Father, Receive These Gifts

Pope Francis, in his 2016 annual meeting of the pontifical academies, called for local parishes to be “oases of beauty, peace, acceptance.” This is consistent with the Church being “Mother of us all” (Gal 4:26) — a place where all can be fed, carried, and comforted (Is 66:10–13). Surely we can agree that the Church and each local church is called to be a vehicle of God’s love, serving the needs of its local community and evangelizing citizens, radiating forth the beauty of God’s love. We might say that the mission of the local church is to communicate the beauty of God’s love so that others may be drawn to Jesus. While some parishes fulfill this mission, others struggle to maintain a vibrant parish life; still others have a vibrant community of parishioners but struggle to serve the needs of their local communities. How can more parishes fulfill their mission to be oases of beauty?

Today’s parish priests are pulled in many directions, with responsibilities ranging from tending to the needs of the Church building; to coordinating efforts for baptisms; and to ensuring adequate financial revenue. Yet among the priest’s countless duties lies the deepest essence of his vocation — the offering of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. While countless individuals are capable of securing parish finances, ordering flowers for Easter Sunday, and booking the painters for the lower church, only the priest can act in the person of Christ and offer the laity’s gifts to God the Father. With proper collaboration — or, more precisely, communion — between the priest and the lay parishioners, the parish can truly become a source of life-giving love and beauty in its local neighborhood.

Receptivity of Gifts

A priest lives in a state of consecrated celibacy in imitation of Christ, thus availing himself as a spiritual father to those entrusted to his care. It is essential that the priest maintain an exceptional availability to parishioners and local non-Catholics who live within the parish boundaries who may come to their priest with an offering of their unique gifts, talents, and desires — an inspiration to do something either for the parish or for those outside the parish community. The laity, for example, may offer to organize Eucharistic Adoration, a weekly praise and worship service, an open mic night for the neighborhood, or a neighborhood clean-up day. They may start local businesses such as a café, laundry mat, or tutoring service. Such local businesses have potential to serve local needs while also contributing financially to the parish. Other lay persons might offer their gift of creative writing — the desire to communicate the mysteries of faith through poetry. God has called each by name (Is 43:1) and thus the diversity of gifts is expansive; yet each one is “given for some benefit” (1 Cor 12:7).

How can these gifts harmonize, fulfilling the needs of the Church while evangelizing local culture? A fruitful harmony of gifts is made possible through the priest who unites the faithful together in one body1 — through the Liturgy of the Eucharist and simultaneously in daily life. Although the priest is consumed with countless responsibilities, it is most essential that he remain available and open to receive the offerings and desires of his people, which often are so intricately woven through the person and anima (Latin) — defined by the Oxford Latin Dictionary as air, breath, soul, and life. Allowing the offering of these gifts is essential to the spiritual health of the lay persons as well as that of the Church. When the priest receives such offerings, the Word of God falls “on rich soil, [producing] fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold” (Mt 13:8).

St. Pope Paul VI’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests supports this view, instructing:

[Priests] must work together with the lay faithful, and conduct themselves in their midst after the example of their Master, who among men “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life as redemption for many” (Mt 20:28). Priests must sincerely acknowledge and promote the dignity of the laity and the part proper to them in the mission of the Church. And they should hold in high honor that just freedom which is due to everyone in the earthly city. They must willingly listen to the laity, consider their wants in a fraternal spirit, recognize their experience and competence in the different areas of human activity, so that together with them they will be able to recognize the signs of the times. While trying the spirits to see if they be of God, priests should uncover with a sense of faith, acknowledge with joy and foster with diligence the various humble and exalted charisms of the laity. . . . Likewise, they should confidently entrust to the laity duties in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom and room for action; in fact, they should invite them on suitable occasions to undertake worlds on their own initiative.2

Paul VI’s words here cannot be taken lightly. He asks priests to “willingly listen to the laity” and recognize . . . their competence.” He asserts that priests should “foster . . . the charisms” of the laity. Thus the priest does not passively listen, but rather engages in an active discernment, with an openness even to allowing the laity to “undertake worlds of their own initiative.” These bold assertions suggest that the priest is truly a receiver of gifts, allowing the Spirit to work through the laity, even when such work extends beyond the parish’s apparent needs.

St. John Paul II strengthens Paul’s words, asking priests to engage in a “fruitful cooperation with the lay faithful, always respecting and fostering the different roles, charisms and ministries present within the ecclesial community.”3 Thus through an attentiveness to the unique gifts given to the laity, the priest is facilitator of the building up of “unity of the Church community in the harmony of diverse vocations, charisms and services.” Through “fruitful cooperation” between the priest and the laity, the local parish can truly become an oasis of beauty, where local needs are met through a variety of creative offerings.

Paul VI mentions the “signs of the times” likely because the laity may offer a unique perspective on the current culture. While some religious have strikingly difference circumstances than the vast majority of citizens, the lay faithful may have a unique understanding of the needs of the times. They may, for example, understand the college student’s doubts and long to address such doubts through an evangelical talk on faith and science. They may understand a family’s struggle to ensure health insurance coverage on limited income, and be able to provide financial consultation. They may understand a family’s need to have access to clean, safe parks where their children can play; and they may long to facilitate a local neighborhood clean-up. When the lay person comes to the priest with such desires, it is essential that the priest listen, receive, and even encourage the individual in his unique calling.

