Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, First Solemn Mass of Father Stephen Elser

Photo: Bishop Michael F. Olson with newly ordained priests Fr. Stephen Elser (left) and Fr. Joseph de Orbegozo (right) of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas.

June 3, 2018
Christ the King Catholic Church
Little Rock, Arkansas

Exodus 24:3-8
Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18
Hebrews 9:11-15
Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

Today, God has said “yes” to so many of our prayers in the ordination to the priesthood of Father Stephen Elser. So we are called here in this parish church of Christ the King, to celebrate the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, the most important action that we can do on earth. We gather here to celebrate, in communion with the entire Church throughout the world, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi—Christ’s gift of His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, the sacrificial gift of the Eucharist. To paraphrase Saint Augustine, “It is the gift of the Eucharist that makes us the Church.” Finally, in celebrating this sacrifice and Eucharistic Banquet on this solemnity and occasion, we come with joy to a deeper gratitude for the gift of the ministerial priesthood and for the particular vocation to the priesthood of Father Stephen Elser.

The word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” On this solemnity, we receive the gift that enables us to thank God for the very gift received. Without this gift, we could not fittingly offer God thanks. The priesthood, in a very intentional and intimate way, is both an offering and a gift required and essential to the gift of the Eucharist received and offered and received again.

The Eucharist, as provided through the service of the ministerial priesthood, is more than simply “going to Communion.” The celebration and offering of the Eucharist by the priest and our active participation in this mystery is so much more than simply a “communion service.” The Eucharist is a sacrifice and thus so is the ministerial priesthood. The Eucharist is a perfect act of love—both divine love and human love. The cross is made present through the unbloody sacrifice offered by the priest in the offering of the Mass. We know that without a priest there is no Mass; without the Mass there is no cross; without the cross there is no hope.

At times in my life I have heard people talk about communion in a manner that separates the Body from the Blood of Christ. At Mass, when the Eucharist is offered under both species of consecrated bread and consecrated wine, one can carelessly refer to the consecrated bread as the Body and the consecrated wine in the chalice as the Blood, exclusive of each other. In fact, when one receives Holy Communion under each species of bread and wine, one receives the entire mystery of Communion with the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ offered by the priest in the Eucharist. This Solemnity of Corpus Christi and the occasion of the first Mass offered by Father Stephen Elser offers us cause for reflection on the inseparability of Holy Communion, the priesthood, and sacrifice.

The chalice is the central image used in the Gospel of Mark to connote the suffering of Jesus. In chapter 10 of this Gospel, Jesus asks the sons of Zebedee—James and John—who have asked to sit at His right and His left: “Can you drink the chalice that I drink or be baptized with the Baptism with which I am baptized?” The chalice connotes the suffering that Jesus will experience. Yet, even more than symbolizing existential suffering, the chalice specifically signifies the unconditional love by which Christ conquers sin and death in the free and willing sacrifice of His life in obedience to the Truth of the mission entrusted to Him by His Father. The chalice offered to us by Christ is a share in the ability and willingness to love as Jesus loves. He offers this to us through the ministerial priesthood—the gift received by the Church yesterday in the gift received by Father Stephen Elser and his classmates.

Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, James and John initially seek from Jesus a place to sit. In His love, Jesus responds by offering them instead a vocation to love and to sacrifice. He offers them a vocation to love God and His people unconditionally with Jesus’ very own love—the sacrifice of and a share in His chalice.

Many of us in our life as the Church, whether we be bishops, priests, deacons, religious, or laity, experience the temptation of James and John to follow Jesus out of a sense of what we can get from Him. Even more, we confuse our discipleship with simply a question of “where do we sit”—passively. When we do so, we ignore the sacrificial character of the Eucharist—to remove the chalice from our communion in the love of Christ. When we do this we fail to appreciate the gift that is offered as a gift of love, and we ignore the grace offered freely to us as the Eucharist. We confuse it with a sense of entitlement in routinely “going to Communion.” Inevitably, when we fall prey to this temptation we also begin to ignore the ministerial or servant character of priesthood and treat it simply as a career with reference only to one’s own selfish preferences and entitlement of where one sits.

