PART II: The holy Mass is that intimate and personal. It cannot be seen truly in any other way, for Jesus really is about to spill his blood for the saving of any. And here is where the sign value is as apt as possible, of one acting in persona Christi with that quintessentially progenitive but supernatural act of love. Carnal not in the lower sense, it is fully realized as generative of the real Life of bodily persons. Augustine noted that unlike food which we bodily incorporate, Christ in the eucharist incorporates us. Pax to feminists who suppose otherwise: it is His generative prerogative - essentially what maleness is - which Christ calls up from every priest to - in His presence and person - speak and act His life-giving and begetting words “take this, my body … this, my blood ”. Some sophisticates insist that after all, a woman can and does speak - for instance in marrying or baptizing another - “in the name of Christ”; in fact “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” when pouring the baptismal water.
We must note that this in nomine is not the same as in persona, for Christians generally may cast out devils in Jesus’ name without presuming to act in the person of Christ. Certainly Catholics and Orthodox do not imagine the laity can tell others their sins are forgiven “in the name of Christ”. A priest says much more in the person of Christ. The challenge has been offered, by those who’ve ventured to entertain schism, that one can nevertheless go through all the sacred actions and words of Mass “in the name of Christ”, and would He be so affronted as to not deliver that grace of which the host is an effective sign? The grace of spiritual nourishment, wholeness, purity and regeneration (for venial sins are also washed away restoring us to a baptismal state of imputed innocence where the Father deigns to look on us through the face of His Son) should be ours if we marshal all the rubrics with the right intent of giving Jesus to the masses.
But look again and see what God did to the chosen people when they decided forcibly to marshal His presence before the Philistines who’d surrounded them. The Israelites brought out the ark of the covenant and raised a mighty cry, giving pause to their enemies, as it would to legions of devils. But as one devil said to a pretender “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who the heck are you?” — and forthwith bested them. The spoiling to use God as constrained to act under an invocation or incantation is itself destined for the spiritual ruination or desolation of the spell-caster. Still, a few opponents of John Paul’s theological finding might yet protest, “well, Mary did just that on visiting Elizabeth”. The comfortably gestating cousin John started and leapt in his mother’s womb, on hearing Mary greeting her ‘in the name of the Lord’ and bringing Jesus willy nilly to their proximity. And if we respond that this was condign because Mary is the mother of Christ and of the Church, they reply ‘then she too is there being a priest’. But in reality she is acting as the mother of priests. It is true that Mary’s speech is always “in the name of the Lord” because of her complete fiat to Him. She didn’t need to say the words “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” for John to be proto-baptized as it were in his mother’s unbroken waters.
When this daughter of the Father, spouse of the Holy Spirit and mother of the Son speaks, it is assuredly in their Name, which she blesses. But is it in their person? Mary our mother begs God, at our request (and sometimes before we know we should ask), for mercy — she does not in herself confer the merciful forgiveness: that would be to deify Mary. Because of her unequalled closeness to God, we do call her ‘merciful mother’ for her pleading; but when forgiveness comes, it comes from God, handed on through her as mother of all grace. Perhaps this is where we detect a subtle misunderstanding about the role and power of a priest who forgives on hearing a confession. Even well-formed Catholics often loosely say that the forgiveness of God is passed to them through the priest. But it is more than that: the priest himself forgives, in the person of Christ: as Jesus himself there standing or sitting, speaking the words of absolution. For the origin of this sacrament was the words of the risen Lord who breathed on the apostles and conferred this power of the Holy Spirit: “whose sins you forgive are forgiven”. To forgive is God’s, and here Jesus gave them an unprecedented share in the divine. We may be misled ‘in translation’ when a priest prefaces his “I forgive you” with “by the power invested in me by holy mother Church”, for we might think his authority is to act as a sort of moderator between God and the penitent, and that it came not from God but from an organizational and doctrinal academia who gives and suspends ‘faculties’. Again, it is more than that: the Church in its God-given authority ordains the priest (that’s what he introduces by the words “invested in me”) who in that receives from God the power (the word used before “invested”) to forgive sin. When he forgives, it is guaranteed to be in the person of Christ. I like to recall the story of pope John Paul who asked a laicized priest (without faculties) to hear his confession. What was being acknowledged - licitly or illicitly is for the pharisee to judge - was that the man retained the indelible power to forgive sin in his person. He may have lacked the disciplinary authority (licitness) to go about using that power at will, but if it were me I would not doubt that any question of licitness was being suspended, for now, to minister to the soul of a holy pope (or even an unholy one). This distinction also clarifies the difference between the Church in its human imperfections and the Church in its radical holiness: she is temporally imperfect, but perfectly holy. Dwelling on earth she often fails to correspond to what Christ has made of her; and yet Christ remains her groom.
