The Bread the Wine and the Power of the Cross to Transform Them

There is an engaging image of the Church contained in a passage from last week’s Office of Readings. It is instructive because it speaks not only of themselves but of the power that makes them.

It is appropriate that we should receive the body of Christ in the form of bread, because, as there are many grains of wheat in the flour from which bread is made by mixing it with water and baking it with fire, so also we know that many members make up the one body of Christ which is brought to maturity by the fire of the Holy Spirit ….

Similarly, the wine of Christ’s blood, drawn from the many grapes of the vineyard that he had planted, is extracted in the wine-press of the cross. When men receive it with believing hearts, like capacious wineskins, it ferments within them by its own power(From a sermon by Saint Gaudentius of Brescia, bishop, Tract 2 CSEL 68, 30-32).

Most of us are familiar with the image of bread as the coming together of many individual grains. The ancient Eucharistic hymn from the Didache, as reworked a bit in the modern hymn “Father We Thank Thee,” contains these lyrics:

As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
was in this broken bread made one,
so from all lands Thy Church be gathered
into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.

This is certainly a powerful image, however, grains brought together are still just a pile of flour. It takes water to truly unite them into a batch of dough. For us, the water that must unite us is the water of our Baptism. Thus, Gaudentius says, bread is made [first]by mixing it with water.In our Baptism we are made members of the Body of Christ by dying with Him and rising to new life. It is, then, and first of all, the water of Baptism that unites us.

However, bread is incomplete until it is baked, until it is subject to the fire. Thus, Gaudentius teaches more fully, bread is made by mixing it with water and baking it with fire … [and thus] the one body of Christ is brought to maturity by the fire of the Holy Spirit …. We know how the Lord gathered His disciples and apostles, uniting them to Himself, but we also know how weak and confused they often were until the coming of the Holy Spirit like wind and tongues of fire. It was the Fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that quickened them, that matured them.

I am aware that many like to speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, a saying that goes back to the Fathers of the Church. A birthday, however, brings thoughts of infancy and immaturity. I prefer, therefore, to see Pentecost more as a commencement or graduation of the Church, fully instructed and now brought to maturity by the Fire of the Holy Spirit.

Speaking also to the Blood of Christ transubstantiated from the “blood” of many grapes, St. Gaudentius reminds us of the source of the power that unites those many grapes: they are extracted in the wine-press of the cross. It is from this wine that He makes His Blood, this fourth cup of the Passover meal, this wine that He would not taste again until He drank it with the apostles anew in the Kingdom of His Father (cfMatt 26:29).

Consider well, then, fellow Catholics, the font that unites us, the Fire who matures us, and the power of the cross that brings forth the chalice of salvation.

The Prayer for Divine Mercy Sunday says all of this beautifully:

God of everlasting mercy,
who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast,
kindle the faith of the people you have made your own,
increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed,
that all may grasp and rightly understand
in what font they have been washed,
by whose Spirit they have been reborn,
by whose Blood they have been redeemed.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Three Underappreciated Acclamations of Eucharistic Piety

In the afterglow of Corpus Christi, we do well to consider some of our liturgical practices. Over the years on this blog we have done a good deal of this (e.g., Worthiness to receive Communion).

In this post, I would like to consider three rather obscure but still important moments that are often lost in the minds and hearts of the faithful – the Mystery of Faith,  the Amen, and the Agnus Dei. They rise in importance because they are moments that belong especially to the faithful rather than the clergy.

I. The Mystery of Faith (Memorial Acclamation)

In the Ordinary Form of the Liturgy, an acclamation of the people has been added just after the consecration. The priest bids them to acclaim the paschal mystery that has just been made present in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

In effect, this addition to Mass is the “Pauline Comment.” It is so named for the fact that after repeating the words of consecration, St. Paul adds a kind of comment:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: that the Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. (1 Cor 11:23-26)

Critics of the Memorial acclamation see it as a novelty and intrusion into the Roman Rite. They also see it as given merely to imitate the Eastern rites or to give the people something to do in a prayer otherwise uttered entirely by the priest to the Father. But, as noted, the intrusion is not a merely arbitrary insertion, it draws from Paul’s comment on the words of consecration.

However, the criticisms are not without any merit. This practice was largely unknown in the Western rite, and, if the response of the people is desired, it is complicated by the fact that three different versions are offered, each of which differ in ways from the “Pauline comment” as recorded in scripture.

All of this said, the response is there and the faithful are asked to make an acclamation by the celebrant. He says or sings “The mystery of faith.” At this point the rubrics indicate “And the people continue, acclaiming …” Note that it is not anticipated that the priest should join them. At other times the rubrics do dictate that the priest and people sing together. (For example, at the Sanctus the rubric states, “[The priest] joins his hands and concludes the Preface with the people, singing or saying aloud …”)

But in the case of the Mystery of Faith, the rubric simply says, “the people continue, acclaiming …” There are three options:

1. We proclaim your death or Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.

2. When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup we proclaim your death O Lord, until to come again.

3. Save us Savior of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free.

As noted, these acclamations echo the practice of the Eastern Churches, which contain several acclamations by the people during the Eucharistic Prayer (specifically the Anaphora). For example, in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the people sing “Amen” after the consecration of the bread and again after the consecration of the wine. The priest then sings, Thine own, of thine own, we offer unto thee, on behalf of all and for all. And the people respond, We praise thee, we bless thee, we give thanks unto thee and we pray unto thee, Lord our God.

