Circular Letter: Summer 2020
The Eucharist in the Church & in our Spiritual Life
The recent Coronavirus pandemic, along with the corresponding closing of countless churches and the canceling of regularly scheduled Masses, has shown us in a striking way our great need for the Eucharist. For many people, during this time of church closings and business lockdowns have felt not only a physical but also an even greater spiritual hunger. We have learned from this experience the great need we have for the Eucharist.
The Second Vatican Council declares that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium,11). “The other Sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward. For in the Blessed Sacrament is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely, Christ Himself” (Presbyterorum ordinis, 5). We are called now during the time both preceding and following the great Feast of Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to delve more deeply into the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
As an introduction to our reflection on this marvelous mystery, we should be aware that the Eucharist has three dimensions as a Sacrament. It is a Sacrifice Sacrament, a Communion Sacrament, and a Sacrament of Divine Presence. Let us examine now each one of these dimensions.
The Eucharist as a “Sacrifice Sacrament”
First and foremost, the Eucharist is a Sacrifice Sacrament. We often speak about the Sacrifice of the Mass. But why is this? What—or more precisely—who is sacrificed? And how is this done? The Catechism explains that “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.” (CCC 1367).Then it goes on to state, quoting the Council of Trent, that:
The Victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, Who then offered Himself on the Cross; only the manner of offering is different. [Further,] since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ Who offered Himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the Cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner… This sacrifice is truly propitiatory. (Council of Trent, Doctrina de ss. Missae sacrificio, c. 2)
Christ’s oblation of Himself, then, is eternal; and the gift which He makes of Himself as the Son in the Godhead is reproduced in His humanity in the sacrifice of expiation on the Cross.
Now the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary takes place at the consecration during Mass in an unbloody way. For the separate consecrations of first the bread, and then the wine, symbolize and effect in a spiritual and mystical manner, the separation of the Blood of Jesus from His Body that took place at the Crucifixion. For this reason, the words of consecration that are pronounced by the priest at Mass are not merely narrative words. Rather, as Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, “What the priest says is an event, the central event of the history of the world and our personal life” (Homily for Corpus Christi, June 15, 2006). Bishop Sheen could, therefore, state without exaggeration that, “Nothing more solemn exists on the face of the earth than the awe inspiring moment of the Consecration at Mass.” He goes on to explain, “The Mass is not a prayer, nor a hymn, nor something said—it is a divine act with which we come in contact [with God Himself] at a given moment of time” (Calvary and the Mass, p. 58).
Every Mass, then, is an actual re-presentation of the sacrifice that took place on Calvary some two thousand years ago. Jesus died once and for all. Consequently, He does not need to die again. For all the graces that the human race will need until the end of the world were merited at that time. These graces are then made present anew at every Mass, so that having one heart and will with Christ, we can renew in, with, and through Him our covenant with God.
At every Mass, then, all the graces that are needed for the preservation and sanctification of the whole world are distributed. For this reason, Padre Pio once said that it would be easier for the world to exist without the sun, than without the Mass. We can never fully appreciate the value of even one single Mass. For the Mass, as Cardinal Ratzinger has forcefully pointed out,
is far more than just a meal; it has cost a death to provide it, and the majesty of death is present in it. … Whenever we behold it, we should be filled with reverence and awe in the face of this mystery, with awe in the face of this mysterious death that becomes a present reality in our midst…. For it plumbs the very depths of existence which it calls death, and strikes out an upward path to life, the life that overcomes death. (God is Near Us, p. 44)
Further, the re-presentation of the sacrifice on Calvary takes place not only here below in the Church, but is at the heart of the liturgy of Heaven. And this means that our celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is simultaneously a mysterious participation in the Heavenly Liturgy. St. John the Evangelist was privileged to receive a glimpse of this Liturgy, which he has recorded for us in chapter five of the Book of Revelation. He writes there: “I heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne. They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing'” (Rev 5: 11-12).
This is why Cardinal Ratzinger once described the altar as “the place where Heaven is opened up” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 71). The realization of this truth was instrumental in the conversion of Scott Hahn. In his book, The Lamb’s Supper, he explains how he was struck by the parallels between what takes place at Mass, and the description of the Heavenly Liturgy by St. John in the Book of Revelation. This is how he describes his experience at the first Mass he attended while he was still a Protestant.
