The Holy Eucharist: Source of Holiness
|The Holy Eucharist: Source of Holiness
By Fr. James Buckley, F.S.S.P
|Address given at the St. John’s, Newfoundland Forum, April 8, 2000
“The Lord Jesus, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and giving thanks, broke and said: ‘Take ye and eat: this is My Body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of Me.’ In like manner also the chalice, after He had supped, saying: ‘This chalice is the new testament in My Blood: this, do you, as often as you shall drink, in commemoration of Me'” (I Cor. 11:23-25).
By these words our Blessed Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist, which is both a sacrament and a sacrifice – as well as the priesthood which will perpetuate the Holy Eucharist until the end of time. It is of absolute importance for every Catholic to understand that once the words of consecration are spoken by a priest over the bread and over the chalice during the Mass, these things become the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Son of God Himself. The appearances of bread and wine – the color, taste, the weight and shape – these remain, but what makes bread to be bread and wine to be wine are no longer present.
In his Eucharistic hymn, “Adoro Te Devote,” St. Thomas Aquinas says:
When it comes to the Holy Eucharist, all of our senses fail us save one. Our sense of sight, taste and touch are useless. The Holy Eucharist looks like bread, feels like bread and tastes like bread. But one sense alone, our sense of hearing, we can trust. We hear the words of Christ, Who cannot deceive us, and He tells us “This is My Body, This is the Chalice of My Blood.”
What is most alarming, however, is that surveys conducted by secular organizations have disclosed that few Catholics understand this teaching. A January, 1992, Gallup Poll, for example, reported that 70% of the American Catholics surveyed selected as a statement reflecting their belief in the Holy Eucharist one of the propositions condemned by the Church at the Council of Trent. The group the Poll found most in conformity with the Church’s teaching were those over fifty years of age but even in this category less than half embraced the Church’s teaching. Most appalling was the discovery that fewer than 45% who receive Holy Communion at least weekly acknowledged that they were receiving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ under the appearances of bread and wine.
The failure of so many Catholics to identify Catholic belief in the Holy Eucharist when it is displayed before their eyes does suggest that there has been a deficiency in our catechetical programs. But this reason cannot account for the failure of those over fifty who have evaded such programs. It is my conviction that the removal of the altar rail, communion in the hand, and the indiscriminate use of Eucharistic ministers have greatly contributed to the erosion of belief in the Real Presence and has led to the irreverence toward the Blessed Sacrament which is now widespread. Perhaps a polite petition, signed by a large number of the faithful and sent to the local Ordinary, calling for the public worship of the Holy Eucharist in every parish of the diocese by the annual Forty Hours devotion and weekly benediction, as well as sermon instructions on the Real Presence may restore reverence to this the greatest of sacraments. Such a petition may, however, have no effect. Nevertheless, it is something which the laity should try and try often. As Mother Teresa reminded us, God demands not that we be successful but that we be faithful.
Since I have called the Holy Eucharist the greatest of the sacraments, I should now point out that a sacrament is a sign instituted by Christ to give grace. A sign is something that stands for something else. Some signs are natural and some are made by man. The traffic signal, for example, is a manmade sign. When it is red, it signifies stop. When it is green, it signifies proceed. The traffic signal is but one of a myriad of examples that can be provided. The most obvious and far-reaching is language itself where thousands and thousands of words have been designed by men to stand for thousands and thousand of things. Natural signs are not made by man but discovered in the nature of things. Smoke, for example, signifies fire. A human footprint on a beach indicates that a man has passed by.
A SIGN OF HOLINESS AND ETERNAL LIFE
A sacrament is a sign which is neither natural nor made by ordinary men but rather one made by Christ Himself. Secondly, a sacrament causes what it signifies. Smoke doesn’t cause fire and a red traffic signal doesn’t stop a moving automobile. But the sacrament of Baptism not only signifies regeneration but it causes the one being baptized to be regenerated, that is, to wash away from his soul Original and all personal sin and to impart a new life, making the baptized a child of God and an heir of heaven. St. Thomas says that a sacrament is the sign of a holy thing which causes holiness in the one who receives it. Now the cause of our holiness is the passion of Christ. Consequently, every sacrament must signify this cause. But the sacrament when it is here and now received, imparts something holy and this is sanctifying grace, which the sacrament also signifies. Finally, the purpose of the sacraments is to impart everlasting happiness and so the sacrament also signifies the eternal life to which it is ordained.
It takes little reflection to observe one difference between the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments. All the other sacraments take place when they are received. The sacrament of Marriage happens once the man and woman exchange vows; the sacrament of Penance when the penitent is absolved; Holy Orders when a man is ordained; Confirmation when one is confirmed and the Anointing of the Sick when one is actually anointed. Once the priest says the words of Consecration, however, the Holy Eucharist exists even though no one has yet received it. Now this sacrament is the greatest of all because only in the Holy Eucharist is Christ present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. All the other sacraments give graces won on Calvary but only the Holy Eucharist is Christ Himself. St. Thomas provides another reason. All the sacraments, he observes, are ordered toward the Holy Eucharist. One is baptized so that he can receive the Holy Eucharist. The priesthood is conferred for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. One is confirmed to receive the Holy Eucharist despite opposition. Penance removes mortal sin so that – restored to grace – one can fruitfully receive the Holy Eucharist once more. After the Anointing of the Sick, the anointed – if he is able – receives the Holy Eucharist. And Marriage reflects the Holy Eucharist because husband and wife represent the union of Christ and the Church, which union is also signified by the Holy Eucharist itself. Just as we – though many – form one body under Christ our Head so the many grains of wheat unite to form the Eucharistic bread.
