“Belief in an Unbelieving Age: Eucharistic Faith and God’s Purpose for Us Here and Now”
Homily for Mass for Conclusion of the Archdiocesan Eucharistic Congress
Solemnity of Corpus Christi: June 10, 2023
Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption
As I’m sure many of you know – for it is hardly a little-known fact about me – I am a great, life-long jazz aficionado. Of my lifetime of memories of following the music, one that most stands out in my mind is the opportunity I once had to meet the late great jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck when I was a young priest.
Mr. Brubeck was coming to town for a concert, and a priest friend of mine who was beginning a major project for addressing homelessness got the idea of asking him to do a benefit concert. Mr. Brubeck had written music for a Mass, and my friend’s thought was to use that for the concert. Certainly, I’ll never forget the privileged insight I got into what a musical genius he was, but what really stands out in my memory was the conversation my friend and I had with his agent before Mr. Brubeck arrived for our lunch appointment.
The agent was Jewish, and when we were talking about the music for the Mass, he spoke, in a very perplexed tone of voice, of how priests sometimes will pronounce the words of Consecration at Mass in such a casual, lackadaisical way. He asked, “How can they do that, when you realize the meaning of those words and what is happening?”
It was an important insight – perhaps ironically and powerfully so, coming from someone outside of the Catholic Faith. On the other hand, being Jewish, he would understand, even instinctually, the meaning of the Eucharist as a Passover event: in the Jewish ritual it commemorates liberation from slavery in Egypt, when the angel of death “passed over” the Jewish homes whose doorways were marked by the blood of the slaughtered Passover lamb. Language shapes the mind, the way one views the world, and the Jewish mind is shaped by the Jewish language: Hebrew. Hebrew is a language without verb tenses; everything is in the present moment. “Commemoration,” then, is not simply thinking fondly or gratefully back to an event that happened long ago in history; it is present with us today. And we still sometimes use this style of language today, even in English, saying things like, “St. Thomas Aquinas says that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it,” or, “Tomorrow I move into my new home.”
Memory is powerful. Sometimes, a memory of the past can be even more powerful than the present. Memory has the power to sweep you away, to carry you from where you are to an intense experience, maybe of your childhood or your adolescence. What is especially impressive about the experience of such memories is that they seem to have a power of their own. It is not so much that we remember them; it’s more as if the memory itself takes hold of us and grasps us, surging into our present and immersing us in the past in a way that makes time disappear.
When Christ gives us the command at the Last Supper, then, “Do this in memory of me,” he’s not talking about historical memory. As Christians, we know that the original Passover event is a prelude to the true Passover of Christ’s sacrifice made present at each Mass: passing over from a life of sin to the true freedom of the Kingdom of God, set free from death by the blood of the true Lamb of God. This is a mystery to be lived always in the present tense, every day of our life – just as his presence to us is constant, that presence which we call “Real”: the bread and wine become his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
God’s Purpose for Us
Now, this is hard to believe in any age. This certainly was the case at the time of our Lord himself. We see how many of his own people could not abide his teaching: that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have life with him forever. And as we know well, at the end of this Bread of Life Discourse of which we heard an excerpt in the Gospel proclaimed for today’s Mass, almost all of his listeners walked away in disbelief. This teaching is hard to believe, even as essential as it is to the Christian life.
How much more so in our own unbelieving age, an age when the very idea of religious belief is disparaged. We are even seeing the mockery of religion all around us, and the desecration of what is sacred being not just tolerated but celebrated in our culture, even as we worship here in church today. But God has a plan for everything. Recall what Moses told God’s Chosen People of old after their forty years of wandering in the Sinai desert, right before they crossed the Jordan River to enter into and take possession of the Promised Land: “Remember how for forty years now the Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert, so as to test you by affliction and find out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments.”
Yes, He allows us to be afflicted in order to test us: are we truly serious about keeping His commandments, keeping strong in our faith in Him? For those who truly believe, the sight of the sacred being mocked cannot but be an affliction. God has His plan for allowing what happens to happen, and there is no doubt that He has put us here, now, in order to put us to this test.
He is asking us to be the ones who stand strong in faith, and that faith must begin and be nourished here, in our worship, in our proper belief and respect for the Most Holy Eucharist and how we approach it and even organize our lives around it.
Centrality of the Eucharist
And organize our lives around it we must. To know what this looks like we need look no further than the patron saint of our own City and Archdiocese: St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is well known for his heroic humility and profound love for the poor and downtrodden, but few remember the reason he loved the forgotten and oppressed so much: because he saw in them the image of his Savior, Jesus Christ. St. Francis loved the poor because he loved Jesus, and he saw in them the very ones to whom God had drawn closest and become most like. And so, for this same reason, St. Francis also loved the liturgy, the Mass, and especially the Eucharist, since in the Most Blessed Sacrament the very one whom he served through the poor was actually present himself.
