3rd Sunday of Easter – The Eucharist Builds the Church

Walk to Emmaus, Frank Wesley from Art in the Christian Tradition. Source: Estate of Frank Wesley

Walk to Emmaus, Frank Wesley
from Art in the Christian Tradition. Source: Estate of Frank Wesley

But they urged [Jesus], “Stay with us,
for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.”
So he went in to stay with them.
And it happened that, while he was with them at table,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and gave it to them.
With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him,
but he vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other,
“Were not our hearts burning within us
while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”
(Luke 24:30–32)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on Church Fathers’ Teachings
Third Sunday of Easter
St. Clement of Rome: Letter to the Corinthians
April 23, 2023

In 2019. the Pew Research Center published a survey which indicated that only 31 percent of American Catholics believed that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus at Mass.

Like all surveys, this is open to many interpretations but nonetheless reveals that Catholics do not know what the church teaches about the Eucharist. The American Bishops responded by promoting a nationwide Eucharistic revival. We will be participating in this on June 11th with a deanery celebration of Mass (see the announcement in this week’s parish email).

Anything which encourages a greater love of the Eucharist is to be embraced and I hope that St. Charles’ participation will be robust. There has been much material produced for the revival, some of it very good. The church’s teaching on the Eucharist is too broad and deep to be easily transmitted and I will spend the weeks before June 11th reviewing aspects of our Eucharistic beliefs and practices which have not been generally emphasized. Most of these insights will be from the Church Fathers. These are the great theologians from the 1st to the 6th centuries from both the East and Western churches. Their great value is that they will teach not only what we believe but how that belief should change our lives and that of our communities.

We will begin this week with St. Clement of Rome’s “Letter to the Corinthians.” We have encountered the Corinthians before in the letters of St. Paul. Like most of the cities Paul evangelized, Corinth was a trading center which attracted many kinds of people. The church may have begun with a strong Jewish base but had added many gentiles. They were enthusiastic but as they did not have sufficient formation in Judaism, they revealed ill-founded assumptions. We saw this in their ideas about morality, the afterlife, and worship. There was also the underlying class assumption that the upper classes were to lead in every area even religion. This was held even by many of the “lower” classes.

Paul was able to mend many divisions in the Corinthian church but the belief that human social position should determine who had positions of authority in the church remained. We see this in Clement’s letter written about 97 AD. Clement is often considered to be the 4th Bishop of Rome and thus Pope. This is at best imprecise. The Roman church was governed by a group. These may or may not have been all ordained. Clement functioned either as the chairman of the board or its corresponding secretary. In any event, he could speak for the entire church.

We do not know if the Corinthian church wrote to the Roman church for advice or if the Roman church wrote directly to them because of rumors they had heard about its situation.

OWING to the sudden and repeated misfortunes and calamities which have befallen us, we consider that our attention has been somewhat delayed in turning to the questions disputed among you, beloved, and especially the abominable and unholy sedition, alien and foreign to the elect of God, which a few rash and self-willed persons have made blaze up to such a frenzy that your name, venerable and famous, and worthy as it is of all men’s love, has been much slandered

(Letter of Clement to the Corinthians 1:1)

Notice that Clement does not only consider it his right to fraternally correct the Corinthians, but he apologizes that he has been tardy in doing so. He is clearly saying that the damage has been done by a few people for personal reasons but there are also doctrinal considerations for which we need some background.

Ancient religions presumed that sacrifices created and sustained relationships with the Gods. We do not and most weeks we will need to examine assumptions which may seem exotic to us but would have been part of the ancient background. When a Gentile became either a Jew or a Christian, he or she would expect that sacrifices would be offered. The question was by and to whom.

Clement tells the Corinthians that all sacrifices are made by Jesus to the Father:

THIS is the way, beloved, in which we found our salvation, Jesus Christ, the high priest of our offerings, the defender and helper of our weakness. “Who, being the brightness of his majesty is by so much greater than angels as he hath inherited a more excellent name”

(Clement, 36:1-2)

Since the time of Moses, the Jews had a hereditary priesthood which from the time of Solomon would offer the sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem. Not only has the temple been destroyed but as only the sacrifice of Jesus matters the Jewish priesthood was no longer relevant even for Jewish born adherents. Who then offers the sacrifice, who then are the priests?

SINCE then these things are manifest to us, and we have looked into the depths of the divine knowledge, we ought to do in order all things which the Master commanded us to perform at appointed times. He commanded us to celebrate sacrifices and services, and that it should not be thoughtlessly or disorderly, but at fixed times and hours. He has himself fixed by his supreme will the places and persons whom he desires for these celebrations, in order that all things may be done piously according to his good pleasure, and be acceptable to his will. So then those who offer their oblations at the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed, for they follow the laws of the Master and do no sin.

(Clement, 40)

Clement reminds the Corinthians that the Christian sacrifice is offered by priests who have been chosen by God for good order and sound worship. Although the situation of leadership is still fluid in the church, the person who presides at the Eucharist will always have great importance and visibility. The Corinthians, reflecting a common bias, in their time more honestly held, would want the most prestigious to represent them. Clement is telling them that they do not represent them but act for Jesus. We will see this develop over time.

The Corinthians evidently removed priests (presbyters) for insufficient reasons, most likely related to class and education.

For we see that in spite of their good service you have removed some from the ministry which they fulfilled blamelessly

(Clement, 44:6)

Clement wrote several more chapters about how deadly this is because it steals God’s prerogative to choose his priests. This is the origin of vocation. A priest is called by divine wisdom not elected by human calculation. Many times, in the history of the church this has been violated and excess sons were “given to the church” as priests and if of the upper classes were made bishops. Some of these men were excellent but overall, the results were disastrous. Clement shows that this temptation was present from the beginning.

Given the severe shortage of priests there is a tendency to emphasize the functions of the priest and consider ordaining people to say Mass, hear confessions, and anoint the sick. Yet we see Clement at the very beginning of the church reminding people that the priest is not a functionary but a minister who is accepting a way of life, not a job. No one should be ordained to the priesthood just to “do priestly stuff”.

We also see in Clement that Church order was not set in stone. How a man called to the priesthood lives this life and the church structures which support it change over time. It usually means that some elements are cut away or reevaluated. The Eastern rites have shown us that marriage is not incompatible with the priesthood and common sense should tell us that a priest need not and perhaps should not be the Parish CEO. The development of the deacons in the early church to administer the temporalities was a positive insight which has now been revived and expanded. Special promise is shown in officially installed lay ministers.

Changes will come to the church both major and soon, but our first lesson is that because the sacrifice of the Eucharist is the way we as Christians create our relationship—form our covenant—with God these changes will derive from our celebration of the Eucharist. It has been well and often said that the Eucharist builds the Church. By our actions we will decide if the church of the future, both Universal and at St. Charles Borromeo, will be built on the sand of the world or like Clement’s on the rock of the Eucharist.