Last month, I gave a sermon on Good Shepherd Sunday on how to raise good future priests – future good shepherds. You might recall that one of the points I offered on how to encourage our sons to consider a priestly vocation was raising them to have reverence for the Eucharist. Since today is Corpus Christi Sunday, it seems a fitting opportunity to revisit this theme in more detail.
You have probably heard the statistics on how few Catholics believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Or at least, how few can correctly articulate the Church’s faith in the Real Presence. That is, that the Eucharist is not a symbol, that the bread and wine are completely transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The appearances – the accidents – of the bread and wine remain the same, but their substance is entirely different.
Fewer still could correctly identify the Church’s doctrine of comcommittance, by which She teaches that we receive under either species – under the appearance of either bread or wine – the entirety of Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This is why we reserve the distribution of Holy Communion under both species at our parish for solemnities like today’s Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord (Corpus Christi) – to remind us that we receive Christ whole and entire under either species.
Most people believe that this is a problem of education, of catechesis. The accepted wisdom would say that if people really understood what the Eucharist is, they would better appreciate it. Obviously there is some truth to this, but it is a very incomplete story. This accepted wisdom plays into the Catholic tendency to intellectualize the faith. We think that if everyone just knows all that they are supposed to know then everything will be fine. But this is evidently not the case! Many people learn what the Eucharist really is, but still fail to appreciate it and participate in it regularly.
Rather, faith in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is a habit into which young people or other new believers must be initiated. On the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, I talked about how Christ’s Ascension shows us the goodness of His body, and therefore of our own human bodies. Inculcating faith in and reverence for the Eucharist is just as much – if not more! – about what we do with our bodies than what we think with our heads.
So what should we do? First, our celebration of Holy Mass must make room for mystery. In today’s first reading we see the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, the priest of Salem who does not come from the Hebrew, Levitical line of priests. Christ, not born into the priestly class, is compared in the Bible to this man who makes only a brief appearance in the book of Genesis. Christ’s priesthood, like Melchizedek’s, is mysterious. He celebrates under signs and appearances the realities that the Hebrew priests enacted with bloody sacrifices.
If the priesthood of Christ is mysterious like that of Melchizedek’s, then the enactment of His priesthood here on earth should also be mysterious. The Mass is not primarily a feel good experience and the Priest is not a talk show host. The music at Holy Mass is different than what we hear on the radio – even Christian radio! Rather, it is formed primarily by the Word of God passed on through the Church’s tradition. We come here to come into contact with a great mystery.
Second, we can form a habit of faith in the Eucharist through the use of posture. Both the genuflection and kneeling are a gesture of humility by which we imitate Christ’s humbling Himself and coming to earth and remaining present with us here in the Eucharist. When we genuflect, we recognize that Christ is really present here among us. This is why every time we cross the center of our Church, we should genuflect to Jesus in the tabernacle rather than merely bow.
During Mass, you notice the priest and ministers bow when they cross the middle of the church. But they are not bowing to our Lord in the tabernacle – they are bowing to the altar, a symbol of Christ. During Mass itself, our attention is focused on the altar, where Christ is about to become present. But outside of Mass itself, whenever we are in the Church (such as before Mass, after Mass, or any other time), any time that we cross the central axis of the Church we should genuflect to our Lord in the tabernacle (so long as we are able to do so).
The third thing that we should do to increase our reverence for the Eucharist, and to form our young people to do likewise, is to consider the state of our souls as we prepare to receive Holy Communion. Continuing the passage given in the second reading today, St. Paul writes that “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”
If you are conscious of having committed a mortal sin – that is, a sin that taught by the Church to be gravely wrong, that knew it to be so, and that you freely consented to committing – then you should not receive Holy Communion until going to Confession. Most people seem to think that you need to kill someone in order to commit a grave sin. This is not true. Examples of mortal sins include: missing Mass on Sunday, calumny, theft, most sins against the sixth commandment (adultery), hatred, drunkenness, and many others (http://www.saintaquinas.com/mortal_sin.html). To receive Holy Communion while conscious of an unconfessed mortal sin is to profane the Body and Blood of the Lord. In many cultures, the general practice is to abstain from Holy Communion unless you have gone to Confession within the past month. This is not a bad idea!
