He is everywhere, of course. There would be no anywhere without him. The Trinity dwells within the graced person, and the faithful can say with Paul, I live now, not I, but Christ lives within me. In a sense we can find him in one another. But sacramentally, under the appearance of bread, Jesus is present, body and blood, soul and divinity, in the tabernacle of every Catholic church.
When she was being drawn to the faith, Edith Stein went into a Catholic church and was fascinated by the sight of people coming and going, kneeling for a time in silent prayer and then leaving. Making a visit, in the phrase; coming to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. To Stein it was a revelation. Later, the future saint would spend hours before the tabernacle during Holy Week at the Benedictine abbey at Beuron. In many conversions, it seems to be an actual grace of great significance for a person to realize that a Catholic Church is never empty. Jesus is sacramentally present there.
Ralph Waldo Emerson liked to sit in the old cathedral in Baltimore, sensing that the place was different. The architecture would soothe even the transcendentalist breast, of course. And he liked the fact that the sermon wasn’t the main attraction. Did he sense what was? Wallace Stevens developed the habit of sitting in Catholic churches. In the hospital, as he was dying, he became a Catholic. Perhaps something happened as he sat in the presence of Jesus.
The Curé d’Ars spent hours in front of the tabernacle. “What do you do?” “I look at Jesus and Jesus looks at me.”
How easily we lose the sense of the wonderful, of the miraculous. One tries to bring back the awe of first communion. My son David made his first communion in Rome, and the camera caught his eyes widened in wondering awe. A way of recovering that pristine awareness is to imagine that the Mass we are about to attend is the last that will be offered for a century or that it has been a century since people have had an opportunity to go to Mass, to hear the measured words spoken by the priest, to bow at the words of consecration. Would you not think yourself unaccountably blessed that, among the billions of human beings, you are here, you will receive the Body and Blood of the Lord? How could it not be the high point of your life?
But that is not how it is. The Mass is being said everywhere, always, somewhere right now, thousands of times a day all over the world, day after day. One need only show up. Daily communion becomes a quotidian event. The divine abundance, the almost vulgar availability of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar, his continued presence in churches where few come to visit — what does it mean?
Like many Protestant Americans, Henry James felt free to visit Catholic churches in Europe. James’s The Altar of the Dead is remarkable for what it shows of his knowledge, as well as his ignorance, of Catholicism. But it fascinated him. Paul Fusell sees in James the perfect specimen of the American Protestant, attracted and repelled by the old religion. The Bröntes were similarly drawn to the churches of Brussels. Charlotte based Villette and The Professor on their Belgian experiences, but one can find traces of the memory in the novels the sisters set in England.
The attraction is obvious. The liturgies of some of our separated brethren have retained a rare communion service, but it is an odd event, often featuring grape juice. A mere vestige, a marker of what has been lost by the separation from Rome, from communion in the full sense of the term. Christ’s promise to be with the Church until the end of time is particularly fulfilled in the Eucharist.
Vatican II, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, says this: “To accomplish so great a work Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass not only in the person of his minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,’ but especially in the Eucharistic species.” But there is no better refresher course on the Eucharist than the pages devoted to it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
By the consecration the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is brought about. Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity. [n. 1413]
The summary of the teaching comes from John’s Gospel. “Jesus said: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; . . . he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and . . . abides in me and I in him.” The Eucharist is described as the heart and summit of the Church’s life. The basic structure of the eucharistic celebration is given: the proclamation of the Word of God, the consecration of bread and wine, participation in the liturgical banquet. “These elements constitute one single act of worship.” [n. 1408]
The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, of the work of salvation accomplished by his life, death, and resurrection. The Eucharist is a sacrifice, offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead. One must be in a state of grace to receive communion.
Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ increases the communicant’s union with the Lord, forgives his venial sins, and preserves him from grave sins. Since receiving this sacrament strengthens the bonds of charity between the communicant and Christ, it also reinforces the unity of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. [n. 1416]
One reads that large numbers of Catholics do not understand or accept the teaching of the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Can it be that the pews are filled with people who don’t know what they are doing? I have heard homilies on the real presence so tentative it is unlikely they would enlighten or strengthen the faith. But copies of the Catechism are available in bookshops everywhere, even in greeting card shops. Maybe tongue-tied pastors ought to buy a copy for every parishioner. What will turn things around is the growing practice of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. At Notre Dame, a group of undergraduates has established this practice in one of the hall chapels, supplementing the Friday afternoon Eucharistic adoration in Sacred Heart Basilica.
It may well be that liturgical changes, scheduled and unscheduled, have drained the Mass of its awe and reverence. My wife, never easy prey to nostalgia, recently attended a Tridentine Mass and was reminded what it felt like to pray in church. Romper room music and bushels of bonhomie don’t prepare one to receive Jesus in the sacrament, delivered with a mindless smile by an extraordinary eucharistic minister who might as well be offering cheese samples at the supermarket. With so little sense of the real presence being exhibited during the sanctuary mob scene that precedes communion, it is perhaps less surprising that belief has seeped away.
Years ago I attended a meeting of Catholics and humanists at America House in New York. Among the humanists were such ferocious types as Paul Blanshard and Sidney Hook. As if to underscore the chasm between rationalists like himself and Catholics, Blanshard taunted us that we believe in miracles! And not just rare ones, but the constant, incessant miracle whereby bread is changed into the body and blood of Christ. There were those among us who sought to cushion this doctrine, perhaps hoping to make it palatable to those who from the beginning have turned away from this difficult doctrine. The Eucharist is more than a miracle; it is God’s presence among us under the appearance of bread and wine. We should not need a Paul Blanshard to remind us how extraordinary our faith is.
