TO BE LOVED, TO BE LIVED
A Pastoral Letter on the Centrality of the Eucharist
Dear Friends in Christ:
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. (Jn 6:53-54)
These words of Jesus remind us as clearly as possible of the centrality of the Eucharist to our Catholic Faith. The Eucharist is, in the simplest yet most profound of terms, the source of life. In giving us the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Jesus gave us his very own body and blood, a priceless gift, one that enriches our spiritual lives here on earth and leads us eventually to the perfection of eternal life in heaven.
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church” teaches us again of the importance of the Eucharist in the life of the Christian:
The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life… For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself… By the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life… In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith. (#s 1324-1327)
The teaching and lived experience of the Church have helped us to understand more fully the many dimensions of the Eucharist. It is a sacrifice—the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; it is a sacrament—the real presence of Christ under the forms of bread and wine; it is a meal—the same memorial meal Jesus shared with his apostles at the Last Supper; it is a liturgical celebration—a public proclamation of our faith in sign and symbol.
The Eucharist is all this and much more. No single one of these dimensions is sufficient unto itself to fully reveal the meaning of the Eucharist; none of them can be overlooked in fully appreciating the magnitude of the gift. The Eucharist is an inexhaustible mystery: to be loved, to be lived.
Our shared preparation for the coming of the Third Millennium also centers on and leads us to the Eucharist. As the Holy Father writes in “Tertio Millennio Adveniente,” “Since Christ is the only way to the Father, the year 2000 will be intensely Eucharistic: in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Savior who took flesh in Mary’s womb twenty centuries ago, continues to offer himself to humanity as the source of Divine Life.” (TMA, #55)
Certainly every active member of the Church recognizes and fully appreciates the centrality of the Eucharist in our individual Catholic lives and in the communal life of the Church. No person of authentic Catholic Faith will deny the teaching of the Church about the Eucharist.
And yet, because of human nature, we often take our gifts for granted, even the most special of our gifts— our life, our health, our family, our friends and our faith. It is even possible, because of our weakness and perhaps because the Eucharist is so readily available to us, to take the Eucharist for granted and to become less than clear about its meaning and importance.
Recent surveys throughout the nation have suggested that this is exactly what has taken place in the Church. And while the validity and meaning of the surveys can be questioned, they do raise up serious concerns and provide us with an opportunity of renewing our understanding and appreciation of the most Blessed Sacrament.
For some time now, in a number of different settings, I have been discussing questions related to the Eucharist. This topic has been presented at meetings of the Priests’ Council, the Pastoral Council and priests within their deaneries. I have discussed it formally and informally. These discussions have been extremely valuable and a number of important insights and suggestions have been shared.
It is encouraging to note, first of all, that the Church in Youngstown does truly understand the teaching of the Church about the Eucharist and appreciates it as the foundation of our spiritual life, the “sum and summary of our faith.” There is also a general consensus that most Catholics have a ready understanding of the Catholic teaching about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that, “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, substantially contained’.” (Catechism, #1374) The conversations I have heard about the Eucharist are, therefore, most encouraging. And I might add that my own travels throughout the Diocese and my participation in the liturgies of our parishes have confirmed that estimation.
At the same time, however, most of our recent discussions have also suggested that we need constantly to affirm the teaching of the Church about the Eucharist, that it is necessary to stress again and again, the profound meaning of the Eucharist so that in fact we never lose sight of its beauty and importance. Some have suggested that, in particular, younger Catholics may not have received clear sufficient teaching about the Eucharist and that we have a special obligation to reach out to them with this message.
During our discussions I regularly asked what the Church in the Diocese of Youngstown might do to strengthen our understanding of the teaching about the Eucharist. In response, a number of very practical and specific suggestions were offered. I offer them to you here with the hope that they will provide a starting point for additional and prayerful reflection.
I. The key to maintaining our belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the faithful and vibrant celebration of the Sunday Eucharist.
