Eucharist: Sacrifice of Love
The Mystery of the Church, which is Christ's Body on earth, is inseparable from the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, "the sign and the cause of the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ." (Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, no 70) By sharing his life and gathering together around his eucharistic presence, the church truly is Christ's body: "Because the bread is one, we, through many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread." (1 Cor. 10:17)
The Eucharist defines and constitutes our life as Catholics by bringing us into the very presence of the saving mystery of the cross in a preeminent way. As the Lord Jesus prepared to give his life freely for all, he gave us the Holy Eucharist so that we might come to share in that total sacrifice of himself to the Father on the altar of the cross. Throughout the ages, the Eucharistic Sacrifice has been the center of the life of the church. Christ's eucharistic presence has been and remains the focus of authentic Christian piety for Catholics of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. The Eucharist is beyond question the most concrete realization of the Mystery of the Church in our lives.
But this welcome renewal would lose much of its value if it remained primarily external. In the early years of this century, St. Pius X pointed out that the external involvement of the faithful in the liturgy must flow from an interior participation which is more basic and more necessary. The renewed liturgy, which makes possible a fuller and more active external participation of everyone in the eucharistic celebration, needs to be accompanied by a personal interior renewal of Christian life for all of us. This personal interior renewal, while being the work of God's grace, also depends upon our cooperation and openness to his gifts. I pray earnestly that God grant us this grace.
The appropriate steps toward spiritual renewal require us to deepen our understanding of all that is involved in authentic Catholic spirituality. First, we must recognize our personal relationship with Jesus Christ in order to encounter through him our personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. Our faith leads us to acknowledge that the church, through word and sacrament, is a privileged point of this encounter. We should undertake daily efforts to invite the Lord into mind and heart. Our activities and decisions, as well as our prayer, should lead us to seek God's love and his truth. Our Catholic heritage of devotional practices offers us a treasure trove of means, new as well as old, from which we can select whatever helps us to deepen our encounter with Christ so that we might draw closer to God.
As we continue the last decade of the twentieth century and prepare for the celebration of the 2,000th anniversary of Christ's birth, let us grow in our conviction about the importance of the Holy Eucharist in bringing about this much needed interior renewal. I can think of no better way to ask the Lord to renew us than for us to turn to him more fervently in this Mystery of Faith. And I can think of no better way for us to respond to the grace he offers than by gathering around the supreme gift of Christ - the gift of Himself in the Eucharist. Only in this way, I am convinced, will our renewal be authentic.
Authentic renewal goes far beyond our individual lives and family limits. It must embrace the community in active and energetic ways. Love cannot contain itself. By its nature, it overflows and reaches out to all. Renewal begins with a eucharistic heart, and continues with an increasing awareness of our importance as children of God and sisters and brothers of Christ. This awareness, the work of a lifetime, allows us to see that a genuine Christian community will exist only if we live in such a way that makes clear to all that, because we are nourished by the Eucharist, Christ lives in us. As the years pass and our prayer deepens, we begin to know with St. Paul that Christ truly lives in us.
Authentic renewal can only go forward with evangelization. The mission of the church is to bring good news to all. In the eucharistic community that mission is brought about and celebrated. Fueled by Divine Love, and directing our minds and hearts to the service of the Lord and of others, we come to the task of evangelization with confidence that our efforts will bring the good news to those who wait. There are many. They suffer. They long for the love of God and, often enough, are not able to name what they long for. As a community motivated by love to fulfill the work of Christ in the world, we can help their longing for love to be satisfied with the food that gives us life. The Eucharist teaches us that love in the world can bring about a community which does not fear death and lives with courage. A community intimately united to Christ cannot fail in the mission of evangelization.
Because authentic renewal is so important for the life of this diocese, I plan to convene a Diocesan Eucharistic Congress to take place on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi, in 1992. During that year we will join our brothers and sisters throughout the Americas in celebrating the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Western Hemisphere. It is my hope that we will use this occasion as an opportunity to thank God for the many mercies he has shown us. At the center and root of all his gifts lies the supreme gift, the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ's sacrificial love. In fact, the theme for both the congress and preparation will be The Eucharist: Sacrifice of Love.
