The Joy and Promise of the Holy Eucharist

Introduction

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

As you may have heard by now, the Church in the United States was startled a few years ago when we viewed the results of a national poll. It seems that two-thirds of those who identify themselves as Catholic do not believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. In other words, they do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar.

In response to this statistic, and sensing that – though the poll numbers may be exaggerated – there has been a decline in Eucharistic faith among Catholics over the last few decades, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared and released a document entitled, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” It is a fine document that seeks to explain the sacramental theology of the Real Presence. In addition, the bishops have authorized a three-year “National Eucharistic Revival” which seeks to encourage a renewed interest in the Mass – our central act of worship as Catholics.

Both of these efforts are valuable. We need to study, to refresh our understanding of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and the USCCB document can help with that task. We also need to reawaken our interest in the Mass and in the Eucharist and the Revival may indeed bear fruit. Yet if two-thirds of American Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist – I suggest that it is not because we have failed to adequately explain our doctrine or have made Mass attendance too difficult or receiving Holy Communion too burdensome. No, I am convinced that over the last few decades, as our world has transitioned from in-person communication to electronic and digital platforms, from a face-to-face conversation to a quick text message, from a close relationship with family and friends to one that is more distant and remote – some how we abandoned or forgot or never experienced the close, abiding, intimate encounter with the Lord offered to us in the Holy Eucharist. We have heard that Christ is there in the Eucharist – his Body and Blood hidden under the appearances of ordinary bread and wine – but we have not always experienced his presence. We may have a faith that is now based on memory or curiosity or habit, but we need to experience – or to re-experience – the overwhelming love of God poured out for us in all of the sacraments and especially in the Eucharist. Jesus is anxious to encounter us. We need to rediscover the path to him and to remove any obstacles that block the way. Jesus wants to heal us, comfort us, to nourish and sustain us. In the silence of our hearts, we have to be willing to admit that we need his loving presence.

I intend this letter to be the preface of a Pastoral Letter that will ultimately be called: Live, Jesus, in our Hearts Forever: The Joy and Promise of the Most Holy Eucharist. I hope to present a chapter a month here in the Church Today and on our website. As the letter progresses, they will be assembled on our website and, perhaps, eventually published in some form. I am under no illusion that I have the definitive answer to the difficulties of our time. My hope is that I can present enough examples, spark enough interest, and offer enough suggestions for prayer or spiritual growth that each person – in his or her own way and with the help of God – may experience a true encounter with Jesus Christ. I invite you to continue reading. At the end of each section, I will present some questions that you can take to prayer or discuss with your family, friends, or prayer group. Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God.

– Most. Reverend Robert W. Marshall, Jr.
Bishop of Alexandria


Questions for Reflection or Discussion

  1. Can you identify a time when you had a real encounter with the Lord? Describe the encounter.  Have you returned to that physical, emotional, or spiritual place seeking to renew that  encounter?
  2. Do you find yourself more cutoff from personal contact with others? Is much of your life spent online? Do you find these digital encounters satisfying?
  3. Are you nourished and fulfilled by your faith or are you just going through the motions? Do you have real hope of an encounter with the Lord or have you settled for dryness and distance?
  4. What are the obstacles in your life that may prevent you from an encounter with the Lord? If you can name them, have you prayed about how to overcome them or put them aside?

 

Live, Jesus, in our Hearts Forever:

The Joy and Promise of the Most Holy Eucharist

 CHAPTER 1: Living in the Presence of God

          In the tradition of St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, each period of public prayer begins with the sentence, “Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God.”  In a high school classroom – where I first heard it – the invocation is a very effective way of quieting a room full of students frantically finishing homework or anticipating the test they were about to take.  As a priest, and now as a bishop, I have learned that it is also a sensitive way to begin prayer in an interfaith setting.  Yet this simple Lasallian phrase is much more than useful – it carries with it an important theological concept.  Too often, we human beings begin our prayer with the attitude of a detective – “I am searching for you, God; help me to find you.”  We look for the path that will lead us to God as though we were on an exploratory expedition – seeking the North Pole or the wreck of the Titanic or the Lost Ark.  We imagine that God is somewhere out there and that it is our job to find him.

When we pray, “Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God,” we are reminding ourselves that God is not lost – though often we are.  God is not in some far distant land – though he is there too.  God is right in front of us and behind us and beside us, surrounding us with his love.  As Pope Francis recently pointed out, well before our interest or desire for God, the Lord’s love and desire for us always comes first (Desiderio desideravi, 6).  What prevents us from recognizing God’s close and abiding presence at all times is our own limited view.  We believe in something only when we can see it and hear it, taste it, touch it or smell it.  Our senses fail us when we try to capture God and hold on to him.  We cannot possess God – we can only dwell in his presence.

