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Human Nature and the Power of God's Grace in the Sacrament of the Priesthood
In the book of Genesis, we are told that man is created in the image and likeness of God.1 To be in the image of God means that man shares the same capacities of God like an intellect and will. To be in the likeness of God refers to man's conformity to God's perfection, that is, His sanctity or holiness. Due to Original Sin, however, man lost his likeness with God. The intellect has been darkened and the will has been weakened. Concupiscence reigned in the hearts of man. In order to regain this holiness, God promised a Redeemer. Speaking to the serpent He says “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”2 Jesus is this Redeemer promised from the very beginning of the Bible.
In order to redeem humanity, Jesus took upon Himself all of the sins of the world, past, present, and future, and destroyed them by His sacrificial death on the Cross. Through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, Jesus restored humanity's ability to grow in the likeness of God. Jesus' redemptive mission seems to end when from the Cross He cries out “It is finished.”3 The Paschal Mystery is not the end of the story, however.
Man can still and unfortunately does fall into sin. How are we to cope with this? Jesus left us with a great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you.”4 Jesus continues and says “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The presence of Christ is continued through the Church in the sacraments which give us grace so that we might be able to grow in holiness and therefore grow closer to God and avoid sin. This is especially true of the Eucharist which is God Himself.
In his book, These Are the Sacraments, Venerable Fulton J.Sheen sums up the purpose of the sacraments like this:
The sacraments bring divine life or grace. Christ's reason for taking upon Himself a human nature was to pay for sin by death on the cross and to bring us a higher life: “I have come so that you may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). But, it may be said, that man already has life. Indeed he does; he has a biological, physiological life. He once had a higher divine life which he lost. Christ came to bring back that life to man. This higher life which is divine, distinct from the human, is called grace, because it is gratis or a free gift of God.5
What Sheen says is important to note. Grace is a gift, freely given by God. God did not need to redeem man. He could have left him on his own. But because God loves man, He chose to take on a human nature and die for us.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.”6 There are seven sacraments and many sacramentals. The Catechism also states that “The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body.”7 Thus, Christ gave us the sacraments in order to help us grow in holiness.
The reason that the sacraments can confer grace upon us is that Christ is the minister of all of the sacraments. The Catechism says that the sacraments are efficacious because “...in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.”8
This concept that the true minister of the sacraments is beautifully illustrated in Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory. In fact, Greene's entire novel shows the reader the difference between licit and illicit sacraments as well. In it, the Whisky Priest is in a state of mortal sin. He was an unapologetic alcoholic. He had become drunk and had sexual relations with one of the local women in the town he was staying in and had a daughter out of wedlock because of it. He was, however, the last priest in that specific territory in Mexico. He knew that if he left, the people there would be left without the sacraments and would therefore be left without the divine grace necessary to grow in holiness.
One of the characters of the book is Padre José, a priest who was forced to marry by the state and give up being a priest. Throughout the book, he struggles with himself, knowing that he is a priest, a “priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”9 Greene writes that “...he remembered the gift that he had been given which nobody could take away...the power he still had of turning the wafer into the flesh and blood of God.”10 This quote teaches us much about the sacrament of Holy Orders. First, it puts an indelible mark on the soul, meaning it can never be revoked. Once ordained to Holy Orders, always ordained, regardless of whether one has been given the faculties to celebrate the sacraments by a local ordinary. Second, Holy Orders is a gift. This reflects what was said earlier by Sheen, mainly that Holy Orders is a gift, no man is ever worthy of it.
Another key text in Green's novel comes when the Whisky priest is talking with the lieutenant who has finally captured him:
It's no good your working for your end unless you're a good man yourself. And there won't always be good men in your party. Then you'll have all the old starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow. But it doesn't matter so much my being a coward-and all the rest. I can put God into a man's mouth just the same-and I can give him God's pardon. It wouldn't make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me.11
This quote shows that the sacraments work ex opere operato, literally meaning they work by the very fact that they are performed. The Catechism explains that “It follows that 'the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.' From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister.”12 The Whisky Priest is here emphasizing that regardless of how many mortal sins he has committed, he can still change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, he can still forgive others their sins, even though he himself is a grave sinner. While we hope that all priests are striving for sanctity and leading others to Heaven, even if all of them were horrible sinners, the Holy Orders they have received allows them to still administer the sacraments.