The final matter we should consider with regards to reverence for Christ in Holy Communion is our manner of receiving Holy Communion. St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes that: When you receive Holy Communion, “[ensure] that you do not mislay any of it. For if you mislay any, you would clearly suffer a loss, as it were, from one of your own limbs. Tell me, if anyone gave you gold-dust, would you not take hold of it with every possible care, ensuring that you do not mislay any of it or sustain any loss? So will you not be much more cautious to ensure that not a crumb falls away from that which is more precious than gold or precious stones?”
What is rather ironic about this text from St. Cyril is that it is the exact same text used by many to argue for the reception of Communion in the Hand. If we want to raise young people to have faith in and reverence for the Eucharist, we need to teach them to receive Holy Communion in a way that acknowledges the great and awesome reality of what they are receiving. That is why all of the first Holy Communicants this year received Holy Communion for the first time kneeling and on the tongue and why I strongly encouraged them to receive Holy Communion in this manner (especially, that is, by receiving on the tongue) every time that they receive. This is not the way that most of us are accustomed to receiving Holy Communion, so I think that an explanation is in order.
Communion in the hand originated as an abuse. In the 1960s, it was introduced without permission and claimed as the more ancient practice of the Church. Pope Paul VI finally allowed bishops to grant permission for it out of fear of a schism from those parts of the world (namely, the Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of Germany) that were promoting it. However, even today, Communion in the hand exists as an exception to the universal norm that is only allowed so far as the diocesan bishop continues to allow it. The worldwide norm for how Holy Communion ought to be received is for the minister to place the Host directly on the communicant’s tongue (as still happens in most parts of the world).
Now, this is not to say that any person who receives Holy Communion in the hand is necessarily irreverent or does not have faith in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. There is a difference between the interior disposition and the physical act. However, for too long we have been trying to convince ourselves that we can receive Holy Communion in what is obviously a lesser recognition of the sacred nature of the gift that we receive in Christ’s Body and Blood, and still retain the same faith in our minds and hearts. This notion rejects that we are creatures of body and soul and that what we do with our bodies affects what we believe. The widespread practice of Communion in the hand in the United States has eroded faith in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. What is so common, what can be touched and handled by anyone, naturally comes to be regarded as less than precious. To return to the notion of the young man who is asked to give up his life for the privilege of celebrating the Eucharist, why would he sacrifice so much to gain what anyone can handle and touch?
One way that we will re-emphasize the importance of reverence towards the Eucharist here at St. John’s will be the re-implementation of the Communion paten. This is a gilded metal disk mounted on a short wooden pole that the server will hold under the chin of the person receiving Holy Communion. The Communion paten catches the Sacred Host should it not stick to the person’s tongue (though this is rare) and also catches any small particles that could become detached. When I have used these Communion patens in the past, I have frequently found small particles of the Sacred Host on them. As St. Cyril reminds us, even the smallest fragment of the Body and Blood of Jesus should be treated even better than flakes of gold. We will begin to use the Communion patens again once we have had the chance to train our altar servers on how to use them. When we do so, I will also make some suggestions for those receiving Holy Communion on the best way to do so in order to avoid running into them.
At Holy Mass, after the priest holds the consecrated Host in his hands, tradition dictates that he not part his thumbs and forefingers until his fingers have been cleansed of any particles of the Sacred Host. Just as the disciples of Christ gathered up the remaining fragments of the loaves in that symbolic prefigurement of the Eucharist in today’s Gospel, so too does the priest gather up any fragments of the Host or drops of the Precious Blood. All of us should consider whether our own actions in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and our manner of receiving His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in Holy Communion communicate to others and to ourselves the fullness of the Church’s faith in His real presence.
To return to the words of St. Cyril, “Tell me, if anyone gave you gold-dust, would you not take hold of it with every possible care, ensuring that you do not mislay any of it or sustain any loss? So will you not be much more cautious to ensure that not a crumb falls away from that which is more precious than gold or precious stones?”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist
Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord (Corpus Christi), A.D. MMXIX