'In persona Christi'

Question: The biblical accounts of the Last Supper show Our Lord offering his body and blood to the apostles. There is no mention of his partaking of either species. Why then does a priest who acts in the person of Christ consume the precious body and blood?

David, via email

Answer: Well, to some degree, your premise is based on an argument from silence. That the Scriptures do not mention Jesus partaking does not necessarily mean he did not. However, if we accept the premise that Jesus did not himself partake of the Eucharist he offered, then your question still stands, and some further distinctions are needed.

Although it is true that the priest when celebrating Mass acts in persona Christi, this does not mean that is all he is or does. The priest does not cease to be himself. It is not as if he were merely an actor taking up a role, or a robot through whom the Lord acts. As a man, the priest remains a disciple, a sinner in need of grace and mercy.

For example, prior to the Eucharistic prayer, the priest asks the Lord to wash away his iniquities as he washes his hands. The priest also says other penitential prayers such as the Confiteor (I confess), the “Lord I am not worthy,” etc. Such prayers he utters on his own behalf and as one of God’s people. It would not be appropriate for him to utter these words if he were acting only in the person of Christ.

In other ways, the priest does manifest his role as acting in the person of Christ, particularly at consecration. He is also a sign of the presence of Christ in the liturgical assembly. Thus, people stand as he enters, and he is given a seat of prominence.

So, while the Lord does act through the priest, the priest does not thereby cease to be a human being in need of sacraments. He needs holy Communion just like everyone else.

The sin of ingratitude

Question: Our priest said in a sermon recently that our deepest ingratitude is that we don’t even know what we should be grateful for. But how can I be grateful when I don’t even know what I have received?

Name withheld, Michigan

Answer: Since gratitude is a virtue, ingratitude is the vice that stands opposed to it. St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa (II, II q107 a2) distinguishes three types of ingratitude: The failure to return a favor received; the failure to express gratitude; and the failure to notice that one has received a gift at all. It would seem that your priest was speaking from this third insight.

Your question seems rooted in a scenario that someone has done something for me that I could not reasonably know. But what St. Thomas, and probably your priest, have in mind is a more deep-seated forgetfulness that sinfully fails to appreciate how much of life and all that goes with it is a gift from others. Life itself, every aspect of creation, and all that we have learned, from language to technology, has been carefully collected, taught and handed on. Even for things like roads and the electricity that reaches our homes, someone worked hard so we can enjoy these gifts.

To be consistently forgetful of such numerous gifts points to a deep-seated and selfish pattern that often leads us to a sinful ingratitude. For indeed we ought to be very aware of the astonishing number of gifts that we receive every day.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.