As Roger Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, wrote in his recent pastoral letter about Sunday Mass: “We the Church assemble on the Lord’s Day, and that assembly, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, speaks and listens to the Word of God, makes holy and is made holy by its eucharistic praying and the sacred banquet of holy communion.” (“Gather Faithfully Together: A Guide for Sunday Mass”)
Cardinal Mahony’s words echo those of “The Catechism of the Catholic Church”: “It was above all on ‘the first day of the week,’ Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, that the Christians met ‘to break bread.’ From that time on down to our day the celebration of the Eucharist has been continued so that today we encounter it everywhere in the Church with the same fundamental structure. It remains the center of the Church’s life.” (#1343)
I invite the parishes of the Youngstown Diocese to review their celebration of the Sunday Eucharist to be certain that it is both faithful and vibrant: faithful to the liturgical directives of the Church and vibrant in encouraging all of God’s People toward the “full, conscious and active participation” demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. And parishes should continue to reach out to those members who do not regularly attend Sunday Mass, inviting them to become a part of the Eucharistic community.
And in highlighting the centrality of Sunday Eucharist, we should not overlook the wonderful tradition of daily Mass, which is expected of our priests, and which many of the faithful find to be a source of great comfort and blessing in their lives.
II. Pastors and catechists should use special moments throughout the liturgical year to teach the people, especially young people, about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The liturgical year of the Church provides frequent opportunities to speak about the Eucharist. Such occasions would include the celebration of First Holy Communion in the parish, the Solemnities of Corpus Christi and Christ the King, Holy Thursday, the Easter Season, and other occasions when the Scriptures lend themselves to Eucharistic themes.
We should be especially attentive to children and young people to be certain that in the formative years of their lives, they are receiving clear and direct teaching about the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.
Our teaching about the Eucharist should be a constant, ongoing process so that the People of God are frequently reminded of the beauty of the holy mystery in their midst.
III. Parishes and institutions should carefully review how the Blessed Sacrament is handled.
In some of our discussions the point was made that the manner in which we handle the Eucharist is a powerful sign of what we believe about the Eucharist. It was also suggested that familiarity may breed carelessness with the Eucharist.
Questions to be considered: Do we carry, receive, distribute and reserve the Eucharist with obvious reverence? Do we remember that “The Eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of consecration and endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist?” (Catechism, #1377) Are we careful and prayerful as we purify the sacred vessels after Mass, knowing that they continue to contain the Body and Blood of the Lord? Is our use of language consistent with what we believe about the Eucharist: do we speak merely about “bread and wine” or do we refer to the elements as the “Body and Blood of Christ” they have truly become?
While it is not necessary to return to the scrupulosity that may have characterized some in the past, neither should we succumb to a secular, materialistic and casual approach to the Eucharist sometimes evident today.
IV. In churches where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a separate chapel, there should be a concerted effort to remind the faithful of that fact and to promote attention to the reserved Eucharist.
Liturgical law allows for the placement of the Blessed Sacrament in separate chapels in our churches, but the purpose of that reservation is surely not to distance the Eucharist from the people, but to encourage prayerful and distraction-free adoration of the Lord Jesus. As The Catechism reminds us, “The tabernacle is to be situated in churches in a most worthy place with the greatest honor. The dignity, placing and security of the Eucharistic tabernacle should foster adoration before the Lord truly present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.” (#1 183)
Additionally, The Code of Canon Law states: “The tabernacle in which the most Holy Eucharist is reserved should be placed in a part of the Church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated and suitable for prayer.” (Canon #938)
The place where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved should be very evident to the faithful, and “a special lamp to indicate and honor the presence of Christ is to bum at all times before the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved.” (Canon #940)
Visits to the Blessed Sacrament, before and after Mass and on other private occasions, should be encouraged as a way of preparing for the celebration of the Eucharist and of extending its meaning.
The traditional Catholic practice of genuflecting upon entering and leaving the Church, and when passing in front of the Blessed Sacrament, should be maintained, as an external sign of our awareness of and respect for Christ’s presence.
