The Joy and Promise of the Holy Eucharist
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
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
- 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?
- 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?
- 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:
- Think of the wonderful meals you have enjoyed in your life. Did you eat most of them alone or in the company of others?
- Do you find comfort and support in the company of your family? Your friends? The Christian community?
- Does your relationship with God open your eyes to the needs of others?
- Have you considered how the Eucharist draws you in to the “family table” of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
- What connection, if any, do you feel for those with whom you gather for Mass?
Live, Jesus, in our Hearts Forever:
The Joy and Promise of the Most Holy Eucharist
CHAPTER 3: Were Not Our Hearts Burning?
In the final chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke, we hear of two unnamed disciples who were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the afternoon of the first Easter Sunday. They were joined by a man they did not recognize. These disciples were troubled and confused. Their teacher and Lord had been crucified and now they learned that his body was missing. Their fellow traveler sought to ease their anxiety by explaining how the Scriptures had foretold the mission and ministry of the Messiah. Reaching Emmaus, the traveler joined the disciples at table. When the traveler took bread, blessed and broke it, the eyes of the disciples were opened and they realized that they had been in the company of Jesus for hours on the journey. Jesus suddenly disappeared, which left the disciples asking themselves, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” Then they returned to Jerusalem and shared their news with the Apostles, describing how they recognized Jesus “in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24: 13-35).
The Emmaus account is familiar to us. We naturally focus upon the climactic moment at table when the disciples recognized Jesus. In the early Church, the celebration of the Eucharist was often referred to as the “Breaking of Bread.” Yet the story of Emmaus is deeper than the “Aha!” moment at table. It has much to teach us about the structure of the Mass and our need to be nourished. Although the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass always invites us into Communion with God by sharing in the One Bread and One Cup of the Eucharist, we are also fed at each celebration by our reflection upon the Word of God. Scriptures are always proclaimed at each Eucharistic liturgy – selections from the Old and/or the New Testament and always a passage from one of the four Gospels. We do not celebrate the “Liturgy of the Eucharist” unless we have first celebrated the “Liturgy of the Word.” The two parts are intimately joined together. The Emmaus story introduces us to this structure of the Mass – first, a reflection on the inspired Word of God and then on a sharing of the Lord’s own Body and Blood.
Saint Luke begins the Emmaus story with two disciples who are wondering what the events of the preceding three days meant. Had everything they hoped for been dashed? Was the death of Jesus the end? When the traveler (Jesus) joined them on the road, they could have remained silent or engaged in small talk. Instead, the disciples were honest. They opened their hearts to the stranger, sharing with him the joy they had found in Jesus and their own pain and confusion over his death. Jesus responded to their openness by explaining the Scriptures to them – undoubtedly the best homily ever given! Yet, I suggest, the discussion with Jesus had such a profound impact upon them because they had been honest about their thoughts and feelings and were open to his input, his wisdom, his love.
How many times do we go to God in prayer and pretend that everything is just fine? Too often, we recite the same prayers – in the same order – when we are happy and when we are sad, when we need healing and wisdom and when we need to give thanks for God’s blessings. As he showed the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus can cause hearts to burn with love – but only if those hearts are open and receptive, only if we are vulnerable enough to let God in. When we come before the Lord in prayer – before the Blessed Sacrament or in the quiet of our home – and especially when we come to Mass, it is important that we be open and honest with the Lord. We may not choose to share our struggles with everyone else in church, but in our quiet prayer we are invited to acknowledge the burdens that we carry, the wounds that need healing, the frustrations of our lives. Honesty before the Lord is vital. If we approach God with everything figured out – pointing out the sins of others and convincing ourselves (and trying to convince God) that we are perfect, then it is likely that our hearts will not be moved. The Lord continually offers us healing, forgiveness and peace – but we are not likely to receive them if our hearts remain closed, if we cannot acknowledge our need for God’s grace.
That grace often comes to us in our reflection on the Scriptures. Whether we meditate on a passage by reading it and praying with it several times, or we read a section of the Scripture and seek insight on that passage in a commentary, published reflection or from a related passage that we may find cited in the footnotes, our exploration of Scripture offers us a window (and sometimes a wide-open door) into the wisdom of God. Rather than centering our prayer only on our thoughts and feelings – telling God what we think, praying with Scripture helps to facilitate a dialogue with God, enables us to receive his perspective, his healing grace on the joys and sorrows of our lives.
In the celebration of Mass, we hear at least three Scripture passages (counting the psalm) each day and four passages on Sunday. The homily might focus on one or two of them. We can take what we heard in the homily to prayer if it is pertinent to our lives, but we may find that one of the other passages – a psalm or second reading, for example – touched our heart more deeply. We can pray with that passage, read and re-read it, reflect on it, quietly open our heart to God and reveal to him why that Scripture touched us so deeply at this particular time.