Though it is the greatest of the sacraments, the Holy Eucharist is the one we can receive more than any other. Of the seven, Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders may be received only once; Matrimony and the Anointing of the Sick may be received more than once but such repetitions are rare. The two sacraments we may and should receive frequently are Penance and the Holy Eucharist which have been designed to support us in our constant warfare with the powers of darkness. It nevertheless remains true that Holy Communion may be received every day and even twice on days that one attends two Masses. Christ said, “Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you will not have my life in you.” Just as the natural life of man must be preserved and repaired by his daily eating of material food, so the supernatural life received at Baptism must be preserved and repaired by the spiritual food of the Holy Eucharist. The very prayer used by the priest in the Tridentine Mas during the distribution of Holy Communion emphasizes the Holy Eucharist as preserving grace: “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam.” “May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ guard or preserve your soul unto eternal life.” That same prayer, by the way, also instructs us that the purpose of the Holy Eucharist – like the purpose of all the sacraments – is to bring us to eternal life.
REPAIRING THE DAMAGE OF OUR FRAILTY
According to Pope Innocent III the Holy Eucharist also blots out venial sin. This effect highlights not so much its purpose of preserving the soul in grace but of repairing the damages caused by frailty. It is the daily bread which is daily received as a remedy for our daily infirmity. Not only does this food preserve and repair the life of grace but it also increases it and gives delight. Since food does provide man with an increase in his natural life, it follows that by providing us with this spiritual food, Christ enables us to increase our supernatural life. Eating is delightful and our Eucharistic eating is delightful because by it we possess our intimate friend, Jesus Christ. To express this effect, the Church in the verse and response after the “Tantum Ergo” is sung at Benediction says: “Panem de coelo praestitisti eis, omne delectamentum in se habentem” “You have given them bread from heaven, containing it itself all delight.”
The Holy Eucharist even lessens the heat of concupiscence not directly but indirectly insofar as it increases charity. Moreover, it confers a right to a glorious resurrection. Whoever dies in sanctifying grace has an essential right to the glory of the body but from the worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist there arises a special title to the glorious resurrection for two reasons: first, because of the promise of Christ in John (6:55): “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day” and also because of the special union with Christ for it is fitting that the body of members be conformed to the body of the head who is now in glory.
The early Fathers called the Holy Eucharist the medicine of immortality and said that because of it there is in us the seed of immortality. As St. Irenaeus wrote, “Our bodies which receive the Holy Eucharist are already incorruptible because they have the hope of the resurrection.” This doctrine is in accord with the insight of St. Thomas who observed that by the Incarnation holiness came into the world and by the Holy Eucharist Christ’s Body makes our bodies holy.
In order to receive these surpassing benefits, it is necessary that the communicant be properly disposed. St. Paul warns us about this in his first letter to the Corinthians. “Therefore,” he writes, “whoever shall eat this bread or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of the Body and the Blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread and drink of the chalice” (I Cor. 11:27-28). In the decree on the Most Holy Eucharist, the Fathers of the Council of Trent said, “One who wishes to communicate must call to mind this precept of St. Paul, namely, let a man prove himself. The custom of the Church declares that proof is necessary so that no one conscious of a mortal sin, no matter how contrite he seems, may approach the holy Holy Eucharist without first making a sacramental confession.”
The Baltimore Catechism divides the sacraments into two groups, the sacraments of the living and the sacraments of the dead. The sacraments of the dead are Baptism and Penance. They are called sacraments of the dead because they may fruitfully be received by souls in mortal sin. All the others are sacraments of the living because they require the presence of sanctifying grace in the souls of the recipients. The analogy between spiritual and natural food is again instructive. Just as one who is dead cannot eat so also one who is spiritually dead through mortal sin cannot receive the bread of life. If a man conscious of his unconfessed mortal sin nevertheless receives the Holy Eucharist, that man commits a new mortal sin, that of sacrilege because he eats and drinks the Body and Blood of the Lord unto his own condemnation.
