Talk on the Holy Eucharist
The Vatican has recently raised some alarm due to Priests who tinkered with the liturgy changing the words or the actions of the Holy Mass and Bishops have been told to advise their flocks against such errors. Among the things which must have been happening is the laity preaching. To ensure that I can not be accused of disobedience what follows is not a sermon just few of my own thoughts.
When Mother Prioress suggested that I come to talk on The Holy Eucharist I suggested that this would be a ‘Coals to Newcastle’ situation. Christine and I should be listening to you talk about the Holy Eucharist not the other way around. But I knew that as I attempted to put words together it would be a time of learning for me and one which I would cherish.
Let me start by telling you what the Holy Eucharist means to me where the Holy Mass is concerned. My impatience to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus is such that if I had my way I would turn the Mass upside down. After the Confiteor had been prayed the sign of peace would take place (having made our peace with God we would follow by offering peace to each other. I once attended a convent where that actually took place. I was thrilled.) Then reception of Holy Communion would take place followed by a long period of complete silence. In most churches straight after Holy Communion the organ starts up and hymns are sung. I have got used to switching off so that I don’t hear the organ or the singing. I need to pray. My upside down Mass would continue with the readings for the day and the sermon. After that if a loud joyful hymn was sung I might even join in. I once met a De la Salle brother whose idea of the ideal Mass was just the same as mine. That is enough of my day dreaming.
There are references to the Eucharist in Old Testament when Abraham meets Melchizedek king of Salem who ‘brought bread and wine’; he was a priest of God Most High. Melchizedek’s name is included in the Eucharistic Prayer No. 1 of the Holy Mass.
Then there is the Manna. The food on which the Israelites were fed in the desert. The word manna means ‘what is it’. because when the Israelite first saw it they did not know what it was. It was not just a miracle that it fed them for forty years in the desert but another miracle was that there was a double quantity on Friday which was the eve of their Sabbath. Collecting manna was forbidden on the Sabbath so they had to collect twice as much on the day before. Yet another miracle took place when the manna ceased when the Israelites entered the Promised Land. They had entered the land where ‘milk and honey flowed’ or to put it another way it was rich in harvests, so the manna wasn’t needed any more so it stopped.
Then in the New Testament we have a definite symbolic reference to the Eucharist in the feeding of the five thousand. In St John’s Gospel that miracle of the loaves and fish is followed fairly soon by Jesus’ words “I am the bread of life.” In between there is the crossing of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus walked on the water which I will include because it gives us a clue as to the extent of Faith with is expected of us.
After the feeding of the five thousand Jesus sent his apostles back across to Capernaum in the boat whilst he went in to the hills to pray. He was escaping from the crowds who wanted to take him by force and make him their king.
There must have been a west wind pushing the boat back because the apostles were making little progress. Then they saw a figure walking on the water and it terrified them. It was Jesus and he said “It is me. Don’t be afraid”. St Marks’ Gospel tells us of Peter walking on the water towards Jesus but then starting to sink and Jesus coming to save him. Jesus said to him “You of little faith, why did you doubt.” I think it was amazing that Peter managed to walk even a few steps. What Jesus’ words mean to me is that he expects all of us to have enough faith to walk on water. I can only say “Oh me of little faith”. But then that same strong faith is needed for my belief in the real presence.
As soon as they landed they went to the synagogue in Capernaum. There Jesus referred to the manna in the desert when he said ‘I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they are dead; but this is the bread which comes down from heaven, so that a person may eat it and not die. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
The Jews started arguing among themselves. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus replied to them: “In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life in you.” Here we have the first combined mention of eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
Jesus continued: “Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day”. When Jesus had something to say he wasn’t one to hold back or try attempt to make his words less difficult to understand or interpret. So he continued: “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives me and I live in that person. This is the bread which has come down from heaven; it is not like the bread our ancestors ate (another reference to the manna) they are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.”