When we consider that Mary herself enjoys the most exalted place on high as Mother of the Living, Queen of Heaven and Earth (therefore of all created things seen and unseen), Queen mother of the Lord of the universe, and patroness of all priests, is it not astounding what God has given to a priest? Mary’s appeal for mercy may go so far as to lead the wayward soul to the door of a confessional. But her priests do the forgiving, just as her Son does. What’s more, Mary who says “do what He tells you” would not have it any other way. The Diaconate We can perhaps turn attention now to the apt maleness of the second major order, the diaconate, who share with priests the special calling to proclaim the Word of the Lord, in particular his holy Gospel. It is true that deacons were first elected by apostles and disciples to supplement the ministry of the Word by attending to the more or less corporal needs of widows, orphans and others in need. But we can easily gloss this to think they were not then engaged in proclaiming the Word; whereas their ministry was developed in the first place to support that very thing: proclamation of the Word. Here the word proclaim is deliberate and liturgical, not just the allegorical sense of the volumes that a disciple’s life may ‘speak’ or bear as witness. Our rising to attend to the formal proclamation of the Gospel (which we don’t do for other scriptural readings) bears testimony to the arrival of the real presence of Jesus. Again, this is a presence that excels the presence He already gave when we gathered in His name. Now what we hear will be fulfilled in our hearing. Priests and deacons can, like any other believer, do many things in nomine Christi, in His name - such as blessing our children or rebuking and dispelling the enemies of souls who make a play for them. The exorcist is in fact a stage of seminary training, a part of lower Orders reserved not exclusively to the ordained. But on proclaiming, even perhaps chanting the gospel, the priest or deacon is speaking to us in persona Christi. We are being fructified in our minds and souls by the Word, and particularly by Christ’s intent in the particular racont. If He was addressing crowds on the mount, He is addressing us. If He was turning aside stone-throwers not without sin, He is converting us. If He was challenging Nicodemus for not realizing man must be born from above, He is teaching to our lower understanding now. On the question of whether this role of gospel proclamation - the highest expression of the orders (powers) received by the deacon - is aptly or not given to women; or why it turns out to be a related theological point on which the Church may not change; we can again find help in turning to Mary to shed light firstly on what it is to ‘serve’ the Word, as compared to ‘proclaiming’ it. She did say her soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord (even ‘magnifies it’), but that was not per se a proclamation of the gospel. It was to herald it, even before Jesus’ herald was to be born: and surely John was edified. On greeting Elizabeth, Mary offers the greatest sermon ever given, her magnificat. She expostulates in powerful language foreshadowed in the Psalms and Wisdom literature, on the greatness of the Lord and what He has begun to accomplish in human history, to the glory of His Name. Thus Mary sermonizes like no-one; and yet .. a sermon is what it is. It is not - in herself - Mary’ proclamation of the saving Gospel yet to unfold. Even Jesus’ cousin John will not be doing that. The closest he would come is “behold, the Lamb of God”. Yes, all this recounting of Mary’s visit and her magnificat is proclaimed by a priest or deacon in the Gospel at various Masses and Marian days of remembrance (feasts); because it is part of what God relates to us, standing there and above all, as the Witness well pleased in His beloved daughter and the Boy in her womb. In the interior form or content, Mary is - like Zaccharias who praises God for the future of his son - a testifier, while in the voice of God, the proclaimer of what we have received even in Mary’s words, is the priest or deacon.
This point does go to the issue of what is a sermon or homily, as opposed to a Gospel proclamation. The latter is a super-natural moment of Mass, where the minister sings to us as Christ whose Spirit fills the gospel writer. In the eucharist, when a priest utters the words of Jesus at the last supper he is no longer telling the story of “what was said, by the Lord” but is actually speaking to us qua Christ. Proper form has the priest change the tone of historical recitation to a pause and then personal tone of speaking in Jesus (and Jesus in him) with full intent the words of consecration, making this my body, this my blood. Likewise of the gospel proclamation we may say with John the evangelist, “it is the Lord”. The liturgical words surrounding the ‘confecting’ words of consecration are sacred to be sure, coming from the mind of the Church; but they are not comparable in supernatural sanctity to the words we then hear. Along the same line, no great sermon can compare in sanctity to the life-giving proclamation of the Holy Gospel. In fact that is why the healthful obligation of every Catholic to assist Mass on Sunday is met only by his or her real presence at both the Eucharist and the Gospel. How intimately tied together they are might be glimpsed by considering that the Eucharist stands for the nuptial conception of an everlasting Church, and the Proclamation stands for the birth in time of the same Church at Pentecost.
