12 Baskets Teach One Important Truth About the Priesthood

This Sunday’s Gospel makes crystal clear that the unbreakable link between the Eucharist and the priesthood is not a human invention, but is willed and intended by the Lord.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes”
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” (photo: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

This Sunday’s Gospel focuses on Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes to feed the hungry mass. The 5,000+ people who had followed Jesus needed to be fed, and Jesus tells his apostles to “give them some food yourselves.” Despairing of the crowd’s sparse resources — “five loaves and two fishes” — the Apostles throw up their hands. Jesus, however, blesses the gifts, breaks them, and “gave them to the disciples who in turn gave them to the crowds” to feed to satisfaction. Afterwards, the leftovers filled “twelve wicker baskets.”

Each of the Synoptic Gospels gives us a Eucharistic text somewhere in the middle of summer. Matthew’s text deserves special commentary this year, however, because of some troubling notions that have percolated up during the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent Mass moratorium imposed in many parts of the Catholic world.

In some influential quarters, a consistent line is being pushed that the lockdown of churches and shutdown of Mass was neither just a necessary concession to an effective public health regime (the mainline argument of bishops) nor a dereliction of the Church’s and especially the episcopate’s duty (my view). Rather, it was simply evidence of “clericalism” and the “clerical domination of the Church.” Only because the Church imposes such an (unjustified) nexus between ordained priesthood and the Eucharist were Catholics deprived of the sacrament.

That line of thinking bifurcates further. On the one hand, it veers off into a downgrading of the significance of Jesus’ Real Eucharistic Presence. It turns into “31 flavors of presence” theology, where Jesus is in the Eucharist, my neighbor, everywhere, reading the Bible, saying the Liturgy of the Hours, volunteering at a homeless shelter — any other number of works that ultimately are just expressions of a kind of gnostic, ethereal “spiritual presence” that is the only one that really matters. Boiled down to its essence, all Communion is really “spiritual Communion” and the real Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life,” is just one (maybe special, but still) “presence” among many.

On the other hand, that line of thinking also guns for delinking Eucharist and priesthood. (See here, here, here and here). The intrinsic link between both sacraments is downplayed in favor of the primacy of the “priesthood of the faithful” — notwithstanding Vatican II’s clear teaching that the ministerial and common priesthood differ qualitatively (“they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree…” Lumen gentium, no. 10). [One critic even leans to a Congregational notion of ministry—empowerment not by ordination but the call of the community. It also exhibits a depreciation, if not failure, to understand the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist: to have a sacrifice, you need a priest. It even criticizes “online” Masses — not an ideal, but a pastoral tool — by dragging out old canards about “private Masses” and the requirement of “community” for celebration of Mass.

This “ministerial leveling” is being promoted in many quarters by today’s vogue code words, especially “clericalism.” The reality is, however, that pushed far enough, many of these proponents even believe — though they many would not admit it so clearly — that they could consecrate the Eucharist on their own.

In light of that confusion, let’s look at today’s Gospel.

There are essentially three protagonists: Jesus, the Apostles, and the crowd.

Jesus has lots of followers: “five thousand men, not counting women and children.” Jesus, however, does not take counsel with them about feeding them. The disciples clearly don’t know what to do and so want to send them off on their own devices: “dismiss the crowds so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

But Jesus does not leave the crowd like “sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). He tasks his Apostles to do something for them. He tells his Apostles to “give them some food yourselves.”

The Apostles might have patted their backs for their foresight, “pastoral planning,” and stewardship, shifting the cost off their budget. That’s not what Jesus wanted of them. Jesus expects them to do something.

The crowd engages in some kind of offertory. In the parallel report of this miracle in John (6:1-15), Andrew points out “a boy” with some bread and fish.

But it’s Jesus’ Eucharistic action (the verbs mirror the consecratory prayer: “He blessed … broke … gave ….”) that multiplies the loaves, and it is clear that he expected his apostles, as alteri Christi, to do the same.

I make this point because I remember discussing this passage with an Austrian priest many years ago. Having sufficiently imbibed biblical “demythologization,” he insisted there was no miracle here. Rather, because Jesus’ care and love was so openly on exhibit, the crowd opened their picnic baskets and shared their provisions, feeding themselves and each other. Needless to say, that doesn’t sound anything like how Catholics have traditionally understood this passage, although it jibes totally with the vision of “common priesthood feeding itself” that is looking for post-COVID buyers.

Lastly, after Jesus multiplies the bread (and clearly implies his Apostles should “do this in memory of me”), he has the Apostles distribute it. [That happens with apparently no additional extraordinary ministers employed because of the “great crowd” so that “it would not take too long” — see Immensae Caritatis, no. 1. “They all ate and were satisfied,” and then he sends his Apostles as the cleanup crew, for “they picked up the fragments left over — twelve wicker baskets full.” Call me a disbeliever in random coincidence, but is there some relevance in the number of baskets of the blessed bread … and the number of Apostles?

This Sunday’s Gospel makes crystal clear that the unbreakable link between the Eucharist and the priesthood is willed and intended by the Lord and not the result of some “vast clerical conspiracy.” As we emerge from the mass shutdown of the Mass these past few months, with the appearance of notions that undermine the primacy and uniqueness of Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist and the connection between Eucharist and priesthood, let’s listen to what our Lord said.