The Eucharist and Priesthood were born during the Last Supper

Homily for Holy Thursday

by Fr. Tommy Lane

Today we thank Jesus for giving us the Eucharist and the priesthood. Both the Eucharist and the priesthood “were born” during the Last Supper and the two sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders are so closely linked because without the priesthood we would have no Eucharist. I would like to begin by sharing some thoughts of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II from his Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2004.

Pope John Paul II writes about the priesthood originating during the Last Supper, “At the Last Supper we were born as priests…” (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2004 §1) Then he continues to write about the connection between the priesthood and the Eucharist, saying that priests were born from the Eucharist,

“We were born from the Eucharist. If we can truly say that the whole Church lives from the Eucharist…we can say the same thing about the ministerial priesthood: it is born, lives, works and bears fruit “de Eucharistia.” There can be no Eucharist without the priesthood, just as there can be no priesthood without the Eucharist.” (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2004 §2)

You see priests involved in many different activities. No matter what type of good work a priest does the highpoint of the priest’s ministry is celebrating the Eucharist. It is the most important moment of the day for the priest. And so the Pope writes,

“The ordained ministry…enables the priest to act in persona Christi and culminates in the moment when he consecrates the bread and wine, repeating the actions and words of Jesus during the Last Supper.” (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2004 §2)

Before this extraordinary reality we find ourselves amazed and overwhelmed, so deep is the humility by which God “stoops” in order to unite himself with man! If we feel moved before the Christmas crib, when we contemplate the Incarnation of the Word, what must we feel before the altar where, by the poor hands of the priest, Christ makes his Sacrifice present in time? We can only fall to our knees and silently adore this supreme mystery of faith. (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2004 §2)

The Pope reminds us of the importance to pray for vocations so that priests may never be lacking to the Church. This reminds us of the huge sacrifices that some people down through the history of the Church have made to protect priests during times when they were endangered by anti-Catholic laws. One such person who paid with her life for protecting priests is St. Margaret of York.

Margaret Midleton was born in York, England, around 1556. Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558. The vast majority of English people were Catholic and wished to remain Catholic. When the new queen threatened to destroy the Catholic Church, they shrugged their shoulders and waited for it to all blow over. It took several years for them to realize, when it was too late, that if they wanted to retain their faith, they must be ready to suffer for it. Any similarities with now? The law clearly stated that the Mass was outlawed and the whole population was ordered to attend the new Protestant services. The Middleton family accepted the new religion and the Queen as the head of the church. Margaret married a Protestant, John Clitherow, at the age of 18, and at the age of 21 Margaret once again became Catholic and professed her faith and allegiance to the Pope. Throughout their marriage John paid her fines for not attending Protestant church services and he allowed Margaret to bring up their children as Catholics and was very careful not to know if the forbidden Catholic Mass was being celebrated in his house. John made things as easy as he could for his wife. He was careful to ignore that Father Mush was a frequent visitor and obviously celebrating Mass for Margaret and her friends. Margaret was a loving wife and mother. She was disturbed by John’s protestations of faith in the Queen’s religion but she still loved him dearly. John said that he could wish for no better wife and she had only two faults, “she fasted too much and would not go with him to church.” Her home became one of the most important hiding places for Catholic priests in all of England. The house had a secret cupboard where the vestments, wine and the altar breads were kept. It also had a “priest’s hole” where priests could be hidden. On March 10 1586 the Clitherow’s home was raided. The searchers found everything, where the Mass was celebrated, the vestments, and the altar breads. They carried off the incriminating evidence. By now the Clitherow’s had three children, the oldest was studying in France to be a priest, and when Margaret was taken away from her home that day and thrown into prison her two younger children never saw her again. Subsequently the young boy went on to become a priest and the young girl a Sister. On her third day in prison her husband was allowed to visit her, their last meeting. On March 14 Margaret was brought before the judges in Common Hall in York. Her indictment was read and she was asked how she pleaded. In answer she said, “I know of no offence whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offence, I need no trial.” On the next morning she was taken back to the Common Hall. The judge reminded her that under the law of Queen Elizabeth, when an accused person refused to make a plea and stand trial before a jury, the accused would be sentenced to what was called “peine forte et dure.” This involved the accused lying naked on the stone floor of an underground cell with a door laid over them and heavy stones piled on the door. Further weights were piled on the door until the accused was crushed to death. Margaret refused to make a plea or to stand trial and the judge sentenced that she should be crushed to death for having “harbored and maintained Jesuits and seminary priests, traitors to the Queen’s majesty and her laws.” Ten days later on March 25th 1586 she was executed by crushing. Before her execution she was asked to pray for the Queen, and she did pray for the Queen, she prayed that the Queen would become a Catholic! The executioners placed the board upon her and the huge stones on top. Within a quarter of an hour she was dead. They left the body under the door from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon. They then buried her body in some waste ground, where they hoped it would never be found. It was Good Friday. She was left beneath the board from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon and they buried her body in waste ground hoping it would never be found again. Pope Paul VI canonized her in 1970 and gave her the title “Pearl of York.” Her home, 26 The Shambles, York, has become a place of pilgrimage visited by thousands each year. She is called a martyr of the Eucharist because she was executed for protecting priests and making it possible for them to celebrate Mass. It is through the faith and courage of people like Margaret in this country also that we are able to celebrate the Eucharist here today.

Both the Eucharist and the priesthood “were born” during the Last Supper. Today we thank Jesus for giving us the Eucharist and the priesthood during the Last Supper. As Pope John Paul II wrote,

Before this extraordinary reality we find ourselves amazed and overwhelmed, so deep is the humility by which God “stoops” in order to unite himself with man! If we feel moved before the Christmas crib, when we contemplate the Incarnation of the Word, what must we feel before the altar where, by the poor hands of the priest, Christ makes his Sacrifice present in time? We can only fall to our knees and silently adore this supreme mystery of faith. (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2004 §2)

(A much fuller account of Margaret Clitherow’s martyrdom is published in the The Homiletic & Pastoral Review April 1994.)

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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