Common Wisdom: Corpus Christi

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is just around the corner from a convenient little hotel where my husband and I stay on trips to New York. Whether we attend an early morning or a noon Mass, we can count on a reverential liturgy and, even during the week, a well-prepared homily. In the past year and a half, though, there is an addition to St. Patrick’s—a red velvet rope buckled across the aisle openings close to the altar, a security device installed shortly after gay protestors, shouting obscenities, insulted the host by stomping on it.

The Blessed Sacrament today is under siege. There are those who, like the protestors, knowing what it is, hate it. There are countless more who, not knowing what it is, treat it casually as a symbol they can take or leave as a quaint, perhaps charming, but ultimately unnecessary antique. Any sort of parish get-together would do as well as the sacrifice of the Eucharist, they think, so long as there were common prayers and a word of homilizing to cheer them through the week. I fear that the countless members of the second group are turning out to be Catholics who have received such faulty or nonexistent catechesis that they no longer recognize the Blessed Sacrament for what it is. Judging by how people act when they are with the Presence, one can but conclude they have lapsed into ignorance. On any given Sunday morning a surprising number fail to genuflect toward the Sacrament before taking a seat. Many communicants say no amen in response to being given the host, nor do they make any gesture of thankfulness or of special reverence. In some parishes it has become customary to stand rather than kneel during the Eucharistic prayer, even at the moment of consecration. Such behavior is only a sample of the current impiety toward the Eucharist—stemming very little from ill will, I think, but a great deal from lack of formation in what the Eucharist is.

I strongly suspect that if a poll were taken in any randomly selected suburban parish, in which the parishioners were asked “What is the Eucharist?”, half might answer that it is a communal meal to promote unity. Far fewer would respond that it is the real body and blood of Christ mysteriously, truly present in the bread and wine, a sacrifice of Christ himself, given to us in the form of bread and wine so that we can really take his life into us as our own. As an example of the present confusion over the Eucharist, a recent convert reported that only a few weeks before she and her Rite of Christian Initiation classmates were to be received into the Church, some people in the class were still talking of the Eucharist as a symbol, apparently ignorant of Christ’s real presence in the bread and wine.

As much as to lack of proper catechesis, the increasing disregard for the Eucharist is surely due to the circumscriptions forced upon it by the latest church architecture. When visiting my parents, we occasionally attend Mass in an Indianapolis parish that is proud of its new church. In the latest mode, this church has inside the front door a large carpeted foyer where smiling, chatty greeters wearing badges encourage hand-shakes and Protestant-style fellowship. There may be holy water fonts somewhere, but if there are, they are difficult to find. The church itself is a large theater in the round arranged to accommodate not participants in worship but spectators at a production. The church does happen to have pews rather than the popular Unitarian metal chairs adopted of late in church remodelings. And there are kneelers; however, no one kneels except after communion. Before Mass people continue the convivial waving and greeting begun in the vestibule. During the Eucharistic prayer they stand, obviously so instructed by their pastor.

Near the altar is a smallish crucifix containing a resurrected Christ fully clothed, reinforcing the impression that almost never does one see in new churches a Good Friday Christ nearly bereft of garments. There is a massive lectern for use by lectors and homilist. There is both a piano and an organ of the new type that sounds more like a keyboard synthesizer than a pipe organ. There are multiple music stands for the de rigueur guitar players. There is an excellent sound system. There are missalettes and Glory and Praise books, all containing the full array of tired, babyfied hymns of the 1960s and ’70s. In short, this church has everything that new Catholic churches have in America.

But it has no visible tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament. Not only is there no tabernacle anywhere near the altar, but there is no side chapel for the Sacrament. Surely the Sacrament is in the church somewhere; yet after several visits to the church, we still have not found it. One almost dreads news of another church remodeling. The chances are that the Blessed Sacrament, if not sidelined, will be removed from sight of the people altogether. Another tinkering effort to bring the “people of God” together can be another trial for the souls of the faithful. The irreverent atmosphere of these new carpeted theaters is depressing, not uplifting, for in all this electronic show there is a distinct downplaying of the Eucharist, a denial of the primary reality of our faith.

Francois Mauriac, French man of letters, once wrote in a book of meditations called Holy Thursday, “The temples of those who deny the Real Presence are like corpses. The Lord was taken away and we do not know where they have laid Him. We can feel the gloominess of those churches, and especially of those which were formerly Catholic. Now, they resemble tombs sealed upon nothingness. A Catholic church remains open, like the Heart forever open.”