This what he taught at the synagogue in Capernaum. After hearing it, many of his followers said, “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?” We must bear in mind that these same followers who were complaining had seen Jesus feed the 5,000 the day before and on other occasions had seen him cure lepers, make the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, and the crippled walk. They surely should have realised that here was the most charismatic person who had ever been on the earth – in other words they should have realised that here was the prophesied Messiah who Israel had been waiting for. But they hadn’t enough faith to wait and see what would happen.
So the Bible tells us ‘After this, many (not just a few but many) of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more.’ That must have been very hurtful for Jesus. Disciples are probably as easy to come by as postulants in a Carmelite Monastery. God provides but you don’t exactly get knocked down in the rush do you Mother? Some of the disciples had come from John the Baptist, others had come inspired by the healing they had seen Jesus perform. But now they were leaving and I see this as a defining moment in The Real Presence of the Holy Eucharist.
As they walked away imagine for a moment what Jesus could have done: “Come back; come back. You are misunderstanding me. I don’t mean to actually eat my body and drink my blood. I am only speaking symbolically.” If Jesus had said that then they would have come back. But Jesus could not say that because it would not have been true. So he had to let them go.
It was a sad Jesus who turned to his apostles and said “What about you, do you want to go away too?” This is one of those places where the Bible becomes alive for us today because Peter answered on behalf of us all; “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.” Peter and the apostles didn’t understand Jesus’ words any more than those who had walked away but they had Faith. At the Last Supper they understood the full meaning of Jesus’ words and later they understood the beauty and wonder of what Jesus had done; leaving himself behind whilst going to His father. No-one could have anticipated such an action, such a Sacrament, it was and continues to be truly an act of God.
At the Last Supper after Jesus had spoken the words of consecration over the bread and wine he said to the apostles “Do this in remembrance of me”. But you as religious sisters and Christine and I as laity do not have the authority to do so. So what must we do? Jesus showed us. St John’s Gospel reads “…he got up from the table, removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it around his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.” So those of us who will never have the authority to consecrate must follow Jesus’ example and be prepared to lovingly accept the most menial of tasks. The way Jesus had dressed and the washing of feet was the lowest of jobs; that of a slave.
It is a matter of great concern that when we ask the question ‘Do you believe in the Real Presence?’ we don’t always get the ‘Yes’ answer which we are hoping for. People of our age who have practiced their faith will usually answer ‘Yes’ but many younger people, even ones who regularly attend Holy Mass, are more likely to answer ‘No’ or ‘Don’t know’. Why? Because during their schooling they haven’t been taught about the Real Presence. What has gone wrong with Religious Education? I don’t know but it has certainly left a great void in young people’s knowledge. It is something to pray about. Our Parish Priest is assistant chaplain to a large Catholic school. When he goes to offer Holy Mass he is horrified by the sloppy manner in which the young boys and girls approach Holy Communion. It is obvious from their attitude, their body language, that most of them have no idea of the wonder and beauty of the Sacrament which they are receiving. In that respect I can tell you that at the Roman Catholic Shrine in Walsingham I have seen an adult altar server dash off the altar to a young person who has returned to their pew with the host still in their hand. The altar server ensures that the host is then consumed. It is obviously a common problem.
What are these young people missing? They are missing the knowledge that Jesus is really with them body and blood. They are missing the unbelievable humility of God. We can think of all earthly Kings, Queens and Monarchs none of them have such humility. Yet here is the only one worthy of being called a King and He gives Himself to us in the beautiful sacrament. Young people are also missing the opportunity of visiting Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament; of listening to him; speaking to him; of adoring him.
But it isn’t only young people who are confused. Many older people cause their own confusion by worrying about things which in relation to the Real Presence are as nothing. I am thinking of letters which I read in the Catholic papers. Recently a man wrote to say that he dropped his family off to Mass but hadn’t gone himself because it wasn’t a Latin Mass and he didn’t like Mass in the vernacular. That shows appalling bad example and I can only suspect that that man does not believe in the real presence.
Then there are letters from people who complain that their church is being reordered. The altar rails are being removed, the altar is being repositioned and other items of reordering are taking place. Many get extremely upset by these changes and I suspect that much of a bishop’s time is taken up answering such letters of complaint.
