“Do this in remembrance of Me”: Memory, Culture, Sacrament

We’ve forgotten who we are as a believing people. This is both a cause and a symptom of today’s lukewarm Catholic spirit, in our nation’s culture and within the Church herself. But that can change, and it needs to change.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia elevates the Eucharist as U.S. bishops from New Jersey and Pennsylvania concelebrate Mass at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome Nov. 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

Editor’s note: The following keynote address was given by Archbishop Chaput at the Eucharistic Symposium at the Cathedral of Saint Thomas More in Arlington, VA, on October 22, 2022.

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Our theme today is the Eucharist and the words of Jesus in Luke 22: Do this in remembrance of me. Do this in memory of me. So I want to focus my remarks on three simple things: the importance of memory; the place of remembering in our particular American culture; and the role of the Eucharist in reminding us who God is, who we are, and why we’re here.

Memory is a curious thing. Most animals remember and seek to avoid danger. But human memory is unique and acute. It’s one of the defining gifts of our creaturehood. We’re the only species to bury our dead and mark their graves. And we do that out of reverence for the part they played in the world we share, and to keep the deceased alive in our memory.

When we forget the past, we steal something precious from our own humanity because the past created and informs the present. The people we are — in large measure — is the work of those who came before us. We add to the human story with our own lives, but we never start from an empty page. Scripture itself is simply the recorded memory of God’s work over time, carried out through his Chosen People. When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in John 4 that “salvation is from the Jews,” he’s compressing into a few words a sacred drama, passed down through generations of God’s people.

God chose the Jews to be a light to the nations. He delivered them from slavery in Egypt. He set them apart from other nations. He promised them a land of their own rich in good things. And his covenant with the Jewish people is irreversible. It continues today. As Christians, we’re grafted into a story that precedes the birth of God’s son by hundreds of years and prepares his way. Which is why the books of the Old Testament are not really “old” for us at all. They’re evergreen, and always new, in the remembered lessons they hold for us here and now.

One of those lessons is this. Just as we humans have a miraculous gift for remembering, we have an equal and opposite talent for forgetting. We may be homo sapiens, man the wise. We may imagine ourselves to be homo deus, man the god. But in practice we’re homo oblitus, man the forgetful. The evidence is overwhelming. And also perilous, because when we forget the past, we sooner or later forget who we really are.

One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is the transition from the final chapter in the Book of Joshua through the second chapter in the Book of Judges. The setting is instructive. After the death of Moses, God appoints Joshua to lead his people across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. And God guarantees the people prosperity and success in battle – so long as they keep the Law he gave to Moses. Joshua is faithful and leads the people through a bitter war of conquest. Finally, toward the end of his life, after defeating all of his people’s enemies, Joshua gathers the tribes of Israel together. He exhorts them to choose the god they will serve: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses or the alien gods their ancestors and conquered enemies once worshipped. And the people answer:

Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, and who did [such] great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went . . .

But Joshua has a very keen memory. And so he warns that, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And the people respond, “We are witnesses.”

So what happens next? As soon as Joshua and his generation pass away, the Jews start to forget. They lapse almost immediately into indifference and idolatry. And the result, as the Book of Judges tells us, is ugly:

[T]he anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies . . .Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for evil, as the Lord had warned . . .

There are two important truths to draw from this story. Here’s the first truth: The infidelity of Israel throughout the Hebrew Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament – is chronic and endlessly repeated. But here’s the second truth: The fidelity of God to his covenant is also chronic. And it’s enduring. God never forgets. He remains faithful to his people, despite their weakness and sins. Even God’s punishments are designed to lead Israel back into his arms. The Jews are barely out of Egypt when their backsliding starts. While Moses is receiving the Commandments from God on Sinai, the Jews are busy down below making and worshiping a golden calf. They spend the next 40 years wandering in the desert as their penalty.

And yet the very existence of a biblical record of apostasy, suffering, repentance, and conversion, proves that the human heart has a relentless yearning across time and culture for something more than this world. We have a hunger for communion with the God who made us and who, despite our sins, loves us. This complicated, biblical diary of the human experience is the genius of the Jewish witness to the world. As Jesus said simply and truly: Salvation is from the Jews.

Memory matters. The Jewish people survive because they remember who they are. But more importantly, they remember who God is and what God did and does for them. Faithful Jews contribute great good to the world around them — but they also protect and treasure the things that set them apart and define them. As Christians, we need to think and live in exactly the same way. We need to remember the saving work God has done for us, and continues to do for us, in Jesus Christ.