Perhaps because at St. Patrick’s the Blessed Sacrament has been so particularly besieged, it is at St. Patrick’s that devotion to the Sacrament is notably profound. I was last at St. Patrick’s the day after the Rodney King verdict. With riots and murder in Los Angeles and other cities, New Yorkers were anxious. The faithful in St. Patrick’s were sober and prayerful that day. It was also First Friday, and there was continual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the Lady Chapel behind the high altar. After the noon Mass, I went back to the chapel for some private devotion. I could not but be distracted and fascinated, however, by the prayerfulness of the worshippers. A steady stream of faithful came in and out to pray, grandmothers, young mothers with children, businessmen, shoppers with Saks bags, tourists with cameras. I especially noted one young man—a handsome fellow of college age, dressed in ordinary jeans, plaid shirt, and athletic shoes. When he reached his pew, he not only knelt on both knees toward the host in the monstrance, but he leaned forward in a low bow and touched his forehead to the floor. Such devotion, I thought, from one young man, as other young people are tearing up cities. This young Alyosha understands the centrality of the Eucharist, knowing, as Mauriac wrote, that “the table is always set, the Bread always offered,” and that “the Christian makes his way to eternity from Communion to Communion. At each stage in the journey, Christ is waiting for him in order that he may renew his strength and take heart again.”

Christ proclaimed himself as the Bread of Life, saying that “anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” What he preached was a stumbling block for some, as it has been ever after. He knew that. Even so, when the Jews protested, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”, he insisted with absolute solemnity that “if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.”

What Christ offered the unbelievers—what they could not or did not want to understand—was a mysterious, unbloody means for the human to unite with the divine lover, actually to become one with the divine lover without being killed by him. Indeed, the opposite of being killed: to be given new life. My young Alyosha, like the poets, understands what the unbelievers did not. It is the nature of the human lover to desire to be one with the being he loves and who loves him—and in the Eucharist he can be. Not even marriage satisfies the desire of humans to unite with the beloved. Only Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist accomplishes what the heart desires. “Thus,” as Mauriac said, “the foolish demand of human desire is at once purified and satisfied.”

If one accepts the Eucharist as the essential reality—which one inescapably must if the Eucharist is what Christ told us it is—then any stumbling blocks disappear. As Mauriac wrote, “The Eucharist is what is most real in the world. This is why one must accept It without reservation. He who once pronounces this acceptance with his whole heart and his whole spirit will no longer find in the Host a stumbling block to faith but, on the contrary, the very food of that faith.”

So great a saint as Thomas Aquinas was blessed with a towering faith in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. At the end of his life, when he received the Lord’s body for the last time in the Viaticum—that most aptly named food that we take with us on the final stage of our via, our journey—St. Thomas said, in Mauriac’s translation, “I receive Thee, Price of our Redemption, Viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of whom I have studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached, and taught. Never have I said aught against Thee; if I have done so, it was through ignorance and I do not persist in my intention, and if I have done anything ill, I leave the whole to the correction of the Roman Church. In that obedience I depart from this life.”

There is in Cincinnati a large Catholic hospital with a reputation for excellent care and uncommon attention to patients. I believe the cause is more than simply benevolent motives on the part of the staff. Babies, preborn and newborn, are safe there. So are old people and the terminally ill, for all life is sacred under that roof. In the heart of the hospital, enclosed in a tabernacle in a chapel on the seventh floor, the Blessed Sacrament lives. The Presence animates the smallest activity of every day in the hospital. No more could it be removed without changing the character of the hospital than it can be removed from a church without changing the church into something other than a church. As its name suggests, the hospital is a haven for guests—for the patients who are guests and for Christ who is honored beyond all guests.

The Sacrament that dwells in the tabernacle of the church and in the tabernacle of the hospital chapel beats as the heart of all creation. Each morning the priest, through the power of the Holy Spirit, sacrifices Christ on the altar and brings him to us as living food. As we leave the church, we take him with us into the world.

I am reminded of that infinite expansion of the divine love in the Blessed Sacrament especially now, in late June, season of Corpus Christi celebration, when the tiny blue-gray gnatcatcher at our farm has left her beautiful lichen-glazed nest; when the bluebirds are still nesting; when honeysuckle tumbles over fenceposts in fragrant confusion; when bees drunk on nectar fall in a stupor from purple thistles; when raspberries at wood’s edge ripen daily from red to blue-black sweetness. Hawks, noble creatures, soar in gladness in the high wind drafts along the ridge. A spider hauling her fat white egg sac speeds through the new-mown grass, obeying her heavenly order to be fruitful and multiply. At high noon church bells peal across the river; it is the moment of Angelus. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. With Mary and the angels, with all creation, we cry amen.


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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