Today marks the fourth day of a gathering of America’s Catholic bishops. The bishops have come together to reflect, pray and discuss how best to grow in the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are necessary to be an agent of hope for their priests. The theme for Thursday is “Challenges for bishops in fostering unity among priests.”
For a Catholic, whether an ordained priest or lay person, the fundamental question is this: Where does one find unity and what does it mean in the Catholic sense? We know that as Catholics, we are all members of the mystical Body of Christ. Knowing this, we can understand why the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1396, states,
The unity of the Mystical Body: the Eucharist makes the Church. Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body – the Church. Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism. In Baptism we have been called to form but one body. The Eucharist fulfills this call: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread …"
Thus, it can be suggested that the bishops, by focusing on the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, will at the same time bring about the sense of unity that comes from recognizing the real presence of Christ in Holy Eucharist. This very same teaching brings with it a clear understanding of the importance of defending Christ in this sacrament, protecting His body and blood from sacrilege. By uniting their priests through this fundamental truth, each bishop will be strengthening his priests and guiding them to true unity of purpose in their vocation.
Each bishop is aware that Catholic teaching regarding the sacrament of Holy Communion as the source and summit of Catholic unity is a fundamental principle of our faith. It is repeated in the Church’s Constitution, Lumen Gentium.
This same teaching is also the focus of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the Eucharist, Ecclesia Eucharistia. In it, the pope addressed the specific spiritual needs of Catholic priests. He taught that, through the sacrament of Holy Communion, the priest remains grounded in the faith and alive in the ability to spread the faith to his flock.
Further, the Holy Father reiterated that it is for this reason that the priest has special obligations, including the protection of the body and blood of Christ from sacrilege. He wrote, “[I]n cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved” (Chapter Four, 37). The Holy Father clarified that this is why such individuals are not to be admitted to the sacrament by the priest.
Fostering unity among priests begins with the body of Christ. We hope that Catholic bishops address this with a profound sense of awe because they are, in fact, the direct successors of the apostles who first received the body and blood of Christ from Christ Himself.