Beginning with the Solemnity of Corpus Christi in 1991, we will prepare for this Eucharistic Congress by a year of catechesis on the Holy Eucharist, together with special Eucharistic devotions throughout our diocese. During that year, I ask that diocesan and parish programs focus on this Mystery of Faith in various ways. Working together, we will be able to prepare specific catechetical themes and liturgical and devotional celebrations.
From now until the beginning of this preparatory year, the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Presbyteral Council and a special Coordinating Committee will undertake more detailed planning. I urge parishes and other institutions to do the same. Many parishes have increased eucharistic devotions in recent years. Even before we officially begin the special period of preparation, I would be very happy to see more parishes do the same.
I would like to suggest that we consider this preliminary effort as part of a longer "journey of faith." All of us in the Diocese of Peoria will follow our Holy Father's lead in looking forward to the beginning of the third millennium of the Christian era. Let us take advantage of the next decade to prepare for this celebration through a genuine interior renewal of persons and communities. Let us make the first step of that journey a renewal of our eucharistic faith.
With this in mind, I wish to reflect on only a few of the many possible aspects of this mystery that the Lord Jesus has entrusted to us. Many other topics still wait to be considered during the year of eucharistic catechesis which will begin next June.
Sacrifice of Jesus and of His Church
This is the most important aspect of the Holy Eucharist: "The eucharist is above all else a sacrifice." (John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae, no. 9). All the eucharistic devotion of the church flows from the Mass. The veneration of Christ's lasting presence in the Blessed Sacrament, whether privately in front of the tabernacle or publicly in eucharistic exposition, relates us to the Mass in which Our Lord's sacrifice - the Sacrifice of the Cross - is made present to us.
By this sacrifice of himself on the cross, Christ transformed in meaning and reality the Jewish Passover meal, which is the background against which the Last Supper was celebrated. In their celebration of the Passover meal, the Israelites offered a profound thanksgiving for the covenant granted to Moses, for their freedom from captivity in Egypt, and for God's continuing saving activity over the centuries. Joined with this was hope and expectation for the future. The paschal lamb, through whose blood the Hebrews were saved, was shared during the meal in the knowledge that salvation continued to be offered to the people of the covenant.
The night before he died, as he gave us his body and blood, Jesus revealed that he was the lamb of God. By giving us himself, he gave us the new and eternal covenant. In his body and blood we receive an unending pledge of God's love and offer of salvation to his new people. Christ's sacrifice of Himself on the cross the next day gave profound substance and reality to His offering at the Last Supper. His resurrection on Easter Sunday proved the power of his self-giving love, even in the face of sin and death. The church has long viewed these events as one great action which is called the Paschal Mystery. It is this mystery in which we share in the entire life of grace, most perfectly in the Eucharist and also in the other sacraments.
On the cross, Jesus offered himself to his Father in perfect obedience. Although he realized the weight of our sins was to bring him great anguish, he embraced the cross freely and with love. "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. " (John 13, 1). But he went even further: he made it possible for us to share in this sacrifice, until the end of time, through the Mass. This unique privilege is shared only by those communities which, by God's grace, have maintained a validly ordained priesthood according to the mind of Jesus Christ as expressed by his church.
Our Lord understands perfectly our human nature. He, who is God, is also truly man, "a man like us in all things but sin " (Fourth Eucharistic Prayer; Cf. Hebrews 4, 15). Christ fully shares our human condition. He knows there is a difference between hearing or reading about some event and sharing in that experience. He does not want us to see his love for us as a thing of the distant past. He brings us to the perfect expression of that love so that we can experience it personally. By sharing in his self-offering, we are enabled to share more deeply in his risen life.
