The priesthood in the Catholic Church is identified with many things because over the centuries in the Church’s history there have been priests engaged in variety of functions as priests. A priest can act in different roles but the main reason he has been ordained is because of the Eucharist. So true is this that if we would specify the heart of the priesthood we would have to say it is the Eucharist: the Eucharist as Presence, and the Eucharist as Sacrifice. Each of these levels of the Holy Eucharist is totally dependent on the priesthood — no priesthood, no Real Presence and no Eucharistic Sacrifice (and no Holy Communion, either). But what may be less obvious, having given lectures to students of theology, I have also told them that if the Real Presence and the Mass depend on priests, priests depend on the Real Presence and the Mass, and I’m not sure which dependence is more absolute. Without the Eucharist, the priesthood is doomed to failure, and as history by now sadly testifies, to extinction. Because, you see, the priesthood has become extinct in not a few parts of the world where it had once gloriously flourished. That, then, which the priests create they also require for their survival.
First, then, the priest and the Real Presence. In the late eleventh century, to be exact in the year 1079 A.D., a certain French priest by the name of Berengar (more commonly known as Berengarius) was required to sign a solemn profession of faith in the Real Presence. His problem was that he was a theologian. As a theologian he had difficulties, which is not surprising. But what was unfortunate is that having difficulties he began to talk and teach and write about these difficulties regarding the Real Presence. His problem could not have been more fundamental. How is it possible, he asked himself, and he would ask his listeners and readers, for the same Jesus Christ, mind you the same, to be at once in heaven and also on earth? He was on earth, so Berengar said, during His stay before His death and even for a short time after His Resurrection, and then He ascended into Heaven! So He had been on earth, but He went to heaven. Where, then, he asked, is Christ? In heaven. Where can He also not be? He cannot also be on earth.
The Sixth Council of Rome was presided over by Pope St. Gregory VII in 1079 A.D. Berengar was summoned and was told to sign the following statement: “I, Berengar, firmly believe and confess with my mouth that the bread and wine which are laid on the altar by the mystery of sacred prayer and the words of Our Redeemer are substantially changed into the very flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ true and life giving; and that after the consecration it is the true body of Christ, which was born of the Virgin, which was offered as a sacrifice on the Cross for the salvation of the world, and which sits at the right hand of the Father, and the very blood of Christ which flowed from His side” (Denzinger 355).
This profession of faith in the Real Presence has ever since been the touchstone of Catholic orthodoxy. Those who believe this are Catholic; those who do not are not. It was not coincidental that the Holy See had to exact this attestation of belief in the Real Presence from a priest in the eleventh century, for the priest’s statement has been quoted in countless documents of Popes and Councils because it is precisely here that the priest’s first test of faith is to be found. This is where his constant test of faith is to be found.
A priest, therefore, makes the Real Presence possible, and no one, no king or prince or genius, nor the will of a thousand people or the combined efforts of a whole nation, can substitute for the power of a priest’s consecrated words: “This is my body. This is the chalice of my blood.” And as the Fathers of the Church do not hesitate to say, there is no less a miraculous change taking place on the altar than took place in the womb of Mary at the moment of the Incarnation. Before she pronounced her words, there was no Christ on earth. The moment she did, He took dwelling in her body. The moment before the words of the priest are pronounced over the elements of bread and wine, there is just bread and wine. He pronounces them and then divine power — it has to be divine power — changes the substance of bread and wine into the very living Body and Blood of the living God.