A recent study was completed in the diocese of London Ontario which presented a disturbing statistic. Approximately 84 % percent of Catholics do not practice their faith in the diocese of London. 84 % do not attend mass weekly – and many of us know that the Church considers Sunday Mass a day of obligation. So we should be asking ourselves some very serious questions.
What is the Church doing that is wrong?
In some ways, people within the Church will always be doing something wrong, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t answer this question. Just like the fact that thieves will always break into homes – this fact doesn’t prevent us from locking our doors. Problems in the Church have always been there, and will remain problems worth looking at. But at this time, I would not like to examine this particular question.
Another question may be: does the Church simply need to get with the times? Is the Church too slow moving and simply doesn’t understand the needs and ideologies of the ‘enlightened’ western world-view?
This question needs to be looked at as well, for the simple reason that many people are asking it, and good people are asking this question, and they are asking with honesty. However this question, while good, is not what I would like to focus on either.
Another question could be, is the culture that we currently live in so deprived of anything good that it has been left irreconcilable to the Gospel Message?
However, I would say that while this question is also valid, I do not want to answer it at this time. Here is the question I would like to ask, and I ask it simply because Vatican II suggests that it is the central question: What is the Eucharist?
I ask this question because if the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith, and 84 percent of people are not attending mass, perhaps the central and most important reason for attending mass should be examined first.
There is nothing that strikes more to the core of our faith than this question, it is the central question from which we can answer all other questions. The Eucharist is the beginning point and the end point of our Christian faith. If the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic faith and 84 percent of people do not attend Sunday mass, we can all agree that we have a serious problem, but the solution can easily be drawn up if we perhaps try to contemplate on why the Church insists that we partake in this sacrament weekly. What is the Eucharist? Or more properly: who is the Eucharist?
I think it would be wise to begin by reflecting on Creation first. When God created the universe he spoke. He said, “let there be light” and by golly there was light! He said let there be water, or earth, or sky, or animals and fish in the sea. And every time he spoke a word, it was. When God speaks it is. What God says, is, and that is who God is. His words have power.
All of us have had the experience of the power of words. The expression, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words may never hurt me,” is a farce, and a completely untrue slogan. We know with the escalating number of teen-suicides and adults who are receiving counseling because of past wounds caused by verbal bullying or now text-bullying, that words do an incredible amount of damage.
We hope that words will be used to build us up, and they certainly have this power. Words also create realities and relationships: when an umpire says, “You are out” – whether you like it or not…you are out. When a police officer says, “You are under arrest” you need a lawyer. But with God it is so much more true, that when he speaks it is. When God says something, it happens.
During Mass, the priest says: “Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is MY BODY, which will be given up for you.” Notice the priest is not saying, “This is Christ’s body.” Here we see that because of the sacrament of the priesthood, the priest himself stands in the very place of Christ. Some may think this makes the person ordained more important than he really is. But the exact opposite is true. The ordained minister no longer represents himself at the altar, but rather has been configured to represent Christ Jesus. In other words, the ego of the minister should be very far from the altar, because this isn’t about Him, its about Jesus. And this is precisely why the priest is not speaking on his own behalf, but we are hearing Christ speak through the priest. As a result, what he says: is. The bread is changed by these words, spoken by Christ at the altar.
The priest speaks in the very person of Christ. It is Christ speaking through the priest – it is God speaking, and when God speaks, it is. The bread becomes the Body of Christ.
Here is an interesting quote from St. Jean Vianney about the priesthood:
“Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts” (beasts…he is saying some idol, some object or natural thing, be it the unholy tabernacle in our homes (TV) or whatever we spend most of our time with instead of God. “If the missionary Father and I were to go away, you would say, “What can we do in this church? There is no mass; our Lord is no longer there: we may as well pray at home.” When people wish to destroy religion, they begin by attacking the priest, because where there is no longer any priest there is no sacrifice, and where there is no longer any sacrifice, there is no religion.”
There is a beautiful image that I think depicts quite well what is occurring at every mass and you will find it here in this blog. In this image we see the Eucharist on the Altar, and surrounding Christ in the Eucharist are a bunch of old, young, and weak, powerful, rich, poor, holy men and women, and distracted individuals. It’s a mixed bag, but we are all around the altar, around the Eucharist.
Above the altar there is a cloud, much like a cloud of incense. Pope Benedict XVI states that incense not only depicts our prayers moving heaven-ward, but that it acts like a veil, obscuring our vision, reminding us that what we see with the eyes in our head do not penetrate what is actually taking place during the mass.
Above this veil or cloud of smoke is the real-story. All the angels, saints, all those who have died and are now with God in heaven are surrounding God in praise and adoration. They are all before the God whom they love, the source of all goodness and of pure joy. The blessed mother simply gazes upon God with adoration and peace. And this is what is actually becoming present to us at mass.
