‘Man of the Word’

At an MRI recently, the receptionist told me that it would last two hours. It seemed a bit long. Two young African-American technicians ran the eerie instrument, chatting while settling me in. They put a set of headphones on me and kindly tuned to a rap radio station. After about two minutes, I asked them to shut it off; it was driving me batty. Still alive at the end, they unharnessed me, garbed in hospital gown.
Back in the dressing room, I put on my clericals and walked out. Going by the technicians’ office, I said goodbye. One of them looked at me astonished. “I didn’t know that you were a man of the Word.” I had to laugh: My clerical status does not shine through a hospital gown. I do not ever remember being called a “man of the Word.” No doubt, this form of address is an honored title in black Protestant churches. It was meant as that.

The title made me think. Is a priest a “man of the Word?” His three powers are to “teach, to rule, and to sanctify.” So, yes, he is a man of the Word. He recognizes Scripture — and, through it, the Church and Christ — as the source of any “word” he speaks in its name. The man of the Word is first to be sure that his word is the word that the Lord handed down, not his own musings about pious things.
Yet a priest, more properly, is a “man of the Word made flesh,” but that is a little awkward. He is ordained in the name of the Word made flesh, not in his own name. The “man of the Word” is a preacher. He speaks authoritatively from the pulpit. He moves souls. Generally, the phrase implies Word over Sacrament, or Word without Sacrament. In those senses, it is not precisely Catholic; that is, Word and Sacrament, or Word within Sacrament.
St. John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” This Word was “with God.” Indeed, He “was God.” The Word is the Logos. The Word is the Son, who is begotten, not made, of the Father, true God. In the sixth weekday Preface in the Mass, addressing ourselves to the Father, we say that it is our duty to give the Father thanks. This duty is first a response of wonder at what the Father is. It is given to us by the Father, to whom all things begin and return.
We can only give thanks through Christ. He is the Way and the Truth. And who is this Christ? “He is the Word through whom you [Father] created the universe, the Savior you sent to redeem us.” These are statements of fact, of intelligibility. When He is sent, the Word — the Son — remains God but becomes and remains also “true man.”
Christ, then, is not a “Man of the Word.” He is the Word. Thus, Christ tells Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” He does not become the Father; He is one with the Father. He is really present in the Eucharist. The priest there does not speak in his own name, but in the person of Christ. The priest is not a “man of the Word,” but a man who speaks the Word commanded and communicated to him.
Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, in a remarkable essay on the Eucharist (Communio, Winter 1997) sketched out how easy it is to undermine the whole idea of the Trinity, the revealed understanding of the inner life of God, by doubting the real presence of Christ the Word in the Eucharist:
Does not the denial of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist bring in its train a dilution of our Trinitarian faith? Does it not make us drift toward a unitarian understanding of divinity? If we question whether the Son is truly present in the Eucharist, are we not led to question whether he was truly present in the Incarnation, and then whether he is truly distinguished from the Father?
The Man of the Word is also a Man of the Eucharist. “Unless you eat this bread and drink of this cup, you shall not have everlasting life in you.”
After hearing of eating “My flesh” and drinking “My blood,” that no one comes to Him unless “granted by the Father,” many disciples left Him (Jn 6). The Lord turned to the apostles: “Will you too go away?” Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This is what a man of the Word acknowledges and hopes. His words are nothing if not rooted in the Word made flesh, the eternal Son of the Father, present among us in the Eucharist.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • Alex

    Ordination and Eucharist aside, are not all Christians people of the Word, in aspiration at least?

  • Thoms C. Coleman, Jr.

    Dear Alex, while I recognize the underlying charity of your remark about “all Christians being people of the Word,” I feel compelled to chartiably caution that such obersvation can lead others into relativism and indifferentism. Our Lord, the Word Incarnate, cleary establlished one Church and institued Sacraments for all Christians to partake in and gain Grace from. Many Catholics today are not taught this. Recently when I lamented aloud about this state of affairs, a fellow member of the Knights of Columbus replied, “But Tom, isn’t it still true that good people go to Heaven?” I felt like saying “Spoken like a true Freemason.” Instead I advised, with an affected Irish brogue to add a tad of humor, that his arguement was not with me but with the Successor of Peter. Of course, I was not intimating that only Catholcis can be saved, but that clearly Christ founded One Church, an assertion that many Catholics today mistakently distance themselves.

  • georgie-ann

    this point that he is making is the most important difference between a Catholic priest and any other type of minister that you can mention,…i would think that a priest should be very blessed to correctly identify himself as a “Man of the Word Incarnate,”…certainly his role in that regard is a blessing to us,…

  • Alex

    Absolutely, and in the words “Ordination” and “Eucharist” lie the entire Christian priestly tradition.

    But in Communion, adminstered by the priest, the laity too are blessed with the Word (Incarnate).

  • georgie-ann

    we sure are,…but it does also depend on that very special role/relationship of the priest to his Lord and ministry,…after all, it does involve special on-going commitment and sacrifice on his part,…