The people’s response, not the priest’s. The memorial acclamation is a moment for the people to acclaim the paschal mystery that has just been made present to them. Too often, unfortunately, they seem distracted or uninvolved. Clergy should not usurp the acclamation for themselves by singing or saying it too loudly. Even if it is necessary to “get the people started,” the priest should then pull back and listen reverently to the response that really belongs to the congregation. This is a moment for the people of God to express their praise and worship of the Lord, now present on the altar, in a reverent fashion. They also express by the acclamation that the passion, death and resurrection are made present to them. It belongs to us clergy to instruct the faithful on the meaning and importance of this moment in terms of Eucharistic piety and faith.

II.  Amen

The Amen at the end of the Eucharistic prayer is another moment for God’s people to acclaim their “yes,” solemnly and joyfully, to what has just taken place. In this case as well, the speaking or the singing of the “Amen” is assigned to the people, not the clergy. The rubrics state, “The people acclaim:  Amen.”

The celebrant, in persona Christi Capitis, has been speaking to the Father on their behalf, recalling the great works of God and the Sacrifice of the Cross made present in the Eucharist. He has asked mercy for the Church: the clergy and all the people, living and deceased.

At the conclusion, the celebrant and deacon hold aloft the Body and Blood of the Lord and sing or say, Through him and with him and in him, O God almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, forever and ever. It is for the people, not the celebrant, to acclaim “Amen.” It is their “yes,” their acknowledgment of all that has been said and has taken place.

Thus, the “Amen” ought to be a vigorous one. There is no need for histrionics, but a good, firm “Amen” is surely called for as a sign of our Eucharistic faith and our grateful hearts. At times, though, it seems one can barely detect the joy and firm affirmation that is deserved. Eucharistic piety demands more than a distracted, feeble “Amen.”

III.  The Agnus Dei

Just prior to the Agnus Dei, the optional (though seldom omitted) sign of peace is sung or said. Unfortunately, there are often excesses in what ought to be a modest greeting to those immediately nearby. These excesses often lead to the eclipse of what is a beautiful and pious hymn of preparation for Holy Communion: Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us … grant us peace.

The recitation or singing of the Agnus Dei begins just after the sign of peace, but many people do not take the hint to refocus and join in. Instead they continue glad-handing as if it were merely background noise/music to the sign of peace. It is not. It is part of a eucharistic piety meant to prepare us for Holy Communion. Consider that the words of the hymn are very tender. We invoke Him who is the Lamb of God to have mercy on us and grant us peace to approach the Eucharistic altar without servile fear.

The Agnus Dei is especially a song of the people, because the celebrant is usually busy with other prayers. He may join towards the end, but this is a moment for the people to prepare themselves for Holy Communion.

Here, then, are three acclamations of Eucharistic piety that help frame the liturgy and draw us to devotion. My sense is that they are underappreciated by many of the faithful and that clergy often usurp the role given to the lay faithful here, sometimes even acting as a “song leader.”

Ideally, the faithful can discover their own role here and see that the acclamations are not mere formulae, but prayers of a people who believe and celebrate what is announced.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Three Underappreciated Acclamations of Eucharistic Piety

Jesus Wants to Feed You! Corpus Christi

On the Feast of Corpus Christi, we do well to mediate on the desire of the Lord to feed His people and the shocking indifference many have to this fact. This indifference is not just on the part of those who do not come to Mass; it is also found among those in the pews, many of whom don’t seem to care that so many people no longer attend. We should recognize the passionate concern the Lord has to feed all His people—yes even your wayward spouse or child.

Let’s consider today’s Gospel in three ways.

I. Desire that is Discerned – Jesus has been teaching the crowds all day by the lake. The text says, As the day was drawing to a close, the Twelve approached him and said, “Dismiss the crowd so that they can go to the surrounding villages and farms and find lodging and provisions; for we are in a deserted place here.”

The diagnosis here is that the crowd is hungry. And this is a diagnosis of the human condition in general: we are hungry.

How are we hungry? Let us count the ways. We are a veritable sea of desires. We desire food, drink, life, health, honor, respect, popularity, intimacy, family, security, goodness, beauty, truth, serenity, justice, and so much more. Yes, we have so many desires; we are hungry. And herein lies an insight for evangelization. For Somehow amidst all this hunger, God is calling us. We are like the woman at the well, who came thirsty for the water of this world but was shown by the Lord that she actually desired Him, and that it was only He who could satisfy her.

It is sad that while every advertiser on Madison Avenue knows how to tap into people’s desire and draw forth loyalty, we Christians have so little insight. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light (Lk 16:8).

And thus we are like the Apostles, irritated and clueless that people have needs. In effect we say, “You are needy. Go away,” rather than “You are needy. Wow, have I got an answer for you! You want what is good, true, and beautiful? You want what satisfies? Wow, have I got a meal for you!”

