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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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Toward the Mystery

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

A lot of things have changed during the nearly 70 years that I have been going to Mass. The priest no longer says Mass with his back to the people. The Mass is in my own language. At Mass we read from the Bible (once considered by some Catholics to be a "Protestant" book). When I was a child only a few people received Holy Communion at Mass; today only a few people do not receive!

Years ago I saw a play about Noah and the ark. I can still picture one humorous scene. After 40 days and nights of floods and thunder and lightning, the rain stops, the water recedes and the ark comes to rest on dry land. Mrs. Noah looks out the window of the ark and cries: "Where's the rain? Where's the lightning? Where's the flood? Why all these changes?!"

I often hear Catholics today asking, "Why all these changes?" In this series of 12 articles for Eucharist: Jesus With Us, I will try to address that important question. We will examine the function of the prayers and actions of the Mass so that we can take a more active role in its celebration. Throughout the issues of this newsletter I will try to present a basic, accurate and practical description of the Eucharist.


Taking a fresh look

On the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ 2004, Pope John Paul II announced a Year of the Eucharist and asked that Catholics all over the world take a fresh look at this central mystery of our faith. That is just what we are going to do in this newsletter over the next 12 months: take a fresh look at the Eucharist.

I am convinced that, as the Holy Father said at the beginning of the new millennium, a correct understanding of the Eucharist is essential if we are to imitate the zeal of the apostles at Pentecost and engage in a new evangelization (Beginning of the New Millennium, #40).

But in order for this new evangelization to be effective, I believe that we must try to explore and heal some of the divisions that exist today in the way Catholics understand and talk about the Eucharist.

I can read one article that says that many Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence; I read another article that says that belief in the Real Presence is the cornerstone of Catholic identity. One priest says that we must teach our children about transubstantiation while another priest says that he finds this term is no longer useful. I hear one report of Catholics who are very pleased with the changes in the Mass that have taken place since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and another report of Catholics calling these changes liturgical abuses.

Arguments and divisions

As I think about the changes in the way Catholics celebrate and understand the Eucharist over time, I think we can all agree that some of these changes were small and relatively insignificant while others were very important. But for me personally, the biggest and most disturbing change is in the way Catholics today argue among themselves about the Mass and the Eucharist.

Perhaps my memory fails me—and it does at times—but, thinking back to my childhood, I do not remember a Church in which Catholics were as polarized on so many issues regarding the Eucharist as they are today! I can't even imagine my parents writing to the bishop to complain about the way the pastor said Mass or denouncing the organist because they didn't approve of the music choices that were made.

Today, however, things are different. Catholics seem all too ready to divide into camps, call one another names and engage in disputes in the press, on radio and television—disputes that can become so emotional that some might call them "unchristian."

Bridges and icebergs

I think it is important to explore ways in which we can build bridges between and among Catholics so that we can come to understand why we believe what we believe and why we feel what we feel. That's what we will try to do in this newsletter. And to help me in this extremely large task, I want to employ an equally large image: an iceberg.

I have never actually seen an iceberg but, by definition, it is large. Big as it is, the part that floats on top of the water—the part we can see—is but a small part of the total mass. Those who know about icebergs say that 7/8 of the their mass lies unseen below water and that they are 20% to 30% wider under the water than they appear at the waterline. This means that if you are an ocean liner, you are in danger of running into the unseen, submerged part of the iceberg long before you get close to the part you see floating above the water.

I have found that this image of an iceberg can help us understand something of our contemporary discussions about the Eucharist. Our understanding of the Eucharist is like an iceberg in that the largest part lies unseen, beneath the water. We can know a lot of things about the Eucharist. We can memorize definitions from the catechism; we can study the history of the Eucharist; we can read the letters of the popes and ecumenical councils. All this is the part of the iceberg that floats above the waterline.

Seen and unseen

Below the surface (often unseen and unrealized) lies the really big part of the iceberg. With regard to the Eucharist, this below-the-surface part is made up of our experiences of the Eucharist, our experiences of God and the sacred. It involves the meaning of the words we use to think and talk about the Eucharist. It engages our feelings about God, Christ and the Church. Our childhood memories are stored there along with the categories and images that were used to explain the Eucharist. We carry all of this memory, information and emotion with us whenever we talk about the Eucharist—whether we are aware of it or not.