INFINITE OCEAN OF GRACE
Freedom from mortal sin is the minimum condition necessary for a fruitful communion. We will, however, gain more fruit the better disposed we are. If a man goes to the ocean with a bottle, he will receive only as much water as the bottle contains; if he takes a barrel, he will receive far more. So also with us. If we receive little fruit from the Holy Eucharist, it is not because of some deficiency on the part of Our Lord, the infinite ocean of grace. The fault is entirely our own. To assist us, prayers in preparation for communion, such as the one of St. Thomas which I am about to recite, are most useful:
“Almighty, Everlasting God, behold, I come to the sacrament of your only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I come as one infirm to the Physician of Life, as one unclean to the fountain of mercy, as one blind to the light of everlasting brightness, as one poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth. Therefore, I implore the abundance of your measureless bounty to heal my infirmity, wash my uncleanness, enlighten my blindness, enrich my poverty, and clothe my nakedness, that I may receive the Bread of angels, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, with such reverence and humility, with such sorrow and devotion, with such purity and faith, with such purpose and intention as may be profitable to my soul’s salvation. Grant me, I pray, the grace of receiving not only the sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood, but also the grace and power of the sacrament. O most gracious God, grant me so to receive the Body of Your only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, which He took from the Virgin Mary, as to merit to be incorporated into his Mystical Body, and to be numbered among His members. O most loving Father, give me grace to behold forever Your beloved Son with unveiled face, whom I now purpose to receive veiled in the way. Amen.”
In the old ritual, the priest is told to admonish the people often to approach the Holy Eucharist with preparation, with religion, and with piety, but he is also told to warn communicants against those very behaviors that are so commonplace as to be the norm in Catholic churches today. The instruction provides such a powerful corrective that I’ll present it word for word:
Besides being a sacrament, the Holy Eucharist is also a sacrifice. It is a sacrament because it is received; it is a sacrifice because it is offered. The Council of Trent observed that it is in the nature of man to offer sacrifice and so Christ left us with the perfect sacrifice to be offered through the ministry of His ordained priests. This sacrifice is the same as was offered on Calvary because the priest and the victim are the same, Jesus Christ. What differs is the mode of offering. On Calvary Christ offered Himself in a bloody manner, but since He can no longer die He offers Himself in an unbloody manner in the Mass. By consecrating the bread separately from the chalice, the separation of Christ’s Body and Blood on Calvary is called to mind. Moreover, it is the unbloody Sacrifice of the Mass which fulfills the prophecy of Malachias (1:11):
Secondly, on Calvary Christ gained all merits but distributed none; in the Mass the merits won on Calvary are applied according to our dispositions. It is in the nature of man to offer sacrifice so that he acknowledges the omnipotence of God and that is adoration. A second purpose for offering sacrifice is to thank God for all the benefits He has given.
PROVIDING THE MEANS OF SALVATION
There are two other purposes. Through sacrifice man asks God for favors and seeks the remission of his sins. All the sacrifices of the old law and all those of the pagans merely manifest man’s desire to accomplish these goals; only Christ’s sacrifice, however, actually fulfills these purposes. Theologians teach that since the Mass is directed to God and not to men, those effects of the Mass, insofar as they as they pertain to God are immediately and infallibly achieved. Consequently, the adoration and thanks on the part of Christ the Victim and the principal Priest are of infinite dignity and entirely worthy of a reward. But insofar as the effects of the Mass pertain to us men, they are not immediately and infallibly achieved. It must be understood that the Mass, since it has the same power of propitiation and petition as the sacrifice of the cross, does infallibly and immediately placate the divine wrath; God, therefore, is immediately prepared and in some way obligated to grant the grace of the remission of sins as well as of the punishment due to sins because there is no lack of efficacy on the part of Christ’s sacrificial
The forgiveness of sins, however, is not an infallible effect of the Mass. The remission of sin and the granting of grace depends upon the disposition of the sinner and the sinner who is not sorry for his sins or is resistant to grace can frustrate the divine aid provided by the Mass. The Mass, however, does remit temporal punishment due to forgiven sins immediately and infallibly, at least to some degree. Since the satisfactions of a just man immediately lessen or even remove this punishment, then the satisfactions of Christ performed on Calvary and applied in the Mass immediately remove temporal punishment and are substituted in place of other satisfactions. This effect is infallible not only for the souls in purgatory, who place no obstacle to the grace of God, but all for the living who are in sanctifying grace.
Just as our prayers are able to obtain immediately spiritual and even temporal goods, the Mass, which is the prayer of Christ, can do the same. In order that this effect be infallible, however, four conditions are necessary, namely that the one praying petitions for himself piously and perseveringly what is necessary for salvation. The one praying is infallibly heard because the Mass is the prayer of Christ whose petition is infallibly efficacious. It is not necessary on the part of the persons for whom the Mass is offered that they pray for themselves because the Mass is propitiatory for the living and the dead.
Nevertheless the obstacle of unworthiness can impede the work of impetration for it is not the will of God or of Christ to give goods to men who retain a perverted will. On the part of the prayer, it is required that it be both pious and constant. For this reason we do not always obtain what we implore from one Sacrifice of the Mass. As many masses are required as depends on the will of God. It depends too on the disposition of the subject and on the number and gravity of his sins. What is asked must be what, according to the ordinary laws of Divine Providence, leads to eternal salvation. Christ does not beseech the Father for those things which do not advance salvation nor has He instituted the Sacrifice as an ordinary means for infallibly obtaining miracles or extraordinary benefits. Therefore, if something is requested which is harmful to men or contrary to the divine will, the prayer of Christ is not frustrated but converts this request to some benefits, which are truly good for men.
Let the following passage from The Three Ages of the Interior Life by the justly celebrated Dominican theologian,
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