Catholic Update

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The Sacrament
of the Eucharist
What Has Happened
to My Devotion?

by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.

What happened to Benediction, kneeling for Communion, and silence in church? I have been going to Mass and receiving holy Communion for nearly fifty years. As I look back over that half-century I see that many of the devotions and signs of reverence for the Eucharist that were so dear to me in my younger days I no longer practice! What has happened to my devotion to the most holy Sacrament of the Eucharist?

I have spoken about the Eucharist to many parish groups across the country. And as I listen to the questions and comments of people at these talks, I pick up their concern regarding the changes in eucharistic devotion. Many have experienced changes in their own devotion or witnessed it in others, and they sometimes worry that something important has been lost.

I hope that describing the change in my eucharistic devotion will help many other Catholics to understand and appreciate their own eucharistic devotion and to see the reasons for some of the changes in the devotional practices of their parishes. I'll admit here at the beginning that I am more than a just little scared to talk about my eucharistic devotion. I have been a priest for over 25 years and this is certainly not the first time I have talked or written about the Eucharist. Yet it is always difficult to talk openly about something so intimate and so important to me personally— and to you personally.

My devotion to the Eucharist is not something merely external, something that I do: it is something that I am. It lies at the very heart of my identity: how I see myself as a Christian, as a Catholic priest, as an American.

Changes in devotion to the Eucharist affect me—as they affect you—much more deeply than many other changes in my life. To say "I no longer kneel down when I receive holy Communion" touches me in a deeper place than to say "I no longer put salt on my mashed potatoes," although both of these changes in my external behavior are the result of changes in understanding and inner conviction. To explain the changes in external behavior I must talk about the inner changes in belief and understanding. I have come to believe that in order to understand the Sacrament of the Eucharist adequately, my understanding and my piety must include three images: Good Friday, Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday.

Good Friday: The holy sacrifice of the Mass

Good Friday was the main image that shaped my eucharistic devotion when I was a child. When I entered our parish church the first thing I saw was a larger-than-life crucifix. Being at Mass was like kneeling at the foot of the cross on Calvary. My silent reverence at Mass reflected the reverence of Mary and John at the death of Jesus.

I learned about the Mass and the sacraments from a little book called the Baltimore Catechism, which most Catholics my age remember. I remember Question 357: "What is the Mass?" I memorized the answer: "The Mass is the sacrifice of the New Law in which Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers Himself to God in an unbloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine." Even though I did not understand the full meaning of some of these words, the mention of "sacrifice," "priest," "offering," "blood" brought to my mind the image of Good Friday and permanently associated the Eucharist with Jesus dying on the cross.

I never thought much about the "meal" aspect of the Mass (the Holy Thursday image) when I was a child. I remember that very few people received holy Communion at weekday Masses, and on Sundays in my parish holy Communion seemed to be reserved for special groups who went to Communion once a month (the Holy Name Society on one Sunday and the Altar Society on another). But because Good Friday was the dominant (and nearly exclusive) image out of which I understood the Mass, the number of people going to Communion was not an issue.

My devotion to the Sacrament was shaped by the image of kneeling at the foot of the cross, gazing at the sacrifice of Jesus, and expressing gratitude for so great a love and sorrow for sins which caused so great a suffering. The image of Good Friday remains an essential element of my understanding of the Eucharist; but while it is essential, it is not enough.

Holy Thursday: Eucharist as sacred banquet

When I was in grade school, I was one of those "strange" children who went to holy Communion each morning (and ate breakfast from a little paper bag during first period). If "Good Friday" was the dominant image in my understanding of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the image of Holy Thursday and the Lord's Supper was never absent. I remember as an altar server kneeling for hours (it seemed like hours) and staring at the picture of the Last Supper carved on the front of the altar at St. Anthony's in Wichita. But it was only during the 1950's and 60's when more and more people began to receive holy Communion during Mass that the image of Holy Thursday gradually began to play a larger role in my understanding of the Eucharist.

During the 70's the parish with which I celebrated began to use a host for the Eucharist that looked and tasted more like real bread. People began to receive Communion in their hands and to drink from the cup. Mass began to look more like a meal. Altars began to look like tables. The prayers of the Mass and the songs we sang spoke openly about eating and drinking, about meals, suppers and banquets. All of these things caused the image of Holy Thursday to be added to the image of Good Friday in helping me to understand the Sacrament of the Eucharist. My devotion began to take on a more joyful tone. We began to speak of "celebrating" the Eucharist. To the image of "kneeling at the foot of the cross" I added the image of "sitting with Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper, listening to his words, sharing the bread and cup."

Not all Catholics experienced this same journey and some hold on to an understanding in which Good Friday is the dominant image. I think of the woman who asked me after an explanation of the "new Mass:" "Father, why are we singing all those happy songs while Jesus is dying on the cross?"