If you were touched by one of the readings at Mass, but do not remember the exact part of Scripture you heard, you can always look it up after Mass. The readings for the entire liturgical year can be found at www.bible.usccb.org/daily-bible-reading. If you are a day or two behind, click on the “View Calendar” button to find the date you were looking for. Of course, you could also use this resource to prepare for Mass by reading the Scriptures of the day before Mass begins. That practice may enable you to open your heart to the Lord more fully, knowing what is going on in your life and how the readings address that longing. Jesus nourishes us at each Mass in Word and Sacrament. May we allow him to set our hearts aflame in our reflection on the Scriptures and through our reception of Holy Communion.
Chapter 3 Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
- When was the last time your heart was “burning within you”?
- Are you comfortable reading Scripture or somewhat intimidated by all of the various books and types of literature?
- If you are reading a Gospel passage, for example, do you take the time to read the introduction to that Gospel found in your bible?
- Have you ever participated in a Bible study – in person or online? A focused reflection on a particular book of the Bible or a wider survey of Bible history or a particular genre of the Bible (Psalms, Prophets, Epistles, etc.)?
- Have you prayed with Scripture in the practice known as “Lectio Divina”? Here is an introduction to the practice if you are interested: https://bustedhalo.com/ministry-resources/lectio-divina-beginners-guide
Live, Jesus, in our Hearts Forever:
The Joy and Promise of the Most Holy Eucharist
CHAPTER 4: Opening our Hearts to Love
In the last chapter, we discussed the Emmaus account wherein two disciples found that their hearts were burning in their discussion of Scripture with the stranger they met on the road. Stopping for a meal, they recognized the stranger as Jesus in “the breaking of the bread.” If we find it difficult to relate to that story, if we find that our hearts rarely burn with faith and love, then I suggest that we are not alone. Too often, we do not even give our hearts the chance to encounter a spark, much less to catch fire. In our digital world, we have become accustomed to moving from one website to another with the click of a mouse, pausing for 30 seconds or so to watch one video clip, reading a few tweets, acquiring one bit of information here or there, and then moving on. We rarely pause and reflect on what we have seen or heard or read. Even those of us who grew up in a much slower world find that our attention span has diminished. We can only imagine what it is like for the young people of our time who have never lived without a cell phone and texts and sensory overload. A sustained encounter with the Lord, remembering that we are in his holy presence, seems to be impossible – but the saints of our tradition bear witness to the fact that it was always difficult. In one of his meditations, St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle asks, “How long has Jesus been knocking at the door of your heart and been waiting to enter, and you have not wished to receive him?” (Meditation 85.1). We might quibble with the word “wished,” I suppose. We might say that we have been too busy or too distracted or that there was so much going on that we did not hear the soft knocking. However we might describe the sensation, we must candidly admit that often we miss an encounter with the Lord because we are not prepared to receive him.
Opening our hearts to the Lord may be the most difficult task we face if we seek to appreciate the great gift of the Holy Eucharist. Many of us sense an emptiness in our lives and we try to fill that void through constant noise and visual stimulation and activity. We are too busy for the Lord. Others of us desperately want the Lord but we expect him to overwhelm us or knock us off our feet. Even if he does that, we often do not recognize him because we have some other explanation for what happened. Still others of us do not open the doors of our hearts because of our fear or our shame. We are afraid of God’s rejection or his disapproval. We treat the Lord as we do company at the front door – we busily try to clean the house (or at least the front room) before we answer the door. The problem, of course, is that the room of our heart is never completely prepared for God because we have not invited him into the messes of our lives. We want to encounter the Lord when we are perfect, but we cannot be perfect without him. As St. de La Salle wrote, “If you wait until you are without defects before receiving Communion, you will not receive Communion in your lifetime! We go to Communion to become holy, not because we are holy.” (Meditations 55.1 and 55.2). Yes, if we have committed any mortal sin, we are asked to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation prior to receiving Communion – but that does not mean that every defect in our character has been removed, or that we have been healed of every fault. We are forgiven by the Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but our brokenness and our susceptibilities to sin often remain. Somehow, we must accept that God wants to encounter us as we are – wounded, broken, imperfect, but open to returning God’s love. We come to the Eucharist to be nourished – but also to be healed. When we are physically ill, we often go to the doctor only as a last resort. We pointlessly seek to heal ourselves rather than turning to a professional for help. When we are spiritually troubled, we do not always turn to God in prayer, even though God continually offers us his forgiveness, compassion and love. If we have the courage to open the door of our heart, then God – especially as present in the Eucharist – will offer us his love and his peace.
