Many events in the Church in the last three years have in a special way oriented our attention to the Holy Eucharist. In April 2003, the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, gave to the Church the beautiful Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. At his direction, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued the Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum in March 2004. A special Eucharistic Year declared by Pope John Paul was celebrated by the whole Church from October 2004 to October 2005. The October 2005 Synod of Bishops has the Eucharistic mystery as its theme. In this specially Eucharistic climate, it is fitting that we now reflect on what the Lord Jesus asks of us in this mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharistic mystery calls for our response.
1. Holy Eucharist: Christ's inestimable gift
We begin with a statement of fact. The Holy Eucharist is Christ's inestimable gift to his Church. He did not just live for us, work miracles, teach us, and suffer, die and rise again for love of us and for our salvation. He found a wonderful way to continue to be with us and to associate his Church with his sacrifice in a sacramental way. The Second Vatican Council summarises our faith in the Eucharistic mystery: "At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, a pledge of future glory is given to us" ( Sacrosanctum Concilium, 47; cf also Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1323).
The Holy Eucharist is sacrifice, sacrament and presence. As sacrifice, the Holy Eucharist is the sacramental re-presentation of the paschal mystery, that is, of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. "Do this as a memorial of me" (I Cor 11:25) is the injunction that Jesus gave his Church through the Apostles. At Holy Mass Jesus Christ associates the Church with himself in the offering of himself to God the Father. The Mass is offered for four principal motives: adoration, thanksgiving with praise, asking pardon for our sins with reparation, and requesting for what we need for body and soul.
The Holy Eucharist is also Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. At consecration the bread is no longer bread, it becomes the Body of Christ; the wine is no longer wine, it becomes the Blood of Christ. The Council of Trent teaches us that in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really and substantially contained" (DS, 1651; cf CCC, 1374). The Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is therefore very much a part of our Catholic faith.
Jesus is present as our Eucharistic Lord. This type of presence is very special. It surpasses all other forms of presence. It is much more than his presence in the Word of God proclaimed in the liturgical assembly, or his presence in the people of God gathered in worship, or his presence and action in the priest celebrant, or even his presence and action in all the other Sacraments. We call the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist the Real Presence (cf Paul VI: Mysterium Fidei, 39; Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7; CCC, 1374), because it is a very special presence, his presence par excellence. In front of this inestimable gift and mystery, what does Jesus ask of us?
The first thing that Jesus asks of us is faith. When God speaks to us, we are expected to listen, to receive, to believe. We are not expected to challenge, to doubt, to argue, or to hire half a dozen lawyers or even theologians who are to find out more facts from him before we decide what our attitude should be. This would be most disrespectful, indeed stubborn and unbelieving. We should not behave like those Jews who on hearing Christ promise that he would give them his body to eat and his blood to drink, refused to believe and retorted: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6:52). Indeed those unbelieving disciples "returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him" (Jn 6:66). Rather we should in total faith reply like St Peter who spoke on behalf of the believing Apostles when Jesus asked if they also would go away: "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God" (Jn 6:68-69). Here are words of a person of faith. Peter believes because Jesus the Son of God has spoken. And God is neither deceived nor can he deceive. Peter does not need to understand how. It is enough for him to know that Jesus has spoken. Faith is an act of total trust in God who is Truth itself. It is a personal adherence of man to God. The act of faith is most reasonable because it is entirely and supremely reasonable for us human beings to accept what God has said, to entrust our everything will, intelligence, future, prospects to him. Indeed, the person who refuses to believe God is unreasonable, arrogant, insolent and most foolishly self-sufficient. Moreover, God's grace makes supernatural faith possible: "Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace" (St Thomas Aquinas II-III, 2, 9; cf. Vat I: Dei Filius, 3 in DS 3010; CCC, 155, 156).
Faith does not make everything clear to us. It is a sacrifice of our intelligence and will. But it calls on us to meditate on what God has revealed, to read the Holy Scripture, to compare one article of revelation with another, in short to seek understanding, as far as our puny powers of intelligence can go. Theology is faith seeking understanding, says St Anselm (cf Prosl. Prooem.: PL 153, 225 A; also CCC, 158). St Augustine puts it this way: "I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe" ( Sermo 43, 7, 9: PL 38, 257-258). All of us will not rise to the dizzy theological heights of St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine. But all of us can read the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and from time to time some good book on the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, of the General Councils, and the magisterium of the Popes. In this way our faith is nourished, strengthened and promoted. And we are better equipped to articulate it, to give to anyone who asks of us a statement of what we believe and the reason for our faith (cf I Pet 3:15).
Adoration is consequent on our Eucharistic faith. If we believe that the Sacrifice of the Mass is a sacramental re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross, and that Jesus is really, truly and substantially present in this august Sacrament, adoration is going to follow.