Easter Sunday: Union with the Risen Lord

If the addition of the Holy Thursday image to Good Friday enriched my understanding of the Eucharist, the addition of the Easter Sunday image has helped me even more. When St. Paul experienced the Risen Lord at his conversion, he experienced a Christ who was so identified with us that to persecute the Christians was to persecute Christ.

Not just once, but three times the experience is described in the Acts of the Apostles. In Chapter Nine we see Saul (not yet "St. Paul") terrorizing the followers of Jesus when suddenly, one day on the road to Damascus, Saul "fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' He said, 'Who are you, sir?' The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting'" (Acts 9:4-5).

Later Paul himself retells the incident: "I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' I replied, 'Who are you, sir?' And he said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting'" (Acts 22:7-8). Paul tells the story again in Chapter 26: "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting" (26:15). The experience revealed to Paul that Christ cannot be separated from his members. The Risen Lord is so united to the Christian that what we do to one another, we do to Christ.

This was the very point that was at issue in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 11, the earliest written account we have of the Last Supper. When Paul writes to the Corinthians in about the year 50 A.D., he has some concerns about their "eucharistic devotion":

"In giving this instruction, I do not praise the fact that your meetings are doing more harm than good. First of all, I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you, and to a degree I believe it .... When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord's supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk. Do you not have houses in which you can eat and drink? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed?" (1 Cor 11:17-22)

Paul reproaches the Corinthians for celebrating the Eucharist without recognizing the Body of Christ—the poor who go hungry while the rich get drunk. His criticism of their eucharistic devotion is not directed toward some liturgical rule, toward the songs they were singing, or the vestments they were wearing or not wearing, or whether they received Communion standing up or kneeling down—or any of the issues that might disturb some Catholics today—the issue was much more important. They were trying to remember Christ without remembering his Body, which includes the poor and the "unacceptable." They wanted to celebrate the "head" without the "body"—a risen and glorified "sacramental" Christ separated from his actual Body now. Paul's experience at his conversion had convinced him that the Risen Lord is so identified with the disciples that the two cannot be separated.

St. Paul tells the Corinthians that they must examine themselves as to which body they are celebrating. The Christ they are proclaiming is the Risen Christ, glorified in his members, inseparably united with the poor and suffering. This is the Body they must see in the Eucharist if they are to celebrate worthily, for all who eat and drink without discerning this Body, eat and drink judgment on themselves (see 1 Cor 11:29).

Paul reminds us of an awesome responsibility. Coming forward at Mass to receive holy Communion is a promise that we will treat each person who receives the bread and drinks the cup as a member of our own body! It is no longer "us and them" but "us." Sharing the meal is a promise that we will treat all men and women as Christ would treat them, indeed as we would treat Christ himself.

This is an enormous responsibility—one which I do not think about enough—and yet one which has greatly influenced the changes in my eucharistic devotion. It is easy to lose sight of this relation: Risen Christ - Mystical Body - eucharistic Presence. The Eucharist is not merely a celebration of Real Presence, but a celebration of Real Presence which brings about unity and reconciliation in the whole Body. As the early Christians sang at Eucharist: As many grapes are brought together and crushed to make the wine—as many grains of wheat are ground into flour to make the one bread—so we, although many, become one Body when we eat the one Bread.

Balancing Good Friday, Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday

Balancing the images of Good Friday, Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday (sacrifice, banquet, unity of creation) is not an easy task. Sometimes I feel like a juggler at the circus trying to keep three objects in the air at once. I am no good at juggling three objects. Yet, I think the Church is asking us to keep all three of these ideas balanced in our minds—just as the opening paragraph of the Second Vatican Council's treatment of Eucharist very carefully balances the three:

"At the Last Supper [Holy Thursday], on the night when he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross— throughout the centuries until he should come again and in this way to entrust to his beloved Bride, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection [Easter Sunday]" (Constitution on the Liturgy, #42).

Jesus, Church, Eucharist: Sacrament of the invisible God

The changes of the past twenty years have led me to broaden somewhat my understanding of a sacrament. Besides the traditional seven sacraments which I learned as a child, I now hear people speak of Jesus and Church as sacraments. I believe what they are saying is this: The invisible God, whose wonder and love are beyond even our imagination, wished to become visible and close to us. God wanted to let us in on God's secret plans for creation. The God who lives in unapproachable light, the source of life and goodness (Eucharistic Prayer IV), spoke the word of creation and the word took flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus of Nazareth. "In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we can not see" (Preface for the Mass of Christmas).

In times past, God revealed this plan, this mysterious sacrament, in bits and pieces through the prophets. But in the fullness of time, in these last days, God has revealed the mystery fully in Jesus (see Hebrews 1:1-2). In Jesus we see God's desire that all things be reconciled and come together in unity. Jesus is God's love made visible, so much so that seeing Jesus is seeing the Father (John 14:9).