So great was Francis’ love of the Mass and the Eucharist that he would often scold and reprimand clergy for not treating the King of Kings, present in the Mass and living in the Eucharist, with the utmost care and reverence. Just as he would take up the cause of the dirtiest, lowliest, most vile and repulsive of the poor with the utmost tenderness and care, so he was scandalized by the fact that often the Mass was celebrated with dirty altar linens and smudged cruets, and not with the greatest of dignity.
For the poor man of Assisi, love of lady poverty did not mean cheap quality of furnishings for Mass and disregard of details in rendering worship to the Almighty. Quite the contrary: only the best for God! And he, too, wrote poetically to describe the miracle of the Mass, such as this gem addressed to his disciples:
Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest! O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation he hides himself under an ordinary piece of bread! Brothers, look at the humility of God, and pour out your hearts before him! Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by him! Hold nothing back of yourselves for yourselves, that he who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally!
We are having a Eucharistic revival because we need to reignite that true Franciscan spirit of piety, a piety not limited to one dimension or another of our faith, but true Eucharistic faith, a faith that recognizes both the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and, because of that, his presence in the poor whom he calls us to love with his Eucharistic heart. It is a faith especially exemplified by a contemporary saint, and one also close to our City and Archdiocese: St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She understood that if we fail in proper respect for what is most sacred – our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament – we will fail in all other ways. We will not serve the poor in an altruistic way, a way that truly recognizes their dignity, but rather in a self-serving way; this lack of the sense of the sacred also explains the attacks on the sanctity of human life we are experiencing in our own time in so many different ways. This is why Mother Theresa used to say that of all the sad things she had seen in the world, the worst was the irreverent reception of Holy HoCommunion.
Like St. Francis, like Mother Theresa, like all great saints, this Eucharistic revival must begin with ourselves – we must revive our own personal faith – not just with talk, but with doing! It is good for each of us, then, to examine our own attitudes and behavior toward this divine gift. Is our regard for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament indicative of true Catholic faith in the sacrament, in small ways as well as big?
For example, we must recall the importance of silence. Our culture bombards us with stimuli constantly, and people have become uncomfortable with silence. But silence is the only adequate human response to awareness of the presence of the sacred, and it is how God speaks to us most intimately in the depths of our heart. Perhaps now more than ever, it is important for us to create an atmosphere of reverent silence in church, and to allow silence to speak eloquently at certain moments during the liturgical celebration, and also to observe prayerful silence before Mass begins and after it ends.
What about our preparation for Sunday Mass throughout the week, keeping our life of prayer alive every day of the week, especially through Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament? And already preparing for Mass before leaving home for church, especially in paying attention to proper Sunday dress. We are going to meet the King of kings, and if we truly believe “only the best for God,” then we will naturally want to be dressed in the best that we have when we go to worship Him. We should also prepare by observing penitential disciplines, in particular, being mindful of the Eucharistic fast. We should see the one hour fast as a bare minimum when necessary, but strive to observe a more stringent fast, even the traditional practice of fasting from midnight when possible, or at least for three hours.
Most of all, we must recall our need for frequent recourse to the sacrament of Penance. The teaching about the connection between turning away from sin and the necessary conditions for a worthy reception of Holy Communion goes back to the very origins of the Church, even to St. Paul himself. Certainly for those in a state of serious sin, prior sacramental confession and absolution is the only ordinary means by which they can become properly disposed for the sacrament. This is an immense, unmerited gift of God’s mercy to us. And God wants to bestow it upon us generously, no matter how seriously or lightly we have sinned. The persistent witness of the Church is that the frequent reception of this sacrament cannot but be a part of the life of any serious Catholic.
All of this means that our Eucharistic Revival must be at one and the same time both personal and communal, an individual belief which is also a call to collective resurgence of faith that speaks to our times. This dire need for true Eucharistic faith across all levels was captured eloquently by Pope Benedict XVI in his homily for this Solemnity of Corpus Christi in 2012. He said:
[T]he sacred has an educational function and its disappearance inevitably impoverishes culture and especially the formation of the new generations. If, for example, in the name of a faith that is secularized and no longer in need of sacred signs, these Corpus Christi processions through the city were to be abolished, the spiritual profile of Rome would be ‘flattened out’, and our personal and community awareness would be weakened.
This is what we are doing today, holding up our Eucharistic Lord in the heart of the City named after his great servant Francis, to reclaim our City for true love of God and the poor that Francis so effectively modeled: that is, a life of reverence for the sacred.
The benefit concert my friend wanted Dave Brubeck to put on for him never materialized (although he did, over a period of decades, end up building quite an empire to rehabilitate the homeless, becoming locally renowned as an apostle to the homeless). But shortly after composing his Mass, entitled, “To Hope,” Mr. Brubeck converted to the Catholic faith. This, ultimately, should not surprise us. For the power of the Eucharist, when celebrated reverently, beautifully, and with all of our best and all of the talent that God has given us to glorify Him, can draw all sincere hearts into the Eucharistic heart of God’s Son. And this call from our Eucharistic Lord is the hope that each of us is charged to hold on to, to live by in our own lives, and to pass on to all generations.
 (LtrOrd 26-29) https://friarmusings.com/2013/03/22/francis-of-assisi-the-eucharist/