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On the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ 2004, the pope announced a Year of the Eucharist. Eucharist: Jesus With Us examines the function of the prayers and actions of the Mass, provides a fresh look at the Eucharist and explores the ways Catholics understand and talk about this central mystery of the Catholic faith.

Eucharist: Jesus With Us

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Beyond the Mass

by Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

Each year, the members of the Bianchi family gather at their grandparents’ home after Mass on Easter Sunday. In addition to the way-too-much food grandmother prepares, her daughters each make special dishes. The resulting meal is a combination of Easter joy, great food and family ties.

One year, shortly before Easter, grandmother fell, broke her hip and was in the hospital on Easter Sunday. Even though she could not be present, she insisted that the family gather as usual; and so they did. They celebrated their family’s traditional Easter dinner.

After the meal, they took some of Rita’s ham, Clara’s lasagna and Angela’s pie and went to share the dishes with their mother. They wanted her to know that, although she was not able to be physically present with them at their family gathering, she was very much a part of their Easter celebration.

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When I help parishioners prepare for the ministry of bringing Holy Communion to those who cannot be present for Sunday Eucharist, I often use this story to help them to appreciate that they are bringing more than the consecrated Host. Through their ministry of prayer and sacrament they assure those to whom they minister of the presence and support of the parish family, the eucharistic community, the Body of Christ. This “more” is important not only theologically but also psychologically, because the sense of isolation or separation from family and friends is often one of the hardest parts of being ill.

Bringing Communion to the sick has a long history. However, some of the earliest accounts of Communion outside of Mass are not about taking Communion to the sick but of taking Communion to members of the community who were in prison! Today we are so accustomed to freedom of religion that we can forget there were times when being a Christian was a crime. And sometimes we forget that there are Christians in similar circumstances today.

Food for the journey

Besides sharing the Eucharist with those in prison, we also have early indications that Bread from the eucharistic banquet was sometimes reserved after Mass so that Christians who were in danger of death would be able to receive viaticum (literally, “food for the journey”). Our current Roman Ritual states: “The primary and original reason for reservation of the Eucharist outside Mass is the administration of viaticum” (Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside of Mass, #5).

It might appear to be a simple step to go from reservation of the Eucharist for viaticum to the practice of adoring the Eucharist outside of Mass, but this development was influenced by a complex set of circumstances and took place over many years.

It is not possible in a few paragraphs to present a comprehensive account of this history, even if we limit our consideration to the Latin or Roman part of the Catholic Church. Yet some understanding of the key issues involved is necessary if we are to appreciate our Roman Catholic tradition of devotion to the reserved sacrament.

Language can isolate

In the year 787 Charlemagne ordered that schools be established throughout the Roman Empire so that clergy and laity might learn to read and write. He wanted everyone to be able to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed in their own language, but he decreed that priests were to say Mass only in Latin despite the fact that it was no longer the spoken language.

In the first centuries, when Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire, the Mass was celebrated in Greek. When Latin became the language of the Empire about the fourth century, the Mass was celebrated in Latin. But around the eighth century, as the nations of Europe began speaking “national” languages, the Mass—for the first time—began to be celebrated in a language that was not understood by the participants.

If you have ever traveled in a country where you did not speak the local language, you know how this inability to communicate isolates you and gives you a feeling of powerlessness. It was something of this same experience of not being able to understand what the priest was saying that caused the laity to become increasingly isolated from the prayers of the Eucharist. Mass became the domain of the priests. They began to say Mass with their backs to the people and to say Mass privately, without the presence of a congregation.

Eating becomes looking

Toward the end of the 12th century, priests began to lift the Host above their heads after the words “This is my body...” so that it could be seen and adored by the people who were now standing behind them. This custom spread throughout Europe and, for many Catholics, looking at the elevated Host became the high point of the Mass. At this same time, the reception of Communion became less and less frequent. The laity began to find their spiritual nourishment in looking at the consecrated Bread rather than sharing in the sacred meal by receiving Communion.

We saw earlier that the “primary and original reason for reservation of the Eucharist outside Mass [was] the administration of viaticum.” At first this Bread for viaticum was kept in a box in a sacristy cupboard. But at about the same time that the elevation of the Host became central to the Mass, the place where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved became more central as well.

The place of reservation moved from a cupboard in the sacristy to a small box hanging over the altar where the people could see it. And from there it moved to a small cupboard or tabernacle placed on the altar itself.