So the diagnosis is clear: the crowd is hungry. Sadly, though, the Apostles in that moment were “out to lunch.” They were out of ideas. This could describe us today as well.

II. Directive for the Disciples Note that the Lord has a deep desire to feed these people. He said to them, “Give them some food yourselves.” The Apostles, of course, can only protest the impracticality of such a thing. They are staring right in the face of Jesus Christ yet think it impossible to feed this crowd. They see only five loaves and two fishes; they can’t see Jesus. They don’t know Jesus! Do you see their lack of faith? What about yours?

Yes, this is also a picture of many in the Church today, who think that nothing can possibly be done to reverse the cultural decline or bring people back to the Church. They see only our meager five loaves and two fishes and forget that we have Jesus, who is still in the business of working miracles.

Jesus will not allow all their negativity crush His desire. Yes, the Lord insists; He has a deep desire to feed them. All this foolishness about being unable to do so does not impress Him. Jesus says,

“Have them sit down in groups of about fifty.” They did so and made them all sit down. In effect, the Lord says, “Enough of all this negativity! I’m in charge here. Let’s get to work now.”

What is this about “groups of fifty”? The answer is debatable, but I believe it points to what we have come to call the “parish system.” That is, the whole world is divided up into small, manageable units (parishes) in which a pastor and his flock are responsible for ensuring that all people in that territory are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb. The Lord desires to feed every person in every parish. He says to me and my parish, “Give them something to eat yourselves.” In other words, “Draw them to the Eucharistic table! Draw them to me!”

Yes, the Lord has a deep desire to feed us. Consider the following: What loving parents, noticing that their child had stopped eating, would not move Heaven and Earth to find out why and to get them back to eating saving food? Yes, they would go emergency rooms and doctors’ offices until their child began eating again.

Why is this not so with our Eucharistic food? Clearly the Lord deeply wants to feed us. So then why aren’t we as desirous to be sure that others, especially our children and family, are receiving the Lord?

To all this the Lords says, “Give them something to eat.” He is not talking to the person next to you; He is talking to you: “Bring them to me; give them something to eat.”

And it is so easy for us to reply, “But I have so little, just five loaves and two fishes. I’m not eloquent. I haven’t studied the faith enough. I don’t have an answer to everyone’s questions!” Still, the Lord says, “Give me what you have and then have them sit down. Work on the fifty I have assigned to you and your parish.”

III. Determination to Deliver The text says the following of the disciples: They did so and made them all sit down. Then taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. They all ate and were satisfied. And when the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker baskets.

Note well that the Lord is determined to feed these people; and He insists that His disciples help him to do it. They are expected to gather the faithful and make them sit down in groups of fifty. Then the Lord—the Lord Himself—blesses and multiplies the food. But once again, He has the disciples help. He gives the food to His apostles, but they set it before the crowd.

And this is the Church. Jesus is the Great High Priest of every Liturgy. It is He who takes our meager offerings and then multiples and transubstantiates them. But He works this ministry through His priests, and in an extended sense, through the whole Church. The Lord feeds His people, but He does so through others. It is the role of the Church to take what Jesus sets before us and then see that it is distributed to others in due season.

On the Feast of Corpus Christi, we acknowledge that the Lord feeds us through His Body and Blood, but does so through the ministry of His priests and through His Church. Do we see this as central to our mission? Is the Liturgy really at the heart of our parish life or are liturgies hurried so that we can get to our next activity on time? What is our highest priority? Is it the same priority of Jesus rooted in the deep desire he has to feed his people?

The Gospel today says that they all ate and were satisfied. Does this describe the Liturgy at your parish? Are people fed? Do they experience an abundance at the Lord’s Banquet? Or is Mass merely something to be endured, something more akin to a flu shot, which is hoped to be as quick and painless as possible?

Of course the Liturgy should be satisfying to God’s people. During the Liturgy, people should be instructed in God’s Word and then have that Word cause their hearts to catch fire with joy, inspiration, and, yes, conviction on the need for repentance. The faithful should expect and experience a great transformation on account of the Eucharist. How can someone fruitfully receive the Body of Christ and not experience great change and be satisfied?

Yet, sadly, most people put more faith in Tylenol than they do in the Eucharist. When they take Tylenol, they expect something to happen: the pain to go away or the swelling to go down. Do people expect this of the Eucharist? If not, why not?

On this Feast of Corpus Christi, please understand that the Lord wants to feed you and your loved ones. He wants to do this in order to save you and to satisfy you. Do you care about this? Is this a reality or just a ritual? Why not ask the Lord to engender within you the same desire that He has to feed others, and to make you a magnet to draw people to Him? Who are the “fifty” the Lord has put in your charge? Gather them and have them seated at Mass next Sunday.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Jesus Wants to Feed You! Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi Procession in the Nation’s Capital – Our Privilege and our Purpose

Sunday, June 23, I will have the privilege of carrying the Lord Jesus in a Corpus Christi procession through the heart of the Capitol Hill area in Washington, D.C. We have named it “Corpus Christi in the Capital.” It will begin at 1:00 PM at my parish (Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church, 1357 East Capitol St. SE) and proceed for approximately one mile, past the Capitol and Supreme Court, ending at St. Joseph’s Church (313 2nd St. NE). I have long desired to do this, and God-willing we will process this Sunday.