Yes, God is all around us, as we have been told since our childhood, but how does that change anything?  We can’t seem to feel his presence, to keep our minds and our hearts fixed on him.  Again, the Lasallian phrase is full of wisdom.  All we need to do to become aware of God’s presence is to “remember” where we are.  Remembering is not only a calling to mind, it can evoke an emotional connection.  Try to remember your 16th birthday, for example, without thinking about when you got your driver’s license.  Try to remember a wedding without smiling again at the joy of the newly married couple.  Try to remember the funeral of a loved one without feeling again the ache of that person’s absence.  Yes, our memories are often filled with emotions.  They transcend time and take us back 10 or 20 or 50 years to a time when we were younger and, perhaps, more impressionable.  So it should be with our experiences with God.  As St. de la Salle once wrote, “Apply yourself often to remember the presence of God.  Look upon this practice as your greatest happiness.”  (Letter 87 – To an unknown Brother).  When we remember that we are in God’s holy presence, we may indeed be filled with happiness, with joy or peace or love.  From time to time, we might also experience some anxiety, trepidation, or guilt – a clear signal that something about me or my life needs to change.  When we remember that we are in the holy presence of God, that memory should be more than a fact check – as though we were picturing God as one more student in the classroom or one more dinner guest.  God is never just “one more.”  God is always the One.

Remembering that we are in God’s holy presence should enable us to stand again in the shadow of the Almighty, should help us to feel the embrace of God’s love and fill our hearts with his peace.  But what “should” happen is very rarely what “does” happen.  Our minds are often cluttered with the distractions of this world – with thoughts of work responsibilities and preoccupations, skewed by our own desires and biases, and, yes, by our sinful inclinations that lead us away from God.  So at every moment of every day we are in God’s holy presence, but experiencing that closeness is difficult for us.  We may find that we need assistance with our prayer lives.

Maybe we need a visual focus to enable us to avoid distractions in prayer.  We might find it difficult to pray in parts of our world – or even in parts of our very busy homes – for they may seem to be as chaotic as Times Square.  It is often a good practice to find a “prayer corner” in our home – a quiet place with a crucifix or other religious images.  Others may find that a space in a garden or elsewhere in God’s creation is more conducive to prayer.  Maybe we need some auditory assistance – a recording of a hymn or piece of instrumental music or just some “white noise” that will drown out the constant dings and beeps from our electronic devices.  Perhaps we need an intellectual focus for our prayer – a Bible passage or prayer book or spiritual reading that can get us started.  Or maybe we just need to clear our minds completely and concentrate on listening for God.

Any or all of these techniques can assist our daily prayer, but sometimes we need to go to the source.  We need to pray where we can be assured of God’s presence.  We need to pray in the real, physical presence of God.  We need to go to church and place ourselves in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  Yes, when the distractions of the world become too much, when we are overwhelmed by the busyness of our lives, we can go to our parish church and sit before our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  We can look for an adoration chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed in a monstrance, or we can just be content praying before the tabernacle, where the nearby flickering sanctuary lamp assures us of Christ’s real presence.  Think about “making a visit” to the Lord – by remembering his holy presence wherever we are, or by entering a Catholic Church where we know that the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ is physically, tangibly present.  How comforting to be in Christ’s presence!

Our times of private prayer can deepen our personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  If we have neglected prayer for some time, it may seem as though we are reintroducing ourselves to the Lord every time we remember to pray.  If we develop the habit of daily prayer – at home or in church – then each day we can resume an ongoing conversation, not begin anew each time.  Of course, prayer should be more than going through the motions, reciting or reading prayers as quickly as possible.  Our goal is to open our hearts to the Lord and allow him to fill our hearts with his love and mercy.  In future chapters we will reflect upon how the Eucharist will both deepen our personal relationship with the Lord and open our eyes and hearts to one another.


Chapter 1 Questions for Reflection or Discussion

  1. How often are you aware that you are in the presence of God? Only when you are in church or only when you pray or at other times as well?
  2. Does your awareness of God’s presence make a difference in your mood, your outlook on life? Does it bring you reassurance and peace?  Does it help you to avoid sin and seek beauty and truth?
  3. How often do you stop by your parish church (or a Catholic church near where you work) just to visit with the Lord? Perhaps this week you could give it a try.

 

Live, Jesus, in our Hearts Forever:

The Joy and Promise of the Most Holy Eucharist

CHAPTER 2: Nourished in Communion

Many times over the years, when I was the only priest in a parish or now that I am a bishop, I have lived alone.  While I enjoy the company of others, I must admit that it is nice to keep my own schedule and not try to coordinate with other members of the household.  After all these years, however, I still miss the company of others at meal time and I find it difficult to cook for just one person.  It is wonderful to be gathered around a table with a large group or just one other person, sharing a conversation and a meal – formal or informal, haute cuisine or simple and basic.  Yes, food naturally gathers us together.

