This week we find ourselves in another one of those anomalous liturgical situations, wherein the Universal Church celebrates the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday (as is the case in the “extraordinary form” and in the Anglican Use communities), while celebrations in the “ordinary form” in the United States observe the feast on the following Sunday. I have been caught in this bind on many occasions through travel (just one more reason to have a unified calendar for the Western/Latin Church). One year, I left for Rome on a Friday and arrived to realize that the Pope’s celebration had already occurred the previousThursday, with the result that I had no Corpus Christi observance that year. On another occasion, I was in Rome for Corpus Christi proper, returned home the next day and had a second celebration the following Sunday!
With my rant finished, let me deal with some substantive matters.
Back in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI began his Corpus Christi homily with these words:
The feast of Corpus Domini is inseparable from the Holy Thursday Mass of Cena Domini, in which the institution of the Eucharist is also celebrated. While on the evening of Holy Thursday we relive the mystery of Christ who offers Himself to us in the bread broken and wine poured out, today, in celebration of Corpus Domini, this same mystery is proposed for the adoration and meditation of God’s people, and the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession through the streets of towns and villages, to show that the risen Christ walks among us and guides us toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Today we openly manifest what Jesus has given us in the intimacy of the Last Supper, because the love of Christ is not confined to the few, but is intended for all. This year during the Mass of Our Lord’s Last Supper on Holy Thursday, I pointed out that the Eucharist is the transformation of the gifts of this land – the bread and wine – intended to transform our lives and usher in the transformation of the world.
Today the Church gives us an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the mystery of the Eucharist – the mysterium fidei – the mystery of faith, as the Sacred Liturgy calls it. Each day of the Church’s life here below, she is touched by the Eucharist, but so many have become numb to the greatness of the mystery for, as the adage goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.”
Contempt for the Holy Eucharist
In what sense do I use the expression today? Contempt for the Holy Eucharist. The average Catholic has lost his respect and reverence for the Eucharist. Does such a statement shock you? It pains me to say it, but I am firmly convinced that this is the case. Let me offer as proof a number of examples for, as another saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.” And let me encourage you to use this Solemnity of Corpus Christi to renew your love and devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, by way of a “Eucharistic” examination of conscience.
The Second Vatican Council taught that the liturgy is “the source and summit” of the Christian life, and that the Church is never more the Church than when she gathers to celebrate the Eucharist. Do you believe that? If so, how many of you fail to demonstrate that by your attire at Sunday Mass? If you adverted to the fact that this is your weekly encounter with the King of the universe, I don’t think we would see so many people in jeans or shorts or warm-up suits. It is ironic that Baptists or Methodists or Presbyterians, who do not have Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, would never dream of showing up in church in anything but a beautiful dress or suit and tie. “God doesn’t care,” you say? When did He tell you so? After all, the Psalm says, “Worship the Lord in holy attire” (Ps 96:9).
The convert-Monk Thomas Merton, in his famous autobiography (The Seven Storey Mountain), observed how impressed he was by the holy silence he encountered upon entering a Catholic church for the first time in his life – actually at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan. He could have witnessed the same thing in almost any Catholic church up to about forty years ago. If one were to look at the situation today, one would find a rather different picture as dozens of people use the time before and after Mass to carry on conversations with their neighbors, rather than with Our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament. Not only is this an act of disrespect to Christ, it is also disrespect of those people who do wish to pray.
Of course, part of the problem is based on another: a failure to acknowledge or recall that Jesus is truly present in the tabernacle. I have noticed in most parishes that only a tiny minority of the congregation genuflect in the direction of the tabernacle before going into their pews, and that almost no one does so on the way out of church.
In a typical weekend in this parish, hundreds of people will receive Holy Communion, while only two or three will go to confession. Don’t you think there’s some balance lacking here? Two sinners among hundreds of saints? How many people just automatically, routinely, even rotely, get up and run to the altar at Communion time, with no adequate reflection on their relative worthiness or unworthiness? Remember what St. Paul told the Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29). Strong words, I’m sure you would agree.