Allow a brief reflection on our purpose and our privilege to process with our Lord.

For the past twelve years I have pastored a parish in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It is a location that inspires both awe and anger. It is the epicenter of power in our country, power for both great good and great evil. Yet here we are as well, the Church. There are two other parishes in the area: St Peter’s, to the south (the House side), and St. Joseph’s, to the north (the Senate side). My parish, Holy Comforter, is located due east of the Capitol.

In my years here I have been privileged and challenged to give weekly bible studies, both in the Capitol and at the White House. I spent four years preaching and teaching in the Capitol during the 1990s and five years at the White House (2003-2008). It was both a wonderful opportunity and a heavy responsibility to represent Christ in these places where great decisions were and are made.

Political sea changes occur frequently in this town. My ability to walk those halls changed after 2008, but that did not end my ability to spread God’s Word. My primary pulpit is always my parish, but in recent years my writing and my radio work have grown. I also walk this neighborhood and pray for life in front of a Planned Parenthood center (I refuse to call it a clinic) along with members of five area parishes. God is always opening doors even if our task is tragic and painful; thank you, Lord. In these ways, I (and many others) have tried to manifest the Lord’s presence in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

This year, we plan to do something new yet at the same time old. There’s a 1970s Doobie Brothers song that talks about “takin’ it to the streets.” This year, I will walk, along with Catholic Men United and others, and take Jesus to the streets. Yes, Sunday June 23, the Feast of Corpus Christi, we will take Jesus to the street—East Capitol Street, to be specific.

We will process up a street where many protesters have walked before, past the homes of believers as well as non-believers, past rainbow flags as well as Madonnas in front yards, past the homes of members of Congress and “ordinary” folks as well.

There will be believers who will rejoice as we walk past and non-believers who will wonder what we are doing and perhaps scoff at us. But the Lord loves them all and wants to save their souls. We will walk in love and witness.

Though we will sing and pray, our testimony will be more visual than verbal. We will honor the One who makes everything possible. Jesus will be carried by priests of the Church with great solemnity, under a canopy of honor, surrounded by six torchbearers, and accompanied by the sounds of praise and adoration and the smell of incense.

In a town accustomed to motorcades with revving motorcycle engines and blaring sirens that seem to say, “Get out of our way,” this procession will be at a more leisurely, prayerful pace. Its message is more tender, even if it delays people for a moment:

“He who loves you and died for you is passing by. He is calling you now to the repentance that gives joy. His power is not worldly and passing but heavenly and eternal. Yes, let us praise and adore Him, who alone can save us. In a city of potentates here is the true King, without whom nothing is possible!”

As we march, the dome of the Capitol will grow ever larger in the center of our line of sight. To our left, the Library of Congress, and to our right, the Supreme Court, will also become closer. We will stop twice at the homes of believers: at 10th and East Capitol and at 3rd and East Capitol; in each home we will enthrone Jesus truly present and worship Him at an altar prepared there. We will pass the Capitol and the Supreme Court, begging that His blessing and truth be established there. Finally, we will end our mile-long procession at St. Joseph’s Church, just behind the Senate Building.

We will not march in a triumphalist manner but in reparation for the sins and shortcomings of the members of the Church, both clergy and lay. The march will not be easy, especially in the heat of late June. We will commit ourselves anew to the Lord, acknowledging our past sins and seeking grace to overcome our shortcomings and resist temptations. We will cry for God’s mercy on us and on our nation. Without grace and mercy, we do not stand a chance, but with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.

Join us if you can, but even if you can’t, unite with us in prayer and purpose. We pray for ourselves and our nation, we make reparation for our sins and those of this land, and we remind others that Christ is King, Lord, Savior, and our only hope. May the heart of Jesus in the most Blessed Sacrament be praised, adored, and loved with great affection at every moment in all the tabernacles of the world even unto the end of time.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Corpus Christi Procession in the Nation’s Capital – Our Privilege and our Purpose

On the Worthy Reception of Holy Communion (part two)

In yesterday’s post we considered the term “closed communion,” the practice of offering Holy Communion only to those who hold to the full doctrine of the Church. This practice emphasizes that communion of mind and heart to all the Holy Catholic Church teaches to be revealed by God is included in the “Amen” that affirms the true presence.

Today we will discuss the need to approach the Sacrament of Holy Communion free from serious and unrepentant sin. Let’s consider some texts showing that the Church’s desire that her sons and daughters receive Holy Communion only when in such a state is not only a proper but loving. The excerpts are followed by my own commentary, presented in red text.

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world (1 Cor 11:27-32).

St. Paul teaches that examining oneself is a prerequisite for worthy reception of the Eucharist. If that is violated, Holy Communion has the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than bringing the blessing of union with our Lord, it brings condemnation. Therefore, out of respect for Christ and for our own good, the Church requires us to be in a state of grace when we receive. We are required to abstain from Holy Communion only when there is mortal sin (confessions of devotion, however, are highly recommended).

[At the Last Supper the disciples asked] “Lord, who is it [who will betray you]?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night (Jn 13:21-30).

