to be consumed.

Finally, the priest must receive Communion under both species: "So far as the sacrament itself is concerned it is most fitting that both the body and the blood be received since the perfection of the sacrament rests in both, and therefore, because it is the priest's duty both to consecrate and to complete the sacrament, lie should never receive the body of Christ without the blood" (Summa, Ilia, q. 80, a. 12; cf. also ad 1). The priest has a divine obligation in this respect.

St. Thomas continues in the article just quoted: "On the part of the communicants extreme reverence and caution are necessary to prevent anything happening which would not be fitting for so great a sacrament. This is most likely to occur in the drinking of the blood which might easily be spilt, if there were any carelessness in receiving it. And because the Christian community has increased ... it is a prudent custom for the blood to be received by the priest alone and not by the people."

Ibid. ad. 3: "Nothing is lost by this (that is, by the body being received by the people without the blood): because the priest both offers and receives the blood in the name of all, and the whole Christ is present under either species." Under the species of bread there is also present, by concomitance, the precious blood. Thus the faithful are not deprived of any notable grace, and a fervent Communion under one species is far more fruitful than a tepid Communion received under both species.1

Holy Communion foreshadowed in the sacrifices of the Old Testament

In these sacrifices—with the exception of the burnt-offering— the priest used to consume a part of the victim after it had been offered and immolated, sacrifice being regarded as a divine banquet at which God consented to dine with his creatures. This Communion in the Old Testament was instituted by God; in Ezechiel xliv, 28-30, we read of the Levites: "And for the priestly tribe, it must have no patrimony assigned to it; I am their patrimony, nor needs he portion, whose portion is his God. Bloodless offering they shall eat, and the victim that is offered for a fault or a wrong done . . . theirs the first of all first-fruits and the residue of all you offer." See also Deut. xviii, 1; Num. xvii, 20; Eccles. xlv, 26. The Levites and priests were to live solely on the victims offered in sacrifice. And since these victims were types of the Lamb who would take away the sins of the world, they had to be eaten in a spirit of faith and reverence and not as ordinary food.2

We are apt to think of the priests of the Old Testament as men of moderate virtue, but, in practice, there were to be found amongst them individuals of outstanding virtue, piety, and zeal for the glory of God—for instance, Phinees, Jeremias, Ezechiel (who belonged to the priestly race), Onias, and many others. Read what is recorded of Simon and his fellow priests in Eccles., c. 50. Jeremias said of himself (xi, 19): "Hitherto, I had been unsuspecting as a cade lamb led off to the slaughterhouse", to sacrifice. These priests of the Old Testament were called to a life of holiness, for it is written in Lev. xi, 44: "You must be set apart, the servants of a God who is set apart. Do not contaminate yourselves. ... I am set apart and you must be set apart like me." Also Lev. xix, 2, where are set down the duties of a priest in matters of worship and justice; he must also be merciful towards the poor, and so forth.

If the priests of the Old Testament were set apart for holiness, so also with even greater reason are the priests of Christ, who are nourished each day not by figurative victims but by the Lamb of God himself who takes away the sin of the world.

The priest's Communion as a means of sharing in the inner life of Christ, priest and victim

In Holy Communion Christ is not assimilated to the priest, but the priest is assimilated to Christ. So, if the priests of the former dispensation had to receive a portion of the victim offered to God in a spirit of faith and reverence, our reception of the body of Christ ought to be marked by an even greater faith and reverence. The Eucharistic mystery is thus completed by Holy Communion in which we are united to Christ as victim rather than as priest. Hence, by his Communion, the priest should be conformed to Christ the victim offered and received by both celebrant and faithful.

At that moment especially should the words of St. Paul be verified (Rom. xii, 1): "And now, brethren, I appeal to you by God's mercies to offer up your bodies as a living sacrifice, consecrated to God and worthy of his acceptance; this is the worship due from you as rational creatures." This is sometimes fulfilled by the priest offering the pain caused to him by calumny.

In Holy Communion there is a meeting of intellects, Christ's lucid intellect and our own obscured and confused; a meeting of wills, Christ's will confirmed in goodness and our own wavering and volatile; a meeting of sense powers, Christ's faculties detached from all that is sinful and our own so often disordered and earthy.

Spiritual fervour in Holy Communion

In normal circumstances the sacrament of the Eucharist not only preserves but also increases our charity together with the infused virtues and the seven gifts. For that reason each Communion ought to be more fervent than the preceding one; if sensible fervour does not increase, at least there should be greater substantial fervour of the will. Each Communion should also prepare us to receive the sacrament with even greater love on the following day. As the speed of a moving body increases the nearer it approaches its centre of attraction, so should our progress towards God follow the same law of acceleration.

Holy Communion is an incentive to greater generosity. St. Thomas in commenting on the words of St. Paul: "Let us keep one another in mind, always ready with incitements to charity ... all the more, as you see the great day drawing nearer" (Heb. x, 25), says: "Any natural movement increases in speed the nearer it approaches its completion. The contrary is true of enforced movement. Now grace follows the behaviour of natural movement. Therefore those who enjoy the supernatural life ought to increase in grace the nearer they approach their end."