While everything that Jesus said and did can be seen as a sacrament of God's mysterious plan, the sacrament we call the Eucharist focuses especially on the paschal mystery of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection. At the Eucharist, however, when we hear the Holy Thursday words "do this in memory of me," we are told to do not only what Jesus did at the Last Supper but also what Jesus did throughout his entire life: to heal, to teach, to comfort, to be an ambassador of reconciliation (see 2 Cor 5:16-21).

We, the Body of Christ, are certainly expected to be part of this sacrament. And this stretches my idea of sacrament. I had always been taught that sacraments are visible signs and instruments of God's invisible grace—channels of God's saving love to the world. I now see that, along with Jesus, we who form the Church are instruments of grace; we are the ordinary way God graces today's world. As Jesus is the sacrament of the invisible God, we who are baptized into Christ become the sacrament which is Church. Indeed, Vatican II speaks of Jesus' "body, the Church, as the universal sacrament of salvation" (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #48).

It is at the liturgy and particularly at the Eucharist when the full reality of Christ becomes visible. This means that not only does the Body and Blood of Christ become present under the appearances of bread and wine. But the Body of Christ, the Church, also becomes visible for all to see. The liturgy "is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church" (Constitution on the Liturgy, #2). The Eucharist is not only one of the seven sacraments, it is in a sense the sacrament—for it contains all that we are, all that the Church is, all that Jesus is and says of God.

What has happened to my eucharistic devotion?

One way of answering this question is to say that formerly my devotion stopped short; it went only "half—way." My devotion was focused on the first transformation: the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. I had forgotten the warning of St. Paul and did not recognize the second transformation: the transformation of the Christians into Christ. This second transformation is the purpose of the first: Christ becomes really present in the Eucharist so that we may really become his Body. This is precisely what Eucharistic Prayer III is saying when it pleads, "Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ."

I think the second transformation is especially hard for American Catholics. Our American culture places a high value on the individual, on independence and freedom from obligations to one another. I hear people saying, "I have to own a gun because no one is going to protect me but me. The police can't even protect themselves." "I work hard for my money. I am not going to let the government take my money and waste it on welfare." If a culture is infected with racism or sexism, the Christians who are formed by that culture will find it difficult to express devotion to a Eucharist which proclaims that there is no longer "Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).

In baptism I renounced "Satan," I renounced racism and sexism and exaggerated individualism and I was born into Christ Jesus. Each time I approach the Eucharist I renew that baptismal promise. As I come to the church for Eucharist, I dip my hand in the baptismal water and renew those baptismal vows. Each time I get up and go to holy Communion I give a sign to the community that I am committed to all that the Eucharist stands for—I am committed to "do this" in memory of Jesus—to live as He lived, to live no longer for myself but for his Body.

I can't stop halfway: I can't celebrate the transubstantiation of the bread and wine without celebrating Christ's presence in my brothers and sisters. Some Christians still separate the two. I am reminded of the man who once asked me: "Father, why do I have to shake hands with all those people before holy Communion? I don't know those people; and the ones I know, I don't even like."

Where did the beauty go?

I remember with nostalgia the magnificence of Solemn High Mass during Forty Hours devotion. I remember the weariness in my little altar boy arms trying to light the dozens of candles on the altars, the smell of the incense, the glitter of the spotlights on the gold threads in the priests' vestments. I remember the monstrance with its jewels which I imagined to be diamonds and rubies and emeralds. The memory is vivid; as a child this was the most glorious thing I had ever seen: the most beautiful room; the most elegant movement; the richest attire. Where did it all go?

If Forty Hours and Solemn Benediction were the high points of the liturgical year then, what is the high point now? The Easter Vigil perhaps? There we experience nervous catechumens sitting around a fire, hearing the stories of creation and salvation—water splashing, wet feet slipping on tile floors, clothes being changed rapidly with the whir of hair dryers in the background, the smell of the oil of Confirmation, breaking bread and sharing a cup for the first time with these new members of the parish. Where did the beauty go? Where is the grandeur? What has happened to my devotion?

I can only say that I am getting a new perspective. I see a new beauty and a new grandeur. It takes a different eye to see my God in the faces of my sisters and brothers with whom I share the broken bread. But there is true beauty there, and I find that beauty can still move me to tears of joy and devotion. Today I judge whether a liturgy is "good" or "bad" not by the number of candles that are lit, nor by the cost of the vestments, nor by whether or not I like the singing.

Today a "good" liturgy is one which transforms me and my fellow parishioners in such a way that men and women of today's society will see the full implication of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. And they will say of us as they said of the first Christians, "See how they love one another! There is no one poor among them!"

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris. A popular writer and lecturer, Father Richstatter teaches courses on the sacraments at St. Meinrad (Indiana) School of Theology.

 

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