Now, the bad news is that we live in a country that instinctively dislikes the past. We’re a novus ordo seclorum, a “new order of the ages.” For the American spirit – as Henry Ford famously said – history is bunk. We enjoy nostalgia as a mental Disneyland, but the real past has sharp edges and dark closets. The real past comes with obligations. Remembering too much and too clearly can be a downer. It’s a millstone around our vanities in the present and our ambitions for the future. This is what makes forgetting our biblical roots as a nation not only possible but convenient. And the more vigorously secular that American life becomes, the more we aggravate two key problems that undermine and fracture us as a people.

Here’s the first problem: We have a growing inability to think clearly. Reasoning requires time. It demands a reverence for the lessons of history, for the genealogy of ideas, and the testing and comparison of arguments against learned truths. But the America we have today is a culture built on marketing — and marketing works in exactly the opposite way.

Marketing appeals to our immediate appetites, here and now. It locks us in the present. It depends on suppressing our critical thought and any memories that might feed it, because people who think clearly and remember carefully may not buy the product or believe the sales pitch. That explains why marketing is tied so tightly to rapidly changing images. Images operate underneath the radar of our critical thought. Which is why tobacco ads, for so many years, wrapped the habit of smoking in sleek and vigorous young people, instead of stage four lung tumors.

The average American child watches more than half a million television commercials between the ages of 3 and 18. That’s up to 9,000 hours of advertising, not including the mental noise of internet, radio and magazines. It amounts to a university education in greed, self-absorption and impossible expectations that end in anxiety and resentment. In the name of serving consumers, we’ve permanently addicted consumers to a river of new goods and services. We now have millions of people who live artificially restless and dissatisfied lives — and our economy depends on keeping them that way.

This hollows out the interior life of individuals, marriages, families, and public institutions. We don’t allow ourselves to think through the logic of our own economic machinery, because we don’t want to deal with the burdens of reforming the way we live.

Here’s the second problem, and it flows from the first: We have a growing inability to imagine and hope. Americans, at least until very recently, have never been an ideological people. We’re practical and flexible. We’re toolmakers. We believe in results. So it’s really no surprise that we built the strongest economic machine in the world; or that we excel at science and technology; or that these disciplines enjoy such dominant influence in our culture.

But technology always carries with it a “revenge of unintended consequences.” And one of the unintended consequences of our science is that we’ve become its objects and its victims. Matthew Crawford, the author and cultural critic, noted some years ago that the gambling industry — among many other product providers — uses the behavioral sciences, very deliberately, to create “addiction by design.” Electronic gambling machines are built specifically to reinforce the addictive habits of gamblers. In other words, the price tag for our genius at science has been a decline in our understanding of the soul, a rise in a materialist view of the world, and an erosion of our sense that humanity is somehow unique. Hope and imagination grow out of our belief in the grandeur of creation and a higher purpose to our lives. If all we are is intelligent carbon — then hope and imagination are just quirks of the species. And so is any talk about the sanctity of the human person.

The more our advertising misuses the language of our desires to sell consumer goods, to flatter our vanities, to tease our appetites, and to obscure our responsibilities to the suffering and the poor . . . the more mixed up our dreams and ideals become. We confuse ourselves to the point where we no longer recognize what real love, honest work, freedom, friendship, compassion, family, community, patriotism – and the purpose of life itself — look like.

We try harder and harder to fill the void in our lives with material clutter – things which can never really heal that emptiness. The more we have, the more we fear losing what we have. And this leads us deeper and deeper into futility, no matter how much we own or how frantically we try to distract ourselves.

What all of this means for American Catholics and our 200-year struggle to fit into mainstream American culture should be obvious. We succeeded. But in the process, we’ve been digested and bleached out by the culture, rather than leavening it in a fertile way with a distinctive Catholic witness. Mr. Biden’s apostasy on the abortion issue is only the most repugnant example. He’s not alone. But in a sane world, his unique public leadership would make — or should make — public consequences unavoidable.

When you freely break communion with the Church of Jesus Christ and her teachings, you can’t pretend to be in communion when it’s convenient. That’s a form of lying. Mr. Biden is not in communion with the Catholic faith. And any priest who now provides Communion to the president participates in his hypocrisy.

Which brings us to the final point of these remarks: the role of the Eucharist in reminding us who we are and why we’re here.

