Rediscovering Eucharistic amazement

George Weigel

In his 2003 encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church from the Eucharist), Pope St. John Paul II invited Catholics to regain a sense of “Eucharistic amazement.” Being “amazed” by the Eucharist is probably not all that common these days. But Holy Mass should be all amazement, all the time. For in the celebration of the Eucharist, John Paul wrote, our time is linked to the time of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, because the Eucharist has a “truly enormous ‘capacity,’ which embraces all of history as the recipient of the grace of the redemption.” In a spirit of eucharistic amazement, we live history as His-story: God’s story.

As bishops, pastors, and catechists use this moment of eucharistic fasting to rekindle a sense of eucharistic amazement in the Church, they can put a recent “response” from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to good use. That August 6 responsum, personally approved by Pope Francis, had to do with Baptism. It also teaches a lesson applicable to the Eucharist.

The question the Congregation had to answer was whether Baptism is validly conferred by saying “In the name of the father and mother, the godfather and godmother, the family, the friends, and in the name of the community, we baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The answer was “No.” Why? Because the ancient formula, “I baptize you….” expresses the bedrock truth the Second Vatican Council inscribed in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “When anyone baptizes, it is Christ himself who baptizes.” To speak of “we” baptizing is to suggest that the Church invents the sacraments rather than her being created by the sacraments. And that, to cite an image from Father Robert Imbelli, is to decapitate the Body of Christ.

Christ is the principle actor in the sacramental drama of Baptism. Christ acts through the baptizer, to be sure. But it really is Christ who acts. Otherwise, Baptism would be merely a welcoming rite rather than the radical reconfiguration of a person to Christ as a member of his Mystical Body, the Church.

The same principle applies to the Eucharist: If Christ is not the principal actor in the celebration of the Eucharist, then the Mass is a social ritual, the community’s celebration of itself.

Vatican II was quite explicit about the Christ-centered reality of the sacraments, so  appeals to the Council to support aberrations like “We baptize you….” falsify the Council. As the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states, “Just as Christ was sent by the Father so he also sent the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit…so that they might preach the Gospel….and proclaim that the Son of God by his death and resurrection had freed us from the power of Satan, and from death, and brought us into the Kingdom of his Father. But he also willed that the work of salvation that they preached should be [manifest] through the sacrifice and the sacraments….[Thus] Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations….[which] are performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members.”

How many Catholics understand that we are called to the weekly celebration of the Eucharist so that, in union with Christ the Head of the Body, we might offer ourselves to the Father along with the eucharistic Christ who is offered? How many Catholics grasp that, at Mass, Christ, the Head of the Body, is acting through us, the members of that Body, as well as through the ordained priest who leads us in worship? How many of us realize that, in union with the Head who baptizes and the Head who is really present in the scriptural Word of God and the consecrated bread and wine, we continue Christ’s mission in the world, for which we are commissioned in Baptism and nourished by the Eucharist?

This is, in a word, amazing. So is the truth that the Eucharistic body of Christ that nourishes us at Mass is Christ’s risen and glorified body, in which, John Paul wrote, “we digest, as it were, the ‘secret’ of the resurrection” and are prepared, here and now, for the glorious destiny that awaits us once, through death, we pass over into the Kingdom.

These are basic truths the Church must hear. They should be preached and taught vigorously, and especially now. If they are, the “Sunday normal” to come may be better than the “Sunday normal” that was.

COMING UP: Rediscovering the reality of the Eucharist

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Thinking out loud about a return to “Sunday normal,” a veteran pastor recently told me that he thought it would take one year for each month of lockdown/quarantine/ shelter-at-home for Mass attendance to return to where it was in February 2020. I said I hoped that people’s hunger for the Eucharist would bring them back more quickly, once they concluded that it was reasonably safe, for themselves and others, to do so. But whether “Sunday normal” returns this year or next year, the “Sunday normal” of February 2020 isn’t something for which we should easily settle. Because “Sunday normal” isn’t what it should be. This extended moment of Eucharistic fasting may be a providential moment to do something about that.

Why isn’t pre-pandemic “Sunday normal” the norm to which we should aspire? Because too few Catholics take the Sunday Eucharist seriously enough to participate in it weekly. And because too few Catholics understand just what the Eucharist is.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is a maxim that applies beyond politics. Applied to the Church, it suggests that this in-between time is a privileged time to re-catechize (or in some cases, catechize) the Church in the U.S. on the full, amazing, supernatural meaning of the Eucharist. If bishops and pastors turn their homiletic attention to that over the next weeks and months, re-enforcing with e-mailed catechetical materials what they say from the pulpit to those in church and those participating through live-streaming, crisis may be transformed into opportunity, such that the new “Sunday normal” is something better than the old.

A good way to jolt a diocese or a parish into paying attention on this subject is to cite a marvelous passage from a 1955 letter of Flannery O’Connor’s, describing a New York dinner party at which the aspiring young writer was introduced to the already-successful author Mary McCarthy:

“I was once…taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater…She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say….Well, toward morning the conversation turned to the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of, but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

How many Catholics today could make such a dramatic declaration that the Eucharist is what the Lord Jesus said it is: his very body and blood, through which we enter into communion with the Second Person of the Trinity? How many Catholics would be shaken by what an evangelical Protestant once said to a Catholic friend: “If I really believed, like you say you do, that Christ himself is in that tabernacle, I’d be crawling up the aisle on my hands and knees.” How many Catholics would be able to explain to that evangelical brother that, while the Eucharist is indeed what Christ said of it and to believe that is to be awe-struck, the Lord Jesus also invites us at Mass to a personal intimacy with him in which awe is transformed into love?

Modern Catholic theology has done important work on the meaning of symbols, which are not just signs conveying a message (“Stop that car here.”). Rather, symbols are more complex realities that, in various ways, embody what they communicate – like a wedding ring or a national flag. The dumbing down of the theology of symbols has, however, led to the unhappy situation in which perhaps a majority of Catholics do not believe that the Eucharist is what the Lord Jesus said he was giving us: himself, fully and unambiguously.

Believing that, Catholics would attend Sunday Mass in droves. Teaching the truth of the Eucharist is thus a task for this moment, turning plague time into a time of renewed faith in the wonder of what we are offered in holy communion.