4 In BEM the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches called the Eucharist ‘the central act of the Church’s worship’ (‘Eucharist’, 1). In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Vatican II described the Eucharist as ‘the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed’ and ‘the fountain from which all her power flows’ (SC 10).

Baptism, along with the priestly identity it confers, involves being assimilated to the suffering and death of Christ (Rom. 6: 3–4). The Eucharist, inasmuch as it means ‘proclaiming the death of Christ until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11: 26), can be described as a self-involving appropriation of the cross of Christ or a sharing in Christ’s death in order to share in his life. The event of the cross constitutes the corporate and individual identity of Christians and shapes the exercise of their common priesthood.


It was not only at the Last Supper but also earlier (during his ministry) and later (after his resurrection) that Christ called and ‘established’ some of his disciples as priestly ministers who would share in a special way in his priesthood for the service of his community and the world. Christ, the supreme embodiment of priesthood, exercised his priesthood before the Last Supper and in his risen glory after his suffering and death. Likewise, before the Last Supper he called from the wider group of disciples a core group of Twelve and, through a trial mission, associated them with his priestly work of preaching and healing (Mark 3: 13–19; 6: 7–13 parr.). After his resurrection, as Matthew 28, Luke 24, John 20–1, and Acts 1 illustrate, he definitively commissioned and sent them, as well as (with the Father) empowering them with the Holy Spirit for their mission. In the sixteenth century the Council of Trent taught that Christ’s institution of ministerial priesthood coincided with his institution of the sacrifice of the Mass (DzH 1740, 1752, 1764; ND 1546, 1556, 1707). But it did not teach that the institution of ministerial priesthood coincided totally with Christ’s institution of the Eucharist. If the core group of the Twelve are taken to embody initially the ministerial priesthood, did Christ ‘establish’ them in that role merely during a few minutes at the Last Supper and even merely with the words ‘do this in remembrance of me’?

To be sure, the Last Supper was a (or even the) defining moment in their being initiated into a priestly office by Christ. But all the moments, which make up the full story of his sharing with them his priesthood, included what came before the Last Supper and what followed afterwards. Only an impoverished view of their ministerial initiation would ignore what Christ shared and did with the Twelve earlier and later than their final meal together. Trent, as we saw, in defending the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, concentrated on the cultic side of priesthood and remained silent about the inseparable prophetic and pastoral offices. By expounding a richer view of priesthood as including preaching the Word of God and pastoral ministry, Vatican II set the ordained ministry in a context which included, but went beyond, cultic ministry. This richer view of priesthood requires us to rethink seriously the series of events through which Christ inducted a select group of his disciples into sharing in his priesthood. What, then, of those who succeed the Twelve and the wider group of New Testament apostles (e.g. Paul) by sharing in Christ’s priesthood through an ordained ministry?