I began my remarks today with a story from the Old Testament because it prepares the way for the New. God chose the Jewish people as a “light to the nations;” a light that he purified, perfected and incarnated in the person of his son, Jesus Christ. That same Jesus Christ is alive among us right now in every celebration of the Mass, in our tabernacles, and in our adoration chapels. Many Catholics no longer really believe that; not really, not in their gut. They’re good people. They come to Mass. They love the Church. They line up and receive Communion. But they don’t really understand what they’re doing, because so many of us live so much of our lives in a kind of half-conscious, narcoleptic haze of distractions, anxieties, noise, and anesthetics. The supernatural and miraculous seem remote and impractical; they’re pious words without traction in people’s hearts and actions.

There’s an antidote to that narcolepsy. And it begins by simply reading – from the first verse in Matthew, to the last verse in Revelation – the book that we all claim to believe: the New Testament. It’s impossible to silently read the Word of God without encountering God’s presence. Humans are creatures who starve without beauty and meaning. We come alive when we meet someone or something we love. And exactly that kind of “something” happened in Judea and Galilee 2,000 years ago; something that radically transformed skeptical lives and turned the world on its head.

No one can read the letters of St Paul without drinking in his ferocious passion for the Gospel. He was consumed with zeal for the person of Jesus Christ. And he never wavered, despite betrayals, beatings, trials, prison cells — and in the end, martyrdom. Paul was an educated Pharisee, a Roman citizen, a thoroughly sane man. He was never a man given to fantasies or eccentric myths, and he persecuted the earliest Christians for precisely that reason. No such man could do what he eventually accomplished unless he really did encounter a risen Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. That moment bent the arc of human history.

The gravity that Paul brings to his words about the proper celebration of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:27 leaves no doubt that the bread and wine of the sacrament are the literal body and blood of Jesus. For Paul and the believing Early Church, Jesus is not a dead memory. Jesus is a living presence physically among them in their eucharistic celebrations. And this foundational belief has been the driving force of Christian identity, survival, and mission ever since.

Of course, in a world of scientistic pride, skepticism about such things takes on the vestments of wisdom. But let’s think that through for a moment.

We call the Eucharist a sacrament, and the root of the word “sacrament” is the Latin word sacer, meaning sacred or hallowed. Sacer is simply the Latin translation of the Greek word musterion, meaning mystery. A mystery is something difficult or impossible to understand or explain . . . and yet nonetheless real. Love and loyalty are not always logical, but they’re always, intensely real. No amount of science can reduce them to predictable chemical stimuli. Science is a discipline of observable, repeatable data. And all such disciplines and data have their limits. As C.S. Lewis once said, we humans live within the envelope of our senses – what we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Our senses are powerful gifts but, by their nature, they can’t possibly perceive what lies outside the borders of their envelope.

What’s invisible and unexplainable can therefore be vividly real. We all instinctively know this. We feel it when we imagine, dream, and love. The sacramental imagination is a profoundly human and practical response to the wonder all around us. Every conscious, personal encounter with the sacred lifts us up, out of ourselves, into the transcendent beauty of God’s creation. And that’s why a materialist culture, a culture based on relentless commerce, works so hard to choke us with distractions and noise, and to drag us back down into the horizontal world of low horizons, acquisitiveness, and anxieties.

Vatican II and its subsequent instructions described the Eucharist as the source, the summit, and “the true center of the whole Christian life” (EM, 1). The Eucharist is simultaneously a sacrifice, a memorial, and a sacred banquet in which Christ himself, in concert with his Church “perpetuates in an unbloody manner the sacrifice offered on the cross” (EM, 3).

What that means is simply this: The Eucharist is not merely a metaphor, or a purely spiritual event, or a symbol. It’s the living body and blood of Jesus Christ, brought about with bread and wine through the ministry of the priest. If it were merely a symbol, as the great American Catholic author Flannery O’Connor once said, “then to hell with it.” But that’s not what she believed, and it’s not what the Eucharist is. The Eucharist is God incarnate, tangibly present among the worshipers, in accord with Luke 22:19-20, Matthew 18:20, and John 6:48-58. And this is why, throughout Christian history, beginning with St. Paul, the Church has attached such deep reverence to the Eucharistic liturgy.

It’s also why the unworthy reception of the Eucharist, as a kind of mindless habit, is so offensive and ultimately so soul-killing. Abuse of the sacred is a form of contempt for God himself. And sooner or later, that ends badly for the abuser.

As I said a moment ago: We’ve arrived at a moment when many Catholics, even many who regularly attend Sunday Mass, no longer believe in the Real Sacrifice or the Real Presence. We’ve forgotten who we are as a believing people. This is both a cause and a symptom of today’s lukewarm Catholic spirit, in our nation’s culture and within the Church herself. But that can change, and it needs to change, starting with each of us here.