As I write this chapter, we are mourning the death of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. His first encyclical letter as Supreme Pontiff, Deus caritas est (DCE) or “God is Love” offers us some poignant insights into the nature of our relationship with God. The title comes from the First Letter of John and reminds us that Love is God’s very nature, his essence. Pope Benedict speaks to us of “the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others.” (DCE, 1). Greek philosophy, Pope Benedict reminds us, described the divine power as the object of human desire and human love. By contrast, the Scriptures describe God as one who loves humanity with a personal love. In metaphysics, the divine power is the object of love; in Scripture, before God is ever the object of our human love, God first loves us. (DCE, 10, 11).
This preeminence of God’s love is profoundly important as we contemplate the divine presence in the Eucharist. The nature of God found in the Old Testament becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. The God who is Love, becomes love incarnate in Jesus. “The real novelty of the New Testament,” Benedict writes, “lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to [God’s love] — an unprecedented realism.” (DCE, 12). It is this incarnate love, this flesh and blood reality, that we are invited to receive in the Holy Eucharist. That divine self-gift is the very nature of Christ, the very nature of the Eucharist. And in the Eucharist, we are offered not just a glimpse, not just a taste, but a union, a Communion, with the living God. (DCE, 13, 14). This union, as noted in Chapter 2 of this letter, is a true participation in the union of love that is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. In the words of St. de La Salle, “The Son of God has come to earth and wishes to come into our hearts to make us sharers in his divine nature.” (Meditation, 85.3). But St. de La Salle also reminds us that with the profound gift of the Eucharist, comes a challenge, “See to it that your Holy Communion produces between you and Jesus Christ a union so strong that you will never separate yourself from him.” (Meditation, 49.2). The extraordinarily good news for us is that Jesus Christ desires that union – and offers us all the graces necessary to make it happen. We need only order our minds and hearts to cooperate with that grace. We need only open our hearts to love.
Chapter 4 Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
- How easy is it for you to open your heart to another? To God?
- Have you experienced rejection or betrayal in your life that makes you reluctant to open your heart even to God? Have you found that human love is imperfect?
- Do you ever find yourself to be too busy, too timid, or too ashamed or afraid to open your heart to God?
- Do you believe that God first loves you – even if you do not yet love him? Are you willing to believe that – unlike human love – God’s love is perfect?
- Are you prepared to take the risk of returning God’s love and allowing him to form a union, a Communion with you?
Live, Jesus, in our Hearts Forever:
The Joy and Promise of the Most Holy Eucharist
CHAPTER 5: Making Eye Contact with Jesus
In the first chapter of this letter, we discussed ways to focus our minds and hearts in our times of prayer. As humans, we often need some sensory help to set aside the distractions of the world in order to center ourselves on Jesus. We pay attention to the “voice” of our prayer time, whether audible to others when we pray aloud or just in the quiet of our internal conversation. We may find it helpful to have some external stimulus for our thoughts – Scripture or other spiritual reading or the rosary, for example. We also suggested that prayer happen in a special place in our home or garden and/or while looking at a particular image – a crucifix or icon or painting or statue. Of course, when we are in church, we naturally turn our attention to the Blessed Sacrament, whether in the tabernacle or exposed for adoration in a monstrance. Eucharistic adoration is a particularly effective way of focusing ourselves on Christ. Though under the appearance of bread, gazing upon the Body of Christ with eyes of faith helps us to remember that we are always in the holy presence of God. Yes, we humans often need assistance if we want to maintain our connection, our “eye contact” with God in prayer.
When we enter a crowded room, we often look around to see if there is someone we know, someone with whom we can connect and speak with. Usually in these crowds, two or more people will be gathered in small groups having conversations. We sometimes find it difficult to break into one of these conversations, to capture someone’s attention, to “catch their eye.” Sometimes, we feel most alone in a crowded room when we feel unseen, invisible. Too often, we carry that same experience into our prayer. We sometimes imagine that we have to compete with others for God’s attention – we have to do something to get God to look over at us. The fact is that God is continually looking at each one of us. His eyes never leave us. We are the ones who get distracted. We are the ones who look away, or turn our backs, or hide in shame. God never takes his eyes off of us.
In his homilies, audiences and exhortations, Pope Francis has frequently spoken about “the gaze of Jesus.”[i] In reflecting upon the call of Matthew (Matt. 9:9), the Holy Father says that, “It all starts, then, with the gaze of Jesus.” The gospel account is clear – Jesus “saw a man” (that is, Matthew) before Matthew saw Jesus. It was clear to all that Matthew was a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman Empire, a sinner, but Jesus saw a man. Pope Francis emphasizes that humans often see “the adjective” first – “sinful man” – rather than just the noun – “a man.” The gaze of Jesus “goes to the essence,” and looks upon us with the unconditional love of God. Every human person is beloved of God and God sees us in this context.
