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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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The Community Gathers

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

Why do I go to Mass? The way I answer this question reveals an important change in the way I understand the Eucharist.

One of my earliest childhood memories is that of going to Mass every day. (Actually, it was my mother who went to Mass every day; she took me along.) We went to Mass to pray. Mother had her prayer book, which was filled with holy cards containing her favorite prayers. Sometimes we said the rosary out loud with the other daily Mass attendees. But all of these prayers stopped at the moment of consecration. That’s when Mom put down her prayer book, and we looked up to the altar as the priest raised the host that had now become the Body of Christ.

I treasure these memories and I want to speak of them not only with nostalgia but also with great reverence. That style of praying the Mass has formed countless generations of holy women and men. But if you ask me today, “Why do you go to Mass?” I will answer, “I go to Mass, first of all, to come together with other Christians.”

This answer may seem strange, or forced, or just made up to go with the title of this article. (And I must admit it even sounds strange to me when I hear myself say it because this is still new for me too.) But the first thing we Catholics do when we go to Mass or celebrate the Eucharist is we gather!

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Gathering rites

All of the ritual elements that we experience at the beginning of Mass—the Sign of the Cross, holy water, song, greeting, silence, prayer—have one purpose: to gather us together into the one Body of Christ so that together we are prepared to hear the Word of God and to celebrate the Eucharist. The holy water and the Sign of the Cross remind us of our common Baptism.

The cross was signed on our foreheads when we were baptized into the Body of Christ. The naming of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” speaks of the Trinitarian life of grace we share as a baptized community. The gathering song joins our voices, our thoughts and our words into the one voice of Christ. The prayer that concludes these gathering rites joins all of our individual prayers, petitions and praise into the one prayer of the Church. The Latin text of the Roman Missal names this prayer Collecta because it collects or gathers all of our prayers together into one.

We come together

The words to gather, to come together, to assemble are frequently used in the Bible to describe what we Christians do on the Lord’s Day. In perhaps the earliest written text we have regarding the Eucharist, St. Paul speaks of how the Corinthians are to “come together” to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 7:5; 11:17-18, 20, 33; 14:26, etc.).

On the Lord’s Day, the community gathered for the Lord’s Supper. St. Luke writes: “On the first day of the week when we gathered to break bread…” (Acts 20:7). In the second century St. Justin, explaining what Christians do on Sunday, wrote: “On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place.”

Gathering did not play a prominent role in my experience of the Mass during the years before the Second Vatican Council. The Mass was very personal but it was also somewhat private and individual. I went to Mass to pray—to say my prayers while the priest at the altar said his prayers. The moment of Consecration was the only time that the priest and the people were actually “together.” (Perhaps this was not the case for all Catholics, but it certainly was my experience—and the experience of many sisters, laity and priests with whom I have discussed these issues during retreats and workshops.)

Today, my experience of the Eucharist is somewhat different. It is communal and social rather than private and individual, although it is no less personal.

For us Americans, the distinction between private and personal may be difficult. In our culture—which stresses independence and individuality—we tend to identify personal experiences with private experiences. But this does not necessarily imply that all communal experiences are impersonal. The Eucharist is both communal and personal. It is something we do together, communally; and together, we each personally encounter God’s loving grace.

To make the Church visible

By the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist we are initiated into the Body of Christ and we become Church. But it is when we come together to celebrate the Eucharist that we make Church visible in a special way.

For example, a jigsaw puzzle, even while it is in the box, contains a picture. But you cannot tell what that picture is until you assemble the puzzle. When you take the puzzle out of the box and fit the pieces together, the picture then becomes visible.

This is what we do at Eucharist. We gather, we assemble and we make visible who we are as Church. At the beginning of the very first document promulgated by the Second Vatican Council we read that the Eucharist “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 Sacred Liturgy, #2). The Eucharist is “the visible expression of the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1329).