Whenever and wherever the Mass is celebrated, the loving and redemptive offering of Christ's life is renewed, made truly present in a sacramental way. By means of external signs, the Mass unites us across the centuries to the supreme act of love: Jesus' death on the cross. Though the manner of offering is clearly different, the reality is the same. In the Mass, it is brought about through an external sign that nonetheless makes truly present the sacred event of Calvary. In the presence of his loving and redemptive offering, we are able to join in a great thanksgiving for all that God has done and is doing for us, his children. As we celebrate, we are prompted by trust to continue our petitions for our own needs and for those of the church and of all the world.
There is also another difference. On the cross, Our Lord offered himself and all that he had. But when that same offering is renewed in the Sacrifice of the Mass, it is no longer Christ alone who offers himself. Each one of us, as a part of this body, is invited to bring our own offering and unite it to his. As irreplaceable and individual persons, we each have a unique contribution to make to the offering of Christ and his church. In the Mass, what we offer to God is joined to the Sacrifice of the Cross and acquires a divine and redemptive dimension. Our lives are no longer ours, for we lay them down in Christ, sharing with him in his love. And we share in the life of our victorious and risen Lord. Everything that we do, and everything that happens to us - even what is most trivial and insignificant - acquires a value that is far above anything we poor human beings could ever hope to achieve.
Through our participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, we are drawn into the Lord's Paschal Mystery, each one according to his or her proper identity, mission and role. Each member of the community then shares in the offering made by Jesus, and by virtue of that sharing becomes more fully united to the whole church - not with just those present at that particular celebration, but with the church throughout the world and all the communion of saints.
In Christ's sacrifice as it is made present, the diversity of gifts and missions in the church is made into one offering acceptable to God. Our fundamental equality acquired in baptism is expressed through the many different functions and roles. All the baptized share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and have an authentic role in celebrating the Holy Eucharist. The ordained priest represents Jesus, Our Lord, in a specific way in the public life of the church. Clergy and laity complement each other, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us:
"Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are thus ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly people; in the person of Christ he effects the eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people. The faithful, indeed by virtue of their royal priesthood, participate in the offering of the Eucharist. They exercise that priesthood, too, by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, abnegation, and active charity." (Constitution on the Church, No. 10).
Baptismal equality is not incompatible with different roles. The ordained minister represents Jesus, Our Lord, in a special and sacramental manner in the public life of the church, since through ordination he is patterned more completely after our great High Priest. By virtue of this sacred role, the priest is called to holiness and faces the necessity of daily struggle to cooperate with the sanctifying spirit. Through the ministry of the priest and the offering of the Holy Sacrifice, the laity are also called to a life of holiness. As the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People tells us, " The life of intimate union with Christ in the church is maintained by the spiritual helps common to all the faithful, chiefly by active participation in the liturgy." (No. 4).
The example of well-known saints, as well as that of ordinary people, has helped us see the beauty of the sacrificial love which is found most perfectly in the sacrifice of Calvary and of the Mass. The life of St. Maximillian Kolbe offers us such an example. While a prisoner at Auschwitz during World War II, this priest offered his life to save the life of a man who had a family. During the long period when Maximillian and those condemned with him were being starved to death, he ministered to them, led them in prayer and helped lift their faith and their spirits. When the soldiers decided to execute the few remaining prisoners by lethal injection and finally came to him, St. Maximillian joyfully held up his arm to receive the needle because he knew that Jesus would not leave his love unrewarded.
The account of this beautiful death helps us know the power that Christ's sacrifice can have in our lives. Because we are joined to Calvary, we can have the courage and strength to offer our own lives for others. We can take up our crosses daily to follow him. Life's pains and struggles, as well as its smaller inconveniences, can become occasions for showing our love for God and for one another when we join them to Jesus' own self-giving.