Dear Mother and Sisters I suggest to you that it doesn’t matter whether Holy Mass is offered in the finest church in the world like St Peters in Rome under that beautiful dome or whether it is offered in a field with the vault of the sky above. Nor does it matter whether the words are in Latin or any other language. The important thing is The Consecration and the sad people whose worries are the language or the reordering are missing the wonder of that moment when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus.
What can I say about my thoughts at the time of Holy Communion. Hopefully I have made some preparation. Our Parish Priest has taught us to bow before we receive and if we are receiving by the hand to place the Blessed Host into our mouths before returning to our pew. That has almost stopped the sight of someone wandering down the church with the Blessed Host still in their hands which always giving the impression that they don’t know the wonder and beauty of what they are doing. When I return to my place I try and switch off completely and concentrate on Jesus who is with me in a physical way through the Blessed Host. I used to start by giving Him my current list of requirements but later I would realise that I had never said ‘Thank You’. So now I try and start with ‘Thank You’ and then move on to my never-ending list of petitions. Is that list really necessary? Doesn’t Jesus know in advance all that I am going to ask for? Of course He does, and aren’t there times when Jesus wants to say “Michael please shut up and let me talk to you.” I rattle on and on and on without a thought that Jesus might want to say something to me. I do sometimes get it right and those are very special occasions. When I get it right then like Samuel I am saying “Speak Lord, your servant is listening”. When I get it wrong I am saying ”Listen Lord, your servant is speaking”.
Because of the directives from Rome asking for greater reverence of The Blessed Sacrament our Parish Priest has brought back into use the Communion Plate. But this did not please everyone and he had complaints that the plate has made for confusion – rather than seeing the use of the plate as an act of reverence they only see it as a distraction. It is impossible to please everyone!
If we want an example of a priest offering Holy Mass then we need to look no further than Padre Pio. He would rise at 2.00a.m. and spend two hours making his preparation. He counted the hours separating him from one Holy Mass and the next. He would leave his cell in a painful agitation. As soon as he arrived in the sacristy, while he was putting on the holy vestments, he was no longer aware of what was going on around him. He was deeply engrossed in thought. If someone dared to ask him a question he would reply absent-mindedly and in monosyllables. On the altar, his previously waxen face became flushed. At the Consecration, bringing his lips closer to the Host which he held tightly between his fingers. he exclaimed with infinite tenderness: “Jesus my food”. In the sacristy after Mass he would spend twenty minutes or more in his thanksgiving.
That has led me to thinking about my thanksgiving. How long should it be? Is it possible to put length of time to ‘thanksgiving’? At the moment when we receive the precious Host Jesus enters our souls how long does he stay? Five minutes, ten minutes fifteen minutes? The answer has to be that unless we fall into serious sin he never leaves us. So our thanksgiving can last until our next Holy Communion. This is confirmed by the words of St Paul to the Galatians where he says ‘It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.’
This leads to ‘praying continuously’ which St Paul recommends in his 1st letter to the Thessalonians. I attempt to do this by trying to see Jesus in everyone. I might be in town with people passing by and it is interesting to try and see Jesus in all of them. Some look worried as if they had all the cares of the world like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, Some are disabled, which means that they are helping Jesus in his suffering on the Cross. Some person will hold a shop door open for me and there is Jesus being kind and thoughtful. Then someone dashes past and lets the door slam in my face. There’s Jesus in a hurry!
When we think of the Eucharist as a Sacrament we realise that it is the Sacrament of Sacraments. It is so sublime so awe-inspiring that it cannot be contained in one name so we know it as The Eucharist; The Lord’s Supper; The Breaking of Bread; Sacred Mysteries; Most Blessed Sacrament; The Eucharistic Assembly; Holy Sacrifice; Holy & Divine Liturgy; Memorial; Holy Communion and for the dying The Viaticum.