Baptism gives us our identity and mission. The Eucharist feeds and sustains both with the person of Jesus himself, tangible and alive. The origin of that word “Eucharist” is the Greek word eukharistia, meaning “thanksgiving.” The Eucharist is fundamentally the flesh and blood embodiment of God’s love for his people and our human gratitude for the gift of redemption. A life of gratitude in a world of appetite and selfishness is a revolutionary act; a rebellion against the shabbiness and unfulfilled hungers of a materialist world. As Augustine said 16 centuries ago, our hearts are restless until they rest in God, And the Son of God knocks on the door of our souls at every Sunday Mass, in every Holy Communion.

The obedience of repentance, confession, and conversion; the sacrifice of self-giving in our union with Jesus’s own self-gift to the Father; the discipline of silent personal adoration; the conscious reception of Communion in a spirit of real humility and intimate worship – these things, over time, heal the restless heart and change the axis on which the world turns.

As Joshua said to the tribes of Israel so long ago, we need to choose this day which God we will serve. And if we remember who our God is, and what he has done for us and is doing; if we remember who we are as a believing people, and choose well; then we, and those we love, and the wider world we’re called to sanctify, will be the better for it.


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About Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. 7 Articles
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia and author of Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living (Henry Holt), as well as Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics and Render unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life.

10 Comments

  1. Thank you – an article that correctly points out to the roots of the malaise and lukewarmness as well as the remedy , in also reliving our history in recalling our generational lines . Book of Joshua for example – the tiny glimpse of the victories won for us by our Lord against all our spiritual enemies which are all the sinful traits ; our Lord wanting us to claim that victory ever more deeply ..’Bring them to Me ‘ – Divine Mercy theme – with the desire and trust that in The Lord who is said to have redone every thougt and word of all of humanity during His Hidden Life on this earth desires to bless us with same – for us to bring all the wounds unto Him trusting in His forgiveness for all,including all those who died in all those wars , to thank Him with / for all ..

    https://comedivinewill.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/the-rounds-of-the-soul-in-the-eucharist/

    Would not be surprised if The Council itself was from The Church’s desire to widen the awareness of the mysteries of the Divine Will revelations as the God given remedy for the evils that we now face .

    St.John Paul 11 too might have used the time of his recuperation after the GSW to deepen in same .St.Padre Pio – ? the one who mentioned to him about S.G Luisa and her writings .
    Our Jewish brethren as well as people of all faiths one day soon enough might find enough in the above to take in the goodness of God to thus become a people of profound gratitude , set free from the slavery of carnality and to thus let nature itself too be healed !
    FIAT !

  2. All so very true, and so well spoken. And, the reason for our insidious consumption of distractions is an unspoken despair. Despair concealed by the erasure of memory…

    The despair of failed progressivism rotting in the trenches of World War I. Despair over victimizations beyond measure in World War II. Despair that the superficially optimistic years of recover could not last, or really satisfy. Despair over a shrunken world where, every day, from the age of six on up, we are treated by the ubiquitous media to wars and rumors of wars, flood disasters in Pakistan, Islamic terrorism in Nigeria, Iraq, and on our shores, the Chinese virus pandemic and the alliance of bureaucracy and the pharmaceutical industry, the drug addiction pandemic, the multiplication of out-of-wedlock births seeking momentary and escapist intimacy to be validated by government fatwa, then even the surrender of binary personal identity dragged into hell by the German betrayal, breaking-point school shootings and routine homicides in all our cities, failed government handouts and an intergenerational national debt, plus, now, 1-in-500-year hurricanes and the plausibility that we are consuming the seed corn and ecological niche borrowed from future generations…and now—horrors—rising gas prices!

    But, “DO this in memory of ME.” The only “thing” left standing. Gifted and total self-donation (!) from God Almighty.

    Not as a flat-earth episode on a global timeline, but instead—the eternal Second Person/incarnate Christ as the center of all human history and personal histories. The Catholic Church? Will the center hold, or will imposters opt for ambiguity while making deals with a fallen and now shredded world?

    Let us replace worldly despair with theological hope, and pray for the lasting success of a Eucharistic coherence/revival—“the Word made flesh” (CCC n. 1374). And that Archbishop Chaput’s lucid words are also long remembered.

    • You are ‘right on’, dear Peter.

      Nihilism, constantly reinforced by social-media and other media, evokes disbelief in any perspective that points to a larger divine plan for this universe, humanity, the Church, and us, personally.

