Hearts of Prayer - Lenten Season
"Christ Offered Himself
2nd Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 12, 2010
1. The Novelty of the Priesthood of Christ
In this meditation we wish to reflect on the priest as administrator
of the mysteries of God, this time understanding "mysteries" as
concrete signs of grace, the sacraments. We cannot reflect on all
the sacraments; we will limit ourselves to the sacrament par
excellence which is the Eucharist. So also does "Presbyterorum
Ordinis," which, after speaking of presbyters as evangelizers,
continues saying that "their ministry, which begins with the
evangelical proclamation, derives its power and force from the
sacrifice of Christ."
These two tasks of the priest are those which the Apostles also
reserved for themselves: "But we" says Peter in Acts, "will devote
ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4). The
prayer of which he speaks is not private prayer; it is community
liturgical prayer which has at its center the breaking of bread. The
Didache enables one to see how in the early times the Eucharist was
offered precisely in the context of the prayer of the community, as
part of it and its culmination.
As the sacrifice of the Mass is not conceived save in dependence on
the sacrifice of the cross, so the Christian priesthood is not
explained save in dependence on and as sacramental participation in
the priesthood of Christ. It is from here that we must begin to
discover the fundamental characteristic and the requirements of the
ministerial priesthood. The novelty of the sacrifice of Christ
vis-a-vis the priesthood of the old covenant (and, as we know today,
vis-a-vis every other priestly institution also outside the Bible)
is highlighted in the Letter to the Hebrews from different points of
view: Christ had no need to offer victims first of all for his own
sins, as every priest does (7:27); he had no need to repeat the
sacrifice more times, but "as it is, he has appeared once and for
all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of
However, the fundamental difference is another. Let us hear how it
is described: "[b]ut when Christ appeared as a high priest of the
good things that have come [...] he entered once for all into the
Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own
blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of
defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes
of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much
more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit
offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from
dead works to serve the living God!" (Hebrews 9:11-14).
other priest offers something outside himself, Christ offered
himself; every other priest offers victims, Christ offered himself
as victim! St. Augustine contained in a famous formula this new kind
of priesthood, in which priest and victim are the same thing: "Ideo
victor, quia victima, et ideo sacerdos, qui sacrificium: conqueror
because victim, priest because victim."
Observed in the passage of sacrifices prior to the sacrifice of
Christ is the same novelty as in the passage from the law to grace,
from duty to gift, illustrated in a previous meditation. From work
of man to placate the divinity and be reconciled with it, sacrifice
becomes gift of God to placate man, to make him desist from his
violence and to reconciled him with Himself (cf. Colossians 1:20).
Also in his sacrifice, as in all the rest, Christ is "totally
2. "Imitate that which you celebrate"
The consequence of all this is clear: to be a priest "according to
the order of Jesus Christ," the presbyter must, like Him, offer
himself. On the altar, he does not only represent the Jesus who is
"high priest," but also the Jesus who is "supreme victim," the two
things being inseparable. In other words he cannot be content to
offer Christ to the Father in the sacramental signs of bread and
wine, he must also offer himself with Christ to the Father. Taking
up a thought of St. Augustine, the instruction of the Holy
Congregation of Rites, "Eucharisticum mysterium," writes: "The
Church, the spouse and minister of Christ, performs together with
Him the role of priest and victim, offers Him to the Father and at
the same time makes a total offering of herself together with
That which is said here of the whole Church, is applied in an
altogether special way to the celebrant. At the moment of
ordination, the bishop addresses to those being ordained the
exhortation: "Agnoscite quod agitis, imitamini quod tractatis":
"Realize what you will do, imitate that which you will celebrate."
In other words: you do also what Christ does in the Mass, namely,
offer yourself to God in living sacrifice. Saint Gregory of
Nazianzus writes: "Knowing that no one is worthy of the grandeur of
God, of the Victim and of the Priest, if he has not first offered
himself as living and holy sacrifice, if he has not presented
himself as reasonable and acceptable oblation (cf. Romans 12:1) and
if he has not offered to God a sacrifice of praise and a contrite
spirit -- the only sacrifice of which the author of every gift asks
to be offered --, how will I dare offer him the external offering on
the altar, that which is the representation of great mysteries?"
I permit myself to say how I myself discovered this dimension of my
priesthood because, perhaps, it might help to understand better.
