By Very Rev. Benedict Nwachukwu-Udaku, VF
Dear friends: In the last year or two, the spiritual mantra of Bishop Alberto Rojas, which calls us “to love Jesus in the Eucharist and in one another,” has helped to deepen my daily appreciation of the Holy Eucharist. This catechesis on the Eucharist is a fruit of my love for the sacrament of our altars and a concrete response to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s invitation to a Eucharistic Revival in their pastoral letter, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” This timely letter was written to encourage priests, religious and lay faithful to fall in love once again with the Eucharist.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the spiritual wellbeing of the people of God as many of our churches were closed for fear of spreading the virus. The theme of the bishops’ catechesis is a summons to all pastors and parishes. The bishops write, “As we continue to welcome people back to the communal celebration of the Mass, it must be acknowledged that no document can exhaust the mystery of the gift of the Eucharist. Nevertheless, at various times, it is desirable to reflect on certain facets of the mystery that are relevant to contemporary issues and challenges that help us to appreciate more deeply the gift of grace that has been given to us. At this particular moment for the Church in the United States, with its many challenges, we would like to reflect on Christ’s gift of Himself in the Eucharist and our response to that gift” (“The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” p. 7).
The Angelic Doctor St. Thomas Aquinas saw the Eucharist as alimentum espirituale (spiritual food). The Eucharist is our very sustenance, as Jesus reminded us, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you (John 6:53). In his appreciation of the Eucharist as alimentum espirituale, current “Magnificat” editor Father Sebastian White, O.P., writes, “Of all the possible ways our Lord could have chosen to remain with us and fill us with his love, he did so not in a way that requires special connections or a unique skill set, but under the aspect of food – an inescapable human need; to ignore it is to perish. It is also universal: all people must eat. Though it is possible to pay someone to cook for us ... no one, no matter how rich or powerful, can hire someone to eat for him. It’s a human activity that can’t be outsourced but must be done personally. On the other hand, ‘unimportant’ and ordinary people also must eat. No one is ‘not good enough’ to eat. In the Eucharist, Jesus shows that he loves us and will satisfy all who hunger and thirst for salvation” (“Magnificat,” Holy Week 2023, Vol. 25, No. 2, p. 3-4).
On our journey towards eternal life, Christ nourishes us with his very self. Once, after a conversation with someone who no longer saw the point of going to daily Mass, Servant of God Dorothy Day reflected, “We go eat of this fruit of the tree of life because Jesus told us to ... He took upon himself our humanity that we might share in his divinity. We are nourished by his flesh that we may grow to be other Christs. I believe this literally, just as I believe the child is nourished by the milk from his mother’s breast” (Robert Ellsberg (ed), “The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day,” 2011, p. 483).
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council presented the Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life” (“Lumen Gentium,” 11; CCC 1324). It is the “sacrament of sacraments” (CCC, 1211). In and through the Eucharist, we find the springs of grace for the entire Christian life and can experience a foretaste of eternal life and the heavenly liturgy.
In this catechesis, we shall explore the meaning of the Holy Eucharist from a deep spiritual perspective by asking ourselves whether we truly understand the underlying spiritual logic behind the institution of this Sacrament. We shall explore the works of the Church Fathers and the research of renowned theologians to discover why the Holy Eucharist is a point of controversy between the Catholic Church and other ecclesial communities. These spiritual and theological considerations will culminate in a discussion on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
To see the Eucharist as a sacrifice will undoubtedly encourage a deeper appreciation of this sacrament of the altar and what it means to be “broken” and to be “given.” This act of offering oneself for the wellbeing of others is seen in the life of Jesus, which culminated with his death on the Cross and was perfected in the institution of the Holy Eucharist (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19). The words spoken when the Holy Eucharist is instituted offer a refreshing insight. When the priest says, “This is my body, which is given for you” and “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19), the Eucharist is presented as the sacrament of the wounded healer (Isaiah 53:5), a sacrament of immolation (Jeremiah 31:31-34), a sacrificial given (John 6:51), and a sacrament that gives a promise of life and eternal salvation (John 6:53).
St. John Mary Vianney said, “There is nothing so great as the Eucharist. If God had something more precious, he would have given it to us.” In the Eucharist, we celebrate the coming together of time and eternity, revere the communion between God and man, and contemplate the union between Christ and his bride, the Church. Therefore, we appreciate the words priests recite on every Holy Thursday at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper: “For he is the true and eternal Priest, who instituted the pattern of an everlasting sacrifice and was the first to offer himself as the saving Victim, commanding us to make this offering as his memorial. As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us, we are made strong, and, as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us, we are washed clean.” These words speak to us of the Mass as a re-presentation of Christ’s unique sacrifice on the Cross, the reception of Christ truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the marvelous effects of communion in those who receive this gift.
Finally, from a pastoral viewpoint, we shall review the actions of the priest at the altar during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, reexamine the role of the lay faithful at Holy Mass, and review the words, gestures and dispositions that encourage active participation at every celebration of this most sublime sacrament. In this way, we offer our response to this sublime gift of the Eucharist in line with how the bishops have recommended us to respond. In praise of the Holy Eucharist, St. John Chrysostom wrote that when the Eucharist is being celebrated, the sanctuary is filled with countless angels who adore the divine victim immolated on the altar.
St. Thomas Aquinas alluded to the idea that the celebration of the Holy Eucharist is as valuable as the death of Jesus on the cross. Thus, through the Holy Eucharist the Church makes present the work that Jesus started in Bethlehem, continued in the Cenacle, completed at Calvary, then immortalized through the sacrifice of the Mass. The Holy Eucharist is Jesus born anew on the altar as in Bethlehem (the house of Bread). The Eucharist is Jesus, the Good Master, teaching the multitude through the mouth of his priests, visiting the sick, curing the lame, consoling the dying, converting the sinner. It is Jesus, who pardoned the sinful Mary Magdalene (John 8:11), who raised Lazarus to life (John 11:43), and who crowned the faith of the centurion (Matthew 8:10).
St. Damien of Molokai (1840-1889), who dedicated his priestly life in service to the lepers in the desolate Kalaupapa Peninsula, testified how the daily celebration of the Holy Mass and reception of Holy Communion sustained him in the colony, which was often called a “living graveyard.” For the holy man of Molokai, “The Blessed Sacrament is indeed the stimulus for us all, for me as it should be for you, to forsake all worldly ambitions. Without the constant presence of our Divine Master upon the altar in my poor chapels, I never could have persevered casting my lot with the lepers of Molokai, the foreseen consequences of which begins now to appear on my skin, and is felt throughout the body. The Holy Communion being the daily bread of a priest, I feel myself happy, well pleased, and resigned in the rather exceptional circumstance in which it has pleased Divine Providence to put me” (Damien of Molokai to Rev. H.B. Chapman, August 26, 1886).
To be continued!
Father Benedict Nwachukwu-Udaku, VF, is Pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Rancho Cucamonga and the Vicar Forane of the Diocese’s West End Vicariate.