In speaking of another passage of Scripture – the encounter with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:5) – the Holy Father says,
And this is important: the first glance is not from Zacchaeus, but from Jesus, who among the many faces that surrounded Him – the crowd – seeks precisely that one. The merciful gaze of the Lord reaches us before we ourselves realize that we need it in order to be saved. And with this gaze of the divine Master there begins the miracle of the conversion of the sinner.[ii]
Just as St. John reminds us that we love God because he first loved us (1 John 4: 19), so Pope Francis reminds us that we see Jesus because he first sees us. Christ always sees us with love and mercy and compassion – often not in the way we view other people and, indeed, often not in the way we view ourselves. We see ourselves and others as loaded with the “adjectives” of the world – unworthy, sinful, flawed, rejected, while God sees us as the “noun” – his beloved child. Yes, we are called to do better, to leave our lives of sin behind – but sin is what we do; it is not who we are. Repentance, conversion, begins with the loving gaze of the Lord. Continuing his reflection on the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, the Holy Father states,
[T]he gaze of God never stops at our past, full of errors, but looks with infinite confidence at what we can become. And if at times we feel we are people who are “short in stature”, not up to the challenges of life and far less of the Gospel, mired in problems and sins, Jesus always looks at us with love, he looks at us: as with Zacchaeus, he comes towards us, he calls us by name and, if we welcome him, he comes to our home.[iii]
We need not fear the eyes of God. Pope Francis reminds us that God never looks down on us to humiliate us; rather, Christ lowers himself so that he may wash our feet. In this posture, he looks up at us and restores us to our human dignity.[iv] It is no accident that Christ lowered himself to wash our feet at the Last Supper, on the same night and in the same Upper Room where he established the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. In the Eucharist, God places himself at our level and offers himself to us, for us. He seeks communion with us – feeding and nourishing us, renewing a heart-to-heart connection, making and maintaining eye contact with us.
In our prayer, we turn our minds and hearts and eyes toward God. When we look at the Blessed Sacrament, we see the real presence of Jesus – his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity under the appearance of bread. With eyes of faith, our eyes can connect with the eyes of Christ. That should be a goal of our prayer – to maintain eye contact with Jesus. Remembering that Christ is always looking at us with love, we need to return his gaze. We need, in the words of St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle, to “remember that we are in the holy presence of God.” We need to experience his unconditional love and his abundant mercy. We need the grace to see ourselves as Jesus sees us – without the adjectives that the world imposes on us, without the labels we put on ourselves. And we need to look on others as Christ looks at us. As Pope Francis observes, “Remember that it is legitimate to look down on someone only to help them get up again: nothing more.”[v] Christ is always there, looking at us with love, washing our feet and helping us to get up again. Why would we ever look away?
[i] Pope Francis, General Audience, January 11, 2023.
[ii] Pope Francis, Angelus, November 3, 2019.
[iii] Pope Francis, Angelus, October 30, 2022.
Chapter 5 Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
- How often do you seek to make eye contact with Jesus in prayer? Are you interested in looking into his eyes? Are you afraid of how he will look at you?
- Do you find yourself looking for God? Is it difficult to remember that he is always looking at you?
- Are you looking up to heaven to see God? Do you ever remember that Jesus is the one looking up at you while washing your feet?
- Do you find yourself getting self-conscious when maintaining eye contact with another person? Do you have the same experience with God?
- Do you find yourself looking down on others? To judge them or to help them get up?
Live, Jesus, in our Hearts Forever:
The Joy and Promise of the Most Holy Eucharist
CHAPTER 6: Eucharistic Prayer: Thanksgiving, Offering, Invoking, and Remembering
In previous chapters, we have discussed focusing our prayer on the Holy Eucharist, especially through participation at Mass and in private prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. We discussed praying with Scripture or with other spiritual reading material. Yet the Mass itself – and particularly the extended prayer of the priest and people which we call the “Eucharistic Prayer” – provides an excellent instructional manual for the content and structure of our prayer.