After my ordination, see how I lived the moment of consecration: I
closed my eyes, bowed my head, tried to become estranged from all
that surrounded me to immerse myself in Jesus who, in the Cenacle,
pronounced those words for the first time: "Accipite et manducate
...", "Take, eat ..." The liturgy itself fostered this attitude,
making one pronounce the words of the consecration in a low voice
and in Latin, bending down over the species, facing the altar and
not the people. Then, one day, I understood that such an attitude,
alone, did not express the whole meaning of my participation in the
consecration. He who presides invisibly at every Mass is Jesus risen
and living, the Jesus, to be exact, who was dead but now lives for
evermore (cf. Revelation 1:18). But this Jesus is the "total
Christ," Head and body indissolubly united. Therefore, if it is this
total Christ that pronounces the words of consecration, I also
pronounce them with him. Within the great "I" of the Head, is hidden
the little "I" of the body that is the Church, and also my very
Since then, while, as priest ordained by the Church, I pronounce the
words of the consecration "in persona Christi," and believe that,
thanks to the Holy Spirit, they have the power of changing the bread
into the body of Christ and the wine into his blood, at the same
time, as member of the body of Christ, I no longer close my eyes,
but I look at the brethren before me or, if I celebrate on my own, I
think of them whom I must serve during the day and, turning to them,
I say mentally together with Jesus: "Brothers and sisters, take,
eat: this is my body; take, drink, this is my blood."
Later on I found a singular confirmation in the writings of the
Venerable Concepcion Cabrera de Armida, called Conchita, the Mexican
mystic, founder of three religious Orders, whose process of
beatification is underway. To her Jesuit son, about to be ordained
priest, she wrote: "Remember, my son, when you hold in your hands
the Holy Host, you will not say: ‘Behold the Body of Jesus and
Behold His Blood,' but you will say: ‘This is my Body, This is my
Blood, that is, there must be worked in you a total transformation,
you must lose yourself in Him, to be ‘another Jesus."
The offering of the priest and of the whole Church, without that of
Jesus, would neither be holy nor acceptable to God, because we are
only sinful creatures, but Jesus' offering, without that of his body
which is the Church, would also be incomplete and insufficient: not,
be it understood, to procure salvation, but so that we receive it
and appropriate it. It is in this sense that the Church can say with
Saint Paul: "in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's
afflictions" (cf. Colossians 1:24).
We can illustrate with an example what happens in every Mass. Let us
imagine that in a family there is one child, the first born, most
devoted to the father. He wishes to give him a present for his
birthday. However, before presenting it to him he asks all his
brothers and sisters secretly to add their signature on the gift. It
then arrives in the hands of the father as the indistinct homage of
all his children and as a sign of the esteem and love of them all
but, in reality, only one has paid its price.
And now the application. Jesus admires and loves the heavenly
Father. He wishes to give him every day, until the end of the world,
the most precious gift he can think of, that of his life itself. In
the Mass he invites all his "brothers," who we are, to add their
signature on the gift, so that it reaches God the Father as the
indistinct gift of all his children, "My and your sacrifice," the
priest calls it in the Orate fratres. But, in reality, we know that
only one has paid the price of such a gift. And what a price!
3. The Body and Blood
To understand the practical consequences that derive for the priest
from all this, it is necessary to keep in mind the meaning of the
word "body" and of the word "blood." In biblical language, the word
body, as the word flesh, does not indicate, as it does for us today,
a third part of the person as in the Greek trichotomy (body, soul,
mind); it indicates the whole person, in as much as he lives in a
bodily dimension. (The Word became flesh," means he became man, not
bones, muscles, nerves!). In turn, "blood" does not indicate a part
of a part of man. Blood is seat of life, that is why the effusion of
blood is the sign of death. With the word "body" Jesus has given us
his life, with the word blood he has given us his death. Applied to
us, to offer the body means to offer the time, the physical and
mental resources, a smile that is typical of a spirit that lives in
a body; to offer the blood means to offer death. Not only the final
moment of life, but all that which already anticipates death:
mortification, illnesses, passiveness, all that is negative in life.
Let us try to imagine the priestly life lived with this awareness.