The Mass is the supreme act of adoration, praise and thanksgiving which humanity can offer to God. We owe everything to God: life, family, talents, work, country. Moreover God has sent us his only-begotten Son for our salvation. At Mass we offer God this supreme acknowledgment of his transcendent majesty and thanksgiving for his magnificent goodness towards us. Moreover, at Mass we associate ourselves with all creation in acknowledging the greatness of God. God is not our equal. He is not our colleague. He is our Creator. Without him we would not exist at all. He is the only necessary being. It is normal that we acknowledge this fact. Those who refuse to adore God must not decorate themselves with the apparently nice title of liberal intellectuals.
If we are to call a spade a spade, we shall inform such people that they are unreasonable, ignorant and blind to most obvious facts. A child who refuses to recognise his parents is not a liberal. He is a brat. Would it be wrong to call him stupid, and unaware of common sense, and even of his own best interest? And God is to us much more than parents are to their children. On the other hand, God is not a rival to us human beings. He is not a threat. He is not a killjoy.
God is our loving Father. He is Providence. He takes care of every detail regarding our life. When we adore him, praise him and thank him, we not only do not demean ourselves. Rather we begin to realise our greatness. Our acknowledgment of God's transcendent reality elevates us. The shepherds in Bethlehem and the Magi were all the better because they adore the Child Jesus. St Anselm, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, St Teresa of Avila, St Thérèse of the Holy Child Jesus, St Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Albert Einstein were all the greater because they offered the sacrifice of their intelligence to God the Creator. Christians must not allow themselves to be misled by the errors of a secularistic mentality which lives as if God did not exist. Man is not the centre of reality. God is. By adoring God through the Holy Eucharist, we pay this due tribute to God's transcendence.
4. Manifestations of Adoration and Reverence
It is not superfluous for us to mention some of the ways in which adoration and reverence manifest themselves regarding the Eucharistic mystery. We human beings are body and soul. External gestures can manifest our faith, strengthen it and help to share it with other people.
The way in which we celebrate the Mass has great importance. This applies first of all to the priest celebrant, but also to deacons, minor ministers, choirs, readers and every other participant, each in that person's own role. The way the priest celebrates the Holy Eucharist affects the congregation in a very special manner. If he celebrates in such a way that his faith and devotion shine out, the people are nourished and strengthened in their Eucharistic faith, the weak in faith are awakened and everyone is sent home energized to live and share the faith. Such a priest has knack or skill of celebration with dignity, faith and devotion for the Eucharist of which the October 2005 Synod of Bishops emphasised the importance (Synod Proposition, 25). We manifest our adoration of our Eucharistic Jesus by genuflection whenever we cross the area of the tabernacle where He is reserved. It is reasonable where He is reserved. It is reasonable for us to bend the knee before Him because He is our God. This is a way in which adoration is shown to the Holy Eucharist in the Latin Rite Church. The Oriental Churches and Benedictine Monasteries have the tradition of a deep bow. The meaning is the same. Moreover, our genuflection should be a reverential and deliberate act and not a careless bending of the knee to the nearest pillar characteristic of some people in whom over-familiarity with the tabernacle seems to breed hurried and nonchalant movements. As is well known, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, has written beautifully on the sense of the act of genuflection. (cf. J. Ratzinger: The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2000, p. 184-194). As for those who may ignore the significance of this gesture, it may be well to remember that we are not pure spirits like the angels. A Protestant once was visiting a Catholic church in the company of a Catholic friend. They passed across the tabernacle area. The Protestant asked the Catholic what that box was and why a little lamp was burning near it. The Catholic explained that Jesus the Lord is present there. The Protestant then put the vital question: "If you believe that your Lord and God is here present, then why don't you genuflect, even prostrate and crawl?" The superficial Catholic got the message. He genuflected. Everyone can thus see why the tabernacle of the Most Blessed Sacrament is located in a central or at least prominent place in our churches. It is the centre of our attention and prayer. The October 2005 Synod of Bishops emphasised this point (cf Prop., 6, 28, 34). In some of our churches some misguided person has relegated the tabernacle to an obscure section of the church. Sometimes it is even so difficult for a visitor to locate where the tabernacle is, that the visitor can say with truth with St Mary Magdalene: "They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they laid him" (Jn 20:13).
We also show our adoration and reverence towards the Holy Eucharist by silence in church, by becoming dress and postures at sacred celebrations, by joining other people in singing, giving responses, and gestures such as sitting, kneeling or standing, and by general care over whatever has to do with Eucharistic worship such as reading, discipline in church and tidiness in altar and sacristy equipment.
May I say a further word on the importance of silence in our churches and chapels. Movements of silence help us to prepare for the celebration of Mass. During Mass, a few minutes of silence help us to meditate on the lessons, the Gospel and the homily just heard. Silence after receiving Jesus. Holy Communion is a time for personal prayer to Our Lord. At the end of Mass and at all other times in church, silence is a mark of reverence for God's house and especially for Jesus present in the tabernacle.