The chalice is not some afterthought to the central mystery of the Eucharist and of the priesthood. It is a constitutive part of both. And, perhaps, for those of us undergoing some real experience of suffering, it is the connection to the truth that God has poured Himself out also—out of love for us in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The chalice, then, is our connection to the suffering of Jesus Christ united by Him to His love. The ministry of a priest is required to provide this connection between our suffering and love.

The theme of blood, a theme that represents life, runs throughout our readings in this Liturgy. The first reading speaks of the blood of the Old Covenant whereby an isolated and disparate group of refugees have passed over from slavery to sacrificial belonging as God’s covenanted and chosen people. The Gospel reading from Mark speaks of the Blood of Christ that will be shed for the salvation of the many—that is, for all people. The reading from Hebrews speaks of the Blood of Christ that offered once and for all cleanses our consciences and delivers us from slavery to our sins and transgressions. The chalice of salvation spoken of in the proclamation of today’s responsorial psalm is a chalice of the Blood of Christ. It is offered by the priest at Mass and is inseparable from the priest’s life and ministry. The blood that is offered is the blood that flows from the wounds of the Body of Christ inflicted by the intended violence of sin, but offered by the redemptive act of love; two actions that are transformed into one by Jesus in His One Sacrifice, His gift of Himself.

The most painful wounds that the members of Christ’s Body, the Church, suffer today are the wounds of autonomy and isolation, the wounds of despair and presumption, the wounds of cynicism and spiritual indifference. It is the service of the priest to attend to the healing of these wounds in the members of Christ’s Body for whom Jesus has established the priesthood in His Church. The priest is to give of himself in sacrifice, and in that sacrifice to offer the blood spilt by the wounds of these sins in the chalice of salvation offered in compassion and love. It is the vocation of a priest to do this not simply at Mass but in every sacrament he administers, in every word he preaches and with every person he meets.

Yesterday, Father Stephen Elser was ordained for that healing and sacrificial ministry of a priest through the bishop’s hands imposed upon his head and through the anointing of his hands.
His hands became Christ’s hands wounded by the assaults of sin and glorified through the sacrifice of love.

As a child and young man, Father Stephen Elser heard this vocation through his belonging to his father and mother, in his belonging to his entire family, in his belonging to your parish and to your Catholic schools. He heard his calling through the gift of hope in the face of voices of despair and presumption. He most clearly heard his calling through the gift of thanksgiving offered by priests in the celebration of the Eucharist—sacrifice and communion—celebrated here in your parish community of Christ the King.

Father Elser’s ministry as a priest means that he must reach out to those who are most prone to think that they are isolated and do not belong to Christ. He must go to those who maintain that they cannot belong to His Church or to those who wish to belong to Christ and to others, but only on their own terms and therefore, in fact, not at all. It requires of him courageously to take the risk of being vulnerable to be hurt, just as Jesus Christ was wounded, by speaking the Truth well in the face of falsehood, in response to error, in the alleviation of despair or presumption. It most especially means that he is to be docile to Christ’s grace to pray always for the People of God, that all might be washed clean with their thirst quenched from the spiritual indifference of our culture that arrogantly ignores God and our responsibility to care for other human beings. It means that he is to offer his own blood, the sacrifice of his very life in love, in order to offer Christ’s Blood in sacrifice, in raising the cup of salvation.

The grace of gratitude and thanksgiving that Christ offers us, and that Father Stephen Elser will celebrate, in the Eucharist becomes the source and summit of Father Elser’s life and ministry, so that, in part through this ministry, it can also become the source and summit of our own lives—lives always growing more deeply in the sacrifice and unconditional love of Christ whereby we are made to be the Church, God’s Holy People.