My friends in the Lord: in our lives, what could be more important than this personal sharing in Christ's love? It is our union with Jesus in the Mass that gives true and lasting importance to everything in our life. We must share in the Eucharistic Sacrifice reverently, following faithfully the liturgical prescriptions of the church. Our sense of wonder at this great mystery must not be lost, but rather expressed in our every word and gesture.
for the Journey
Faced with such challenges, we believers can easily fall prey to the temptation of discouragement and pessimism. Our journey can seem long and burdensome. We may fail to realize that this is how it has always been: our brothers and sisters who preceded us faced similar challenges. We need only remember the heroic faithfulness of the early Christians, or the faithfulness of Christians in more recent times in many parts of the world.
What sustained these brothers and sisters of ours? Where did they find the strength to face up to the challenges of their times? They relied upon the same source of strength that is available to us: the nourishment of the Holy Eucharist. Christ, Our Lord, who offers himself in sacrifice, is risen, and he continues this giving of himself by offering to be our food. "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting, and I will raise him up on the last day. "(John 6:55). As physical food provides the strength to deal with all the matters of our life on earth, so the crucified and risen Christ becomes our nourishment and source of the supernatural strength that enables us to face up to any challenges along our way.
In receiving Our Lord, we become intimately united with him. "Just as when one joins two pieces of wax by heating them into a liquid, and makes one out of two, so by our participation in the body of Christ and in his precious blood we are united, he in us and we in him at the same time." (Cyril of Alexandria, Contemporary of St. John's Gospel, 10, 2). Since the humanity of Jesus is forever joined to his divinity, we are united, "Through Him, with Him, and in Him" with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The life of the Blessed Trinity, which we began to share at our baptism, is nourished in us through the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
It is no wonder, then, that we are encouraged to receive Holy Communion frequently. The early Christians followed this practice, and the fathers of the church wrote forcefully about it. Without the strength of this food, we would languish and perhaps succumb to the dangers that we encounter along our way. On our pilgrim journey, the nourishment which is Christ himself helps us over time to overcome our weakness and imperfections and keeps us united in love with God. By union with him, we share in his victory over sin and death. He is able to heal us, bind up our wounds and share his strength with us.
When we approach the Lord's Table to receive his body and blood, we should reflect on our intentions and disposition. "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of the cup. " (1 Cor. 11:28). A casual, cavalier, or unworthy reception of the Eucharist would reflect gross ignorance of the greatness of this gift, or even worse, indifference. If we have become estranged from Christ and his church, if we have rejected his love through serious or mortal sin, it would be dishonest to approach the table of his body and blood: "Whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, will be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord." (I Cor. 11:27). In these circumstances, we must first seek his pardon through the sacrament of reconciliation so that he might forgive our sins and prepare us for more worthy reception of Holy Communion.
I am well aware of the fact that, because they do not live in the state of God's grace or are separated from full communion with the church in other ways, some persons are unable to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. I pray for those persons each day, asking the Lord to grant them the grace of repentance and to bring them back into the fullness of the life of the church. Alienation from the church, for whatever reason, is always a serious matter. Sometimes there is no easy solution readily available, but that does not justify ignoring the reality of the situation. In fact, those who refrain from receiving Holy Communion when they are not properly prepared or are in serious sin can be expressing a deep faith in the reality of Christ's holy presence.
If, while living in God's grace, we would receive Communion with only the minimum necessary dispositions, we would be limiting the sacrament's effectiveness through our scant attention, our careless attitude, and our failure to try to reject anything in ourselves which goes contrary to Christ's love. This is why we should prepare ourselves carefully when we are to receive Jesus. We should reject any attachments or habits of sin and selfishness that might inhibit the full transformation of our lives through union with him.
We do not receive Jesus Christ simply as a means to achieve our own purposes. Just as Christ himself died, we must surrender ourselves so that the Father's will might be accomplished in us. Through Christ we seek to be conformed to God's will, not to cajole him to do our bidding. (cf. Cajetan, Letter to Elizabeth of Portugal).
The appropriate dispositions for receiving the body and blood of Jesus are a matter of concern for the whole church: "We cannot allow the life of our communities to lose the good quality of a sensitive Christian conscience, guided solely by respect for Christ, who, when he is received in the Eucharist, should find in the heart of each of us a worthy abode." (John Paul II, Domincae Cenae, no. 11). Let us meditate on these words of our Holy Father so that Jesus, whom we receive and with whom we unite in the Eucharist, may lead us along the paths of an authentic and generous Christian life.