The whole day, not only the moment of the celebration, is a
Eucharist: to teach, to govern, to confess, to visit the sick, also
rest and recreation, everything. A spiritual master, French Jesuit
Pierre Olivaint, said: "The morning, I priest, He victim; throughout
the day He priest, I victim: in the morning (at that time Mass was
celebrated only in the morning) I priest, He (Christ) victim; in the
course of the day, He priest, I victim. "What good a priest does,"
-- said the Holy Cure of Ars -- to offer himself to God in sacrifice
Thanks to the Eucharist, also the life of an elderly priest, sick
and reduced to immobility, is very precious for the Church. He
offers "the blood." Once I made a visit to a priest sick with a
tumor. He was preparing to celebrate one of his last Masses with the
help of a young priest. He also had an illness of the eyes, which
made him weep continuously. He said to me: I never understood the
importance of saying also in my name in the Mass: "Take, eat; take,
drink." Now I understand it. It's all that remains for me and I say
it continually thinking of my parishioners. I have understood what
it means to be "broken bread" for others.
4. At the Service of the Universal Priesthood of the Faithful
Once this existential dimension of the Eucharist is discovered, it
is the pastoral duty of the priest also to help the rest of the
people of God to live it. The Year for Priests should not be an
opportunity and a grace only for priests, but also for the laity.
Presbyterorum Ordinis affirms clearly that the ministerial
priesthood is at the service of the universal priesthood of all the
baptized, so that they "can offer themselves as living, holy, and
acceptable host to God (Romans 12:1). In fact: "It is through the
ministry of presbyters that the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful
is rendered perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ, sole
mediator; this sacrifice, in fact, by the hand of presbyters and in
the name of the whole Church, is offered in the Eucharist in a
bloodless and sacramental way, until the day of the Lord's
The constitution Lumen Gentium of Vatican II, speaking of the common
priesthood" of all the faithful, writes: "[t]he faithful, in virtue
of their royal priesthood, share in the oblation of the Eucharist...
Participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice, source and summit of the
whole Christian life, they offer to God the divine Victim and
themselves with It; thus all, whether with the oblation or with holy
communion, fulfill their own part in the liturgical action, not,
however, equally, but one in one way and another in another."
Hence, the Eucharist is the act of the whole people of God, not only
in the passive sense that it redounds to the benefit of all, but
also actively, in the sense that it is carried out with the
participation of all. The clearest biblical foundation of this
doctrine is Romans 12:1: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by
the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."
Commenting on these words of Paul, Saint Peter Chrysologus, said:
"The Apostle thus sees all men raised up to the priestly dignity to
offer their own bodies as living sacrifice. O immense dignity of the
Christian priesthood! Man has become victim and priest for himself.
He no longer seeks outside of himself what he must immolate to God,
but carries with him and in him what he sacrifices to God for
himself ... Brothers, this sacrifice is modeled on that of Christ
...Be then, O man, sacrifice and priest of God."
Let us try to see how the way of living the consecration that I have
illustrated might also help the laity to unite itself to the
offering of the priest. We have seen that the layman is also called
to offer himself to Christ in the Mass. Can he do so using the same
words of Christ: "Take, eat, this is my body"? I think nothing is
opposed to this. Do we not do the same thing when, to express our
abandonment to the will of God, we use the words of Jesus on the
cross: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit," or when, in
our trials, we repeat: "Let this chalice pass from me," or other
words of the Savior? To use Jesus' words helps to unite oneself to
his feelings. The Mexican mystic, recalled above, felt addressed
also to her, not only to her priest son, the words of Christ: "I
want you, transformed in Me by suffering, by love and by the
practice of all the virtues, to raise heavenward this cry of your
soul in union with Me: ‘This is My Body, This is My Blood."
The lay faithful must only be aware that these words said by him, in
the Mass or during the day, do not have the power to render present
the body and blood of Christ on the altar. He does not act, at this
moment, in persona Christi; he does not represent Christ, as the
ordained priest does, but he only unites himself to Christ.
Therefore, he will not say the words of consecration in a loud
voice, as the priest does, but in his own heart, thinking them, more
than pronouncing them.
