In his column in the April 30 issue of The Leaven, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann explained that he would be lifting the dispensation from Sunday Mass, in place since the onset of the pandemic, on Corpus Christi Sunday, June 6.
But in that column, he also emphasized the importance of gathering in person to worship if at all possible. What is so special about worshiping together in physical community? And why is receiving the Eucharist considered so important to Catholics?
For these questions and more, The Leaven turns once again to archdiocesan liturgist Michael Podrebarac.
Q. Many Catholics have had to make do with livestream Masses for much of the past year. What have they been missing out on?
A. They have had to miss out on the essential part of coming together as a community, a congregation of believers, to offer along with the priest the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Without being able to be present, they were unable to take part in the eucharistic sacrifice, which can only be offered in person. This is why we should always keep in prayer and affection those who, pandemic or not, can no longer attend Mass in person due to illness or age.
Q. Then, of course, they have been missing out on reception of the Eucharist. Could you explain — as if to a nonbeliever — the origin of the Eucharist and why it is central to the Mass?
A. It’s actually pretty simple. Jesus indicated (John 6) that he would give us his body to eat and his blood to drink. Even when some of his listeners protested his words, he did not back down. On Holy Thursday, he established the eucharistic sacrifice of his body and blood at the Last Supper, and offered himself the next day on the cross. The Mass is the commemoration of this sacrifice, and we participate in it through holy Communion.
Q. During the consecration, the priest prays “do this in memory of me.” Is the Eucharist simply remembering Jesus, then?
A. No, it is much more than simply remembering. What we are “doing” is what he commanded us to do, to offer his body and blood for our salvation, and then to receive him in holy Communion. Whenever we do what he commanded, he is with us and renews his sacrifice for his church. The Greek word used for this, “anamnesis,” means to remember something in such a way as to make it present with us. It is the same kind of “remembering” the Jewish people have done when gathering for the Passover year after year. They believe God is made present in the Passover.
Q. Then the Eucharist is actually essential — and unique — to our faith, correct? Don’t some Protestant denominations also celebrate what they call the Lord’s Supper in their services?
A. While our Protestant brothers and sisters also lovingly commemorate the Lord’s Supper, what they do is similar but not exactly the same as what we do in the Eucharist. We profess that Jesus is present, truly and substantially, in the elements after they are consecrated, and that, under the appearance of bread and wine, Jesus’ body and blood are offered to the Father.
Our Protestant brothers and sisters have varying degrees of this belief in their own understanding of what they may even call the Eucharist, but they do not hold the same belief in Our Lord’s presence, nor the presence of his sacrifice, that we do.
Ultimately, for those who profess the fullness of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” faith of the ancient church, Jesus is not merely spiritually or symbolically present. He is substantially and bodily present. The substance of his body and blood replaces the substance of the bread and wine. If this were not true, then we’d be worshiping mere bread and wine when we genuflect before the Eucharist, and this would be idolatry!
Q. Where does the Eucharist fit into our obligation to attend Mass? Are we required to receive the Eucharist? Does Mass only “count” if we do?
A. The church requires us to attend Mass each Sunday and holy day of obligation because it understands that this is the only way we can receive the sanctifying grace that the Eucharist affords us. Only those who are impeded because of situations beyond their control are dispensed from this obligation.
We are required to receive holy Communion at Mass at least once each year, during the Easter season. But attending Mass and receiving Communion only out of obligation misses the point. If any of us knew that Jesus had arrived again on earth in his resurrected body, which of us would not go to wherever he was, to be in his presence?
But Jesus really does “arrive” on earth, again and again, in every one of our parish churches, under the appearance of the consecrated bread and wine in the Eucharist.
I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be with Jesus as closely as possible if he were to return to earth. Nor can I understand why anyone would choose anything less than being in his bodily presence at Mass. But sadly, many do, and we must do whatever we can to help them understand what they’re really missing out on.
Q. What is the best way to receive the Eucharist?
A. With faith, intention and integrity. I have to be sure that I am living in true unity with God and my neighbor. If that unity is slightly compromised, I can confess my sins at the beginning of Mass, and these compromises are healed. But if my unity with God is ruptured because of serious sin, then I need to amend this, calmly and confidently, in the sacrament of reconciliation, before receiving the Eucharist.
But we must be clear: Holy Communion is not about being worthy. Even with my best intentions, I’m simply not worthy. The Eucharist is a gift, and so the best I can do is to conscientiously be in union with God, neighbor and the church. Communion has everything to do with unity. I am not able to receive this sign of unity if unity does not exist. This is why I must strive to possess the unity with God, neighbor and the church that receiving the Eucharist requires.
Q. It’s been a long time since I’ve studied any of this. Where can I learn more about the Eucharist?
A. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially paragraphs 1322-1419) and in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially questions 271-294). Both of these are available online at the website of the Holy See (www.vatican.va) in Rome. The Compendium may be the best place to start, since it is presented in a Q&A format.