      As a well-published scientist & well-published theologian, I’d humbly proclaim that EVERY person is stupid who trades their beautiful eternal soul for some decaying baubles of self-asserting, God-defying trivia of this crooked world, no matter how winsome or powerful it pretends to be.

      How not to be stupid? Acknowledge the love and peace of God uniquely given us in Jesus Christ: our creator, sustainer, healer, deliverer, only teacher, & final Judge.

      I hear some say: “Too late in the day!”
      Yet, Jesus taught us that every sincere late comer is accepted by Him.

      ALL who sincerely repent of their sins, depending on Christ’s Grace alone, gain access to an unmerited gift of eternal life. This could not be easier to grasp than is repeatedly taught in The New Testament – crisply summarized in John 10:27-30.

      Listening and following Jesus: we are embraced by the whole company of all those who love God: millions, of every race & tribe & language & nationality.

      THAT alone is not stupid; that alone is enduringly divinely human!

      This scientist/theologian is happy to assure one and all that Christ Jesus is the Wisdom of our cosmos; as is coherent historically, scientifically, philosophically, theologically, and sociologically. How many clergy & catechists know & teach this?

      From that perspective, whatever our starting point, all else, indeed, is stupidity.

      Take care everyone; stay safe.

      Ever in the love of The Lamb; blessings from marty

  3. What the faithful all know as causal, the idolatrous worship of the myriad gods available to man, what the man who idolizes has finds rapturous. Indication is recent report of an Oregon apple orchard community parents aligned in a barter of the children for sexual exploitation. Children becoming increasing the preferred object of sexual pleasure. Oregon isn’t exceptional; a similar ring was uncovered in LI NY. Brussels had a notorious prostitution of children arrangement involving ranking government officials.
    Archbishop Chaput sees the similarity in ancient Israel, the turning to demon gods and the immolation of their own children. Retribution was swift and harsh. I fear we’re at a place that’s darker than ancient Israel. Jews then rebelled against an unseen God. We’ve had God incarnate among us, witnessed to the Father, in effect revealed the Father in his own Person, crucified, risen from the dead for our salvation. After 2000 years we’ve significantly abandoned God and presently, including the ‘lukewarm’ [those who claim Catholicism even finger rosary beads in public] who favor abortion, homosexuality.
    Chaput’s urgent warning is right. We must return to true, fervent worship. Our issue is, who will lead us? Where do we find our Moses, Athanasius, Francis of Assisi? We hope one [perhaps more] will appear to spark the flame. If not, the future begs for chastisement.

  4. I would add to my comment that the clear indication of our disbelief, of the many who assume their Catholic identity is the disinterest in the Holy Eucharist, the ritualistic reception of Christ’s body with little or no reverence. Absence of people when confession is available for the community. As Archbishop suggests on memory, there’s a lost sense of the interior reverent awareness at our first communion.

  5. Catholics are so fortunate to have a bishop, albeit retired, who is willing to speak the truth on our behalf. Archbishop Chaput is a role model for bishops who desire to teach and uphold authentic Catholic theology. I pray that the USCCB members will listen to his witness and counsel and bring themselves in line with our faith. Too many of them seem to be akin to Democrats who wish for power over service and truth. Would that Rome would also listen to the Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia.

    • The Bishop of Rome and the faithless sycophants he has surrounded himself with are no fans of the Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia.

  6. Beautifully written; beautifully true. Who can fathom the fact that it is really Jesus Himself we are consuming, Body, Blood, Soul, Divinity! Does it really matter that it is unfathomable to our intellect? Is it not the greatest “leap of faith” that one can experience? The consequences of receiving Christ in Holy Communion lightly, casually, or as a symbol are frightening. Thank you, Bishop; I would love to be able to write as skillfully by the leading of the Holy Spirit as you!

  7. I have long believed that a large part of the problem with the post V2 church has been its unlimited stress on forgiveness and mercy. These are good things. But the story has been distorted by the church’s abandonment of ANY discussions of sin, its consequences, and the need for repentance. Without a discussion of all of these elements, what is being presented is a complete distortion. Period. Why would the Eucharist be revered and respected, with people lacking any sense of the sacred.

  8. His excellency might be missing the forest for the trees. In my work as a journalist, I see lots of examples of a Catholic spirit on fire with the Resurrection.

    I have encountered these life giving examples in Catholic Worker Houses, folks working to make abortion safe, legal and rare, Jesuit Volunteers in the inner city and advocates casting a lifeline to prisoners on death row.

    I agree with His excellency that as Catholics “we’ve been digested and bleached out by the culture.”

    My instruction manual for resisting that culture is: Following Christ in a Consumer Society by John Kavanaugh.

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