It is unclear whether the “morsel” taken by Judas was Holy Communion. If it was, why would Jesus have dipped it? Still, there is something of a picture of what unworthy (sacrilegious) reception of Holy Communion might cause in an extreme case.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny (Mat 5:21-26).

Note the use of the simple word “first” in the second sentence. Jesus teaches that we cannot approach the altar if we are filled with hate or injustice toward our brethren. Reconciliation and the restoration of unity are required prior to approaching the Sacrament of Holy Communion, lest our “Amen” be either incoherent or a lie.

A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible (Code of Canon Law # 916).

The use of an act of contrition mentioned here is an exception, requiring the impossibility to go to Confession beforehand and including the necessity of receiving Communion immediately thereafter. Such would be the case for a priest who is in an unworthy state but who must celebrate Mass. There are some pastoral notes that can be added later for those who struggle with some habitual sins that are possibly grave (e.g., masturbation). The Catechism has some commentary that a confessor can apply to a penitent in such cases. No Catholic should simply take it upon himself to use the exception described in Canon 916. A confessor must be consulted.

To respond to the invitation to Holy Communion, we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: “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 anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”

Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before approaching Holy Communion (Catechism # 1385).

If anyone is holy, let him approach; if anyone is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen. … But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didache 10, 9).

The Didache was written sometime between 90 and 110 A.D, hence very early on there was an understanding that the Eucharist was not merely a table fellowship with sinners but rather a sacral meal that presupposed grace and communion with the Church.

Presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion should be a conscious decision, based on a reasoned judgment regarding one’s worthiness to do so, according to the Church’s objective criteria, asking such questions as: “Am I in full communion with the Catholic Church? Am I guilty of grave sin? Have I incurred a penalty (e.g., excommunication, interdict) that forbids me to receive Holy Communion? Have I prepared myself by fasting for at least an hour?” The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected (2004 Ratzinger Memo to Cardinal McCarrick, # 1).

In all these writings we see a tradition that is scriptural, ancient, and clear: the Eucharist is a sacred meal that requires of us something more than just “showing up.” There are warnings against irreverent reception, in which the Eucharist is regarded as ordinary or is treated casually.

Is the Church merely being “fussy” about Holy Communion? No more so than were St. Paul and the Holy Spirit, who inspired him to write and warn us against unworthy reception of the Eucharist. Rather, the Church is charitably exhorting us to receive the Eucharist but also warning those who are unprepared to refrain from reception. Indeed, Scripture warns that the unworthy reception of Holy Communion brings not a blessing but a condemnation. This is God’s teaching, not mine.

Perhaps an analogy can be found by noting that some people are allergic to penicillin. For them, a drug that has saved many lives can be life-threatening. Similarly, sinners, though not by accident or genetics but by choice, will find that the Eucharist—life-giving to many—is not so for them when in such a state. In charity, the Church teaches that those individuals unprepared to receive Communion must refrain from doing so until the problem is resolved. This is charity, not cruelty or a lack of hospitality.

In tomorrow’s post I will develop some of these principles further, discussing some pastoral issues and some solutions aligning with the Church’s stance. Indeed, questions arise as to what is meant by mortal sin and how dissenters, those in serious sin, and those in invalid marriages or other irregular situations should be handled. Such questions and issues must be handled charitably and equitably by the Church, but not in a way that violates the principles given by Scripture and Tradition on the need for worthy reception of Holy Communion. The clear instruction of Pope Benedict XVI, written as Cardinal Ratzinger, deserves to be reiterated and needs to be better taught and applied with clarity and charity:

The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected (2004 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Memo to Cardinal McCarrick, # 1).

On the Worthy Reception of Holy Communion (part one)

credit: J. Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

Last week in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours, we read this from St. Justin Martyr:

No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes what we teach is true; Unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ (Apologia Cap 66: 6, 427-431).

St. Justin may have had in mind this text from the Letter to the Hebrews, which links proper doctrine to the reception of Holy Communion:

Brethren, Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace and not by their ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those devoted to them. For we have an altar from which those who serve at the [old] tabernacle have no right to eat (Heb 13:9-10).

Thus, communion points to doctrine not hospitality. The Eucharist comes from a basic communion of belief and serves to strengthen that belief. It is no mere ceremony; it is a family communion rooted in our communion with who the Lord is and what He teaches. This common belief makes us brothers and sisters in the Lord.

In the modern debate about who can and should receive Holy Communion, some presume that everyone has the right to approach the Eucharistic sacrifice and partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord. In this view, limiting or discouraging indiscriminate reception is dismissed, not only as unjust, but as contrary to the practice of Jesus Christ, who “welcomed everyone,” even the worst of sinners.