Abiding Presence of Jesus Christ
Our everyday experience illustrates the Lord's manifold presence in the world. Whenever and wherever we pray, Christ is there, since it is he "who prays for us and prays in us and to whom we pray; he prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our head, and prayer is directed to Him as God." (St. Augustine In Psalm 85, 1).
Indeed, as Jesus assured us: "where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them"(Matthew 18:10). He is present in his church in every act of love, justice or mercy, "not only because we do to Christ whatever we do to his least brethren, but also because it is Christ, performing these works through the church, who continually assist people with his divine love" (Paul VI, Encyclical Mysterium Fidei, no. 35). He is present in the Scriptures, in the teaching and governing activities of the church, in the sacraments, in our hearts by grace, in our sisters and brothers in need, and in the wonders of creation. Our Savior's love prompts him to meet us in many ways.
As members of Our Lord's body on earth, as disciples who love the Master, we must strive to be aware of his presence in all our human endeavors. With a simple prayer we can encounter him in our work, on the farm, at the factory or office, behind the store counter, in the care of the home, in service to the church through the priesthood or the religious life, or in any other legitimate human labor. And we can find him in our relationships with others, in family life, social relations, in sports and entertainment, and indeed at every moment. Recognizing the Lord's presence will make a difference in our lives; it will make us conscious of our Christian responsibility in everything we undertake. As authentic disciples we will recognize the importance of excellence in all upright human endeavors, and we will respect the dignity of all persons as children of God.
To be able to acknowledge Christ's abiding presence, we need to recognize him, as did the disciples at Emmaus, "in the breaking of the bread." (Luke 24:30-31) This is because Jesus himself, the source of all sanctifying power, is really present under the sacramental signs. Thus, the Eucharist is, "among all the sacraments,' the most pleasing object of devotion, the most noble object of understanding, and the holiest in its content' (Aegidius Romanus); for it contains Christ Himself and is 'as it were the perfection of the spiritual life and the goal of all the sacraments.'" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 73, A. 3c.) In saying that Christ's presence here is "real," we are not saying that his presence in any other way is not real; rather, in the Eucharist he is real in the fullest sense: "because it is a substantial presence, by which the whole and complete Christ, God and Man, is present" (Paul Vl, Encyclical Mysterium Fidei nos. 38-39).
We can well understand why, over the centuries, the church has surrounded the real presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament with special veneration. This veneration continually needs to be expressed not only through the public eucharistic devotion of the church, but in the personal life of each of the faithful. Our bodies are part of our prayer and adoration and by appropriate actions we can express our faith, adoration, love and reverence. These actions help us to enter more deeply into the sacred liturgy. They also help strengthen our brothers and sisters in our common faith and speak even to unbelievers of the mystery in which we share. We should all ask ourselves how willing we are to spend at least a little time regularly in prayer before the tabernacle. Those who come away to be with him know that they "enjoy his intimate friendship and pour out their hearts before him in themselves and their dear ones, and pray for the peace and salvation of the world" ( Instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium, 1967, Chapter III, I-B).
In recent years, some people have put aside a formal attitude of reverence and awe upon entering a church building. In some ways this may be good: at times, excessive formality could result in an emotional distancing from the Lord. We do not want to appear as though we do not know joy in our lives in Christ. On the other hand, informality should not degenerate into carelessness. Since we expect appropriate behavior and attire from ourselves and others at formal occasions, a similar expectation should exist when we enter a place where the Holy Eucharist is reserved. It would be a serious mistake to act as if Christ were not present - present in a real way in his humanity and divinity. Therefore, it is important that we manifest in the way we conduct ourselves what we know and believe in our hearts. This will include a reverent and prayerful attitude together with traditional acts of respect. A careful genuflection, for example, "in order that the heart may bow before God in profound reverence," (Instruction Inaestimabile Donum, no. 26) can be a genuine sign of our faith and of our love. Many have also commented on the lack of respect shown by those who, without good reason, leave Mass before the celebration is complete.