As we have heard many times, the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” We are called to give thanks to God not just for one day each November, but each and every day. God has abundantly blessed us throughout our lives. Jesus Christ suffered, died and rose from the dead to save us. Gratitude, therefore, must be a consistent part of our daily prayer. Our society speaks often of rights, entitlements, those things which we are “owed.” There is some value in that approach – after all, many people live with an overabundance of wealth and privilege while others are denied even the basic necessities of life. As people of faith, we must work to ensure that everyone has adequate food, clothing and shelter, that the sick are cared for and that each person is treated with dignity. At the same time, we Christians must move beyond a perpetual search for what we are due, a constant drive to acquire more – and instead open our eyes and our hearts to the many blessings our loving God has poured into our lives. Expressing our gratitude to God forms us into people who recognize that we are completely dependent upon God for our very life’s breath. A Eucharistic-centered life is one lived in gratitude to Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Recall that the Mass is divided into the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Liturgy of the Word, we hear and reflect upon the Sacred Scriptures and seek insight on how the Word of God impacts my life, my prayer, my relationships. Each time we encounter Scripture, we hear the divinely inspired Word of God – we meet Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we encounter Christ in the flesh – under the appearance of bread and wine – and we seek nourishment and communion (both topics we have covered before in this letter). Of course, the prayer though which ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ is called the Eucharistic Prayer. It begins with the “Preface Dialogue” (The Lord be with you. Lift up your hearts. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.) and concludes with the Doxology (Through him and with him and in him . . . ) and the Great Amen. This Eucharistic Prayer is prayed primarily by the priest celebrant, though we have responses and add our affirmation in the Great Amen. There are actually four primary Eucharistic Prayers (and several other special ones) from which the priest-celebrant can choose, but all include certain basic elements which form the basis of our further reflections.
The entire Eucharistic Prayer, as it is now called, has traditionally be referred to as the anaphora – a Greek word that in this context means “carrying up” or “offering.” It is a word that continues to be used in the Churches of the East. It is a very appropriate word because in this prayer the people of God offer back their lives, their very selves – in the form of bread and wine, which we ask the Father to change into the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of his beloved Son. Each Eucharistic Prayer is Trinitarian, it is addressed (or offered) to God the Father, through God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. Our prayer should also be Trinitarian in that we should acknowledge and address Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At various times in our day or in a particular situation, we might address one Divine Person in particular – seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we make decisions, for example, or conversing with Jesus when reflecting on a particular gospel passage. Yet at some point each day, we should pray directly to each member of the Trinity, offering our prayer to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit individually. The beauty of our Triune God is that we are invited into a divine community of love – not just one relationship, and if we neglect the Trinitarian nature of God then we risk making our faith only one-dimensional.
In each Eucharistic Prayer, we express our thanks, our gratitude to God, and we offer him our prayer, our lives, our joys and sorrows. Each Eucharistic Prayer also includes two invocations of the Holy Spirit called an epiclesis. The first of these is quite visible – the priest-celebrant extends his hands over the bread and wine and asks that the Holy Spirit “make holy these gifts” so that they “may become the Body and Blood of your Son.” (Eucharistic Prayer III). We ask the Holy Spirit to take our humble offerings and sanctify them, make them holy, so that God the Father may be pleased to make present God the Son. In our private prayer, we could include a similar epiclesis, a similar invocation of the Holy Spirit, asking the Spirit to sanctify our entire lives, or heal a particular situation or relationship that we have brought to prayer. Seeking the power of the Holy Spirit is a wonderful way of making our prayer both Trinitarian and Eucharistic – embracing the full dimension of the God who is Love.
There are, in fact, two invocations of the Holy Spirit in most of the Eucharistic Prayers. In the first epiclesis, we ask the Holy Spirit to make our gifts holy so that they might become the Body and Blood of Christ. In the second epiclesis, we ask that the Holy Spirit sanctify us who receive the Eucharist – that “we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.” (Eucharistic Prayer II). In addition to asking the Holy Spirit to sanctify our lives, we might also invoke his power to heal a relationship, to draw us away from sin and make us better disciple.
Finally, each Eucharistic Prayer also includes a memorial, a passage in which we remember the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ which is made present for us in the Eucharist. This remembering is called the anamnesis, another Greek term, which means reminiscence or memorial sacrifice. When we pause to remember our loved ones who have died, we make them present in our thoughts. We relive in those moments the times of joy, or the times of struggle, that we shared with them. In the same way, when we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus at each Mass, we make those events real for us – though none of us witnessed them first hand. When we pray privately, we might also include an anamnesis, a remembering of the Paschal Mystery – the life, death and resurrection of Christ – for it is only by the love and mercy of God made present in those events that we have the blessed hope of eternal salvation. We should remember the saving work of Jesus Christ not only at every Mass but in our own prayers as Jesus died and rose for all of us and for each of us.