Another aspect of preparation for a fitting reception of the Eucharist is fasting. Many of you remember the old midnight fast, and then the three-hour fast. Now that we have only a one-hour fast, who pays any attention to it? Some people even come up to Holy Communion chewing gum. The purpose of the fast is to make us hungry – physically and spiritually – for Him who comes to us as the Bread of Life. Of course, the one-hour fast in itself is grossly inadequate. After all, “fasting” means abstaining from food, so as to experience hunger. If someone experiences hunger after an hour, that person should consult a physician about a possible eating disorder!
Do those who habitually arrive late for Mass or leave early give any evidence of their love for the Lord of the Eucharist? I think not. If someone cannot remain in God’s presence for barely an hour, that person has a serious problem, requiring speedy attention.
Now please do not interpret my remarks today as one big gripe session because that has not been my intention. In fact, many priests hesitate to say these things, precisely out of a fear that they might be misunderstood or disliked. You see, it is much easier to say nothing and to pretend that no problems exist (parents know that), but such behavior is unworthy of a priest who truly loves his people and the Eucharist of which he is the minister and guardian.
If the truth were told and if blame belongs anywhere, I would venture to say that it rests with liturgists and clergy who, by a series of changes, have caused many to lose sight of a basic sense of the sacred and who, by their silence in the face of abuses, have given approval to those aberrations.
The changes in the liturgy called for by Vatican II were a great blessing to us all; what some people tried to do (and did do) beyond those approved changes is another story entirely – and that is the very reason why Pope Benedict attempted to make sure that our liturgical life as Catholics would become more correct. Some of the changes were harmless on the surface, but seen in relation to other changes, have been disastrous. Standing for Communion, for instance, rather than kneeling. We know that the Eastern Church has always stood for Communion, but in our western and highly secularized society, did we perhaps not further lose sight of the holiness of the action we were celebrating?
Lay distribution of Holy Communion, which is supposed to be a most exceptional and extraordinary practice, has become normal in most parishes – resulting in a loss of appreciation for both the Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Priesthood.
Communion in the hand is another example. Why did the Church forbid this practice from the fourth century to the twentieth? Why is it still forbidden in most countries even now? I would recommend obtaining a copy of Dominus Est: It Is the Lord! (Newman House Press) by the indomitable Bishop Athanasius Schneider; it is a wonderful book which explains why this practice is not good and why Pope Benedict insisted that those who received Holy Communion from him must kneel and receive on the tongue. Pope Francis likewise gives Holy Communion only on the tongue and priests assisting with the distribution of Communion at papal Masses are instructed not to place the Sacred Host in anyone’s hand.
The Eucharist is not a big Frito party, if you will pardon my bluntness. It is the sacramental re-enactment of Christ’s Death and Resurrection, by which He shares with those He loves His own divine life. A sacrament is a sign – an outward manifestation of an interior reality. Our behavior is also a sign, so that what we do on the outside tells us what is going on inside.
A return to reverence and awe
Although familiarity does often breed contempt, it need not always do so. We don’t have to go back to the days of receiving Holy Communion only once a year – and please God, we never will – but we do need to go back to the reverence and awe we should experience in the presence of Jesus our Redeemer. If a non-Catholic wandered into the average Catholic church today, as Thomas Merton did in New York City some eighty years ago, would that person know by our actions that we believe Christ is among us in a unique and marvelous way? If not, some personal changes are in order, and there is no time like the present to attend to such a situation. Use this beautiful Solemnity honoring Our Lord’s Eucharistic Presence to make the necessary changes in your liturgical life, so that you show by your reverence – and everyone observing you knows – that you believe that the Lord of all is present among us in a truly unique and marvelous manner in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
Indeed, this feast is intended to offer believers a kind of “second honeymoon” with our Eucharistic Lord, returning us (as it were) to the day of our First Holy Communion. Once more, let me call to my side Merton’s reflections on his First Holy Communion. As I share his words, think back on your own first encounter with the Jesus who deigns and desires to come to us under the forms of bread and wine. Merton puts it thus:
I saw the raised Host – the silence and simplicity with which Christ once again triumphed, raised up, drawing all things to Himself – drawing me to Himself. . . . I was the only one at the altar rail. Heaven was entirely mine – that Heaven in which sharing makes no division or diminution. But this solitariness was a kind of reminder of the singleness with which this Christ, hidden in the small Host, was giving Himself for me, and to me, and, with Himself, the entire Godhead and Trinity – a great new increase of the power and grasp of their indwelling that had begun [in me] only a few minutes before at the [baptismal] font . . . . In the Temple of God that I had just become, the One Eternal and Pure Sacrifice was offered up to the God dwelling in me: The sacrifice of God to God, and me sacrificed together with God, incorporated in His incarnation. Christ born in me, a new Bethlehem, and sacrificed in me, His new Calvary, and risen in me: Offering me to the Father, in Himself, asking the Father, my Father and His, to receive me into His infinite and special love. . . .