V. Parishes should seriously consider the re-establishment of traditional practices that foster devotion to the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
As noted earlier, the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is clearly the center of the Church’s life. At the same time, the Sunday Eucharist does not exhaust the prayer of the Church related to the Eucharist. “The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hosts with utmost care, exposing them to solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession.” (Catechism #1378)
I commend the parishes of the Diocese that have maintained the beautiful practice of “Forty Hours” or “Eucharistic Days,” and other regular periods of adoration, and I invite other parishes to initiate these celebrations as well. “In churches and oratories where the Eucharist is reserved, it is recommended that solemn exposition of the blessed sacrament for an extended period of time should take place once a year… In this way, the local community may meditate on this mystery more deeply and adore.” (“Solemn Exposition of the Holy Eucharist,” #86) Such devotions will also provide a fitting preparation for the coming of the Third Millennium which, as our Holy Father reminds us, is meant to be “intensely Eucharistic.”
A few of the parishes of the Diocese have received permission for “Perpetual Exposition of the Eucharist.” The Church does not envision this becoming a widespread practice. However, where it has begun, Perpetual Adoration has been a source of many blessings and graces. I commend the priests, deacons, religious and faithful who devote themselves to this discipline.
Some have maintained that the promotion of the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament will take away from the centrality of the Eucharistic celebration. It need not do so. In fact, proper devotion to the Blessed Sacrament will inevitably lead to a fuller participation in the Eucharistic celebration:
Outside the Eucharistic celebration, the Church is careful to venerate the Blessed Sacrament, which must be reserved… as the spiritual centre of the religious and parish community. Contemplation prolongs communion and enables one to meet Christ, true God and true man, in a lasting way… Prayer of adoration in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament unites the faithful with the paschal mystery; it enables them to share in Christ’s sacrifice, of which the Eucharist is the permanent sacrament. (John Paul II, “Letter on the 750th Anniversary of the Feast of Corpus Christi,” #3)
Others have suggested that the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament causes people to withdraw from the cares and concerns of the world. But in fact, as the Holy Father writes, “closeness to Christ in silence and contemplation does not distance us from our contemporaries, but on the contrary, makes us attentive and open to human joy and distress and broadens our heart on a global scale.” (“Corpus Christi Letter,” #S) In recent times, the beautiful example of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who every day spent considerable time with the Blessed Sacrament before serving the “poorest of the poor” helps to illustrate the Holy Father’s observation.
This dimension of the Eucharist is highlighted at the conclusion of every Mass with the words, “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.” Indeed it is through our lives of faithful and generous service that the meaning of the Eucharist is completely revealed.
In short, the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, the reception of Holy Communion, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and our commitment to service need not and should not be exclusive of one another. In fact, these practices, taken together, help us to experience the fullness of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and motivate us to carry Christ to the world.
It should be obvious that this letter does not intend to present the full teaching of the Church about the Eucharist or its profound meaning in our lives. Nor does it attempt a full discussion of the themes contained herein.
The suggestions outlined in this letter were offered during the conversations about the Eucharist which took place in the Diocese of Youngstown, and I am grateful for all those who shared in these discussions with such obvious faith, insight and candor.
In my view, the most important thing is that the conversations about the Eucharist continue. And it is in our parishes that the teaching of the Church is best presented and devotion to the real presence of Christ best preserved.
Therefore I ask that in every parish of the Diocese these themes be discussed: from the pulpit and in the classrooms; in meetings of the parish councils and parish organizations. I request that this letter be the starting point of the conversation, but you may wish to provide other material as well. I call your attention especially to “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” and its treatment of the Eucharist in paragraphs 1322-1419.
I believe that the Eucharistic faith of the Church in the Diocese of Youngstown is strong and clear, and for that we give thanks to Almighty God. May our anticipation of the Third Millennium, and our observance of this Lenten and Easter Season, allow us to be a truly Eucharistic people, a people that celebrates the Mass faithfully, receives the Lord worthily, adores His presence unceasingly, and lives the Eucharist in “a life poured out in loving service of the kingdom.” (Opening Prayer for the Feast of Corpus Christi)
Sincerely yours in Christ, Our Lord,
Thomas J. Tobin
Bishop of Youngstown, OH
Used with Permission from the Diocese of Youngstown, OH.