When we look for a structure for our times of prayer, consider the structure of the Eucharistic Prayer: a heartfelt expression of gratitude, an offering to God of the joys and struggles of our lives, an invocation of the Holy Spirit to sanctify the subject of our prayer, and a constant memory of the saving action of Jesus Christ. These four touchstones will not only enhance our private prayer but will call us back to Mass again and again so that we might be drawn into a deeper Communion with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Chapter 6 Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
- Do you live a life of gratitude or one of entitlement? How do you express your gratitude to others? To God?
- Do you see your life as an offering to God? What kind of offering is it? If you are not offering your life to God, are you offering it to something or someone else?
- Do you consciously pray to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit beyond saying the words when making the sign of the cross? Are you drawn to one Divine Person more than another? Why might that be?
- Do you ever invoke the Holy Spirit in your prayer? Do you ask the Spirit to make your life or a particular situation holy? Are you actively seeking holiness? Are you presuming that holiness will just happen if you do the right things?
- Do you ask the Holy Spirit to draw you closer to your family? Your loved ones? Your brothers and sisters in faith? Have you thought of the Eucharist as drawing us together as one body?
- In prayer, do you consciously remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Do you see his presence in your life? In the sorrows that you experience? In the joys?
Live, Jesus, in our Hearts Forever:
The Joy and Promise of the Most Holy Eucharist
CHAPTER 7: Whoever Eats This Bread Will Live Forever
In the last chapter of this letter, we focused on the Eucharistic Prayer and how the basic elements of that prayer (thanksgiving, anaphora, epiclesis, and anamnesis) can enliven and inform our personal prayer. The central Scriptural reference in each of the versions of the Eucharistic Prayer is the “institution narrative,” an amalgamation of the four accounts of the institution of the Eucharist found in the New Testament (Matthew 26: 20-29; Mark 14: 17-25; Luke 22: 14-20; and 1 Corinthians 11: 23-25). Though there are some variations among the accounts, they are consistent when it comes to Jesus’ words when holding the bread and when holding the cup of wine. At the Last Supper, Jesus refers to the bread as his Body and the wine as his Blood. As the incarnate Word of God, his words have profound meaning. By uttering those words, Jesus transforms ordinary bread and ordinary wine into his Body and Blood – and entrusts that same power to his Church. Yes, these accounts of the Last Supper are vital to our understanding of the sacrament, but there is one more Scripture passage that provides great theological insight into the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist – the “Bread of Life” discourse found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John.
This chapter of John’s Gospel begins with one of the accounts of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish – the miracle by which Jesus fed a large crowd with only five barley loaves and two fish, a feat so astounding that there were twelve baskets of fragments left over. Needless to say, the crowd was impressed – so impressed that they followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum seeking another “sign.” They had been dazzled by the miracle they had experienced and they wanted to see more. These people may have been on the road to faith, but at this point in the journey they could best be described as intrigued and curious. They wanted another sign. The satisfying meal that Jesus had provided from such meager offerings reminded them of how Moses had fed the people of Israel with manna in the desert (the “bread from heaven” as the Old Testament describes it). Jesus corrected the crowd – “[I]t was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6: 32-33). Still eager for a sign, the crowd begged Jesus, “Sir, give us this bread always.” (John 6: 34). The response of Jesus startled them even more than the miraculous multiplication of loaves: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (John 6: 35). The crowd was murmuring at this response – how can he have come down from heaven? Jesus restates his point more emphatically, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. . . . Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6: 51-55). Jesus continued, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6: 56). The gospel tells us that many in the crowd found this concept, this truth too hard to believe. They walked away and returned to their former way of life. After they departed, Jesus asked the Twelve if they also wanted to leave. Simon Peter responds, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 68-69).
At the Last Supper, Jesus explicitly connected the Eucharist to his Death – “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.” (Luke 22:20). In the Bread of Life Discourse, he also connects the Eucharist to eternal life, that is, to his Resurrection. The Eucharist, therefore, is our perpetual memorial of the fullness of the Paschal Mystery. At each Mass, the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ is made present for us, but not in a way that repeats the Sacrifice of the Lord. Rather, in our celebrations of the Eucharist we return again and again to the central mystery of our faith. We are the ones who are drawn again to the Upper Room and to the foot of the Cross and to the empty tomb. Christ does not repeat his death and resurrection, we are instead invited to encounter Christ – crucified and risen – as our spiritual nourishment and as the source of our redemption. With daily manna, the Lord God fed the Israelites in the desert until they came to the promised land. In the Eucharist, we ask the Father to feed us with the Bread of Life until we reach the promise of heaven.