What magnificent thoughts. Most of us could not fashion the words in so poetic and powerful a way, but hopefully most of us had a similar experience at our First Holy Communion. I still recall with devotion and emotion that momentous occasion in my life in 1957, kneeling at the altar rail of St. Rose’s Church in Newark, New Jersey. I can yet remember even the exact spot where I knelt at that rail and how the months of study and preparation seemed as nothing in the awareness that the God who had created both me and the universe was now coming to dwell within me in a new and wondrous manner. Having been baptized into Christ’s Body, the Church, which is likewise His Bride, I was now being brought into a union even more close and more intimate than that of marriage: Through the Eucharist, Jesus and I would become one. How I trembled at the prospect for which I had waited so long, not from fear (because I was never trained to relate to God in that way) but from love and joy. The priest was only two children away from me, now one. Finally, he stood before me and, signing me with the Sacred Host, prayed, “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam æternam.” (May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto life everlasting.). As I opened my mouth and pillowed Christ on my tongue, I knew I was entering upon a new mode of existence, destined for life eternal.
We all need to recapture that enthusiasm, that innocence, that faith which brings us to appreciate precisely what the mystery of the Eucharist is in Itself and for us. If we did understand what we do so regularly, how different we would be – no sloppy or thoughtless genuflections; no half-hearted liturgical participation; no unworthy and unprepared for Communions; no arriving late and leaving early; no frivolous socializing in the presence of the One whom the Sacred Heart Litany calls “the King and center of all hearts.” Yes, we all need to ask Our Lord on this magnificent solemnity to grant us the grace to have that “second honeymoon” with Him who, on the day of our First Holy Communion, became the Bridegroom of our souls.
And, for the Eucharist, we need priests. Permit me to be yet again a bit autobiographical. I wanted to be a priest from my first day in kindergarten, but that desire was ratified and solidified on the day of my First Holy Communion. So awesome was the experience of that occasion that I promised Our Lord that I would be an instrument of His to enable others to know and share in the close and loving relationship I had just embarked upon. In so much of Western Europe and North America, we find ourselves short of priests. We are told by pollsters that this is so because celibacy is an impossible burden today; because the Church is out of step with the modern world; because young people are being offered many more attractive options in life.
I disagree. The reason why we have fewer priestly vocations is because so few young people today have been introduced to the full mystery of the Eucharist. If they knew what happens in each celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, we would have so many candidates that we would either be turning them away or building new seminaries year in and year out – as they are in many parts of Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. Ask any seminarian what attracted him to the priesthood, and I daresay that you’ll get the same basic answer – a love for Christ’s Eucharist and a sincere desire to make that Presence available to the Church until the Lord comes again in glory. That is why the priesthood exists; we priests live for Christ and for you, our people. And regardless of the faults and failings and sins which may haunt us as weak, fallible men, if we do at least that much right in bringing you this sacrament of Christ’s love, that love will cover a multitude of sins, as the First Epistle of St. Peter tells us (4:8).
And because of this immense work of love, the Catholic people have always taken their priests into their hearts and homes, loving them as the fathers of this family of faith. While never blind to the weaknesses of their priests, the lay faithful have nonetheless never ceased to love them and to pray for them. Priests and people, then, are united in a common desire for the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.