In this sort of climate, it is necessary to explain the Church’s historical practice of what some call “closed communion.” Not everyone who uses this terminology means it pejoratively; to some extent it is a fair description.  For the Catholic Church, Holy Communion is not a “come one, come all” event. It is reserved for those who, by grace, preserve union with the Church through adherence to all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. Our response of “Amen” at Holy Communion signifies our communion with these realities along with our faith in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Many today have reduced Holy Communion to a mere sign of hospitality, such that if the Church does not extend it to all, we are being unkind. This misconception is often based on a mistaken understanding of the nature of the Last Supper (and the Eucharist that proceeds from it). Many years ago, Pope Benedict XVI, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, articulated the misunderstanding well. Following are some excerpts from his Collected Works, Vol 11, Ignatius Press pp 273-274:

Nowadays [some] New Testament scholars … say that the Eucharist … is the continuation of the meals with sinners that Jesus had held … a notion with far-reaching consequences. It would mean that the Eucharist is the sinners’ banquet, where Jesus sits at the table; [that] the Eucharist is the public gesture by which we invite everyone without exception. The logic of this is expressed in a far-reaching criticism of the Church’s Eucharist, since it implies that the Eucharist cannot be conditional on anything, not depending on denomination or even on baptism. It is necessarily an open table to which all may come to encounter the universal God …

However, tempting the idea may be, it contradicts what we find in the Bible. Jesus’ Last Supper was not one of those meals he held with “publicans and sinners.” He made it subject to the basic form of the Passover, which implies that the meal was held in a family setting. Thus, he kept it with his new family, with the Twelve; with those whose feet he washed, whom he had prepared by his Word and by this cleansing of absolution (John 13:10) to receive a blood relationship with him, to become one body with him.

The Eucharist is not itself the sacrament of reconciliation, but in fact it presupposes that sacrament. It is the sacrament of the reconciled, to which the Lord invites all those who have become one with him; who certainly still remain weak sinners, but yet have given their hand to him and have become part of his family.

That is why, from the beginning, the Eucharist has been preceded by a discernment … (I Corinthians 11:27ff). The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles [the Didache] is one of the oldest writings outside the New Testament, from the beginning of the Second Century, it takes up this apostolic tradition and has the priest, just before distributing the sacrament saying: “Whoever is holy, let him approach, whoever is not, let him do penance” (Didache 10).

This makes clear the root of the problem: the failure to see the Eucharist for what it truly is: a sacred banquet wherein those who enjoy communion with the Lord (by His grace) partake of the sign and sacrament of that communion. Holy Communion serves to celebrate and deepen the communion already operative through the other sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession.

You may label this communion “closed,” but at its heart it is more positively called a sacrum convivium, a sacred meal of those who share a life together (con (with or together) + vivium (life)). This is not a “come one, come all” meal; it is a Holy banquet for those who wear the wedding garment. The garment is righteousness and those who refuse to wear it are cast out (cf: Matt 22:11-12 & Rev 19:8).

Many moderns surely would prefer a “no questions asked” invitation to all who wish to come. It fits in well with the popular notion of inclusiveness and unity. To a large degree, though, it is a contrived unity, one that overlooks truth (the opposite of which is falsehood, not just a different viewpoint). Yes, it overlooks the truth necessary for honest, real, substantive unity. Such a notion of communion is shallow at best and a lie at worst. How can people approach the Eucharist, the sacrament of Holy Communion and unity, and say “Amen” when they differ with the Church over essentials such as that Baptism is necessary; that there are seven Sacraments; that the Pope is the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ on earth; that homosexual acts, fornication, and adultery are gravely sinful; that women cannot be admitted to Holy Orders; that there is in fact a priesthood; that Scripture must be read in the light of the Magisterium; and on and on? Saying that there is communion in such a case is either a contrivance or a lie, but in either case it does not suffice for the “Amen” that is required at the moment of reception of Holy Communion.

Such divisions do not make for a family meal or a sacrum convivium. Hence, to share Holy Communion with Protestants, dissenters, and others who do not live in communion with the Church is incoherent. To paraphrase Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict), the Eucharist is not a table fellowship with publicans and other “sinners”; it is a family meal that presupposes grace and shared faith.

Tomorrow we will discuss the need to receive Holy Communion in a state free from grave or serious sin.

How to Thank God as He Has Instructed – A Meditation on Thanksgiving Day

Your grace and mercy,
brought me through.
I’m living this moment,
Because of you.
I want to thank you,
And praise you too.
Your grace and mercy,
Brought me through!

On this feast of Thanksgiving (here in America) we do well to ponder how we ought to give thanks to God. Indeed, how can one adequately thank God, who is the giver of every good and perfect gift? Is it really enough to simply kneel and say a prayer of thanks? Perhaps we should run to Church and light a candle, or visit some distant shrine. Maybe we should be doing the “Snoopy Dance” as we say over and over, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

But none of these acts of thanksgiving would prove adequate. God has been too good, has done too much, and is, after all, God.

Indeed, a great question went up in the Old Testament regarding this very problem of adequately thanking God. It occurs in Psalm 116, wherein the psalmist plaintively asks,

What return can I ever make to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?” (Psalm 116:12)

To that point, the Jewish people had been accustomed to killing thousands of animals every day and burning them up in the Temple in order to give thanks and to atone for sin. But the blood of animals cannot atone for sin and neither can slaying even many thousands of them really give adequate thanks to God.

And thus the same psalm not only asks the question, but also provides the answer:

What return can I ever make to the Lord, for all the good he has done for me? The chalice of salvation I will take up, I will call on the name of the Lord! (Psalm 116:12-13)

And yet, in supplying this answer, the actual raising of the chalice of salvation could only be pointed to in the Old Testament; it could not actually be done. The lifting up of the chalice of salvation and the giving of adequate thanks could, and would, only be done by Jesus.

