It was said of St Philip Neri that he was so in love with the presence of Jesus in the eucharist, that when he celebrated Mass, his heart could be heard beating loudly. So, he took to celebrating Mass privately, with just one altar server present. At the consecration, Philip would take hours contemplating the presence of the Lord in the Eucharistic species. The altar server would go out of the chapel and return in an hour and knock to see if he could come in. Usually the answer was “No”, so he would go away and come back hourly, until he was allowed to come in again, to resume serving at St Philip’s Mass. When Philip died and they opened him up, they found that his heart was so enlarged that it had actually pushed his ribs outwards.
I’ve had some heart issues lately, but, alas, they were not to do with my heart being so inflamed with love for the eucharist that it had become enlarged. Oh, how I wish it were! I still struggle to “get it “, to grasp hold of the fact that Jesus himself, in his body , blood , soul and divinity, is really and truly present in the bread and wine after consecration at Mass. I wish I could “let it in”, let the reality of what is going on in the Mass enter into and inflame my heart with love for the Eucharistic Jesus. I feel that I, indeed all of us, should be so blown away with this truth of Christ’s Presence in the Mass that we are on our faces, prostrate before the altar at that moment. One Protestant pastor said to me a few years ago, that “if I believed what you Catholics are supposed to believe about the Mass, I would be coming up to communion on my knees”. Perhaps we might feel that is going too far, but the Church does encourage us to make some gesture of acknowledgement of Christ’s presence before receiving communion, such as kneeling or bowing .To stroll up to communion looking around at people in the pew, or with hands in one’s pockets, or chewing gum, somehow does not seem to be an acknowledgement that we are about to receive the most incredible miracle in the history of the Church, one that has been going on ever since the first Mass, what we call Jesus’ Last Supper.
That is why I am so glad to find out that the bishops of the United States are launching a multi-year national Eucharistic revival, beginning this Sunday, with the feast of Corpus Christi, and extending onto 2025. Along the way there will be diocesan and parish-based formation, a National Eucharistic Congress in July 2024, followed by a “Year of Going Out on Mission”. This initiative of the US bishops is intended to renew the Church in America by inviting the faithful into a living relationship with Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. This follows on from the bishops’ document “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church”, which was published last November. And this in turn was provoked by the study that came out in September 2019 saying that as many as 70% of Catholics do not believe , or at least don’t understand, the Church’s teaching on Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. This disturbing statistic caused the bishops to think “Wow, what are we doing to deal with this crisis?” Of course, they already knew the crisis was happening, because they had been watching for many years the hemorrhaging of Catholics away from attendance at Mass. And then, of course, there was the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in a certain percentage of people no longer going to Mass.
I don’t doubt that, here in Canada, if we took such a poll, we would probably find the same sort of percentages among Catholics. That is why I hope and pray that the bishops in Canada might be inspired by the Eucharistic campaign being launched down south to begin a similar initiative of their own. But we don’t have to wait for that event. Already there are many resources on the Eucharist available on line. Here in our parish, we have held workshops over the years on the Mass, using some of these resources. But the aim of these things is not to simply provide information about the Mass, and its importance as the “source and summit of the Christian life”, as the Second Vatican Council called it. The aim is to have us enjoy a “living relationship with Jesus Christ “in the Eucharist, to fall in love with the Eucharistic Jesus, and to be on fire with that Eucharistic Love, so that we never want to tear ourselves away from Jesus and his presence in the Mass, and we are passionate to share our love for Jesus with others and invite them to come and experience Christ’s love in the Mass.
That is why prayer has to be at the foundation of a renewed approach to the Eucharist. Through the various forms of prayer, we come to “fall in love” with Jesus, as Pope St John Paul II famously said in his encyclical on the Millennium of the year 2000. And the Mass is, above all, prayer, the greatest prayer we can make, because in it, Christ offers himself to the Father on our behalf. So, we also have had Eucharistic processions with the Blessed Sacrament and continue to open St Philip’s church up for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on Monday and Thursday afternoons and have done the same at St Clare’s to mark particular celebrations of Our Lady.