The great symbol of Christian culture is the cathedral, constructed for the celebration of the Mass and to house the sacramental Lord. In the 12th century, William Durandus wrote a treatise on the Church, on churches, on the sacraments and ornaments. It is an uplifting, allegorical account of liturgical architecture. “The arrangement of a material church resembleth that of the human body: The chancle, of place where the altar is, representeth the head; the transepts, the hands and arms; and the remainder — towards the west — the rest of the body.”
A glance at the layout of a monastery makes it clear that the church is the heart of the community, where the work of God is done, Mass said, and the office sung. Towns grew up around the church, and eventually cities around the cathedral, the bishop’s seat. It was the center of the community, and no effort was spared to make the house of God the most beautiful and lavish edifice in the community. Windows, music, decoration, vestments, missals, and office books — everything underscored the awesome reality that here Jesus made himself sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine.
From the beginning, not only is the deed done but pondered, anticipated, and reflected on. Each of the Fathers writes of the Eucharist, interpreting the scriptural passages that convey the doctrine and guide the worship of the Church. In the Enchiridion Theologicum, an anthology made up of passages from St. Augustine, the chapter devoted to the Eucharist draws on expositions of the psalms, the Confessions, letters, and commentaries on the Gospel, suggesting how irresistibly Augustine was drawn to reflection on this doctrine.
The treatise on the Eucharist found in the Summa Theologiae, 3, 73-83 is an acquired taste. One unfamiliar with the austere beauty of medieval theology might be put off by the genre that poses a question, suggests an answer and various reasons for the answer, and then, often by appeal to a scriptural authority, commends the opposite answer. This answer is defended in the body of the article, after which the arguments for its opposite are considered. The natural dialectic of the mind is pursued, but the aim is truth, not edification, and the reader in quest of the latter will feel cheated. Of course, he will be delighted to learn that Thomas Aquinas is also the poet of the Eucharist.
The hymns that Thomas composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi came to play a role that goes far beyond the Mass and Office. Those who were raised on the practice of benediction of the Blessed Sacrament will remember the hymns that provided a metric setting for the great truths of the mysterium fidei: Tantum ergo Sacramentum/Veneremur cernui. . . . The very words bring back the smell of incense, the glitter of candles, the gold monstrance in which the Host was adored and with which the congregation was solemnly blessed by the priest.
Is it any wonder that the fourth and final book of The Imitation of Christ, which has been called the most widely read and best-loved religious book in the world, is devoted to the Eucharist? No special circumstances are required to explain this pride of place, but it may not be fanciful to recall an episode involving the religious community to which its author, Thomas à Kempis, belonged. In 1422, the city in which the community was located, Utrecht, refused to accept the bishop appointed by the Pope, and it was put under interdict. The sacraments, save in cases of emergency, were withheld from the people. The people demanded that the clergy either administer the sacraments or get out of town. “The Order to which Thomas belonged,” Fr. Harold Gardner writes, “chose exile rather than disobedience to the Pope, and moved, on June 11, 1429, to the monastery of Lunenkerk near Harlingen.” Thomas’s brother, also a member of the community, sickened and died as the result of the move, a minor martyr perhaps. The interdiction was just, but it must have brought home to Thomas what a great deprivation the loss of the sacraments entailed. Life without the sacraments, life without the Eucharist. What kind of life was that?
Thomas à Kempis was likely a daily communicant, but if the Imitation is any guide, he never got used to it. It remained a marvel. Mere routine in its regard was dangerous:
But You, my Lord God, my Lord Jesus Christ, God and man, you are wholly present in the Sacrament of the Altar, where the fruit of everlasting salvation is plentifully obtained, as often as you are worthily and devoutly received. But if that is to be done fruitfully, there can be no levity, no curiosity or sensuality, but only steadfast faith, devout hope, and pure charity.
The culture and civilization that were produced by the Eucharist could fade away, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger suggested in The Salt of the Earth. If we are not fervent custodians of it, it could migrate elsewhere. Christopher Cardinal Schönborn, in an essay in Catholic Dossier, drew attention to a strange asymmetry apparent in Europe. Cathedrals, he remarked, have become museums while museums look more and more like cathedrals. Tourists pass through the great churches, murmur over the glass and the towering pillars, and thumb through their guidebooks, as if only the past were present there. Elsewhere, in museums, the rituals of postmodernity are observed.
The thought experiment — that the Mass we are attending is the last one that will be said for a century, the only one we will ever hear — might not remain an exercise of the imagination. What if, for whatever reason — a shortage of priests, waning interest, persecution — the tabernacles were empty, the church doors locked? What if the sacraments were not available whenever we wanted or needed them?
Graham Greene, in The Power and the Glory, described such a wasteland as it existed south of our border not many decades ago. The Church in Mexico was persecuted; priests were hunted like public enemies. The hero of Greene’s novel, a weak man with a drinking problem, wants desperately to flee across the border to safety. He never makes it. His priesthood, despite himself, is constantly in demand, and he must hear confessions, say the Mass, and give communion to people eager for the sacraments. Within sight of exile, he is called back to tend to a dying criminal.
Greene puts before us vividly what it was like, what it could be like. Those anxious people could be us. Perhaps they are. We are not so very different. And like Greene’s priest, suburban pastors, vying with their music director for our attention, possess the awesome power to consecrate the bread and wine. Perhaps we ought to think of that hunted Mexican priest when we hear cranky demands for the ordination of women. These aspirants want empowerment. I wonder if they mean the power to consecrate. The power sought may be of the kind that resides in the firing squad rather than in Greene’s martyred priest who, almost despite himself, went on doing the things he had been ordained to do. Thousands like him over the centuries, millions like those importunate peasants who insisted he minister to them, built our eucharistic culture.
This article originally appeared in the December 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.