And this brings us to the first Thanksgiving meal. No, we are not in Plymouth Massachusetts in the 1620s. We are at the first, the true, the only Thanksgiving meal that can ever really render adequate thanks to the Father. That meal took place in the upper room, at the Last Supper that Jesus had with His disciples. We are told that He took the bread and, having given thanks, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples saying, “Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is my Body.” And likewise, after the meal, He took the chalice and gave thanks, and giving it to His disciples He said, “Take this all of you and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the New and eternal Covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” He added, “Do this in memory of me.”

Yes, this is the true and the first Thanksgiving meal. Jesus alone is able to fulfill Psalm 116; taking the cup, the chalice, He lifts it up and gives thanks to God adequately for all the good He has done. Jesus fulfills the Scripture and gives adequate thanks.

You and I can never give adequate thanks to the Father, but we do have a member of our family who is so able: He is our Brother and He is our Lord; He is Jesus Christ.

At Thanksgiving, how can you and I give adequate thanks to the Lord? The answer is not on some far-off, distant mountaintop; it is as near as our parish church. We give adequate thanks to the Father by joining our meager thanksgiving to the perfect thanksgiving of Jesus in every Mass. We, as members of His Body (and He is the Head of His Body the Church at every Mass), fulfill Psalm 116 when we, through Jesus our head, take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. Joining our meager thanks to that of Jesus, the Father is perfectly glorified and perfectly thanked. The Mass is the perfect thanksgiving; it was, is, and remains for us our perfect Thanksgiving meal and sacrifice.

Hidden Mass? It is interesting that in one of the Gospels chosen for the Mass on Thanksgiving, we have the gospel of the ten lepers. And you may have noticed (but perhaps not) that the whole gospel, which is about giving thanks, itself has the form of a Mass. For there are lepers who gather, just as we lepers gather at every Mass. And as they are gathered, Jesus is in their midst; Jesus is passing by. It is just as Jesus, acting through the person of the priest, walks the aisle of our church. And seeing Jesus, the lepers cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” just as we cry out in every Mass, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” And Jesus, turning, gives them a word, quoting from Leviticus 13:2 “Go show yourselves to the priests.” We, too, are given a word from the Lord at every Mass. Jesus’ homily to the lepers was a brief one, saying in effect, “Go do what this reading says.” And at the end of the day, that is a pretty good summary of what every sermon should be, as Jesus speaking through our clergy says to us, “Go do what this reading says.” One of the lepers, realizing he has been healed by this word, falls to his knees to give thanks. And so do we fall to our knees to give thanks in the great Eucharistic prayer. And the word “Eucharist” is from the Greek meaning “to give thanks.” Jesus then bids the man leave, saying that his faith and his act of thanksgiving have saved him. Thus we are instructed by the priest or deacon at the end of the Mass to go and announce salvation to the world.

Yes, this gospel about giving thanks is in the very form of the Mass. And it is no mistake, for the Mass is the perfect act of thanksgiving, wherein we are joined to Jesus in the one perfect act of praise and thanksgiving.

Just a brief thought on Thanksgiving day: how shall we adequately thank God for all the good He has done? You know the answer: go to Mass and join with Jesus in the only adequate way of really thanking the Father.

Here’s a nice old prayer. But the Mass is even better.

Are You a Mouse or A Man? A Homily for The Feast of Corpus Christi

Corpus ChristiIn many places this Sunday, the (moved) Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ Our Lord is celebrated.

While you may puzzle over my title for today’s blog, allow me to delay the explanation to a bit later. On a solemn feast like this, many things might be preached and taught. Let’s look at three areas for reflection: the Reality of the Eucharist, the Requirement of the Eucharist, and the Remembrance of the Eucharist.

I.  The Reality of the Eucharist – On this solemn feast we are called above all to faith in the fact (as revealed by the Lord Himself) that the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, is in fact a reception of the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, whole and entire, in His glorified state. We do not partake of a symbol. The Eucharist is not a metaphor; it is truly the Lord. Neither is it a “piece” of His flesh. It is Christ, whole and entire. Scripture attests to this in many places:

Luke 22:19-20  And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

1 Cor 10:16  The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a partaking in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a partaking in the body of Christ?

Luke 24:35  They recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

1 Cor 11:29  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.

John 6:51  I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.

This last quote is from the Gospel for today’s feast. The passage is a profound theology of the Eucharist from Jesus Himself. He makes it clear that we are not permitted to think of the Eucharist as a symbol or in metaphorical terms.

When Jesus referred to the bread as His flesh, the Jewish people hearing Him grumbled in protest. Jesus did not seek to reassure them or to insist that He was speaking only symbolically. Rather, He became even more adamant by shifting His vocabulary from the polite form of eating, φάγητε (phagete – meaning simply “to eat”) to the impolite form, τρώγων (trogon – meaning “to munch, gnaw, or chew”).

So insistent was He that they grasp this that He permitted many to leave Him that day, knowing that they would no longer follow in His company due to this very teaching (cf Jn 6:66). Yes, the Lord paid quite a price for this graphic and “hard” teaching (Jn 6:60).