It is no accident, therefore, that of all of the ways that our Lord Jesus Christ could choose to continue his Real Presence on earth after his Ascension, he chose the basic building blocks of the cuisine of his time and culture (and of many others in the centuries that have followed) – ordinary bread and ordinary wine.  The Lord revealed his wonderful gift, the Sacrament of Unity, at the Last Supper.  The Sacrament was to prefigure his Passion and Death on the following afternoon and it was to find its deepest meaning in his Resurrection on Easter Sunday – but it originated in the context of a meal and our daily celebration of Mass re-presents the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ in that same context.  Just as Jesus was surrounded by his Apostles at the Last Supper, we too gather with the larger Christian community for the celebration of Mass – to break open the Word and to be nourished by his Body and Blood.

Nourishment is essential to our understanding of food.  We eat some foods primarily because we enjoy them.  Whether they remind us of what we ate growing up or we have developed a taste for something sweet or salty or spicy and crave that particular food from time to time, some foods we eat for sheer pleasure.  At other times, we eat to keep up our strength or to stay (or become) healthy.  We realize that consuming food is essential to our life.  If we do not eat or drink, then eventually we will die.  The Eucharist both reminds us of our need for physical nourishment and provides us with the life-giving spiritual nourishment of our intimate connection with the Lord.  In the Sacrament of the Altar, our souls are nourished and sustained.

In the first chapter of this letter, we reflected upon the invocation, “Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God.”  We focused on the words “remember” and “presence” – our basic human need to recognize and remember that God is always with us, that the divine presence surrounds us.  Now I invite you to notice that the sentence is spoken in plural:  Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God.  The Eucharist comes to us in the communal celebration of Mass – the family of God gathered in prayer and worship, uniting their hopes and dreams, their joys and sorrows with the offering of bread and wine which we invite the Holy Spirit to transform for us.  We rejoice that the Eucharist remains available for us for private prayer after Mass, and as food for those who cannot gather with us.  It is often taken to those who are sick and homebound, an individual encounter with the Lord that flows directly from the larger celebration of the sacrament.

My friends, we want and need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  We need our time alone with him to remember his presence. We need to speak with him and to listen to him in the silence of our hearts.  But each authentic encounter with the Lord always leads us beyond ourselves.  Christ always opens our eyes to the needs of others and opens our hearts to care and compassion for our brothers and sisters.  At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are invited beyond praise and adoration into that mystical, intimate relationship we call Communion.  We refer to the Sacrament as Holy Communion because our reception of the Eucharist allows us to enter into Communion with God and with one another.

When we are blessed to receive the Eucharist, to “receive Communion,” God leads us to himself, to a deep, intimate relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Our God is “One” and “Three,” a single God in three divine persons.  God himself is a communion of love – and he invites us into that communion.  Even when we are “alone with God,” we are not alone – we recognize that we are in the collective and individual presence of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  As humans, we are likely to find ourselves more able to relate to the Son of God, to the person of Jesus Christ, because Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.  Jesus is the very image of the invisible God.  He is our point of connection with God.  But Jesus is Son only because there is Father.  The relationship between Father and Son is central to God’s very nature.  There is another person within the Godhead from whom Jesus is distinct but with whom he is so closely united in love that they become one.  Saint Augustine described the Father as the Lover, the Son as the Beloved, and the Holy Spirit as the Love that unites them.  In Scripture, we hear the voice of God the Father proclaim, “This is my beloved Son.”  God does not use the word “beloved” by accident.  The love between Father and Son is real, and deep and abiding.  On this side of heaven, we will never be able to adequately explain the Trinity, the dynamic of love that unites Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but even our frail human nature can appreciate that we can truthfully say that “God is Love,” because there is both a unity and a distinction in God that transforms what could be a self-centered focus into a dynamic, life-giving love that only expands and never contracts.

So it is with our worship.  Jesus reveals his love for us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by nourishing and sustaining his Church, all of us who believe and are invited to share in the Eucharist.  Jesus draws us both to himself and to one another.  In the gospels, we hear of two particular examples of Jesus gathering with a group of his disciples to “break the bread” – the several accounts of the Last Supper (Matthew 26: 17-29; Mark 14: 12-25; and Luke 22: 7-38), and the one account of encountering the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke: 24: 13-25).  In a large group at the Last Supper and in the small gathering with only two disciples in Emmaus, Jesus revealed himself – his merciful love and his abiding care for his disciples – in the breaking of the bread.  This revelation came not to one person individually, but to two or more persons united in prayer, united in a common desire for a deeper communion with the living God.  In the next chapter, we will explore the Emmaus account in more detail.


Chapter 2 Questions for Reflection or Discussion:

  1. Think of the wonderful meals you have enjoyed in your life. Did you eat most of them alone or in the company of others?
  2. Do you find comfort and support in the company of your family? Your friends? The Christian community?
  3. Does your relationship with God open your eyes to the needs of others?
  4. Have you considered how the Eucharist draws you in to the “family table” of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
  5. What connection, if any, do you feel for those with whom you gather for Mass?

 

(More chapters to come...)

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