As I saw the priest raise the white host, I felt a prayer surge from my heart. In a whisper, I said, “My Lord and my God. That’s really you!” I was what you might call a basket case from that point on. For I couldn’t imagine a greater excitement than what those words worked upon me. Yet the experience was intensified just a moment later, when I heard the congregation recite: “Lamb of God… Lamb of God… Lamb of God,” and the priest respond, “This is the Lamb of God…” as he raised the host…. I immediately knew where I was. I was in the Book of Revelation, where Jesus is called the Lamb no less than twenty-eight time in twenty-two chapters. I was at the marriage feast that John describes at the end of that very last book of the Bible. I was before the throne of Heaven, where Jesus is hailed forever as the Lamb. I wasn’t ready for this, though—I was at Mass! (The Lamb’s Supper, pp. 8-9)
At every Mass, then, we are not only present at Calvary, we are also present in Heaven. “This is not merely a symbol, not a metaphor, not a parable, not a figure of speech. It is real” (ibid., p. 128). What happens at Mass, therefore, is not just a matter of words being read out of a book by a man standing next to a table in a building. Rather, what takes place is that the past, the present, and the future become all rolled together into one. Because at every Mass, while being present in a particular place and time, we are also present simultaneously in the past at Calvary—and in the future of Heaven. We could say that, when we enter a church for Mass, it is in a way like entering into a kind of time machine. Since the Mass can not only transport us back in time to Calvary, but also catapult us beyond space and time into the boundless, peaceful horizons of Heaven.
The Eucharist as a “Communion Sacrament”
Next, let us speak about the second dimension of the Eucharist, namely, the Eucharist as a Communion Sacrament. We call the Eucharist Holy Communion because as the Catechism puts it, “By this Sacrament we unite ourselves to Christ, Who makes us sharers in His Body and Blood to form a single body” (CCC 1331). Now since Holy Communion is truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ once sacrificed on the Cross and raised to life in glory, it evidently has tremendous power to transform us, to sanctify us, and to make us into other Christs.
How does this take place? The Eucharist is a special kind of food. A food that is different from any other that we will ever eat. For when we eat ordinary food, we transform it into a part of ourselves. In fact, scientists and biologists tell us that over a period of about seven years every cell in our body is replenished by the food we eat. Our body is made of trillions of cells that are continually dying, and then being replaced by the new ones that are formed from the food that we have eaten and digested.
However, when we eat the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, the opposite effect takes place. Rather than transforming this holy food into a part of ourselves, we instead are transformed by it. Or better yet, we could say that we are transformed by Him, that is, Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, Who is physically and substantially present in that little host of bread and in each drop of consecrated wine. And so, when we receive Holy Communion, we can be turned gradually into other Christs. Jesus, in fact, can turn us into living copies of Himself. That is, He can make us like Himself by gradually making us more kind, more patient, more forgiving, more self-sacrificing, and more capable of living a life of service and self-denial.
Pope Pius XII explains eloquently in some radio addresses that he made to several Eucharistic Congresses during his pontificate how this transformation can take place. He tells us how the Eucharist, “softens spirits, curbs desires, calms mental disturbances, efficaciously urges the soul to perform good works, and to practice justice and mercy.” What’s more, he says it, “neutralizes the seeds of vice and makes all the virtues germinate, from the lilies of angelic purity to the heroism of the utmost self-sacrificing zeal… purifies that love which every human heart should cherish for all its fellow men.” Then, “by infusing new energy… [the Eucharist] refines and purifies man’s whole emotional life, making it more solid, more authentic.” In fact, he says, the Eucharist can “elevate the natural virtues to such a height that the communicant realizes the type of the perfect man made to the image of God and conformed to the model of the Son, in Whom the Father is well-pleased.”
For all these reasons, then, each Holy Communion that we receive possesses the power not only to transform the greatest of sinners into the greatest of saints, but also to heal any known sickness or disease of body, mind, or soul. Just like the body of Jesus had the power to work countless miracles of healing. At the same time, we want to recall with the Catechism, that the other Sacraments, when they are “celebrated worthily in Faith… confer the grace they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ Himself is at work” (CCC 1127). For,
The Father always hears the prayers of His Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each Sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into divine life whatever is subjected to His power. (CCC 1127) [Further,] from the moment a Sacrament is celebrated… the power of Christ and His Spirit act in and through it. [All the same,] the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. (CCC 1128)
We can read in the Gospels of how many people were healed when they touched the Body of Jesus or were touched by Him. For example, the man born blind, the deaf-mute, the widow’s son at Naim, and Peter’s mother-in-law, to mention but a few. Further, the woman who had been suffering from a blood hemorrhage for twelve years believed that, if she could just touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, she would be cured. Therefore, when she fought her way through the big crowd gathered around Jesus and actually did manage to touch the hem of His robe, she was instantly and miraculously cured. While at the same time, Jesus feeling “power” going out from Him instantly turned around and asked His disciples, “Who touched me?” (Lk 8: 45).
We ourselves today, though, have the tremendous privilege of being able to touch—not merely Christ’s hem, nor even merely to be touched once by Him—but we today thanks to the marvelous invention of the Eucharist have the great grace of being able to receive the entire Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus into our hearts and souls each and every time that we receive Holy communion. The only obstacle that prevents us from receiving the full benefit of these tremendous healing graces is our lack of fervent faith in the Eucharist.
We should strive, then, to receive Holy Communion with greater faith, devotion, love, and reverence. What can we do that will help us in this regard? Often in sacristies there is a sign, directed to the priest who is about to offer Mass, that read, “Priest of God offer this Mass as if it was your first Mass, as if it was your only Mass, as if it was your last Mass.” This counsel applies to us all, so let us prepare to receive Holy Communion before Mass by resolving to receive Our Eucharistic Lord, as if it was our first Holy Communion, our only Holy Communion, and our last Holy Communion. Surely, if we make this intention before every Mass we participate in, we cannot but increase our faith and devotion to the Holy Eucharist.
