There is a moment in Holy Mass to which, I suspect, not a few of us older Catholics these days are drawn. It comes during the First Eucharistic Prayer, that most ancient and august expression of Catholic worship, when the priest, addressing God directly, asks that He remember all those who have come together to pay homage to Him. After all, it is primarily for their benefit, i.e., the ones “whose faith and devotion are known to You,” that they’ve come to Mass in the first place. “For them,” the priest says, “we offer You this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them….”
It is a moving petition put to Almighty God, one that the Church has used since the Roman Rite was first set in stone back in the fourth century, and one would not dream of trying to improve upon it. But each time I hear it (and I am blessed to do so every morning), I linger over that last phrase—“and all who are dear to them”—and call to mind not only those present and accounted for, but all those others, especially dear to me, who in some way remain disaffected from the Church in which they were born and raised.
They no longer adhere, you see, to the truth of the Catholic Thing. Their numbers appear to have become like the sands of the sea—whole families fractured, as it were, by the defection of so great a number of their children. These are our lapsi, the scattered souls for whom the practice of the faith has ceased to matter.
Have they actually lost their faith? Or have they decided no longer to organize or shape their lives around it? Who knows? Besides God, that is, who longs for their return much as the father does in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Or Mother Church herself, who, according to St. Irenaeus, will not turn her back on her own children but will, in the image of Lot’s wife, continue to look longingly for them against the backdrop of their own destruction. Or Jesus Himself in the story of the Woman at the Well; He thirsts for her even more than she longs for either water or another husband.
But why will they not return? What keeps them away? Or, to put it more precisely, what was it that drove them away in the first place? A crisis of faith? Or was it perhaps other Catholics whose witness seemed not quite up to scratch?
Like the young woman whose initial exuberance on meeting Flannery O’Connor, and reading her wonderful stories, moved her to become Catholic, only to leave off being Catholic shortly after meeting a number of other Catholics. It seems their shortcomings proved to be a bridge too far.
“But don’t you realize,” O’Connor told her, “that the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable, is the Church? And that the only thing that makes the Church endurable, is that it is somehow the Body of Christ, and on this Body we are fed?”
Where else could her young friend have gone to be fed? Or maybe she wasn’t quite hungry enough?
“The danger is not,” writes Simone Weil, “lest the soul should doubt whether there is bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself it is not hungry.” How often we succumb to such lies, to the seductions of a culture that has blinded itself before God, deaf to that very poetry of the transcendent of which my old friend and mentor Fritz Wilhelmsen so often spoke.
And, in any case, hasn’t the answer already been given, pretty definitively, too, back in the first century by the Apostle Peter? “Lord,” he asked, “to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
And there are others as well. Countless others. The writer Walker Percy, for instance, who, when asked about his own conversion, would invariably reply, “What else is there?” Where else does one go to find and commune with the living God? If He is truly there, broken to become our Bread, then there can be nothing more necessary to know, or to receive, than Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
And if He’s not actually there, what then? Are we willing to settle for a mere symbol, a sign no more real than an image of someone we love on a computer screen, when Christ promised us Himself? Mere crackers and grape juice will not satisfy when our hearts are burning for Real Presence. As Flannery O’Connor once said after listening to Miss Mary McCarthy dismiss it all as mere symbolism, “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it!”
And certainly not if we take seriously the words of Jesus Himself, which the Apostle John dutifully records in chapter six of his Gospel: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
What more could any mere mortal ask for? Who would not wish for this, to feast upon the flesh of the living God? Well, some of the Jews apparently did not wish to, having found not only the idea insupportable but the man who said it. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” To which Jesus replies, witheringly: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”
What a scandal Christ has left us with! It is one to which, however, we must do all we can, moved by the grace of God, to reintroduce our children, lest they should wander away forever, finding themselves alone and lost at the very last.
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