Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Priesthood, the Eucharist—and Pelagianism

(Holy Thursday 2007: This homily was given on April 5, 2007, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2007]

Tonight, and every Holy Thursday night, the Church commemorates the anniversary of the priesthood, as well as the institution of the Holy Eucharist.

Now it’s no secret that both the priesthood and the Eucharist are greatly under-valued and under-appreciated in the world today—even by a lot of baptized, practicing Catholics. Many Catholic parents, for example, will get extremely angry and upset if they find out their son is seriously thinking about becoming a priest. What used to be considered a noble way of life—an honorable path to follow in the service of God and neighbor—is now looked upon by some as “throwing your life away.”

As for the Eucharist, most surveys show that less than 4 out of 10 American Catholics attend Mass every single week. About the same number, interestingly enough, say they believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. And of those who do come faithfully, how many of them arrive late nearly every week, half-pay attention while they’re here, and then leave right after Communion?

This lack of appreciation for the priesthood and the Mass is evident to me whenever I hear the confessions of young people, and I’m forced to listen to their excuses for not being in church every Sunday (excuses that, in most cases, they’ve learned from their parents!): “We were on vacation”; “We had to go to a birthday party”; “We were away at soccer camp”;—or the lamest excuse of all: “We were just too busy.”

Jesus made sure he instituted these two great sacraments—Holy Orders and the Eucharist—on the night before he died, even though he had a lot of other things on his mind. Obviously he thought they were EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!

But many of his modern-day disciples don’t. And it shows! Believe me, the fact that certain Catholics don’t take the Eucharist and the priesthood seriously has a direct effect—a direct, NEGATIVE effect—on their daily lives (whether they’re conscious of it or not).

I’ll give you an example of what I mean . . .

In his book, Priests for the New Millennium, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee tells the story of a prominent Jewish psychiatrist in St. Louis, Missouri, who used to take walks at night through the grounds of the local Catholic parish—the parish that Archbishop Dolan was serving in at the time as a newly ordained priest. The archbishop writes: “One night the pastor and I were taking an after-dinner stroll, and we met up with [this psychiatrist]. He asked us about an article he had recently read documenting the sharp decline in the use of the sacrament of penance, and the two of us regrettably had to agree, sharing with him some observations as to why people were no longer frequenting the sacrament. As he got to the end of the parking lot and turned to go home, he said with a chuckle, ‘Well, a decline in confession is good for my business. If that sacrament ever really caught on, I’d be out of a job. People pay me well to do what you guys do in confession, and I can’t even forgive their sins, all I can do is help them live with the results!”

People don’t take confession seriously, because they don’t take the priesthood seriously. And they suffer the consequences—sometimes even in terms of their mental health.

So why is this the case? Why are the priesthood and the Eucharist—as well as confession and the other sacraments—taken so lightly by so many?

Well here’s my theory on the matter. Others may have theirs, but this is mine: The Eucharist and the priesthood are under-valued and under-appreciated by many in the Church today, because a lot of people in the Church today are not Christians at all! They’re actually Pelagians, who embrace Pelagianism!

Pelagianism is the problem! In fact, I would say it’s so prevalent that it almost qualifies as a plague! Thus you could say that the plague of Pelagianism is the pressing problem (if you wanted to make a little alliteration).

Now I warn you: Be prepared to be misunderstood if you ever mention this subject in the presence of a writer or a journalist or a doctoral student who’s in the process writing his dissertation. The person might think you’re accusing them of stealing another author’s material. At that point you’ll have to make it clear to them that you’re not talking about “plagiarism”, you’re talking about Pelagianism, which is something very different.

So what exactly is it?

Well, very simply, Pelagianism is one of the oldest Christian heresies—one that dates back to the 5th century. It was first taught by a lay monk named Pelagius (hence the name), who didn’t believe in original sin—among other things. According to Pelagius, Adam’s sin affected only himself, not us—except by giving us a bad example to follow. And, of course, if there’s no such thing as original sin, then the logical conclusion is that you and I don’t need the grace of Christ in our souls—sanctifying grace—in order to be saved from eternal death. We can, in effect, save ourselves. So according to Pelagius, Jesus didn’t die on the cross to bring us the grace we need to get into heaven. All he did was give us a good example to follow, like Adam gave us a bad example to follow. Jesus didn’t save us, because he didn’t need to save us. We ultimately can save ourselves by being good through our own natural powers.

Like most heresies, Pelagianism never really died. And it certainly isn’t dead in our day and age. In fact, I’m convinced that many Catholics—perhaps even the vast majority of Catholics—are really Pelagians in terms of what they believe about grace and salvation.

For example, ask a Catholic on the street, “Why should God let you into heaven when you die?” and see what kind of answer you get. See if the person even mentions Jesus Christ and grace in his response! I think he’s far more likely to say, “God should let me into heaven because I’m a good person” or “God should let me into heaven because I do many works of charity” or “God should let me into heaven because I say my prayers and keep all the rules of the Church”—as if he can merit heaven by his own natural ability and power.

That, my brothers and sisters, is Pelagianism! It’s not Christianity! According to the teaching of the Church that goes back to the apostles, the only reason God will let us into heaven when we die is because we have the grace of Jesus Christ in our soul!—the grace that Jesus died on the cross to give us, namely sanctifying grace! It’s not because we’re nice, and do good things, and say a lot of prayers—although all of that is important for helping us REMAIN in the state of grace and grow in holiness.

But we cannot save ourselves!

Do you see the connection with the priesthood and the Eucharist?

The connection is this: If Pelagius was right, and I can save myself simply by being a nice guy, then why do I need the priesthood? And why do I need the Eucharist? In fact, why do I need the baptism and confession and all the other sacraments? The answer is, I don’t! I can get to heaven through my own natural ability and power. So every once in awhile I might go to Mass and say a few prayers and maybe even go to confession to make myself feel good, but I know I don’t really need those things. They don’t provide me with anything that I can’t get completely on my own!

That’s how Pelagians think—and we have many of them in the Church today.

On the other hand, if I understand that I am saved only by grace—the grace Jesus won for me by his passion, death and resurrection—then I know how important the priesthood is! I know that the priest, although a sinner, is God’s anointed instrument for bringing me the grace I need to get into heaven—sanctifying grace—and for restoring that grace to me in the sacrament of confession if I lose it through mortal sin. And I know how much I need the Eucharist, because the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ: the Jesus Christ who saves me from sin and eternal death, and who strengthens me every day to remain faithful to him.

I read a story the other day about a surgeon in a Catholic hospital, who one day performed a very serious operation on the mother of a priest. After the surgery, the doctor took the family aside, to tell them the good news that the priest’s mother would be okay. As soon as he finished, a voice came over the hospital’s P.A. system: “Mass begins in the chapel in ten minutes.”

At that point the surgeon said to the family, “Excuse me; that’s my cue. I have to go. If I don’t make Mass, I’m not much good for the day.”

Based on that story, I think it’s safe to say that that particular surgeon is NOT a Pelagian! He’s a Christian; he’s a Catholic Christian through and through! He knows he needs the grace of God not only to be saved—but even to do the good things he does for others in the operating room.

Dear Lord, please fill our hearts with that same knowledge and understanding on this Holy Thursday night, so that we will have a deeper appreciation for the gift of the Holy Eucharist, and for the gift of the priesthood. Amen.