Appropriate conduct will also include respect for the prayer and recollection of our brothers and sisters before the celebration of Mass. It is most appropriate that we foster genuine community in our parish families. We do this in many ways as we care for one another and work together in parish life. We can especially help one another to be a worshipping community by spending the time in church before the celebration of Mass in prayerful preparation for sharing in Jesus' self-offering and for a deeper sacramental encounter with our risen Savior.
Many other practices of devotion and piety could be discussed. What of devotions in the home, for example? The traditional understanding of the family as a "little church" might provide a basis for renewed family prayer, including deeper insight into the implications of the Holy Eucharist for family life. Our shared prayer and reflection on the Eucharist will provide an opportunity for exploring such possibilities.
Pilgrimage of Faith
My goal in announcing this special event in our diocese is to promote an authentic renewal of Christian life in accordance with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. This will be accomplished through reflection on the Mystery of Faith that is at the center of our whole Christian life. In order that this Eucharistic Congress may be fully effective, this intervening period is to be a time of prayer and preparation - a pilgrimage of faith. It should be a particularly privileged time for the whole church in the Peoria diocese to meditate on the greatness of Christ's gift of himself in the Eucharist. We join our hopes and expectations with those of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, with whom we look forward to the Third Millennium of the Christian era.
Priests are called in a particular way to serve the mystery of the Holy Eucharist in the church. As such, our own spiritual lives must focus on this great mystery that we might better serve the Lord and his people. I ask that priests help prepare themselves to lead during the year of preparation for the Eucharistic Congress by beginning now to renew their own eucharistic devotion. To this end, I encourage pastors to seek permission from the Chancery to establish, according to proper norms, a eucharistic chapel in the parish rectory, when appropriate space for such a chapel exists.
As we progress through this period of preparation, our cooperation with God's grace can help him to bring about an authentic renewal of Christian life in our diocese. With his help, we will come to a fuller realization of the unity between ourselves and the church throughout the world-in every land and in every culture. The Mystery of the Church- the Body of Christ of which we are all members - will shine forth brilliantly in the Mystery of the Eucharist. May the Lord bless us on our pilgrim way.
In The Company of the Blessed Virgin Mary
We cannot forget that the Mystery of the Eucharist is inseparable from another reality: the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of Christ and in the life of the church. In the Mass, Jesus entrusted to us his redeeming sacrifice. It is Mary who prepared the way for this sacrifice. Through her act of obedience, she allowed God to use her so that Christ the Redeemer might take on a human nature. Indeed the body and blood shed for us on the cross and offered on the altar were fashioned miraculously by God within her. The Christ we receive in Communion is the Christ who was born of the Virgin Mary. The Christ we adore in the tabernacle is the Christ who became man through her. Thus every time the Mass is celebrated, Mary is present in a very special way, just as she was present at the sacrifice of Calvary. When we receive him, we are united in an ineffable way to his mother and to all the saints and angels, and every time we honor Jesus in his eucharistic presence, we are made aware of her whose faith helped make him present to us.
For centuries our Blessed Mother has shown special care for us in the Americas. The Virgin of Guadalupe helps us know of God's love and forgiveness through her Son. To her, therefore, I entrust in a special way this great undertaking in the Diocese of Peoria. May she continue to watch over us and assist us in its fulfillment.
As your Bishop, I wish to assure you of my prayers. At Mass every day, I pray that we may be united by the offering we make of ourselves, joined to the sacrifice of Our Redeemer. Every day, too, as I pray before the Blessed Sacrament, you are present in my thoughts. Brothers and sisters, please remember to pray for me. I very much depend on your prayers.
I offer you my affectionate greeting and blessing.
in Peoria at my Chancery, on the First Sunday of Advent, the second
of December, in the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and