The Eucharistic procession
Last but by no means least is consideration of one of the hallmarks of the Corpus Christi observance – the Eucharistic procession. For years now on this solemnity, as I have carried the Blessed Sacrament in outdoor processions, several thoughts have flooded my mind. Let me share some of them with you as I invite you to participate in a kind of “virtual” procession.
The first thought comes due to the reaction of the public to a Eucharistic procession. Some people are perplexed; some stand at attention; some kneel in adoration; some sneer in derision; many are indifferent. Then it strikes me that this was exactly how the crowds reacted to Jesus during His earthly life and ministry. And how appropriate it is for them to behave in the same way when they encounter Him in the Eucharistic Species.
My second reflection concerns just What I am carrying. I am bearing the Sacrifice by which the human race was redeemed, the Sacrifice of peace and reconciliation, the Sacrifice of the novi et aeterni testamenti (“the new and everlasting covenant”). I am bearing that Food which is at once the Bread of Angels and the Bread of men – panis angelicus fit panis hominum – the Living Bread, “come down from Heaven” (Jn 6:51), the Bread which will enable the sinful children of Adam and Eve to live forever. I am bearing the Presence of the Eternal King, before whom – like Moses – we take off our shoes because His passing makes holy the ground on which we stand; the Presence of the One who promised to remain with us until the end of time.
My third realization is that Christ’s faithful carry Him into the world with them not simply during Eucharistic processions but every day of their lives – or at least they should. Like our Blessed Mother who bore the Christ Child in her womb for nine months, we too are living tabernacles, and how careful we must be always to be fitting vessels for Him.
Sacrifice, Food, Presence. In these three dimensions, the Eucharist makes the Church the Church, as St, John Paul II pointed out in the final encyclical of his life, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. That is, the Church formed by the Holy Eucharist is a holy people whom God has called out of the world to be a people peculiarly His own – different from others, unafraid and unashamed to be so, even proud to be so.
Is this a difficult vocation, a kind of mission impossible? Yes, it is difficult, but never impossible, for “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). When we are misunderstood for being different, sometimes even by loved ones; when we are mocked for holding to Christian values and for rejecting worldly ones; when a stand for Christ causes lost friendships or at times lost jobs; when troubles surround us and God seems distant and aloof; it is in precisely those circumstances that we must believe at the very core of our being that the Lord of the Eucharist is with us on this journey – as the living sign of the Sacrifice, Food and Presence by which we shall be brought safely home. Truly, the Eucharistic Christ is Himself the esca viatorum (“the food of wayfarers”), a theological truth underscored by the Corpus Christi procession as the image of the Crucified Lord leads the pilgrim people (in that felicitous phrase of the Second Vatican Council), while the Lord Jesus in the humble form of bread stands in the center of the procession with God’s holy people following, so that Christ is literally in our midst on the journey of life, which is likewise the journey into eternity.
Salvation constantly renewed
The beauty of the Eucharistic mystery is that the God who saved us through the Sacrifice of His Son continues to be with us and to nourish us. Our salvation is constantly renewed in and through the Eucharist as we travel through the desert to the Promised Land, bringing with us the Ark of the Covenant, the Divine Presence; indeed, this Jesus is not merely external to us, for He is truly living within us.
And that is the point highlighted on this lovely feast. As a result of our participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, we carry within ourselves the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. By a totally and truly marvelous exchange of roles, we discover that in reality it is He who carries us. On this solemnity, our minds and hearts are nourished with the profound Eucharistic theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, author of the liturgical texts for this day. In a particular way, we need to make our own the lovely sentiments with which he ends the Lauda Sion, the sequence for this feast:
Bone pastor, panis vere,
Jesu, nostri miserére:
Tu nos pasce, nos tuére:
Tu nos bona fac vidére
In terra vivéntium.
Jesu, shepherd of the sheep:
Thou Thy flock in safety keep,
Living bread, Thy life supply:
Strengthen us, or else we die,
Fill us with celestial grace.
Tu, qui cuncta scis et vales:
Qui nos pascis hic mortales:
Tuos ibi commensáles,
Cohaerédes et sodales,
Fac sanctórum cívium.
Thou, who feedest us below:
Source of all we have or know:
Grant that with Thy Saints above,
Sitting at the feast of love,
We may see Thee face to face.
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