Today He asks us, Do you also want to leave me? (Jn 6:67) We must supply our answer each time we approach the altar and hear, “The Body of Christ.” It is here that we answer the Lord, “Amen,” as if to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the word of eternal life!” (Jn 6:68)

If only everyone would grasp that the Lord Himself is truly present in our churches! Were that so, one could never empty our parishes of those seeking to pray with the Lord. As it is, though, only 27 percent come to Mass regularly. This is more evidence of the narrow road and how few there are who find it. Just as most left Jesus then, many continue to leave Him now or stand far away through indifference or false notions.

What father would not be severely alarmed if one of his children stopped eating? Consider, then, God’s alarm that many of us have stopped eating.

II.  The Requirement of the Eucharist – When I was a young boy I thought of going to Mass and receiving Communion as just something my mother made me do; it was just rituals and stuff. I never thought of it as essential for my survival. But in John’s Gospel today, Jesus teaches something very profound about Holy Communion (the Eucharist). In effect, He says that without Holy Communion we will starve and die spiritually.

Here is what Jesus says:  Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (John 6:53).

As a kid and even a young adult I never thought of Holy Communion as essential for my life, as something that, if not received regularly, would cause me to die spiritually. But it makes sense doesn’t it? If we don’t eat food in our physical lives, we grow weak and eventually die. It is the same with Holy Communion.

Remember this from the Book of Exodus: the people were without food in the desert and they feared for their lives, so God gave them bread from heaven, “manna,” and they collected it each morning. Without eating that bread from Heaven they would never have made it to the Promised Land; they would have died in the desert.

It is the same with us. Without receiving Jesus, our living manna from Heaven, in Holy Communion, we will not make it to our Promised Land of Heaven! I guess it’s not just a ritual after all. It is essential for our survival.

Don’t miss Holy Communion; Jesus urges you to eat.

A mother and father in my parish recently noticed that their daughter wasn’t eating enough. Within a very short time they took her to the doctor, who was able to cure the problem; now the young girl is eating again. Those parents would have moved Heaven and earth to make sure that their daughter was able to eat.

It is the same with God. Jesus urges us to eat, to receive the Holy Communion, every Sunday without fail. Jesus urges us with this word: “Unless!” Holy Communion is our required food.

III. The Remembrance of the Eucharist – The word remembrance comes up a lot in reference to Holy Communion. Consider the following passages from Scripture:

Remember how for forty years now the LORD, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert … and then fed you with manna (Deut 8).

Do not forget the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (Deut 8:24).

Do this in remembrance of me (1 Cor 11:24, inter al).

What is remembrance and why is it important? In effect, to “remember” is to have present in your mind what God has done for you so that you’re grateful and different. God has saved us, made us His children, and opened Heaven for us. Yet our minds are very weak and too easily we let this slip from our conscious thoughts. Thus, the summons to an ἀνάμνησιν (anamnesin) or “remembrance” that is so common in the Eucharistic liturgy is a summons to our minds to be open to and powerfully aware of what the Lord has done for us. Don’t just stand or kneel there, forgetting; let this be present to you as a living and conscious reality that transforms you!

Are you a mouse or a man? Now to address the puzzling question I posed in my title. Back in my seminary days we were given the example of a mouse who scurries across the altar, takes a consecrated host, runs off, and eats it. We were then asked, “Does the mouse eat the Body of Christ?” The answer is yes! The Eucharist has a reality unto itself. “Does the mouse receive a sacrament?” No, because a mouse has no rational mind. It eats the very Body of Christ, but to no avail, for it has no conscious awareness or appreciation of what (whom) it is eating. So then the question for you is this: “Are you a mouse or a man?”

How do you receive Holy Communion? Do you mindlessly shuffle along in the Communion line in a mechanistic way or do you go up powerfully aware of Him whom you are about to receive? Do you remember? Do you have vividly present in your mind what the Lord has done for you? Are you grateful and amazed at what He has done and what He offers? Or are you just like a mouse, mindlessly receiving something that has been put into your mouth?

Some people put more faith in Tylenol than they do in the Eucharist. Why? Because when they take Tylenol they actually expect something to happen! They expect the pain to go away, for there to be relief and healing. But when it comes to Holy Communion, they expect next to nothing. To them, it’s just a ritual. Hey, it’s time to go up and get the wafer (pardon the expression) now.

Really? How can this be? Poor catechesis? Sure. Little faith? Sure. Boredom? Yes, indeed. On some level it can be no better than a mouse eating a host. We are receiving the Lord of all creation, yet most expect little.

To this the Church says, “Remember! Have present in your mind all that the Lord has done is about to do for you. Let the reality of His presence be alive in your mind so that it changes you and makes you profoundly grateful and joyful. Become the One whom you receive!”

Jesus is more powerful than Tylenol, and we are men (and women), not mice.

On this Solemnity of the Body of Christ, we are summoned to deepen our faith in the Lord, present in the Eucharist and acting through His Sacraments. Routine may have dulling effects, but we cannot let it be such that we receive the Lord of glory each Sunday in any way that would be called mindless.

Ask the Lord to anoint your mind so that you remember and never forget.