Twenty-some years ago, I was flying back from speaking in the Caribbean when God suddenly decided to speak to me. Sometimes, when God invades my being so personally, I cry profusely. This was one of those times.
As we flew over the turquoise-blue water of the Bahamas, I read the life of Catherine de Hueck Doherty, foundress of Madonna House in Canada. I came to the part where her 78-year-old husband Eddie received permission to be ordained a priest in the Melkite Rite (an Eastern rite with married priests). When Eddie returned to Madonna House after his ordination, Catherine’s first words to him were: “Your blessing, Father.” Unexpectedly, her words provoked a monsoon of tears—God was answering my two-year search for the distinguishing mark of masculinity.
I know it seems odd for a woman to ponder the unique characteristic of being male, but in those days, I frequently spoke on the dignity and vocation of women (i.e., the feminine genius) and was often asked about the dignity and vocation of men. Finally, on the plane, 31,000 feet up in the air, I had a new insight: Eddie was no longer simply husband to Catherine but a priest.
This was the answer I had been seeking for over two years! The distinctive character of masculinity is not power or passivity but priestly.
Why? Why is priesthood intimately connected with masculinity? The answer to this question takes us right into the heart of the body as sacramental—as a visible sign of an invisible reality.
The masculine body structure is not arbitrary, as if the parts and shape of the male body are interchangeable with the parts and shape of the female body. They are not. The male body’s structure or “language” says something. It says, “I am made to go out of myself. I am made for an external self-offering. I am created to give my body and blood away in the beautiful act of marital union.”
Often, though, we don’t connect the masculine language of the body with priesthood. In the Old Testament, only the priest was allowed to offer the body and blood of the sacrificial animal as atonement for sin and to overcome its relationship-rupturing effects. This priestly offering reached its culmination every year on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant with the unblemished blood of the sacrificial lamb. This annual liturgy was offered on behalf of the entire community, to purify Israel from the effects of sin, and to restore the people to communion with God.
In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews describes Jesus as the Great High Priest. In one of my favorite Biblical passages about the human body, Hebrews 10:5, says of Jesus, “Sacrifices and offerings you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.” Jesus offers not the blood of bulls and goats, but his own body and blood as the Unblemished Lamb on the new Mercy Seat of the Cross to forgive our sins and restore us to communion with the Father.
The high point of the New Covenant is captured by Jesus’s priestly words at the Last Supper when he proclaims: “This is my body given up for you.” As Catholics, we are blessed to hear these liturgical words not once a year but every day in the Eucharistic liturgy.
And for men, in particular, these words capture their masculine mission—to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, the Great High Priest, by imitating the priestly language of Jesus’s body upon the cross and in the Eucharist. Every man is called to fulfill his masculine vocation by laying down his body and blood for the world’s sanctification and drawing others into holy communion with God.
But how do men do this if they’re not ordained priests? St. Paul hits the nail on the head in Ephesians 5, where he writes, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church. He gave himself up for her to make her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word, to present to himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort. Husbands should love their wives as they do their bodies.”
Without apology, St. Paul describes the spiritual priesthood of husbands and, by extension, of all men. A man exercises his spiritual priesthood when he drags his “body and blood” out of bed in the morning to pray—and then leads his family or roommates in prayer. A man is priestly when with his “body and blood,” he brings Christian ethics into his workplace, refuses to be drawn into off-color or degrading jokes, and shows honor to all women in his life. A man lives spiritual priesthood when with his “body and blood,” he resists the temptation to look at pornography or to be unfaithful to his wife (even if she’s his future wife). Priesthood, even spiritual priesthood, is very incarnational. It doesn’t take place in an ultra-spiritual, disincarnated realm but is expressed through the concrete language of the masculine body.
I saw a beautiful example of spiritual priesthood when a 30-something single man arranged a birthday brunch and hike for my roommate merely to honor her. Just yesterday, another 30-something single man rearranged his schedule to help me move a big queen-sized bed. I know a married man who makes his priestly gift of self by organizing a monthly men’s ministry in his parish. My son fulfills his spiritual priesthood every Saturday and Sunday by fathering his young daughter while his wife is at work.
Put simply, a man’s presence in the family, neighborhood, and workplace is a priestly presence. His words, attitudes, actions, and recreation ought to have one goal in mind: to sanctify himself and the world around him to lead others into holy communion with God. In this sense, spiritual priesthood and spiritual fatherhood overlap. We don’t call a priest “Master” or “Teacher” but “Father.”
A priest is a spiritual father because he is a source of Divine Life. Just as natural fathers externally give away their “body and blood” to procreate new human life, so, too, spiritual fathers lay down their “body and blood” to communicate God’s spiritual life to others. Thus, men make visible and spiritually present the priesthood of Christ and the Fatherhood of God.
In June, we have a remarkable trinity of celebrations: the Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body and Blood of Christ, June 6), the Feast of the Sacred Heart (Christ’s divine-human love for us, June 11), and Father’s Day (June 20).
Perhaps this wonderful confluence of celebrations can illuminate anew for the true self-giving nature of masculinity by reminding us of the vocation of every man—to unite spiritual priesthood (the offering of one’s body and blood for the sanctification of the world) with spiritual fatherhood (the communication of Divine Life) to bring the fire of the Father’s merciful love to the world through the burning passion of Christ’s Sacred Heart. This would truly be a holy communion.
© Katrina J. Zeno, MTS