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DOES THE PRESIDER AT A EUCHARISTIC MEAL FUCTION AS A PRIEST?               

                                    Brother Thomas P. Draney, CFC              

In the O.T. the function of the priest was to represent the people in ritual sacrifice, and in the ancient days, the priest was also a teacher, a judge, and one who divined the future by casting a form of dice. Priestly power was lost to prophets in the monarchies, and to the scribes and rabbis in the Captivity. By the time of Jesus, they were almost completely identified with service in the temple

Priestly authority came from temporal authority. Aaron was appointed by Moses as high priest over the Levites; David, although not of the House of Levi, was priest by virtue of his kingship, and the line of Zadoc flowed from him. At the time of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean kings claimed the high priesthood, although their claim was not received by many Jews.

Jesus did not belong to a priestly line The priesthood was found in the Temple, and He certainly did not function as a priest there. He was seen as a Rabbi, a teacher, a prophet like John the Baptist. He was a miracle worker who healed the sick, forgave sinners, and appointed Peter as the leader of his small group, but none of this was in connection with the Jewish priesthood.

The Christian priesthood was not hereditary, did not flow from the Jewish one. The Epistle to the Hebrews said Christ was the true high priest, because he had his authority from his God, his Father. The Christian priesthood flows from Christ’s presence in the community. It is difficult for many to realize this because of “curse of the catechism,” the simplistic, idealized propositions that many of us imbibed as children.

We were led to believe that Jesus ordained twelve men at the Last Supper, giving them supernatural powers which were passed on to other men by the laying on of hands, like a baton in a race. The powers resembled magic, in that when they said certain words, a spiritual change happened, something like magic.

The complexities of what really happened may have been too much for children to grasp, but the reality is that the statement is not historically accurate at all. Raymond Brown, one of the foremost New Testament scholars of the 20th century said this:

The eucharistic words of Jesus are reported in the NT in two very ancient independent liturgical formulas (Mark/Matthew and Luke./Paul) ; there is frequent mention, especially in Acts, of the breaking of the bread; but we are never clearly told who presided by breaking the bread or saying the words. Thus there is simply no compelling evidence for the classic thesis that the members of the Twelve always presided when they were present, and that there was a chain of ordination passing the power of presiding at the Eucharist from the Twelve to missionary apostles to presbyter—bishops.(Although we do not intend to discuss the origin of other priestly powers that were subsequently designated as sacramental, the same lack of evidence would call into question the chain theory of the communication of the power to forgive sins, anoint the sick, etc.) The only thing of which we can be reasonably sure is that someone must have presided at the eucharistic meals and that those who participated acknowledged his right to preside. How one got the right to preside and whether it endured beyond a single instance we do not know; but a more plausible substitute for the chain theory is the thesis that sacramental “powers” were part of the mission of the Church and that there were diverse ways in which the Church (or the communities) designated individuals to exercise those powers— the essential element always being church or community consent, (which was tantamount to ordination, whether or not that consent was signified by a special ceremony such as laying on of hands.)[parenthesis of the author] ¹

Eucharistic meals: A Clarification
There are sites and programs that describe themselves as promoting and providing Eucharistic meals, but by this they mean ordinary meals with a special intention or aura of being connected to the Eucharist as Mass or sacrifice. That certainly is a commendable intention, but it is not what we mean. Their rationale is more along the line of a priestly people that have good intentions which are offered to God in the liturgy.
Their priesthood conforms more to the classic Pray, Pay, and Obey model.

The Eucharistic meal of the Lord‘s Supper and our Eucharistic meals are sacramental meals. Christ is re-membered in them. It is important to keep in mind that the Eucharist is an action, not an object. This is true both in the meal and in the liturgy of the Mass. The consecration is the changing of the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Risen Christ, but the nature of this Risen Body and Blood is a mystery. We know it is not the physical body of Christ before the resurrection; we are not cannibals, although early disciples were accused of this.

