By Father Daniel Ciucci
In high school, I took a gym class in which breathing, stretching and reflection were a central part. Suffice it to say I grew up in Boulder. We called our teacher “Coach” since he doubled as a football coach and he seemed to extend his duties of mentorship beyond the locker room. He was loved by all of us. This class was all five days a week and, being the ‘advanced’ PE class, there was a curriculum of many different types of physical training: racket sports, weight training, HIIT, and other speed exercises. As Coach would introduce a new sport or skill, the physically adept would dominate, showcasing their prowess for all to admire. Brute force and iron wills often got the job done, but not always.
Stretching came more than halfway into the semester and Coach said it would be the hardest of sections because stretching involves ‘recentering’ oneself. Most physical activities involve concentrating outside oneself, but this one would involve reflecting within and abiding in the present moment. (I really doubt he said abiding, but sometimes one’s Catholic identity is able to draw out John 15-esque or other Biblical notions from very non-Christian events, seeing the truth of God in many facets of life.)
As we began the stretching section, Coach asked us to recenter ourselves from the chaos of the day and to place what was most important at the center of our thoughts. Holding what was essential and being present to it, whatever it was, was a necessary quotidian task. At this point in my sophomore year of high school, I had been attending youth group for about two years and had learned to pray on my own. So for me, “holding what was essential” easily became a moment of adoration, of being present to The One Who is essential. What became a Who.
Coach would often say that recentering, or drawing a controlled and gentle attention into yourself, is a scary adventure because there are things in there that we do not want to acknowledge: things that are shameful, memories that are painful. It took a whole 30 seconds before one of the football players intentionally pushed out a fart to break the tension of this newly practiced silence. Laughter, shrouding insecurity, ensued. But this time Coach did not call it out or correct it, he calmly asked us to let it pass and to have the courage to enter into the present moment, to recenter ourselves again. He added, “What one holds in the center shows what is of utmost importance.” These words echoed in my ears.
He furthered his point by showing us a map of the human body. Pointing up and down the spinal cord he said that everything essential for biological life runs up and down the spinal cord. What departs from this area (from head to sacrum), is an extremity and can be excised without disturbing essential biological processes. He said nothing of sports or comfort at that point. He was driving home the point that centrality is not just an artistic or spiritual principle, it is knit into almost every aspect of nature. It is beautiful how God disperses trace evidence of truth everywhere to underline a — dare we say central — truth by which He wants us to live.
Years later, the pastor of my home parish Sacred Heart of Jesus began a project to move the tabernacle to a central location out from a near-hidden side chapel in the extremities of the church. I remember this being met with all sorts of reactions: “But that’s the way we’ve always done it,” (the anthem of a stagnant Church); “Finally,” (said with an air of contentious self-justification); “Who does this priest think he is,”(indignance at the mere exercise of the pastor’s fatherhood, as if both titles were merely pro forma); “He’s dragging us backward to Vatican I,” (an exclamation of progressivism that the Church needs to move beyond falsities to evolved truths). And then, my favorite comment was, “He’s bringing Jesus out of timeout.” For some reason, this comment of Jesus being placed in timeout resonated with what I had heard from Coach earlier — what we hold in the center shows what is of utmost importance.
A child is sent into timeout so that the child and this child’s behavior is removed from the center of attention. What is centered shows what is important.
Can you imagine a State of the Union address in which the President of the United States is invited into the legislative chamber and then is escorted into a side cloakroom during the event? Could you conceive of the casket of her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at a funeral not being fully front and center? How about Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran at Mile High Stadium placed stage left? How much more so with Jesus Christ our Lord? When we go to church or attend Mass, the reason is not for entertainment or preservation of cultural heritage, neither is it for assuaging guilt or even community unto itself. We go for Jesus. If that is the case, Jesus should be front and center in each of our churches.
Vatican II and the ensuing decades have given a panoply of teachings and reiterations regarding the Eucharist and its centrality in the life of the Church.
- “The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings.” (Gaudium et Spes)
- “The celebration of the Eucharist is the center of the entire Christian life, both for the universal Church and for the local congregations of the Church.” (Eucharistae Sacramentum, 1973)
- “The mystery of the Eucharist is the true center of the sacred liturgy and indeed of the whole Christian life. Consequently, the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, continually seeks to understand and to live the Eucharist more fully. In our own day, the Second Vatican Council has stressed several important aspects of this mystery.” (Eucharisticum Mysterium, 1980)
- “Vatican II was a Council on faith, inasmuch as it asked us to restore the primacy of God in Christ to the center of our lives, both as a Church and as individuals.” (Lumen Fidei, 6)
- “Therefore the Eucharistic Celebration is much more than a simple banquet: it is exactly the memorial of Jesus’ Paschal Sacrifice, the mystery at the center of salvation.” (Pope Francis’ General Audience, Feb. 5, 2014)
- “In reflecting back, one theme that stands out is the centrality of the Holy Eucharist to my ministry. The Holy Eucharist, which I have had the privilege of celebrating in the Cathedral and in multiple parishes in the archdiocese, has been part of many of the major decisions I have made as Archbishop.” (Archbishop Aquila, Were Not Our Hearts Burning)
These quotes should not be dismissed as cherry-picked: they represent an essential throughline the Church has maintained since the Last Supper, regardless of ecclesial-political bent, and it is her duty to continue to preserve the centrality of the Eucharist until the second coming of Christ. For this reason, the Church prays daily for “all, who holding to the truth, hand on the Catholic and apostolic faith.” (Roman Canon/Eucharistic Prayer 1)
There is a beautiful principle to drive this home that my college pastor taught me: “In what is essential, unity. In what is non-essential, diversity. In all things, charity.” In the Archdiocese of Denver, there are more than 200 locations in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. Each space has its own unique features, histories and constraints. Since the Eucharist is essential to the Catholic Church, each location ought to enter into unity with each other by expressing the prominence of the Eucharist. We do this by bringing Jesus out of timeout and placing him front and center. Yet, how each location underscores the prominence of Jesus is an incredible display of diversity — legitimate and helpful diversity. And still, in all conversations about the liturgy and the Church in which there isn’t also charity, we can turn our concerns into a hardened idol.
At my own parish, Most Precious Blood in Denver, it is a not-uncommon occurrence that newcomers enter and stand in the back by the baptismal font looking for the tabernacle in order to make a genuflection as a show of love, devotion and reverence. Our tabernacle currently resides in a back-side chapel obstructed by a pillar. Exercising his fatherhood, Archbishop Aquila has asked our parish to “move the tabernacle from its current location to a place of prominence in the sanctuary. Specifically, I ask that it be moved, if possible, so that it is an end-point of a central axis stretching from your baptismal font, through the altar, and ending at the tabernacle. This arrangement visually conveys the Christian journey from our incorporation into the Body of Christ at baptism, through our daily communion of Him in the sacrifice of the Mass, and ending with our repose in Him in eternity.”
In a funny way, the Archbishop is asking of me the same thing Coach was: to recenter, to hold in the center what is of utmost importance. To show by its central position that the Eucharist is essential.
To complete this change of location and emphasis, we are also bringing in a tabernacle made out of noble materials and precious metals as well as a crucifix that depicts our own namesake: the Most Precious Blood. Our parish has a mission, given to us by the Archbishop and the Church, to make it known that Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is our center. To learn more about this project including viewing renderings and tracking our progress, or to consider financial support, please visit MPBDenver.org/recentering.