The Sacraments listed in what we used to know as the old Penny Catechism
are Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance the Anointing of the sick
Holy Orders and Matrimony. Why are Holy orders and Matrimony put at the end? Because the others are all specifically connected with God’s healing love, but the greatest healing of all is ‘The Holy Eucharist.’ Some time ago I understand that you had a visit from Monsignor Atherton who spoke to you on the Psalms. He lives quite close to us and often supplies for Holy Mass in our church of St Alban. During a recent sermon he was telling us about the healing power of The Holy Eucharist. He said “None of us, including myself, could come to church if we waited until we were sinless. That is the wonder and beauty of The Holy Eucharist. It heals us”. Monsignor Atherton asked me to bring you his good wishes.
Baptism, Penance and Confirmation are Christian initiation Sacraments. But the Sacraments of the vows of Holy Orders, Matrimony and the Anointing of the Sick require the Eucharist of the Holy Mass. When we make religious vows and when we marry we need the presence of Jesus to be with us to hear and accept our vows and in the case of the dying to comfort us.
As a Eucharistic Minister I have the privilege of taking the Eucharist to the sick in hospitals, nursing homes, residential homes and to their own homes. When these sick people die it is very sad when some of their families, who have all dropped away from their faith, only request a Funeral Service instead of a Requiem Mass.
One of the objections regarding the Real Presence which comes not only from some of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters but also from our Muslim brethren is that it appears to be cannibalistic. The answer to that is Jesus’ unbelievable and perfect humility. How else can we explain his desire to offer his real body and real blood for us to eat and drink? If the choice to eat and drink had been ours then the objection would be proved. But the choice was that of Jesus and we cannot disobey.
Knowing our lack of Faith the Good Lord has left us several ‘Miracles of the Holy Eucharist.’ The best known took place in the 8th Century in the Italian town of Lanciano. I will relate it to you:
Miracle of the Eucharist. Lanciano 8th Century
A monk, wise in the ways of the world, but not in the faith, was having a trying time with his belief in the Real Presence of Our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. He prayed constantly for relief from his doubts, and from the fear that he was losing his vocation. He suffered through the routine of his priesthood day after day, with these doubts gnawing at him.
The situation in the world did not help his faith. There were many heresies cropping up all the time, which kept chipping away at his faith. They were not all from outside the church either. Brother priests and bishops were victims of these heresies that were being spread throughout the Church. One morning, while he was having a strong attack of doubt, he began the Consecration of the Mass for the people of the town. He used the same size host which is used in the Latin Rite Mass today. After the consecration of the Host and Wine, what he beheld caused his hands to shake, indeed his whole body. He stood for a long time with his back to the people and then slowly turned around to them.
He said “O fortunate witnesses to whom the Blessed God, to confound my disbelief, has wished to reveal Himself in this Most Blessed Sacrament and to render Himself visible to our eyes! Come, brethren, and marvel at our God so close to us. Behold the Flesh and Blood of our most beloved Christ.”
The host had turned into Flesh. The wine had turned into Blood.
All that happened one thousand three hundred years ago. Had that miracle taken place, and then the flesh and blood disintegrated, as would have been normal, the miracle would have been none the less a miracle. The priest’s faith had been renewed. The entire town, the whole country for that matter, became aware of the miracle. Pilgrims flocked to Lanciano to venerate the host turned into Flesh and the wine turned into blood. Belief in the Eucharist had been reborn.
But that is not all. The miracle is ongoing. The Flesh and the Blood, without the use of any form of preservative is still present in a reliquary at the Church were the miracle happened. Scientific tests carried out in 1970-71 show that the Flesh is real Flesh and the Blood is real Blood. Also the Flesh and Blood are of the same blood group as on the Holy Shroud of Turin.
It is impossible to truly appreciate the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano without seeing the impact it has on those who witness it. All questions and doubts about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist are defeated. After seeing the miracle one priest said “I can never raise the host or wine at the consecration again, without seeing my Lord’s very Heart between my fingers, His Blood alive in the chalice before me.”