And where else should we expect to find verified the words heard by St. Augustine, if not in the Communion of a priest: "Grow and you will feed on me, for I am the food of grown men. I shall not be changed into you like that which feeds your body, but you will be changed into me." Thus we find the saints reaching the peak of their spiritual life in their later years on the eve of their eternal youth.

The testimony of the Liturgy, as presented by Fr. Olier3

Fr. Olier, the founder of Saint Sulpice, has this to say about the priest's act of receiving Holy Communion: "In receiving the Eucharist the priest should identify himself with the host by sharing in the inner life of Christ the Victim, because nothing is more closely united to ourselves than the food which we eat (although in Holy Communion we do not assimilate the eucharistic food into our own substance: we in some sense are changed into it)." Fr. Olier then concludes: "Every priest should be a victim or a genuine host, by accepting whatever God has willed or permitted for his sanctification: in this way he is assimilated to Christ and works with him, in him, and through him, for the saving of souls."

In the same chapter is also contained this advice: "Our Saviour by making use of bread and wine in Holy Communion wishes to show that the priest and the host must be one and the same, that all priests should be real victims, and that just as they are God's priests only in and by Jesus Christ whose spirit dwells within them, so also must they become victims in union with him and always continue in that state, if they want to be genuine priests like himself."4

The priest's Communion should be looked upon as the end of the priestly life, a union with Christ priest and victim which becomes more and more intimate every day. It must be his centre of rest, so to speak, and the source of his priestly charity towards God and souls.

Spiritual Communion

The priest ought to renew his spiritual communion frequently during the course of the day, in order to renew the effect of his sacramental Communion. It can be made, for example, before every meal by recalling to mind the words of Christ: "My meat is to do the will of him who sent me" (John iv, 34); or the words of St. Paul: "For me, life means Christ; death is a prize to be won" (Phil, i, 21). St. Thomas, when commenting on this last passage, points out that while the hunter lives for the chase, the soldier for his military duties, and the student for his study, the Christian lives for Christ in so far as he is the continual object of his faith which should be gaining in vitality and perception day by day, and also the object of his hope and love which should increase until the moment of his death.

The priest could use for his spiritual communion the words of the 72nd Psalm: "What else does heaven hold for me, but thyself? What pleasure should I find in all thy gifts on earth ?

This frame, this earthly being of mine must come to an end; still God will comfort my heart, God will be, eternally, my inheritance. ... I know no other content but clinging to God, putting my trust in the Lord, my Master; within the gates of royal Sion I will be the herald of thy praise." Nowhere in the Old Testament is there a finer expression of the soul's longing for God. But now, in the present dispensation, a spiritual communion with God could often be made by pronouncing fervently the name of Jesus, in a spirit of faith, hope, and charity which is always growing stronger.

Day and night, in time of temptation and in time of consolation, the good priest should find it almost second nature to raise his mind and heart to Christ the priest and victim, and in so doing he would be frequently renewing his spiritual communion. He would then be sharing in the contemplative prayer of Christ, in his wisdom, his intelligence, his prudence, his ardent love for God the Father and the souls which need saving.5 Such a priest would certainly arrive at the stage of contemplation and intimate union with God which is the normal preparation for eternal life and the beginning, so to say, of future happiness. Cf. St. Thomas, Summa, la Ilae, q. 69, a. 2.

Similarly, the priest would be living in almost uninterrupted communion with the different virtues of Christ, according as circumstances required their imitation: he would be sharing in Christ's humility, meekness, patience, poverty, self-denial, devotion for his Father, and zeal for souls.

The genuine minister of Christ ardently desires to be a victim offered by the high priest by immolating and ridding himself of all his inordinate tendencies, judgments, and schemes. Having nothing, yet possessing all things.

Happy the priest who keeps nothing for himself but surrenders himself entirely to the high priest; who allows his thoughts to be inspired and guided by Christ the victim who comes to take complete possession of his soul. The priest who is thus set apart as a victim is the disciple and intimate friend of Christ, the perfect apostle, like St. John the Evangelist or St. Paul, although the comparison must not be pressed too far. Likewise, his familiarity with Our Blessed Lady will grow: her unique vocation of Mother of God and universal mediatrix and co-redemptrix is vastly superior to that of the priest, because it is a greater dignity to give Christ his human nature and to offer his sacrificial shedding of blood than to make his body present on the altar and to offer the bloodless immolation in the Mass.

St. Alphonsus thinks it not improbable that more grace is given in Holy Communion under both species, and all theologians agree that if the ardour of charity is increased by receiving the second species, then greater grace is conferred accidentally by reason of the better disposition.6 Therefore a layman who wants to become a priest in order to communicate under both species so as to receive this greater grace is not to be dissuaded.

1I have already discussed this question at length in my work De Eucharistia, 1943- Turin, p. 239 sq.

2Cf. Dictionnaire de la Bible, art. "Prêtre," col. 646 sq., under the headings "fonction", "consecration", "onction", "fonctions dans le Temple." Also J. M. Vosté, Studia Paulina, II, p. 752, 30.

3Traité des Saints Ordres, III Partie, c. 4.

4Ibid., c. 4.

5Giraud, op. cit., I, 302.

6Cf. Giraud, op. cit., I, 339, and St. Alphonsus, Theol. mor., lib. VI, tract. Ill, n. 28.