Oh, but there is so much more. There is also the sacrificial dimension which is also present! The very moment of Christ’s passion is presented to us. He is not re-sacrificed, but the very moment that he died on the cross for our sins is present during mass. The moment when he cried out for you, to His Father in heaven.
All of this is to say, the very moment where he died for us, our Best Friend, the one who loves us and knows us better than anyone: is on the cross and we are before him. If this doesn’t move us to our knees or radically change our life, what else will? Seriously ask yourself that question.
The sacrificial dimension of the mass is essential – and obvious if we are listening carefully. St. John the Baptist said this and we echo his words during mass: “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World.” In quoting St. John the Baptist sometimes our understanding of what he means by the Lamb is a little off. St. John is not calling Christ some nice cuddly animal, but rather he is discussing something that the Jews were all too aware of: the sacrificial victim.
In the Old Testament, when men and women sinned they were required to make a sacrifice. Every time we sin, we appropriate to ourselves – we take something – that does not belong to us. And thus the only way we can stop the momentum of selfish gain is to sacrifice something. That is the only way we can communicate to God that we are serious about atoning for our sins and attempting to restore justice.
So the Jews would sacrifice an unblemished Lamb, one of their best! The sinner would place his/her hands on the lamb as a ritual symbol, communicating that their sins were being transferred upon that lamb. Then the Lamb was slain, and cooked on the altar (much like a BBQ). Then the sinner would take a piece of the meat and consume it as a sign that they were participating in this experience of God’s Divine Mercy. They were partaking in the meal offered to God, and communing with God’s mercy.
And so we now celebrate on the Altar, the Lamb whom we placed our hands on through sin and through His passion. And we partake in the gift of His divine mercy as we consume the Lamb.
If this doesn’t move us – I do not know what else will. If this doesn’t pierce our hearts at the core, what else will?
What happens when we receive the Eucharist?
When we receive the Eucharist, two essential things are happening. We are receiving Christ as a gift into our soul. Second, we are giving ourselves to Christ a gift of thanksgiving for His love. This is why it is forbidden to receive the Eucharist with mortal sin. And this IS something we should continue to emphasize today irregardless of how many people try to use the Eucharist to push a political agenda. The reason why the Eucharist cannot be received with mortal sin is because we are giving him what is within our soul as a gift to God. Imagine a husband giving his wife 12 dead, stinky roses with a bag of smelly garbage for her anniversary? He’d be in BIIIIIIIG TROUBLE!! So much worse is giving a soul that has killed the life of Christ within it without genuine repentance. St. Paul reminds us that we should not drink of His blood and eat of His flesh in an unworthy manner.
We want to give God our best, and we also wish to receive God into the depths of our soul. And so we attend Confession prior to mass if we have serious sin on our soul, so that we can enter into the mystery of this divine love as fruitfully as possible. When we receive the Eucharist, what we are opening ourselves up to is receiving a love that blesses when others curse. Something none of us can do on our own steam. While Christ was cursed, he blessed us, and while he was tortured out of malice and healed us with generosity. Amazing…
This type of love and life of Christ is what is saving us. In order for us to enter into the heavenly community we have to be perfect, we have to love perfectly, sanctified in God’s good grace, being able to love our enemy while they revile us and rebuke us and scorn us. There is no imperfect human being in heaven, all have been healed by his divine grace because they have allowed him to.
It is most difficult to love others when they hate us. And so there is no better test to show us how much of a loving person we in fact are than encountering those who hate us. When we realize that we cannot love them without the grace of God, we drink the very blood that loved them and was spilled by them and for them. The essential realization would first of course be that the blood was offered for us, even while we were sinning against God.
When we attend mass, we are also bringing forth all suffering and sacrifices we have partaken in during the week. We unite them to the cross, and as a result, as members of His body, they sanctify the world. These sufferings and pains united to the cross of Christ in love become a portal of love for all those whom we serve. Our struggles therefore have meaning and power when united to the cross.
Praised be to God for the Eucharist – the reason we go to mass. I think one can understand why it would be a moral obligation to attend mass. Imagine if we were to look at the utter beauty of the Eucharist and to say, “I think the football game is more important.” Men, I am speaking specifically to you here as well – your attendance is the worst, and you need to start setting an example as well.
I think we can all agree, however that most people do not attend mass because they simply have never heard any of the above. And so, no one should point fingers or shame others for not attending. Rather we should be bragging to them about the infinite love that is unleashed through ordinary bread and wine on the altar every Sunday. Brag about the life-transforming gift of God’s love that no human being, nor idol can take away from us.