As Raymond Brown indicated, the priesthood was given to the community. The Twelve were symbols of the community of Israel, the twelve tribes, so any reference to them can and should be understood as representatives of the community. We tend to project the structure we know today back upon the past, so that Peter would be the first pope. It is true that Peter was given primacy among the Twelve, but James, the Brother of the Lord, was the head of the most important community of the early church — that in Jerusalem. We must not project our past experience of Eucharist — in church, with vestments, detailed rituals — upon the essence of what Eucharist is—the presence of the Risen Christ in community, in bread and wine to feed us.

Does the presider at the meal offer the prayers and intentions of the assembly to God? Of course. The intention of the group to access the promise of the Lord is taken up by the presider, and this is a priestly function.
The real issue for most is whether the presider can consecrate the bread and wine. .This is not as simple a question as many suppose.

The Roman Church and the Orthodox or Eastern Churches do not agree on when the consecration occurs, or what actually transpires. The Roman Church teaches that the bread and wine are replaced by the Risen Christ at the words of institution: “This is…” This is transubstantiation
The Orthodox Church teaches that the Body and Blood are added to the substance of the bread and wine, and this happens at the epiclesis “May the Holy Spirit come down…” This is consubstantiation. See (Real Presence and Transubstantiation)

When the experts do not agree, we must conclude that the matter is not something they can pronounce upon with absolute certainty. We hold with scholars such as Raymond Brown that the presider got his or her power or authority from the community, and it was the intentionality of the community that was the operative factor. Seen in this light, there can be no doubt that the presider at the meal functions as a priest.

The church teaches that the priesthood of the parish priests, bishops, cardinals, and the pope is all the same priesthood. What distinguishes them is their office or authority — an authority that came initially from the community. Why should the priesthood of the baptized be any different? This is not to say that ordination, elevation to the episcopy and election as pope are unnecessary. These offices such as these are needed by the very structure of society, which is dependent on us humans, who are created by God.

An analogy: Parents are entitled to look after the minor medical needs of their children. They do not have to take courses, get a license or prove their ability in any way. They are entitled by simply being a parent. So it is with the baptized Christian on the level of serving family and friends. (Priesthood belongs to the community, it is not a personal charism.) But there is a real need for a doctor who functions as a GP , for specialists, for surgeons, etc. The parent‘s right is real, but it is also limited.

One aspect of priesthood generally is to spread the gospel, to evangelize. The priesthood of the baptized functioning in the meal can do a lot in this area. The meal can be a source of sharing and educating, of promoting ecumenism by including Christians of other denominations, of keeping the faithful in Eucharist where the scarcity of ordained priests becomes critical, and of being a welcoming space for those who have left the church because they found the liturgy meaningless, too oriented towards guilt and sacrifice, or not offering any opportunity to participate in a meaningful way.

At the Eucharistic Congress held in 1976, which focused on Jesus as the Bread of Life, Father Raymond Brown speaking of the Eucharist as the Mass, said some things that I think are applicable to Eucharist as meal. He is gone to God and I cannot ask him about this now, so you must judge for yourself;—
“We are very aware that as we break this bread and drink this cup, Jesus is present. We don't have to say “in case God raises Him up.” He is there. But we must also be aware that He has yet to finish his work, that He has yet to come in a way in which the whole world can see.
Therefore, conscious of the future element in the Eucharist, we have to carry His presence forth, so that people will want to see Him come again, so that recognizing that He came once in Love, that He lives in our lives in love. We who have been fed with His Presence, must show other people they have something to hope for when they hear that He will come again, because He will come in love.
Perhaps as we go forth with that future sense, we can see what a scandal it is that so often we go forth having fought and argued and divided community about what we've done when we ate His flesh and drank His blood.” ²


¹. Raymond E.Brown, S.S., Priest and Bishop — Biblical Reflections. (Wipf and Stock Publishers 1999) pp.41-42
². Eucharist as the Bread of Life in St. John. track 3, Welcome Recordings.