For example, the way many Catholics think of the Last Supper is influenced more by the paintings of the Renaissance masters than by the words of Sacred Scripture—or by what historians tell us of meal customs in first-century Palestine. Try it yourself. Close your eyes and visualize the Last Supper. Do you see some European-looking men sitting on chairs on one side of a long table, or do you see a group of people with Semitic features reclining on couches? ("And as they reclined at table and were eating..." [Mark 14:18], italics added.)

Underwater collisions

When two icebergs floating in the ocean approach each other, long before the visible parts of the icebergs can come into contact, there will be unseen, underwater collisions, scrapes, hits and crashes. In the same way, two Catholics might try to discuss the Eucharist, but even before they can get close enough to engage in a meaningful, intelligent discussion of the issues, the unseen and unarticulated parts of their experiences of the Eucharist can bump into each other and prevent the dialogue from taking place.

Picture two good Catholics, Jason and Beth, discussing whether we should stand or kneel when receiving Holy Communion. Jason has just read a book on Church history and insists that Catholics should stand because standing is the more traditional posture at prayer. Standing is a sign of reverence, an attitude of readiness to carry out God's will. Beth knows that the reason Catholics kneel for Holy Communion is because Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Not to kneel is to deny the central mystery of our faith.

Jason and Beth will not be able to have a fruitful discussion of the issue until they are aware of the presuppositions and understandings they each bring to the discussion. They must step back and look at that part of the iceberg that lies beneath the water. They must ask, "What are we arguing about: posture? history? Or is the real issue the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?" I, for one, can certainly become more emotional about Real Presence than I can about posture.

Cold but helpful metaphor

I have found that the iceberg metaphor has helped me become aware of the amount of unarticulated presuppositions that I bring to any discussion of the Eucharist. It has helped me realize that others do not have exactly the same experience or the same memories that I do. They do not always think in the same categories or use words in the same way. We may both believe in the Real Presence, but how do we understand "real"? Does "real" mean "physical"? Is sacramental presence real? Is the Eucharist the only "real" presence? And if not, how are these other "real presences" different from the Eucharist? The iceberg metaphor helps me realize that I have to step back and examine these under-the-water issues before I can engage in meaningful discussion with another person.

I have heard some Catholics say that they find the Mass, when celebrated in English, lacking in reverence. I do not know whether this has been your experience or not, but I do know that reverence is certainly something that we want to experience at the Eucharist. And I know that the opposite of reverence is not so much irreverence as it is arrogance.

Arrogance reveals itself when we are so certain that we are right that we dismiss the opinions and feelings of others. The other day while vesting for Mass I noticed a new clock in the sacristy. "I see we have a new clock," I said to the sacristan. "Yes," she replied. "It's an atomic clock. It is always right!" Being "always right" may be fine for a clock, but for humans it tends to bring out a certain arrogance.

When friends invite us to their home for a meal, they expect us to arrive hungry—not just physically hungry, but hungry for friendship, conversation, new experiences, flavors and tastes. They want us to be open to being amazed. This is the very opposite of arrogance. When we come to the Lord's table, we must come with that same hunger if we are to experience a sense of reverence, transcendence, beauty and mystery.

The iceberg metaphor helps me guard against arrogance. It helps me remember that there is more to an argument than what appears on the surface, and it helps to keep me from being like that atomic clock: always right!

What to expect

In the coming months this newsletter will explore the history and the theology of the Eucharist. We will try to examine the basic categories and vocabulary that we use to understand the Eucharist and the ways in which we express our devotion to and appreciation of this sacrament. Hopefully these articles will not only help us to celebrate the Eucharist more intelligently and reverently, but also enable us to have a greater tolerance for those Catholics who see things differently than we do. When that day comes, the Eucharist will be in actual fact the source of unity, sign of charity and summit of our Christian life.


Question Corner

• In your experience, what are the biggest tensions and arguments among people concerning the Mass and the Eucharist?

• What presuppositions and understandings about the Mass and the Eucharist (underwater parts of your iceberg) might you need to let go of so you can focus on more essential issues?

• Do you come to the Lord's table with the hunger and openness to amazement that are needed for you to experience a sense of reverence, transcendence, beauty and mystery? What can you do to come to Mass more eager and open to what God is offering?




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