The life of the late Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan (1928-2002) was a true and well-credentialled witness to the words of the late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II: "We were born from the Eucharist. If we can say the whole Church lives from the Eucharist, as I affirmed in my recent Encyclical, we can say the same thing about the ministerial priest ... There is no Eucharist without priesthood, just as there can be no priesthood without the Eucharist".
Cardinal Thuan has been widely venerated as a martyr of the Catholic faith, his life a living testimony to the call of God. As he put it in his memoir, The Road of Hope: "To respond 'yes' is easy, but see how the Lord followed his call up to his death on the Cross. You must deny yourself, carry your cross every day, and nail yourself to that cross."
Cardinal Thuan spent 14 years in a Vietnamese prison, nine of them in solitary confinement, for the crime of being a Catholic bishop. His life is a modern day testimony to how precious the Eucharist was to himself, both as priest and prisoner. In this year of the Eucharist the Cardinal's life is worthy of reflection to appreciate the gifts of both the Eucharist and priesthood in the life of the Church community.
For many years his church was a prison cell, his assembly of people, fellow prisoners. Yet the Eucharist was celebrated just as if it were in St Peter's Basilica in Rome.
The late Cardinal's sister tells the story of a gift her brother presented to her after his release from prison: a faded candy box which had served as "his precious Catholic Vietnamese altar" during his 14 years in jail.
This tiny, faded box contained two photographs of the family, two small jars used to contain the altar wine and the hosts, as well as old handkerchiefs used for altar cloth and purificator. These simple items were the means that sustained the Cardinal in the celebrating of the Eucharist.
He did not have all the sacramentals to help in prison; what he did have was far more precious - a "rock solid Catholic faith in the Eucharist and his priesthood".
After the consecration at Mass the priest proclaims: "Mysterium fidei", for the Eucharist is the mystery of faith and also the priesthood is a mystery. It is the same mystery of sanctification and love, through the Holy Spirit, that makes the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ which is also bestowed upon the person of the future minister at the moment of priestly ordination.
There is an interplay between the Eucharist and priesthood, since the two sacraments were born together and are indissolubly linked. This was witnessed to in the imprisoned life of Cardinal Thuan, when the grace of the Eucharist sustained him in his faith and the love of his priesthood and family.
If this were not so why would he take such great risks to celebrate the Eucharist and minister to his fellow prisoners? Pope John Paul II wrote: "The Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth [and] is truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 8).
In The Road of Hope, Cardinal Thuan wrote of the strengthening effect of the Eucharist: "In the solitude of the desert, in the darkness of the prison, turn to those altars throughout the world where Christ offers himself as a sacrifice; offer yourself as a sacrifice and commune in thought. Your heart will overflow with courage and solace".
The Church continues "to be taught, sanctified and guided by the Apostles until Christ's return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of Bishops assisted by priests, in union with the Successor of Peter".
Succession to the Apostles in the pastoral mission necessarily entails the Sacrament of Holy Orders. As the Second Vatican Council taught, "The faithful, indeed, by virtue of their royal priesthood, participate in the offering of the Eucharist", while it is the ordained priest who, "by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly people; in the person of Christ he effects the Eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people" (Lumen Gentium, 10).
God's gifts of the Eucharist and the priesthood will continue to be essential for sustaining the Church's spiritual life until the end of time.
Fr Dennis W. Byrnes is the parish priest in Kempsey, NSW.