At their last semiannual meeting, the Catholic Bishops of the United States discussed the Eucharist. The topic of “Eucharistic coherence” was raised by some and interpreted by many as whether President Biden and other Catholic politicians who support legal abortion should receive communion. The Vatican informed them that this decision belonged to individual bishops and that it was beyond the competence of the conference. This was not, however, the only concern they had about the Eucharist. They were particularly concerned that most American Catholics did not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. They voted to prepare a statement on this and will discuss it in greater depth at their next meeting. As we see in todays’ gospel reading Jesus’ teaching that “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” has been a stumbling block for many since the beginning of the Church. The difference is that we moderns often reject it because we do not understand it and the ancients, particularly the Jews, rejected it because they understood it all too well.
Let us remember the scene. Jesus performed the multiplication of the bread. This so excited the people that he was afraid that they would make him king and he fled across the sea of Galilee. Many people followed him, and Jesus challenged them to see that he was more than a messiah, king, or prophet. They were intrigued and continued to listen. He did not weaken his statements but indeed straightened them by saying “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Any reasonably educated Jew would have understood that Jesus is acting like God and using sacrificial language. He is not a prophet of faith in God, he is the object of faith as God. For them, offering a sacrifice formed a covenant creating a deep relationship with a partner or partners, in this context with God and all others who participate. This was completed with a meal. They understood perfectly that if they participated in this sacrifice and ate this meal, they must change their entire lives. Indeed, as Jesus, the God man, is both Victim and Priest they knew that there is literally nothing which would form a closer bond and it would require total commitment.
This is truly a hard statement because total commitment to a new way of life is hard. Human reasoning may get us to the point of seeing what needs to be done but not for doing it. Only the grace of God can do that with us. “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” He is even more specific, as in all things with our faith it depends on the cross. If we looked upon the death of Jesus and see victory and not defeat, we will have made the leap and the doors of the eucharist will be open to us.
As we see many could not do this and they returned to their former way of life. Look at those who stayed. Peter says: We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” To experience Jesus is to know that he is the only way to God and that there is nowhere else to go.
The Jews would also have known that this covenant is not only with God but directly and immediately with all Christians. As many new Christians would have been disowned by their families this would have been particularly devastating. The family provided not only emotional support but also a financial safety net and other Christians would be needed to supply that support.
The challenge is still there. To celebrate the Eucharist with the knowledge that Jesus is really being offered is to acknowledge no higher commitment, no deeper relationship. It means to accept that our brothers and sisters have a call upon us. This begins with our fellow Christians but must extend out to all: every Christian must be a good Samaritan.
Receiving communion is accepting a way of life – we say amen at our own peril.
I am told that the bishops see the message on the Eucharist as a welcome home greeting after the pandemic as much as a teaching document. I look forward to reading it. Yet this does not mean that we cannot seek to welcome ourselves back and do so with the Eucharist before then. We have a link to Pope St John Paul’s letter the “Eucharistic Church” on our website. He begins by writing: The Church draws her life from the Eucharistic which is the heart of the mystery of the Church”
We need to remember this as we rebuild St. Charles. What does not proceed from the Eucharist will fail.
I would like to end with a personal experience from this year.
The shutdown began as a long retreat for me. I joked that the rectory became “The Abbey of St Charles Borromeo, Sidney Place”. Monsignor, Fr John and I said a calm and reflective mass every day, could read to our heart’s content without guilt and most of all spend time in prayer. It was a cleansing and clarifying experience. Yet after a while a rather upsetting one. The more fervently I prayed, the more reverently I said mass the more I felt a spiritual hunger. It began to be sated only when I began packing bags and working at pop up pantries for the food insecure. This just seemed so right that I realized that truly the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. It quenches one hunger but increases another. The deeper we experience it in our personal lives the clearer the call to serve the community, especially the poor and marginalized.
We will know that we have been satisfied by the Eucharist at Mass when we leave the church with a hunger for justice in the streets.