Saturday, June 1, 2013
Corpus Christi: The Big Questions
On Wednesday I told the schoolchildren about the homily the Pope gave last Sunday in an ordinary parish. The students seemed to enjoy it, though I’m not sure if they realized just how astonishing it is to have a Pope saying “Hands up!”, “Okay!” and “Louder!”
The Pope’s homily was about the Trinity, of course, since it was Trinity Sunday. Towards the end, he asked the children what Jesus does. After one of them said that Jesus walks with us, the Pope asked “What does he do when he walks with us?” and added “This is a tough one—whoever gets it wins the Derby!”
It is a tough question—and certainly you should win a prize if you know that he was talking about a big Italian soccer game and not an American horserace!
But let’s go back to the important question. What does Jesus do when he walks with us? (I won’t shout “louder” at you—just think about it for a moment.)
The children had good answers for the Pope. One said, “He helps us.” Another said “he leads us,” to which the Holy Father responded “very good.”
Then the Pope added that Jesus also gives us the strength to work and sustains us in difficulty—“even with our homework”!
“He supports us, he helps us, he leads us, and he sustains us.”
“There it is!” the Pope exclaimed, “Jesus is always with us. Okay. But listen, Jesus gives us strength. How does he give us strength? You know how! Louder, I can’t hear you!
“In Communion he gives us strength, he really helps us with strength. He comes to us. But when you say, “he gives us Communion,” does a piece of bread make you so strong? Isn’t it bread? Is it bread? Or isn’t it bread? It seems to be bread. But it really isn’t bread.”
By this point my head was spinning! But Pope Francis sure had my attention. Finally he said, “What is it? It is the Body of Jesus. Jesus comes into our hearts.”
This somewhat bewildering homily was delivered to children, but its message is for all of us on this great feast of Corpus Christi. Each of us must answer the Pope’s questions in the silence of our hearts. Is it bread? Or isn’t it bread?
More profoundly, do we believe like eager children that we receive the Body of Jesus in Holy Communion? Does the Eucharist bring us strength—real strength in every difficulty and trial, from homework to chemotherapy?
The readings today are somewhat more historical than theological. Obviously the Eucharist is prefigured in the encounter between Melchizedek—the priest who came out of nowhere—and Abram, soon to be Abraham, our father in faith.
In the second reading, St. Paul simply recounts the Church’s tradition, and reminds us that the Eucharist is founded on the death of Christ and anticipates his return in glory.
The Gospel, of course, is a beautiful reminder of the abundance of grace we receive in Holy Communion, of the great multitude nourished by the Lord each Sunday, and of the way Jesus calls his disciples to feed the hungry both spiritually and materially. The miracle of the loaves and fishes also prefigures the Last Supper, not to mention the breaking of bread that allowed the disciples on the road to Emmaus to recognize their risen Lord.
Any of these passages could serve as the foundation for a fine homily. But they do not challenge us personally the way the Pope challenges us with his direct questions. And many Catholics today need that direct challenge.
A number of years ago I saw a survey of young American Catholics who said that they preferred a personal faith to the institutional Church.
That sounded great to me. If you prefer the institutional Church to personal faith, you are in deep trouble!
Sadly, things went downhill from there. These young adults who say they believe, don’t believe much in going to Mass. 64 per cent of them say you can be a good Catholic without going to Mass.
At the same time, they say they believe strongly in what the survey calls “core Christian beliefs.” Well, I have news for them: the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and the saving power of the Mass, is a core Christian belief for Catholics.
Unless someone asked you lately to take a survey, the Pope’s questions might be the first time in a while that you’ve thought about what you believe about the Eucharist. But you’ve probably answered the question without words. And actions speak louder than words…
You’ve answered “I believe” by faithfully attending Mass, missing the Sunday celebration only for reasons such as sickness, necessary travel, or other serious circumstances, and putting up with the stress of getting the whole family out the door each week. You’ve answered “not quite sure” if Mass attendance is hit and miss.
You’ve answered “Jesus comes into our hearts” if you abstain from receiving Holy Communion in the circumstances spelled out in Church teaching and law. You’ve answered “well….” if you receive when conscious of serious sin that you haven’t confessed or if you receive paying no attention to what you’re doing.
We answer “it is the Body of Jesus” when we speak and act reverently in church, where the Real Presence in the Tabernacle invites us to worship. We answer “maybe yes, maybe no” when we treat the church like an ordinary meeting hall.
What if you’re not completely sure what you believe about Christ’s Body and Blood? The answer is simple enough: act as though you have faith and the faith you have will increase. Don’t miss Mass, don’t receive Communion when you shouldn’t, and show reverence for the Real Presence—in time, your belief will deepen.
And there’s always a shortcut to deeper faith: prepare for Mass and Holy Communion with either the traditional prayers for this purpose or by a fervent personal prayer while waiting to receive. I make this promise: five minutes of preparation before Mass or five minutes of thanksgiving afterwards will double your awareness of Christ in the Eucharist.
A humble faith and a contrite heart are enough to allow the Sacrament to bear its fruits in our lives. The first fruit, of course, is intimacy with Christ, who is the source of the strength we need in illness, disappointments, bereavement, anxiety and every other kind of trial. As the Catechism says, “Life in Christ has its foundation in the Eucharistic banquet.” 
Other fruits that come from the worthy reception of Holy Communion are forgiveness from venial sin, strength to resist temptation, unity with the Church and other Christians, and commitment to charity, especially towards the poor.
Those who receive the Eucharist worthily are never far from Jesus. As the Holy Father said last week, “He supports us, he helps us, he leads us, and he sustains us.”
Even with our homework.