Again, deacons were first chosen from among male disciples who could undertake corporal and spiritual works of mercy, also to ‘aliens’ or non-Jewish believers in their midst (for that was an extension of Jewish practice and the law). Doubtless they were aided, and even led and bettered in these tasks by devout women. It might be said that the deacon whom Mary accompanied in service to aging Elizabeth was Jesus himself, and the aid was not only corporeal but fulfilment of the preparation and birth of His herald: the fulfillment of what was spoken to Elizabeth and Zaccharias by an angel.
It bears repeating that the reason for electing and laying hands on deacons was to provide assistance to the disciples who were priests to be able to minister less distractedly to the Word. The ministration included sermons, there being great need to provide such vehicles for the Word (as paint’s linseed oil is a vehicle for the purposed pigmentation), but emphatically the primary need was and is for proclaiming the Gospel, most essentially in liturgy. Liturgy is how people would fulfil the Lord’s invitation to worship God “in spirit and in truth”, whether in Jerusalem or Jacob’s well. St. Paul made the distinction (even in writing a sermon or letter) to “preach Christ crucified”, not “by philosophy”. The latter may be good and helpful .. like possibly some of this essay .. but the former is essential: the sine qua non. Without a Gospel to proclaim in the person and authorship of Christ, even sermonizing philosophy has no end, and no salvation in it. Indeed that is the poverty of modern sophistications, whether religious or secular. Only the Gospel is the good news, and it is only to be believed if proclaimed and worked by Christ. He does that essentially in his priests and deacons, who in Him confirm (or not) what might have been preached even by a layman or laywoman.
Finally we come to another impasse for the feminist if too taken with a marxist contr-authority leitmotif. Why not, if the Gospel proclamation must be in persona Christi, have priests do that, and have deacons (who might be female) charged with serving the Word by their homiletics and preaching? The answer to a subtle question will have to be subtle too, but at least detractors should not carp that the reposte or feint to an evasion was too evasive. Preaching is the least obligatory part of Mass, and is not a supernatural moment in se (even if God often does move souls with inspired words from the likes of St. Anthony). In weekday Masses at least, it is dispensable. Nonetheless when the priest or deacon decides for a homily in the act of ‘ministering to the Word’, he should be listened to. There is no obligation to agree with everything said, which being human may not lack in error (unfortunately, like this essay). But to adapt an expression used for approved supernatural apparitions, “it is worthy of hearing”. A key reason it is worthy of hearing is, that it is normally carried out by the minister who did (or can) proclaim the Gospel now expounded. At a Sunday Mass this service to the Word is not even optional. Other scriptural readings can be cited, including passages not read that day, as well as laudable opinions of other preachers, fathers, mothers and doctors of the Church — all of which in praxis anyone can do, male or female. But again there is something most apt in hearing it in the authority or credibility of one who speaks in persona Christi when proclaiming the Gospel. Those in whom Christ speaks His word cannot lightly diminish it.
I do not purport to say that homiletics and even preaching is the ambit of higher orders only, by some theological principle. Great women, like Catherine of Siena, have had marvellously graced and enlightened opinions without which we would be much the poorer, and some who were found might have been lost. That said, even Catherine would not have argued for a woman preaching at Mass. When Jesus briefly expounded on the prophet Isaiah he’d just announced, saying “this reading is today fulfilled in your hearing” He made a sign in two directions. One: that one who speaks in His person is delivering what is said “in your hearing”, and Two: it is good that the proclaimer also be the expostulator, for in His person such a one has made the Word their own in the deepest possible sense. Therefore there are very good and apt, if not theological, reasons for limiting preaching at Mass to the priest or deacon. That said, a mission may well be preached by some other, and the time set for it normally outside of Mass.
Summation In the end, the question of male roles in the Church reduces to the aptness of who does what in the person of Christ in begetting and regenerative actions of His mystical body, no less than the does the question of female roles in the Church reduce to the aptness of who does what in the maternity of God for gestational actions of the families or domus cells of the same body. In the one, men are most apt and selected as such by God; in the other women are most apt and chosen. The theological necessity is not acknowledging a necessity in the sense of logico-philosophical constraint placed upon God; it is a recognition of what His free choice has made necessary to us. God could always have made matters otherwise; but our joy is in proclaiming the things that He has opted for, in His inscrutable wisdom. Caveat - From professional pursuit and teaching of physics I am retired, with still less formal training in theology. If years with prayerful apologetics and didactics for catechumens are credentials, innumerable others have more than me. If training in a theoretical science is hardly a credential for things eternal, at least disciplined imagination and logic, with disdain for empty speculation, can offer a reliable grounding even where we do venture to ponder in the heart. Motivated like St. Augustine for a principle that probably came from his mother, “I would that you would think in your heart”.
By: Dr. Gary Knight