New responsibilities

While I believe all that I have written here and while I have been studying and teaching the documents and theology of the Second Vatican Council for the past 40 years, I must admit that I am still not always comfortable with these “new” ideas. When I go to Mass on Sunday, part of me would still prefer to find a secluded spot in a pew where I can put my head in my hands, block out the sounds and the faces around me and pray silently to my God about my concerns and my needs. Perhaps it is my personality or my pre-Vatican II upbringing, but gathering is not always comfortable for me.

First of all, gathering—the realization that Eucharist is essentially something we do together as Church—places new obligations on me, on all of us. Among these “obligations” I would like to mention three: hospitality, singing and silence.

Hospitality

The realization that Eucharist is something that we do together as a community has led many parishes to place greeters or ministers of hospitality at the doors of the church to welcome us as we arrive for Sunday Mass. But hospitality is everybody’s ministry.

Each one of us must make an effort to be a welcoming Church. Perhaps all we need to do is smile or move to the middle of the pew so that those who come after us can easily find a place. Perhaps we might lower a kneeler so that the person in the pew ahead of us can kneel more comfortably. Perhaps we can share our hymnbook. These are all little things, but it is important that we say with our bodies that we are happy that others are there to worship with us so that together we can form Church!

Singing

Often at the beginning of Sunday Eucharist we are invited to sing a hymn. But for most of us today, music is not something we do but something we listen to. Singing is something done by professionals—whether a pop star or an operatic diva. If you find yourself thinking that way when you are asked to sing the gathering hymn, don’t think “hymn” or “music” but think first of gathering.

When invited to sing the gathering song, we are asked to join our minds and our hearts with all those present by saying and praying the same words at the same time with the same melody, rhythm and pitch. It is a gathering activity, gathering our individual voices into the one voice of Christ praising the Father in the Holy Spirit.

Even if a beautiful singing voice is not one of your gifts, it is still important to pick up the hymnal, to form the words and sentiments in your heart—and with your lips, even though charity to others might suggest a certain restraint when it comes to volume. (But even this problem dissolves once the entire parish takes gathering seriously and everyone begins to sing.)

Silence

During the gathering rites at Sunday Eucharist we are invited to pray for a few moments in silence. This is not just a pause. It is an important element of gathering. We come together to worship God and need to shift gears from our ordinary world of efficiency and production, earning a living and caring for our families. We enter into the world of symbol and sacrament, of prayer and worship. This shift can only be done in silence, and silence can only be created if everyone is silent together.

Presence of Christ

Even if it is difficult at times to welcome others, to join in the singing and to create a silent space for communal worship, there is an even greater difficulty that comes with gathering. We believe that when we gather, we make visible the Church, the Body of Christ.

Consequently we believe that the community itself, the assembly of these people here, in this church, is the first “sign and sacrament” of the presence of Christ at the Eucharist. Jesus is truly present in the gathered community. Jesus promised “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20, italics added). Yet when I look around me, I sometimes find it difficult to see the presence of Christ. It is often easier for me to see Christ in the consecrated bread and wine than to see his presence in some of the people within my view.

This is the first challenge, the first “scandal” that the Eucharist presents to us. In order to celebrate the Eucharist well, I must recognize this body, I must acknowledge the Body of Christ in my fellow parishioners. For unless I am willing to gather with these people—saints and sinners, rich and poor, all seeking to follow Jesus as they try to discover God’s way for them—I eat and drink judgment against myself (see 1 Cor 11:29).

And what if some in the assembly have this same problem with me? What if I come to Mass and attempt to gather with people whom I have hurt or insulted or cheated? “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). Gathering gives us a lot to think about!

Why do we go to Mass? When you answer that question from now on, I hope you will say, “I go, first of all, to gather together with other Christians.” And what do we do once we have gathered? We remember. And that is the subject of the next article in this series.

Next: Do This in Memory of Me

    

Question Corner

• Why do you go to Mass? How might your attitude and presence at Mass be different after reading this article?

• Father Tom says that gathering with others to celebrate the Eucharist gives us the responsibilities of hospitality, singing and silence. How well are you living out these responsibilities? Which one is most challenging for you? Why?

• Identify one person in your worship community in whom it is difficult for you to see the presence of Christ. What can you do to improve this situation?

 

 

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