On another occasion, after a priest had shown the Miracle to pilgrims he came to the foot of the altar and made the following observation: “Remember that this miracle that you have witnessed happens every day in every church in the world at the consecration of the Mass.”
This is only one of many such miracles of the Holy Eucharist. Time doesn’t allow me to tell you of other miracles but I have made copies of some of them which you will be able to read later.
I recently read a book which gave me an unusual insight into the reception of the Eucharist or perhaps it would be more correct to say the non–reception of the Eucharist. The writer was thinking about those who come to Holy Mass but are unable to receive; those who have sadly excommunicated themselves. We can think of those whose marital state is irregular, a person who has divorced and remarried, or a person living with a partner. In many churches there are those who attend Mass but never receive Holy Communion. I can think of at least two in our small parish. No questions are asked but it is obvious that there is something serious which is keeping that person from receiving. Rather than castigate these people the writer of the book suggests that excommunication is a time of healing and causes the excommunicated to draw profit from the virtue of patience and humility. The book goes on to say that the church must love and nurture these parishioners. The fact that they continue to come to Holy Mass proves their knowledge and love of the Holy Mass. I had never previously read a book which spoke in such loving terms of the excommunicated and I was greatly impressed by the compassion of the writer. So I will share with you his name you may have heard of him: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger our new Holy Father Benedict XVI. The Holy Spirit was truly guiding the Cardinals in their choice. He is going to be a great Pope.
My investigations into the works which I could use for this talk led me to the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. There is no way that I can hope to improve on what he wrote. I accept that what I am about to read is pure plagiarism but I make no apologies for that.
It is taken from the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi.
‘The only-begotten Son of God, wishing to enable us to share in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that by becoming man he might make us gods.
Moreover, he turned the whole of our nature, which he assumed, to our salvation. For he offered his body to God the Father on the altar of the cross as a sacrifice for our reconciliation; and he shed his blood for our ransom and our cle ansing, so that we might be redeemed from wretched captivity and cleansed from all sins.
Now in order that we might always keep the memory of this great act of love, he left his body as food and his blood as drink, to be received by the faithful under the appearance of bread and wine.
How precious and wonderful is this banquet, which brings us salvation and is full of all delight! What could be more precious? It is not the meat of calves or kids that is offered, as happened under the Old Law; at this meal Christ, the true God, is set before us for us to eat. What could be more wonderful than this sacrament?
No sacrament contributes more to our salvation than this; for it purges away our sins, increases our virtues, and nourishes our minds with an abundance of all the spiritual gifts.
It is offered in the Church for the living and the dead, so that it may be beneficial to all, as it was instituted for the salvation of all.
Finally no one is capable of expressing the delight of this sacrament, through which the sweetness of the Spirit is tasted at is source, and the memory is celebrated of that surpassing love which Christ showed in his passion.
And so, in order to imprint the immensity of this love more deeply in the hearts of the faithful, at the Last Supper, when the Lord had celebrated the Pasch with his disciples and was about to pass from this world to his Father, he instituted this sacrament as a perpetual memorial of his passion. It fulfilled the types of the Old Law; it was the greatest of the miracles he worked; and he left it as a unique consolation to those who were desolate at his departure.’
The last book I referred to in preparing this talk was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. It is a good thing I left if to the last or we might have all been sitting here in complete silence. The final section in the book is on The Blessed Sacrament and the very last chapter states ‘That People Must Not Curiously Search into This Sacrament. But be Humble Followers of Christ, Always Submitting their Senses to Holy Faith.’ I hope I will be forgiven if I have been ‘curiously searching’ too much.’
Finally when we talk of the ‘Real Presence’, we mean what we say. If we allow the ‘tempter’ to take over our minds and hearts and feed us with doubts then think for a moment of how those doubts must hurt Jesus. He has given us ‘His All’ and yet we are throwing it back in his face and saying “We don’t believe.” Is it any wonder that in various apparitions Our Lady is sometimes seen to be sad and crying? She, above everyone, knows how much her Son gives of Himself and she grieves out of sadness for her Son and for us.
Thank you Mother and Sisters for your patience in listening to me.