Home Catechetical Corner Holy Communion: Getting Jesus and more — Father Thomas F. Dailey, O.S.F.S.

Holy Communion: Getting Jesus and more — Father Thomas F. Dailey, O.S.F.S.

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Elevation of the Eucharist is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Anthony's Church in North Beach, Md., July 15, 2021. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

“As conversations go, the one recently held as part of a series at St. Thomas More Oratory in Newark was completely civil, even friendly. It had the potential not to be, given the national debate, even rancor, that preceded the publication of “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” (USCCB, 2021).

Thankfully, the bishops’ document did not focus on the controversy surrounding the question of certain politicians receiving the Eucharist. More fittingly, the document emphasized the Eucharist as a gift and our response to receiving that gift. With access open again to the celebration of the Mass, following the pandemic restrictions, reminding us of this phenomenon was the bishops’ intention all along.

The document itself was crafted following this gift-response dynamic and comments on our experience of this dynamic, with ample quotes from popes and saints, in terms of past, present, and future.

As a gift, the Eucharist looks back to the sacrifice of Christ, memorialized at the Last Supper. By re-focusing our attention there, the document reminds us of that the Eucharist is so much more than something that we “get” on Sundays. While that may be the unspoken intention of many Mass-goers, the deeper truth is, as Pope Benedict XVI tells us, that “The Eucharist draw us into Jesus’s act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving” (no. 14). Therein lies the real gift – the giving of God, in the person of Jesus, to us and for us.

Pope Francis holds the Eucharist as he celebrates Mass at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome Nov. 5, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

That gift of God’s self to us happens in the present, in the real presence of him who says, “This is my body, given up for you.” How Jesus is actually present in the sacred host is, admittedly, very difficult to explain, especially as this reality is betrayed by our senses of seeing only bread and wine. Still, the words of Jesus are unambiguous.  We can trust that he is really present because he says he is! And we express that belief upon receiving holy Communion when we say “amen.” While we probably should blurt out an “OMG” at what is happening, the one-word affirmation that we speak nowhere else serves better as our “profession of faith in the Real Presence of Christ and reflects the intimate personal encounter with him, with his gift of self, that comes through the reception of Holy Communion” (no. 22).

That gift of God’s real presence given in the Eucharist then looks forward – in the realization of a communion with Christ and the church that the sacrament brings about. This communion (koinonia) is so much more than social fellowship or shared ideals. What the sacrament causes and reflects is an entirely new mode of togetherness, a way of being who we are as believers. We are united not by the agreement of our thoughts or being in the same place, but by him whom we have received. Our “communion” precedes the liturgical celebration, and we are incorporated into it when we celebrate. As the document states, “the Eucharist makes the Church” (no. 25).

Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S.

The communion effected in and among us through the real presence of Jesus’s giving of himself to us calls for a response – which is what we do at Mass. Our immediate response, as with receiving any gift, is to say “thanks.” Since this gift comes from (and is) God, our thanksgiving takes the form of “worship.” But worship brings us into a foreign realm, involving us in what is super-natural. To experience this as something more than a weekly routine, and something more significant than a magical moment, requires our active attention and our conscious intention. This we do “when we actively engage our minds, hearts, and bodies to every part of the liturgy, allowing God through the words, actions, gestures, and even the moments of silence to speak to us” (no. 31).

Our ongoing response to the gift of the Eucharist entails the transformation that Christ works in us and our continual conversion as His disciples. That conversion begins with the recognition, which we all admit, that “I am not worthy” to receive such a gift; as Pope Francis puts it, the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (no. 45). Still, conversion also requires that we act coherently in our daily lives, so that the communion we claim and celebrate at Mass is not at the same time broken or rejected in our outward conduct (no. 47 and 49). Assuredly, our faith is personal, but our being Catholic is also always public.

Finally, in the long term, the gift of the Eucharist becomes the food that sustains the whole of life’s journey, as the lives of so many saints have demonstrated. In this, too, we journey together as church, for as Mother Teresa says, “Once you understand the Eucharist, you can never leave the Church. Not because the Church won’t let you but because your heart won’t let you” (no. 55). Once again, when we appreciate that in this sacrament the son of God is giving himself to us and for us, where else could we possibly spend our time better?

In the final analysis, as our conversation revealed, nothing really compares to being at Mass and receiving there the supreme gift of God that makes us most profoundly who we are, individually and collectively. Our minds know this, if we think about what our faith teaches. More significantly, our hearts will benefit from it, when we grow in our appreciation of, and reverence for, the mystery of the Eucharist in our lives.

Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, Pa.