The second part of the title of this pastoral letter is “The Joy and Promise of the Most Holy Eucharist.” The promise of the Eucharist is most effectively articulated in the Bread of Life discourse. Jesus promises us that if we eat this bread, if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, then we will have eternal life. The Eucharist, the deep and intimate Communion with Christ offered to us in this Sacrament, is our passage-way to eternal life. He does not promise us health or wealth, power or pleasure – he promises us that we will live forever. Jesus made that promise real in the Paschal Mystery, in his Passion, Death and Resurrection, but the promise was fully articulated in this passage from John’s Gospel and is most effectively celebrated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him,” he gives us the hope to pray as St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle did – Live, Jesus, in our hearts forever. Indeed, St. de La Salle challenged his brothers and challenges us: “When Jesus Christ is in you, is he there as a living bread? Do you allow him complete freedom to communicate his divine Spirit to your soul? Is he living in you to the extent that you can say it is no longer you who live, but that it is Jesus Christ who lives in you?” (Meditation 48.1). In the relationship – in the Communion – with Jesus Christ that is offered to us in the Eucharist, that is nourished in us through the Eucharist, we are offered an eternal dwelling with the God who is Love, and Christ seeks to make an eternal dwelling within us.
Yes, in the Eucharist, Christ offers us the promise of Communion, the promise of eternal life. The dilemma of our age challenges us: Do we continue to believe that Jesus is, as St. Peter confessed, “the Holy One of God,” and do we find joy in the Communion he offers us? Do we return to Mass again and again to re-connect with the One who saves us, who brings us joy? As humans, we are hard-wired for joy. As children of God, we are naturally drawn to God – indeed, only God can satisfy our basic needs, especially our quest for joy and happiness. Without a deep and abiding relationship with God, we try to satisfy our need for joy with earthly pleasures. We find this pleasure in so many different ways – some healthy and life-giving, some not. Some pleasurable experiences lead us to God, others expressly lead us away from him. Unless we have encountered God, encountered true happiness, then we will settle for something less, for simple pleasure. In the person of Jesus Christ – truly human and truly divine – we have the perfect guide to happiness and joy. In the sacraments – and especially in the Eucharist – we have been given the perfect opportunities to encounter Christ, to encounter happiness. Have we found that joy? Do we continue to search for joy or have we settled for only pleasure? Do we recognize in the Eucharist both joy and promise? As he did with the Twelve, Jesus asks us, “Do you also want to leave?” May we respond as St. Peter did, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Chapter 7 Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
- Please read one or more of the institution narratives: Matthew 26: 20-29; Mark 14: 17-25; Luke 22: 14-20; or 1 Corinthians 11: 23-25? Do you hear the same words you hear at Mass each week? Do you notice the slight differences? Can you picture yourself at the at the Last Supper hearing Jesus speak these words? Do they echo in your heart?
- Please read the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Are you looking for a sign? Have you found that sign in the Eucharist? Jesus did not convince all of his disciples that he is the Bread of Life. Did he convince you? Why or why not?
- The promise of eternal life is described in the Bread of Life discourse and made real in the Resurrection. Is that promise enough for you? Have you found the joy and promise of the Eucharist or are you still searching for more?
- Do you recognize the connection between the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Paschal Mystery – the Life, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord? Do you think about that connection each time you participate in Mass? Why or why not?
- Please read again the questions posed to us by St. Jean-Baptiste de LaSalle that can be found in the next to last paragraph of this chapter. Do you allow Christ to communicate to you when you have received the Eucharist? Do you allow him to make a home in your heart?
- Do you find joy in your relationship with Jesus? Do you look for joy in your experience at Mass? In your reception of Holy Communion? Have you settled for pleasure and not true joy?
- Are you convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the “Holy One of God”? Do you believe that he has “the words of eternal life”? If so, how does that belief impact your life?
Live, Jesus, in our Hearts Forever:
The Joy and Promise of the Most Holy Eucharist
EPILOGUE: Sharing Eucharistic Faith with a New Generation
Over the course of the last 50 years, technology has moved us from a letter-writing society to one that communicates by text messages. Instead of leisurely reading the morning paper, we are now bombarded by information popping up on our phones at all hours of the day and night. Childhood used to be filled with imagination and outdoor play – now it is marked by advancing levels in the latest video game. With liturgies that touch the very basics of our human existence – bread and wine, water and oil, proclamation of the Word, meaningful gestures – there is little wonder that we Catholics are seen as out-of-step with the digital age. For decades, parents have lamented the fact that their children and grandchildren do not practice their Catholic faith with the same commitment as did their ancestors. With all of these “modern” challenges, I offer a few suggestions to help parents connect their 21st century children with the ever-ancient, ever-new Catholic liturgies. These suggestions are simple and, perhaps, self-evident, but I present them just to spark some interest and creativity.
