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The Priest is the Sacrament of Christ the Bridegroom

by on June 24, 2015

The seminary begins with Christ. The eminent Church historian, Fr. John Tracy Ellis, began his Essays in Seminary Education saying that the first seminary started with the calling of the first apostles by the Sea of Galilee resulting in three years of fellowship with Christ when “they received their education for the priesthood that he conferred on them at the Last Supper.” The seminary is the Church’s education into the ordained priesthood of Christ.

The etymological roots of a word say a lot about the essence of whatever that word hopes to communicate. For our purposes, let’s take the word seminary. Etymologically, it comes from the Latin word (seminarium) which means seedbed.  This agricultural connotation with education for the priesthood is fitting for several reasons.

First of all, Jesus uses many agricultural parables to explain our growth into the Kingdom of God that, in the end, is a Kingdom of Priests (Rev. 1:6). In that parable a sower went out to sow and his seed fell on diverse ground:

“…Some fell by the way side, and the birds of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, did yield fruit that sprang up and increased.”

The seminary is a seedbed with good soil. While each person’s heart is a seedbed in that they are responsible for receiving the Word, the seminary is a particular seedbed for men who might be called to the ordained priesthood. Like all disciples, each seminarian hopefully grows in his receptivity of the Word.

Secondly, the agriculture connotation of ‘seminary’ is fitting because seminarians are on their way towards Holy Orders. This on the way-ness implies a dynamic movement of a thing towards a fitting destination. An acorn cannot be properly understood in separation from the tree to which it is growing and maturing. All natural realities are like this ­- even the cosmos when viewed eschatologically. Any biologist will tell you that there is both a dynamic and static quality to being. In fact, a biological perspective is helpful when understanding the dynamics of the Christian life (CCC 1211). And since the seminary brings the Christian life into relief, biological metaphors are fitting in attempting to understand the seminary. This might help in understanding the ‘already but not yet’ dimension of the seminary. All the sacraments partake in this dimension. For example, in the sacrament of matrimony spouses give themselves entirely over to each other but yet they have a lifetime give themselves completely. Repetition is not a boring cycle but a deepening into the depths of love. But regarding seminarians and their hopeful movement into Holy Orders, it is important not to see this endpoint as a static destination. The journey that a seminarian undertakes does not end with ordination but is a foretaste of the dynamic he will live the rest of his life as a priest. Once ordained ‘the journey’ that he experiences in the seminary never leaves him. It summons him to enter more fully into the reality in which he now has his being. Just as the Apostles continued to follow Christ in a similar manner even after their three years of fellowship with him before the Last Supper, so the priest never truly leaves the seminary behind because he is always following the Lord.

Thirdly, agriculture has always been associated with sacrifice and festivity, particularly in relation to matrimony. Some theologians suggest that the proper lens through which to see salvation history is that of a wedding feast where God weds himself to all of mankind in His Bride, the Church.[1] The bridal consent of Mary makes this possible.[2] But before exploring this nuptial dimension of the seminary, it is important to further ponder why the seminary is a preparation for partaking in the sacrifice of Christ. As the one offering the sacrifice, the priest makes possible the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).

Creation has often been compared to a fruitful mother. Take wheat: it is the source of great good. It is harvested for the sake of bread, a further good which yields the even greater good of companionship and festivity.[3] The realization of these goods depends upon the sacrifice of the wheat (ground into flour and passing through fire). This is how it becomes the source of festivity and companionship. Reflection upon this phenomenon reveals how extraordinary the ordinary truly is. But how does this relate to the seminary?

Many theologians have done great work retrieving the inherent nuptial symbolism of the Gospels, especially in John. The Church Fathers, particularly Origen, stressed this. Through the Resourcement efforts of the past century (primarily through De Lubac, Balthasar, Wojtyla, and Ratzinger), we have recovered this nuptial interpretative strand, and it has yielded great insight. For example, Genesis reveals a nuptial attribute to the human person by saying that each person only fulfills himself/herself by making a sincere gift of self to another.[4] This gift (oblation) of themselves, paradoxically, fulfills “the meaning of his being and his existence.”[5] Thus, nuptiality is part and parcel of biblical anthropology.

Let us apply this nuptial attribute to the priesthood, since the priesthood also is part biblical anthropology – Adam was seen as the first high priest. Cardinal Ouellet has said that the priest, like St. John the Baptist and the Apostles, is called to be a forerunner and “friend of the Bridegroom” (Jn. 3:29).  St. John the Baptist was of a priestly class. With this in mind, the seminary is the place where a man grows in intimate relation to the Bridegroom (Christ) so as to sacramentally give him to his Bride, the Church, who longs for the coming of her Bridegroom (Song of Songs). As such, the seminarian is not being trained to be a functionary or an organizer. Essentially, he is formed to serve Christ’s Bride, the Church, offering Her the Bridegroom in the Sacrifice of the Mass. This is the gift Christ gave to his Apostles as his friends (Jn. 15:15). Everything the seminary does is in preparation for this gift of the Eucharist. Cardinal Ouellet says that the seminarian who will be a priest “must understand himself within the sacramental order. He is the sacrament of Christ the Bridegroom.” Even Pastores Dabo Vobis affirms this.

Another aspect to consider is St. John the Baptist’s pivotal words about his identity: “He must increase, but I must decrease”. While we are all called to this spiritual kenosis, the priest does this so as to let the Bridegroom come to His Bride, the Church. Like the kernel of wheat that falls to the ground and bears much fruit, the priest must die to himself so that the fecundity of the sacraments will help his Bride flourish.

The stated mission of Mundelein Seminary is to “form priests for the New Evangelization.” Another way of viewing this is by seeing it as an invitation “to prepare the way to welcome the Lord, to straighten the crooked paths of their lives through a radical conversion.”[6] Conversion is the beginning of the New Evangelization; and, like St. John the Baptist, the priest is sent to proclaim this message to the Bride (Israel) so that She may be ready for the coming of the Bridegroom (cf. Jn. 1;6; Mt. 25:1-13). Not only is he sent to proclaim this message, the priest is sent to bear witness of the Light.[7] The method of the New Evangelization is not principally to create new tools and mediums for spreading the Gospel. Rather, it is to form messengers who give witness to Christ, the Lord, and encourage others to follow Him and dwell with Him, finding the fullness of their desires, and, hence, their true identities that only the Lord gives. What a mission!

In conclusion, let’s focus on why Mundelein’s Chapel of the Immaculate Conception brings this all together. Dr. Denis McNamara has observed that this chapel is adorned like a Bride on her wedding day. The chapel is like a bridal chamber where the Bride anticipates the coming of the Bridegroom. Through the Eucharist the Bridegroom comes to his Bride. This nuptial symbolism is fitting for a seminary chapel. Thus, our seminarians will be sent forth to be priests who find their place within the Biblical narrative and the sacramental order (best seen in the Song of Song); and, like Saint John the Baptist (the Forerunner of Christ), they will proclaim the coming of the Bridegroom to His Bride.

[1] Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, issued by the CDF, on 31, May 2004. “God makes himself known as the Bridegroom who loves Israel his Bride.”

[2] Kerr, Fergus. Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians, 136.

[3] Etymologically companionship is related to the breading of bread as seen in Homer’s Odyssey.

[4] Pope John Paul II, General Audience of 6 June, 1984.

[5] Letter, par. 6.

[6] Benedict XVI, Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. 29 August 2012

[7] Ibid.; Origen, Commentary on John, Bk. II, 30.