I want to take a few moments now to share some of the key points of the US bishops document on “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church”. Hopefully it will inspire you to go online and download for reading the entire document. It is well worth the study. The fundamental theme of the document is that the Eucharist is an incredible “gift” by Christ to his Church, and we Catholics need to appreciate that fact, and learn how to respond to it in such a way that we are healed, converted, formed and set on fire to bring the Eucharistic love of Our Lord out to the world.
The bishops’ document opens with words of Pope Francis that the Eucharist is not just a reminder of a past event, namely the death and resurrection of Christ. “It is a celebration of the living presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of his own people”, in keeping with Christ’s own promise to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “I am with you always , to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This is in keeping with the nature of God, who has always been, always is, and always will be, reaching out to us, to invite us into personal intimate relationship and communion with him. He knows full well, and unfortunately, we so often fail to recognize it, that we need Christ in our lives, that we simply cannot do without him.
I remember coming to the shattering realization when I was 21 that, if it was proved beyond any doubt, that God does not exist, my life would be over. There would be no floor, no bottom, no meaning to my existence. I am convinced that each of us has to come to that same “aha” moment of revelation of our absolute dependence on God, if we are truly to understand the importance of God reaching out to us constantly to draw us to him, and why the devil tries his utmost to draw us away from God and into his own deadly grip. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is yet another example of God coming to us to strengthen us in this life-long struggle between Christ and Satan and prevent us losing our grip on God’s hand. If we stay away from the Mass, we are staying away from an essential aid to our personal and spiritual salvation. As Jesus said in the gospel of John:” Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you “(John 6:53). However we choose to interpret those solemn words of Jesus, we cannot ignore the warning contained within them.
The US bishops write:” The Lord accompanies us in many ways, but none as profound as when we encounter him in the Eucharist. On our journey toward eternal life, Christ nourishes us with his very self. Once, when told by someone that she no longer saw the point of going to daily Mass, the Servant of God, Dorothy Day reflected:” We go to eat of this fruit of the tree of life because Jesus told us to…He took upon himself our humanity that we might share in his divinity. We are nourished by his flesh that we may grow to be other Christs. I believe this literally, just as I believe the child is nourished by the milk from his mother’s breast.”.
As I said last week, we human beings are made for encounter, for encounter with God. God made us , and gave us a heart whose restlessness to search and grasp after meaning for our lives would lead us , if we would pursue our heart’s desire , to find our rest and our peace in God alone. We are made to experience God, in the only way we can experience him here on earth through our senses. And all of our senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell are engaged each time we come to Mass. We see the consecrated host and chalice raised at the altar by the priest, we hear the words of Christ spoken by the priest “This is my body, given for you…This is my blood, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins”. We touch and taste the Eucharistic Jesus when we receive communion, and, if there is incense used, we smell that also and associate that with the presence of God, and of our prayers rising up “like incense” to Him.
You know, I could go on quoting from this wonderful document of the US bishops for another hour. But I won’t. I just hope that what I have quoted to you is enough to encourage you to go and read the whole document yourself. So I will end with what the document says about the real presence of Christ in the Mass. “From the very beginning, the Church has believed and celebrated according to the teaching of Jesus himself;” Whoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:54-56). It is not “ordinary bread and ordinary drink “ that we receive in the Eucharist , but the flesh and blood of Christ, who came to nourish and transform us, to restore our relationship to God and to one another “. In the Eucharist, we have a “real contact” with a real Person, the Person of Christ, who does here, what he has always been doing for us, giving himself for us, even unto death on a cross, to save us from eternal death and hell, and restore us back to saving , healing relationship with his heavenly Father. To quote St John Chrysostom:” when you see the Body of Christ set before you on the altar, say to yourself: “Because of this Body I am no longer earth and ashes, no longer a prisoner, but free: because of this I hope for heaven, and to receive the good things therein, immortal life, the portion of angels, and closeness with Christ”.
Let us finish with this prayer of Pope Francis: “Holy Spirit, anoint us with divine love in a renewed experience of our salvation in the crucified, risen and Eucharistic Lord Jesus within us. Let us know experientially that in the eucharist Jesus walks with us, talks with us, works with us – really lives in us. Transform our life, by this encounter with God’s Presence, so that our hearts are set on fire with enthusiasm to go us boldly to evangelize all peoples to the same Eucharistic love for Jesus’ present in the Blessed and Holy Sacrament of the Mass. We ask this through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.