Read to your children from a young age. One of the best training grounds for both spiritual and academic excellence is a connection to the written word. Even before they can read for themselves, introduce your children to books, not just to video screens. Someone else’s imagination comes to life in the digital world. Help fuel your children’s own imagination through the words of a book. And, with age-appropriate selections and stories, introduce them to the Bible and especially to Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God.
Have dinner with your children on a regular basis. Too often, our meals are fast food – either from a take-out restaurant or from our refrigerator as we are walking out the door. Have a scheduled time for a meal, sit at the table and have a family conversation that includes your children. It does not need to feature fine china or linen tablecloths every night, but there should be plates and flatware and napkins. We cannot expect our children to appreciate a Eucharistic liturgy that is intimately connected to the Passover meal if they have no regular experience of gathering for a family meal.
Pray with your children. Help them to develop regular times for prayer – in the morning, at meal time, before bed, and at other times that may work for your family. This is an opportunity to teach your child the basic prayers – Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Grace before meals, etc. – and a time to encourage them to pray spontaneously, in their own words. Invite them to name those people or events that they would specifically like to pray for. Being open to hearing their intentions and joining them in prayer teaches them that prayer is not just repeating a formula but actually taking their needs to God.
Introduce your children to the liturgical year and help it come to life. Most of us decorate our homes for Christmas, and we have some decorations for Easter, but other solemnities, feasts and seasons get neglected. Help your children appreciate the anticipation of the season of Advent with an Advent wreath and appropriate prayers, for example. Talk about the connection between the Epiphany and the King Cake of Carnival season. Simplify décor and table settings in Lent and encourage sacrifices. Continue celebrating Easter beyond the dyed eggs. The lengthy periods of Ordinary Time are opportunities to make the Gospel parables and images come to life – sow seeds in a garden, bake bread (with and without leaven), take your children fishing or out to a farm to pick some fruit or vegetables, or help your children with a simple carpentry project – and talk about the Biblical connection before, during and after the activity. At an appropriate age, visit your family’s cemetery plot/mausoleum on or near All Saints and All Souls Days and introduce the concept of praying for the dead and the many uncanonized saints in our own families. In other words, be creative in helping your children connect their faith to real life experiences.
Introduce your children to liturgical prayer. At mealtime or other times of family prayer, incorporate a Scripture reading and include a responsorial psalm or intercessions, a prayer to the saint of the day or Alleluias in the Easter season. Take some Holy Water home and have your children use it to bless themselves – especially in the Easter season. These simple additions can make the Church’s Sunday liturgy more accessible to a child.
Recognize and celebrate each child’s patron saint. If your child has a saint’s name, obtain a medal or statue or just print out a picture of the saint. Discuss why you gave your child that name – whether directly for the saint or because of the connection to a family member or friend. Encourage your child to learn about their saint and invoke the saint on a regular basis. Make the saint’s feast day something special in your home – engage in an activity with a connection to the saint’s life or just enjoy a festive dessert on that day.
Discuss with your child what they learned in their religious education class. When your children are school-age, enroll them in a Catholic school or in a parish religious education (CCD) class. These classes help them to make friends with other Catholic children and learn about their faith in a classroom setting. No formal religious instruction, however, is an adequate substitute for learning the faith from their parents – in word and by example. When they return from class, talk with them about what they learned and help to reinforce the lesson or make the connection to their everyday life. Religious instruction is important, but a classroom teacher cannot always touch the heart of each child with the important truths of faith. As you are your child’s primary religious educator, please help to bridge this gap or respond to their curiosity if they were particularly intrigued by a topic.
Make Sunday special. Whenever possible, make the connection between church and home. At Sunday dinner, discuss the readings, prayers or homily your family heard at Mass. Light candles at the Sunday table. Invite guests to your Sunday dinner or share some of the food with a neighbor, friend or relative who may not cook for themselves. Pay special attention to what is said in the car during the ride to and from Mass. If your children hear you mention something that you particularly remember from the readings or prayers of Mass, then they will learn to listen for themselves. If they hear nothing but complaints about the homily or the music or distractions at Mass, then that is what they will look for. As often as possible, talk positively about liturgy and about your parish. Your children will find the negative – you do not need to be the one to point it out.
Share your own faith with your children. This is probably the most important point. Your children need to hear how faith helps you live your life. Discuss with them the reasons you help others or make charitable contributions. Share with them your favorite Scripture passages. Talk about important moments in your faith journey – how you felt at First Communion, Confirmation, at the major annual feasts. Share with your children how God supported you in difficult times – the death of a loved one, an illness or a disappointment in life. Discuss the moments in your life when you felt closest to God. If you want your children to have a faith that is alive, they first need to know that you have a faith that comforts and sustains you.