Some church rectors have the habit of playing recorded soft music as a background in churches almost the whole day outside Mass. This is doubtless well-intentioned. But it is a mistake. People enter churches to pray, not to be entertained. They are not tourists in a museum or music hall. They need silence in order to concentrate on the tabernacle, or even to reflect on the statues, sacred images which are ongoing catechesis, and the figures of the Way of the Cross.
Gradually in the Church of the Latin Rite from the Middle Ages, Eucharistic devotion has developed in such forms as visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament, personal and group Holy Hour of Adoration, and Eucharistic Benediction, Procession and Congress. None of us should behave as if he or she had outgrown such manifestations of faith and had no need of them. I mention in particular Eucharistic adoration as encouraged by Pope John Paul II (cf Mane Nobiscum Domine, 18) and by the Synod of Bishops of October 2005 (cf Prop., 6). Some parish priests have been surprised by their parishioners signing up for adoration at all hours of day or night. I was told about a Congregation of Sisters in Mexico which has kept up perpetual adoration for 130 years, including the years of persecution. Genuine Eucharistic faith never fails to manifest itself.
5. Observance of Liturgical Norms
In the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the observance of liturgical norms is one of the ways in which we show our Eucharistic faith. To a person who asks why there should be liturgical norms at all, we answer that the Church has the right and duty to promote and protect the Eucharistic celebration with appropriate norms. Christ gave the Church the essentials of the Eucharistic celebration. As the centuries rolled by, the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, developed details on how the mysteries of Christ are to be celebrated. Being an hierarchical society, the Church also manifests her nature and structure in the celebration of the Holy Mass.
The Mass is the most solemn action of the sacred liturgy, which is itself the public worship of the Church.
"Liturgy", says Pope John Paul II, "is never anyone's private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated. Priests who faithfully celebrate Mass according to the liturgical norms, and communities which conform to those norms, quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church" ( Eccl. de Euch., 52). At the direction of Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in collaboration with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum in March 2004 "precisely to bring out more clearly this deeper meaning of liturgical norms" ( Eccl. de Euch., 52).
It follows that individuals, whether they be priests or lay faithful, are not free to add or subtract any details in the approved rites of the celebration of the Holy Eucharist (cf Sacrosanctum Concilium, 22). A do-it-yourself mentality, an attitude of nobody-will-tell-me-what-to-do, or a defiant sting of if-you-do-not-like-my-Mass-you-can-go-to-another-parish, is not only against sound theology and ecclesiology, but also offends against common sense. Unfortunately, sometimes common sense is not very common, when we see a priest ignoring liturgical rules and installing creativity in his case personal idiosyncracy as the guide to the celebration of Holy Mass. Our faith guides us and our love of Jesus and of his Church safeguards us from taking such unwholesome liberties. Aware that we are only ministers, not masters of the mysteries of Christ (cf I Cor 4:1), we follow the approved liturgical books so that the people of God are respected and their faith nourished, and so that God is honoured and the Church is gradually being built up.
6. Eucharist and Mission
At the end of the Mass the deacon, or in his absence the priest, says to us "Ite, Missa Est". Our celebration is over. Go now to live and share with other people what we have received, heard, sung, meditated and prayed. The Mass sends us on mission.
The first duty which the Eucharistic celebration enjoins on us is to live the faith and share it with other people. Evangelization in the express form of proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ is a priority (cf Paul VI: Evangelii Nuntiandi, 22). We must share with other people "the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:8). Every Catholic priest, consecrated person or lay faithful will do this according to that person's vocation and mission in the Church and in the world.
At the Eucharistic celebration Jesus is also sending us to show Christian solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and the needy in general. At the Last Supper he himself washed the feet of his Apostles, thereby teaching us mutual love and service as an injunction of the Holy Eucharist (cf Jn 13: 1-15). He taught us that the last judgement will be based on whether we have shown love and solidarity towards the needy (cf Mt 25: 31-46). Pope John Paul II says that the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebration can be judged from how we love the poor and people in difficulty (cf Mane Nobiscum Domine, 28).
In his first Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI illustrates beautifully how love of God necessarily carries with it love of neighbour. The Holy Eucharist promotes both in a magnificent way. The Holy Father says: "The saints consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in the service to others" ( Deus Caritas Est, 18).
Brother and Sisters in Christ, in the Eucharistic mystery our beloved Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is giving us the inestimable gift of himself. He asks for our response. Shall we refuse to pay him back with love? May the Most Blessed Virgin Mary obtain for us the grace to respond with generosity, with constant faith, with heartfelt adoration and with apostolic dynamism.
Source: Archbishop's House
© Independent Catholic News 2006