The Eucharist as the “Sacrament of Divine Presence”
Finally, let us discuss the third dimension of the Eucharist, that is, the Eucharist as the Sacrament of Divine Presence. As we have seen, Jesus acts in every Sacrament, but here in the Eucharist, He is really and truly physically present in each and every particle of the Sacred Host, and in every drop of the Precious Blood. The Eucharist, therefore, is not just a “something,” rather it is a “someone,” namely, Jesus Christ, Who “loves each of us as if there were only one of us” (St. Augustine, Confessions, 3.11.19). This is why Pope St. Paul VI could state in his encyclical letter on the Eucharist:
Anyone who approaches this great Sacrament with special devotion and endeavors to return generous love for Christ’s own infinite love, will experience and fully understand—not without spiritual joy and fruit—how precious is the life hidden with Christ in God (see Col 3: 3) and how great is the value of converse with Christ, for there is nothing more consoling on earth, nothing more efficacious for advance along the road to holiness. (Mysterium fidei, 26)
The mere sight of a consecrated host, then, is sometimes enough to give a great increase of strength, joy, and peace. For example, a priest who was imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II stated that the “amount of courage and readiness to sacrifice [that the mere sight of the Blessed Sacrament] brought to our tormented hearts cannot be expressed in words” (Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau, Fr. Jean Bernard, p. 165). Why was this? It was because they realized that Almighty God had emptied Himself in the Incarnation and the Eucharist, so as to share our exile and give us the light and strength to find our way back to the Father.
A question, therefore, comes up often in relation to adoration and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament: What is the difference between such adoration before our Lord exposed in a monstrance on the altar, and adoration and prayer before our Lord enclosed in the tabernacle? Is one way better or more effective than the other? When St. Thomas Aquinas discusses this question, he states, as Archbishop Di Noia notes,
It is not that Christ becomes more present to us [in a monstrance], but rather that we become more present to Him. For in beholding Him exposed to us [on the altar], our attention is more focused and concentrated. In that sense, we become more present to Christ. (Archbishop A. B. Di Noia, Eucharistic Adoration and Political Responsibility, Adoremus Bulletin, Vol. XV, Dec. 2009-Jan. 2010)
We can have a face-to-face meeting with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, then, whenever we adore Him exposed in a monstrance on the altar. For then we can experience His love for us more intimately and directly.
In spite of all the benefits that can be received from visiting and adoring Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, many Catholics still show a certain reluctance to do this. This lack of response to the Sacrament of His love hurts Jesus deeply. In fact, He went so far as to lament to St. Margaret Mary, “I have a burning thirst to be honored by men in the Blessed Sacrament and I find hardly anyone who tries, according to my desires, to quench that thirst by making some return to me” (cf. Enthronement of the Sacred Heart, Fr. Francis Larkin, p. 59). It seems incredible, then, that the Creator and Ruler of the entire universe would feel hurt because mere human beings do not love Him as much as He wants to be loved in the Blessed Sacrament. But such is His love for us that He died on the Cross so that He could remain always with us. As Pope St. John Paul observed so beautifully, “Love cannot tolerate distance and cannot bear absence. That is why Jesus invented the Eucharist, where His nearness to each of us exceeds all possible imagination” (Letter to the Eucharistic Congress in the Diocese of Setubal, Portugal, November 30, 2002).
Fortunately, there is a remedy to this black cloud of indifference and neglect shown to our Lord by so many people. We can console Him and make reparation for the many outrages, sacrileges, and indifference that have been committed against the Eucharist. Pope Pius XI explains the dynamics of this consolation in his encyclical letter on reparation:
If because of our sins, which were in the future, but were foreseen by Jesus, He became sorrowful unto death, it cannot be doubted that He derived somewhat of the solace of our reparation, which was also foreseen by Him, when there appeared to Him an angel from Heaven, in order that His heart, oppressed as it was by anguish, might find some consolation. And so, even now, in a wondrous and true way, we can and should try to console the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is continually offended by the sins of thankless men and women. (On Reparation to the Sacred Heart, 13)
Let us resolve, then, to make some reparation for the many sins that have been committed against the Eucharist by spending more time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. There are 168 hours in the week. Could we not, then, give to Jesus at least one of these hours, not only to show Him something of our love, but also to make some reparation for the many sins committed against the Sacrament of His love?
Pope St. John Paul II states in no uncertain terms that the “Church and the world have great need for Eucharistic worship. Jesus waits for us in the Sacrament of love.” Therefore, he urges us to “be generous in our time in going to meet Him in adoration and contemplation that is full of faith and ready to make reparation for the great faults and crimes of the world. May our adoration never cease” (Dominicae cenae, 3).
Fr. Matthew Hincks, ORC
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