In one of the more dramatic scenes in Greene's book, the Whisky Priest is celebrating Mass for a small village. Greene describes the consecration: “He began the Consecration of the Host (he had finished the wafers long ago-it was a piece of bread from Maria's oven); impatience abruptly died away: everything in time became a routine but this-'Who the day before he suffered took Bread into his holy and venerable hands...'...He began the consecration of the Wine-in a chipped cup.”13
This instance presents us with a good opportunity to discuss the validity and invalidity of the sacraments, as well as what makes them licit or illicit. In the novel, the Whisky Priest has to use leavened bread for the Eucharist and a chipped cup for the chalice. While these items are not ideal, they do not invalidate the Sacrifice of the Mass. They make the Mass illicit (not legal) but not invalid. Even the fact that the priest is in a state of mortal sin does not invalidate the Mass, once again, it is only illicit. This reminds me of when Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. Wrote in his book He Leadeth Me, how he had to say Mass lying down in his bunk in a Russian camp, making his Mass illicit, but not invalid. Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. defines “illicit” as “That which is unlawful, or contrary to established prescriptions, but not necessarily invalid. Thus, according to ecclesiastical law, many elements are prescribed, but not all (or most of them are strictly necessary for a valid act or, in the sacraments, valid administration.”14
If the Whisky Priest had tried to use a twinkie for Mass, it would be invalid, because the matter would no longer be bread. Once again, Fr. Hardon defines “invalid” for us: “Null and void, ineffective. Applied to the sacraments, it means that something essential was missing so that a sacrament was not actually administered or conferred.”15 In the example given above, a twinkie is not bread. Therefore, without the essential matter of bread, the Mass would be invalid.
Redemptionis Sacramentum explains concisely the matter to be used for the celebration of the Eucharist:
The bread used in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice must be unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition. It follows therefore that bread made from another substance, even if it is grain, or if it is mixed with another substance different from wheat to such an extent that it would not commonly be considered wheat bread, does not constitute valid matter for confecting the Sacrifice and the Eucharistic Sacrament. It is grave to introduce other substances, such as fruit or sugar or honey, into the bread for confecting the Eucharist.16
In the same document, the Church states what the Sacred vessels should be like: “It is strictly required, however, that such materials be truly noble in the common estimation within a given region, so that honour will be given to the Lord by their use, and all risk of diminishing the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species in the eyes of the faithful will be avoided.”17 Of course, given the extraordinary circumstances of Greene's novel, the use of a chipped cup would be allowed but is not ideal.
The moral character of the Whisky Priest is presented by Greene as a scathing example of what a priest could be. He can be a horrible sinner, an alcoholic, an adulterer, etc. Yet, the sacrament of the priesthood is not done away with like the Donatists thought. The sacraments conferred by the priest still confer grace regardless of his moral character. When writing on the new vestments of the priest, Sheen says “The priest is really only a tool, but he is a tool in the sense that Aristotle called man a living tool. The vestments hide and submerge his own personality so that men may know it is Christ Who teaches, Who governs, and Who sanctifies.”18 Indeed, whenever a priest says Mass, hears a confession, or offers a blessing, he is to wear some type of vestment indicating that he is not the one blessing or saying Mass, but rather Christ acting through him, acting in persona Christi.
Again Sheen writes on why Christ uses priests in the first place:
Our Blessed Lord is the Mediator between God and man, being both God and man. But in order to mediate His redemption, He desires human instruments between Himself and the world, each of whom will be “the minister and dispenser of the Mysteries of God” (Corinth. 4:1). And so, some men are appointed by God to deliver the sacraments to others, just as in human societies one group serves and ministers to another: “The purpose for which any high priest is chosen from among his fellow-men, and made a representative of men in their dealings with God, is to offer gifts and sacrifices in expiation of their sins” (Heb. 5:11).19
Throughout Salvation History, God seems to use mediation quite often. He sends His people the prophets and judges to lead them on their way. Even the Old Testament priesthood of the Levites was a prefigurement of the mediation of the future mediation of the priesthood of the New Covenant.
In conclusion, the ideal for the priest is that his moral character is conformed with his ministry. He should be holy, even though he is unworthy of his office because everyone is a sinner whether in great or little matters, he should strive to become less unworthy. However, even if the priest himself is not holy nor cares to be holy, this does not affect the ministry he has been ordained to serve. The sacraments validly celebrated by even the most sinful priest, like Graham Greene's Whisky Priest, still confer God's grace.
1 See Genesis 1:26
2 Genesis 3:15
3 John 19:30
4 Matthew 28:20
5 Fulton J. Sheen. These Are the Sacraments (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1964), 16.
6 CCC, 1084.
7 CCC, 774.
8 CCC, 1127.
9 Psalm 110:4
10 Graham Greene. The Power and the Glory (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 31.
11 Ibid, 196.
12 CCC, 1128.
13 Greene, 75.
14 John A. Hardon, S.J. Modern Catholic Dictionary (Bardstown, Kentucky: Eternal Life: 2008), 265.
15 Ibid, 286.
16 Redemptionis Sacramentum, 48.
17 Ibid, 117.
18 Sheen, 139.
19 Sheen, 135