FOR THE FEAST of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ this past June I wanted to give a homily that would help members of the congregation to appreciate the Eucharist more deeply. Of course, I want to do this every Sunday, but the feast was special and I wanted to say something that I might not say every other Sunday of the year.
In recent years I have been saddened by surveys that indicate large numbers of Catholics do not attend Sunday Mass regularly. When I was a young parish priest about one third of the Catholics in the parish did not attend Mass on Sunday. I suspect that the number is larger now.
Of course, to reach those Catholics is not easy because they are not at Mass. Even though the homily would be heard by people whose very presence would indicate that the Eucharist is important to them, I believe that all of us, myself included, can grow in our appreciation of the Eucharist.
Deepest Human Need
The previous Sunday, in trying to point out that the deepest need in every person is the need to have a personal relationship with God, I quoted some lines from T.S. Eliot’s play, “The Cocktail Party.” The lines of dialogue from the play dramatically brought out the profound need we have for God.
The reaction of the congregation to Eliot’s dialogue was very positive. A number of people said that they wanted to read the play or to see it if it was ever revived. I was very pleased by their reaction, but I guess I should not have been surprised that Eliot’s beautiful language touched people.
Drawing on Literature
Because the quotation from Eliot seemed to touch so many, I wondered if I could find some piece of literature that would help people appreciate the Eucharist more deeply. I didn’t have to think for very long. Very quickly one of my favorite short stories came to mind.
I first read Graham Greene’s short story, “The Hint of an Explanation,” many years ago. The story begins on a winter evening on a train when two strangers begin a conversation. One identifies himself as an unbeliever, the other as a believer. When they begin to talk about religion, the believer says that perhaps if he relates a story from his childhood it will provide the agnostic a hint of why he believes.
The event he tells about happened when he was 10 years old. He was an altar boy. In the village in which he lived there was a baker by the name of Blacker who was known as a violent anti-Catholic.
One day, the small boy is invited by Blacker to come into his shop to see a set of electric trains. Each day as he comes home from Mass, the boy goes into the shop to play with the trains. Eventually, Blacker tells the boy that he can have the trains as a gift if he will do a favor. The favor is to bring Blacker a consecrated host. Blacker says that as a baker, he is curious to see if there is any difference between the consecrated host and the bread he bakes.
Of course, Blacker really wants to desecrate the host. The next morning as he is serving Mass, the boy goes behind the altar and spits the host into a piece of newspaper. When he goes home, he puts the newspaper on a chair near his bed. Blacker comes outside his window to collect the host.
Greene writes the following and this is what I read at Mass:
“I laid the packet on the chair by my bed and tried to go to sleep, but I was haunted by the presence of God there on the chair. The Host had always been to me – well, the Host. I knew theoretically, as I have said, what I had to believe, but suddenly, as someone whistled in the road outside, whistled secretively, knowingly, to me, I knew that this which I had beside my bed was something of infinite value – something a man would pay for with his whole peace of mind, something that was so hated one could love it as one loves an outcast or a bullied child. These are adult words and it was a child of ten who lay scared in bed, listening to the whistle from the road, Blacker’s whistle, but I think he felt fairly clearly what I am describing now.”
Eventually, the boy swallows the Host along with the piece of newspaper. The story ends when it is revealed that the man recounting his experience as a 10-year-old has become a priest. God moves in strange ways.
I think that the story moved the parishioners and I hope it provided striking illustration of what we believe as Catholics about the Host.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).