The priest and the parish not only benefit from the offering of these gifts, but, I would assert, both the priest and the life of the parish actually depend upon these offerings. There may be only one or a few priests living at a particular parish. They cannot do everything on their own; in their poverty of time, they must depend upon the participation of others, inviting them to come, and give. The parish cannot thrive with only priests taking an active role; but rather only with an immense reception of the laity’s gifts, can the parish become an instrument of beauty, serving the needs of local residents, communicating God’s love through the arts, and evangelizing culture.

Finally, the priest is called to share in a “hierarchical communion with the order of bishops,”4 and in this way, promote “harmony and apostolic cooperation on the part of both branches of the clergy, the Religious, and the laity.”5 Thus not only the local Church but also, at times, the universal Church, depends upon local offerings of the laity. It is essential that the priest communicate relevant inspirations on behalf of the lay faithful to the hierarchy of the Church. Certain inspirations may be relevant not only to an individual parish, but to others as well. The priest is called to be a steward of the laity’s gifts and through his stewardship, the mission of bringing Christ to the world can truly be fulfilled through the Church — local and universal.

Eucharistic Offering

The priest, as he receives the gifts, sufferings, needs, and desires of the laity and offers them to the Father, embodies the Eucharistic prayer: “Father, receive these gifts. Make holy our offerings.” The priest offers the needs, sufferings, gifts, and desires of the people, along with their selves and his self. When he offers this sacrifice, he holds the host up to Heaven, and the bread is transformed into the Body of Christ. The offerings are sanctified by the Holy Spirit and become nourishment for others. Jesus’s Body is broken, and His broken Body feeds the multitude. The parishioners come up to receive Him during Holy Communion. They are fed and nourished by the Body of Christ which includes the offerings of the laity, religious, and priests. For example, they receive spiritual nourishment from the many creative acts offered by the laity, such as an evening of Praise and Worship, a children’s Bible camp, or a local vegetable garden. As gifts are offered through the Church, many are nourished; this life-giving cycle is possible through the ministry of the priest.

In the same way, the Bread of Life is nourishment which feeds those beyond the boundaries of the parish. Individuals not practicing the Catholic faith yet living within the physical boundaries of the parish are called to receive this nourishing Bread of Life. For example, if the laity offer to teach a financial management class, many in the neighborhood may benefit from this. Their needs will be met. If a member of the lay faithful decides to organize a local talent show, others may encounter God’s love through the invitation to share their talents. Thus the Body of Christ, the Bread of Life, nourishes and feeds those residing near the parish. The contributions of the laity, accepted by the priest, enable the local Church to fulfill her mission as Mary, the mother of God, the bearer of Jesus Christ, and comforter of the afflicted.

The Church, an Oasis of Beauty

The priest receives souls, wounded, afflicted, broken, and in need; he receives souls, full of joy, gift, desire, and love. In this way, he is like an artist who receives a variety of materials and uses all to form a work of art. The priest is artist by simply being present and available at the local Church, receiving his people and allowing them to offer their own unique gifts and talents, and offering all to God the Father in the Eucharistic offering.

The priest is humble and often remains quiet, yet his work is exponentially fruitful because he acts in the person of Christ. His availability to the people is essential in a world in which many are too busy to listen. His role as spiritual father to a flock of souls is of primary significance in the local Church. He is a mediator between the Church and the laity, just as Christ mediated the mission of the Kingdom to John and Mary while He died upon the Cross.

The priest inspires, nourishes, and strengthens the laity. He provides them with necessary food; and, in turn, the priest “flourishes on the inspiration from his people.”6 Just as an artist benefits and rejoices in abundance of materials to be formed into a work of art, so too does the priest rejoice in the offerings and gifts of the laity. He strives to form others so that they too can then go out, receiving needs, gifts, desires, and sufferings; and offering theirs freely.

Through the ministry of the priest and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the ecclesial community is “built together into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:2). Through this community — the Holy Catholic Church — the beauty of God’s love can visibly and palpably radiate from the local Church. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the offering of the laity’s gifts nourishes, strengthens, and feeds the multitude (Mt 14:13–21). Countless individuals living within and beyond the parish’s geographic boundaries find that their needs are met through the Bread of Life — the Body of Christ. With the priest’s receptivity to the laity’s gifts, the Church can truly become an oasis of beauty, a source of life, a Mother most Holy.

  1. Paul VI, “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests: Presbyterorum Ordinis,” The Reception of Vatican II, 2017, doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190625795.003.0007.
  2. Paul VI, Presbyterorum Ordinis.
  3. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 1992.
  4. Paul VI, Presbyterorum Ordinis.
  5. Paul VI, “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” no. 1 (1965): 1–20.
  6. George A. Aschenbrenner, Quickening the Fire in Our Midst: The Challenge of Diocesan Priestly (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002), 34; books.google.com/books?id=l_D-cwKByPMC&pg=PA34&lpg=PA34.
Samantha Mattheiss About Samantha Mattheiss

Samantha Mattheiss holds a doctoral degree in psychology with a concentration in neuroscience from Rutgers University, Newark. She is currently a postdoctoral research associate at Rowan University, where she is studying the physiological basis of cognitive and emotional processing. Her research interests, which include the intersection of faith and neuroscience, were inspired by a year spent as a Salesian Lay Missionary at an orphanage in Bolivia, as well as several years living in informal ecclesial communities in Philadelphia, PA and Newark, NJ.