From action to object

These changes in ritual and architecture were preceded and accompanied by a subtle change in the way people thought about the Eucharist. In pre-Christian times, northern Europeans were fascinated with magical sayings and objects. From about the ninth century, this fascination began to influence their understanding of the Eucharist. We have manuscripts from this period that speak of the consecrated Bread as “a thing which possesses power.” There is a subtle shift from thinking of the Eucharist as an action (a sacred meal) to thinking of the Eucharist as an object of adoration.

These same European Christians had a great interest in the relics of the saints (for example, the bones of martyrs) and they began to display these holy objects in cases called reliquaries. It was a simple step to place the Blessed Sacrament in a reliquary (which we now call a monstrance) so that it could be seen and adored.

Benediction

When I was a child, my mother took me with her to Mass every morning—a practice that continued all during my grade school years. Dad didn’t go with us because, by the time we left the house for Mass, he had already gone off to work. The only time we could all go to church together was on Sunday mornings or in the evenings.

In the 1940s there were no evening Masses. Anyone who wanted to receive Holy Communion had to fast from all food and drink from the previous midnight; not even a drop of water was permissible. So when we went to church as a family on a weekday evening, it was not for Mass but for Benediction.

Even as a child I enjoyed ritual and ceremony—and Benediction had it all! In many ways Benediction was “bigger” than Mass: The priest wore more elaborate vestments; there were more candles and flowers; there was organ music and singing; we all said prayers out loud, together. And it lasted longer than Mass. Sometimes we prayed for a whole hour—a “Holy Hour”—recalling the challenging words of Jesus to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” (Mt 26:40; emphasis added). The most solemn moment of Benediction occurred when the priest took the monstrance and made the Sign of the Cross over the congregation. It is this blessing that gives the service its name: Benediction.

Benediction remains a favorite devotion for many Catholics. It “offers the opportunity to the people of God for prayerful reflection on their call to a deeper devotion to the Holy Eucharist and a more faithful living of the Christian life” (Solemn Exposition of the Holy Eucharist, #3).

Evening options

While Benediction retains its function and continues to be a source of grace, evening Masses are now possible due to the change in the rules for fasting before the reception of Holy Communion. Some parishioners who attend church on a weekday evening prefer to celebrate the Eucharist rather than Benediction.

At both Mass and Benediction we can hear the voice of Christ in the Scripture readings, as “it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the church” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #7). But it is at Mass that we become present to the Paschal Mystery through the anamnesis (memorial) of the liturgical action and are able to share the sacred meal of the Eucharist.

With this brief history of Communion outside of Mass and worship of the Blessed Sacrament, we come to the end of these 12 monthly reflections celebrating the Year of the Eucharist. We have explored the structure and elements of the Mass and the meaning of the Eucharist as sacrament, presence, meal and sacrifice. We have also looked briefly at the history of the Eucharist.

Frequently during this series we have said that the mystery of the Eucharist is rooted in the paschal mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection—the mystery we celebrate in a most solemn way during the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Each year when we begin these liturgical rites that bring us into contact with the origins of the Eucharist and the origins of our Church, we gather for the Eucharist on Holy Thursday and we wash feet. Washing feet! Isn’t this a rather strange way to begin these holiest of days?

Humble service

Perhaps the Church proposes this ritual foot-washing to remind us of a dimension of the Eucharist that we might neglect: The Eucharist is a sacrament of humble service. It is wonderful to be inspired by beautiful vestments and monstrances of gold and silver, and it is helpful to understand anamnesis, epiclesis and transubstantiation. But we can never forget that the Eucharist transforms us into the Body of Christ so that we might think and act like Christ. This transformation is at the heart of the mystery.

Jesus commands: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:14-15). Humble service to one another! The Eucharist forms us for this mission and strengthens us to realize it. This is why Pope John Paul II (echoing the words of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church at Vatican II) called the Eucharist “the source and summit” of Catholic life and mission.

This is the last in a series of 12 articles on the Eucharist by Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M. His book, Eucharist: Jesus With Us, will be published by St. Anthony Messenger Press in late 2006.

Question Corner

• What has been your experience of receiving and/or adoring Christ in the Eucharist outside of Mass (Benediction, eucharistic adoration, when sick or hospitalized, etc.)? What personal meaning did you find in these experiences?

• There has been a recent renewal of Benediction and eucharistic adoration in many areas of the Church. How should participation in these devotions enhance our participation in the Mass?

• How are your experiences of the Eucharist (within and outside of Mass) transforming you and your community to think and act like Christ?

 

 

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