Let us try to imagine what would happen if also the laity, at the
moment of the consecration, said silently: "Take, eat: this is my
body. Take, drink: this is my blood." A mother of a family thus
celebrates her Mass, then she goes home and begins her day made up
of a thousand little things. But what she does is not nothing: it is
a eucharist together with Jesus! A Sister also says in her heart at
the moment of consecration: "Take, eat ..."; then she goes to her
daily work: children, the sick, the elderly. The Eucharist "invades"
her day which becomes a prolongation of the Eucharist.
But I would like to reflect in particular on two categories of
persons: workers and young people. The eucharistic bread "fruit of
the earth and of the work of human hands," has something important
to say about human work, and not only about agricultural work. In
the process that goes from the seed sowed in the earth to the bread
on the table, industry intervenes with its machines, commerce,
transport and an infinity of other activities, in practice all human
labor. Do we teach the Christian laborer to offer in the Mass his
body and his blood, that is, his time, sweat and toil. Work will no
longer be alienating as in the Marxist view in which it finishes in
the product that is sold, but sanctifying.
And what does the Eucharist have to say to young people? Suffice it
for us to think of one thing: what does the world of boys and girls
want today? The body, nothing else but the body! The body, in the
mentality of the world, is essentially an instrument of pleasure and
exploitation. Something to be sold, to squeeze while it is young and
attractive, and then to be thrown out, together with the person,
when it no longer serves these ends. Especially the woman's body has
become merchandise of consumption. Do we teach Christian boys and
girls to say, at the moment of consecration: "Take, eat. this is my
body, offered for you." The body is thus consecrated, becomes
something sacred, it can no longer be "given to eat" to one's
concupiscence and that of others, it can no longer be sold, because
it has given itself. It has become Eucharist with Christ. The
Apostle Paul wrote to the first Christians: "The body is not meant
for immorality, but for the Lord ... So glorify God in your body" (1
Corinthians 6:13.20). And he explained immediately two ways in which
one can glorify God with one's body: either with marriage or with
virginity, according to the charism and vocation of each one (cf. 1
Corinthians 7:1 ff.).
5. With the Cooperation of the Holy Spirit
Where can, priests and laity, find the strength to make this total
giving of self to God, to set off and be raised, so to speak, from
the earth with one's own hands? The answer is: the Holy Spirit!
Christ, we heard at the beginning from the Letter to the Hebrews,
offered himself to the Father in sacrifice, "through the eternal
Spirit" (Hebrews 9:14), that is, thanks to the Holy Spirit. It was
the Holy Spirit who as he aroused in Christ's human heart the
impulse to prayer (cf. Luke 10:21), so He aroused in him the impulse
and indeed the desire to offer himself to the Father in sacrifice
In his encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Pope Leo XIII says that
"Christ accomplished every work of his, and especially his
sacrifice, with the intervention of the Holy Spirit (praesente
Spiritu)"  and in the Mass, before communion, the priest prays
saying: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who by the will
of the Father and the cooperation of the Holy Spirit (cooperante
Spiritu Sancto), by dying you gave life to the world ..." This
explains why there are two "epiclesis," in the Mass, namely two
invocations of the Holy Spirit: one, before the consecration, on the
bread and on the wine, and one, after the consecration, on the whole
Mystical Body. With the words of one of these epiclesi (Eucharistic
Prayer III), we ask the Father for the gift of his Spirit to be in
every Mass, like Jesus, priests and at the same time, sacrifice:
"May he make us an everlasting gift to you and enable us to share in
the inheritance of your saints, with Mary, the virgin Mother of God;
with the apostles, the martyrs, and all your saints, on whose
constant intercession we rely for help."
* * *
 "Presbyterorum Ordinis," 2.
 Didache, 9-10.
 Augustine, Confessions, 10, 43.
 "Eucharisticum mysterium," 3; cf. Augustine, "De Civitate Dei,"
X, 6 (CCL 47, 279).
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 2, 95 (PG 35, 497).
 Conchita. A Mother's Spiritual Diary, ed. by M.-M. Philipon, New
York, Alba House 1978, p.87
 Quoted by Benedict XVI in the Letter for the Opening of the Year
 "Presbyterorum Ordinis," 2.
 "Lumen Gentium," 10-11.
 Peter Chrysologus, Sermo 108 (PL 52, 499 f.).
 Conchita, op. cit., p. 161.
 Leo XIII, Encyclical "Divinum illud munus," 6.
© Innovative Media, Inc.
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
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