The Pope, Corpus Christi, and the Sacred


The Vatican still celebrates the Feast of the Body of Christ on the day it is supposed to be held, namely the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, this year on June 7th. The Holy Father, in his sermon in Saint Peter’s, took occasion to correct a tendency, evident since Vatican II, to concentrate on the Mass itself, while it is being celebrated, but to downplay the presence and holiness of the abiding Eucharistic presence in the tabernacle.

Sometimes a one-sided interpretation restricts a broader understanding of the Sacrament. “The just emphasis placed on the celebration of the Eucharist can turn out to lessen adoration as an act of faith and prayer turned to the Lord Jesus really present in the Sacrament of the Altar,” Benedict explained. This shift has serious consequences in the prayer life of the faithful. “To concentrate everything on Jesus in the Eucharist, at the moment of Holy Mass, risks undervaluing His presence in the rest of time and existential space.” This overemphasis lessens our realization of Christ’s presence among us in all times and places, in our homes and neighborhoods. “The Sacrament of the Charity of Christ ought to permeate all our daily lives.”

In fact, “it is a mistake to oppose the celebration and adoration as if one were against the other.” The truth is just the opposite. The celebration of the most Holy Sacrament includes the entire spiritual ambiance in which the community can truly and properly celebrate the Eucharist. The liturgical action can express its full understanding only in the broader background of worship and interior life.

The encounter with Jesus in the Holy Mass is activated truly and fully when the community recognizes that He, in the Sacrament, is still “present” in their own homes, tables, and hearts after the Mass is ended. He remains with us in His “discreet and silent presence.” He enables us to offer out daily gifts to His Father. “At the moment of adoration at Mass,” Benedict tells us, “we are all on our knees, all at the same level. The common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood find themselves about the Eucharistic Sacrifice. We have seen this adoration many times in this Basilica of St. Peters as in the Youth Masses in Cologne, London, Zagreb, and Madrid. It is quite clear that the time of vigil preparation for Mass prepares the hearts so that the actual celebration is more fruitful

“To stand silently for some time before the Lord present in the Eucharist is one of the most authentic experiences of our being Church.” It “accompanies” us as we sing, or listen to the Word, or go together to Communion. “Communion and contemplation cannot be separated. They go together.” To communicate truly with another person, “I must know him, know how to stand in silence near him, listen to him, and look with love upon him. True love and true friendship always live in reciprocal regard, in intense silence, full of respect and veneration so that the encounter is lived profoundly in a personal and not superficial manner.” If we lack this depth, the communication becomes superficial. Rather in true communion “prepared by prayer” we can speak confidently to the Lord.


What about the very “sacrality” or holiness of the Eucharist itself? We have seen a certain weakening in the authentic message of Scripture. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Christian understanding was influenced by a “certain secularization.” It is true that the essence remains not in rites or in ancient sacrifices but in “Christ himself, in His person, in His life, and in the paschal mystery.”

Nonetheless, regarding this Christian “newness,” we should not conclude that the holy no longer exists but that it has found its “completion in Jesus Christ.” The divine love is incarnate, thanks to Christ. “Sacredness is purer and more intense and, as we see in the commandments, more demanding.” Observance of ritual is not enough. We need the purification of heart that the involvement in life brings about.

The “sacred” has an “educational” function. Our loss of its sense inevitably impoverishes the culture, in particular the formation of a new generation. If, for instance, we say in the name of a secularizing faith we no longer need sacred signs or images, “if we abolish public processions of Corpus Christi,” the spiritual profile of Rome would change. Our personal awareness would be “weakened.”

We can even imagine a mother and father who deprive their children of all religious symbols in the name of a secularized faith. In practice they would leave the public field free to so many surrogate images present in the society. Other rites and signs appear, which risk becoming “idols.” 

“God our Father has not made such a humanity.” He has sent His Son into the world not to abolish but to complete “the sacred.” At the height of this the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the sacrament of His Body and Blood, “the memorial of His paschal sacrifice.” By doing so, He placed Himself in place of “ancient rituals.” He did it, not in the abstract, but in the midst of a rite. He commanded the Apostles to “perpetuate” it.  This is the supreme sign of the true Sacred, which is He Himself. “With such faith, dear brothers and sisters, we celebrate today and every day the Eucharistic mystery. We adore it as the center of our live and the heart of the world.” 

The characteristic of Benedict XVI, I think, is to gently remind us of the whole context of our faith and ritual. He is aware of how easily spiritual things can be distorted, but he is even more aware of their awesomeness when they are rightly understood.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).