Put Out into the Deep

Pastoral Letter on The Eucharist

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

As we begin our full return to the Sunday Liturgy on the Feast of Corpus Christi, there is no better day on which we can reinitiate in earnest our efforts to celebrate the Lord’s day and the Eucharist. The Feast of Corpus Christi was initiated in the Middle Ages in an effort to revive devotion to the Eucharist. Reception of Communion had become infrequent during that time.

(Photo: Pixabay)

The adoration of the Eucharist as well and processions, however, were perhaps a substitute for the strict rules regarding the reception of the Eucharist. The people loved to see the Lord in procession. They loved to gaze upon Him and open their hearts to Him in the Eucharistic Adoration. On this day, we begin again in earnest to call our faithful to the celebration of the Eucharist.

Unfortunately, our understanding of the Eucharist in the last two generations seems to have been clouded. Research tells us that many Catholics do not understand the mystery of trans-substantiation, or that in truth, the body and the blood of Christ are present in the bread and wine that are consecrated at the Mass. For many, there is a Protestant reform notion that it is only a memorial, or a remembrance, of what the Lord did at the Last Supper. I have a story that taught me something when I was a young priest that involved the Ecumenical Movement, especially around Thanksgiving, which was a time of many ecumenical services.

There was a Reformed Church down the street from the parish at which I was stationed at the time that was responsible for the service that year. Prior to the date, I went to a meeting at the Reformed Church preparing for the upcoming service. In my naivete, I looked around the church and saw that there was a table that said, “Do this in memory of me,” but I saw no tabernacle. I questioned the minister and asked, “Do you celebrate the Eucharist?” to which he replied, “Yes, we have the Lord’s Supper once a month.”

In looking for a tabernacle, I asked, “But what do you do with the remains of the Eucharistic elements?” “Well,” he replied, “I open the window, and I throw it out to the birds because it returns back to nature.” With all of the theology I learned in the seminary, nothing made such an impression to me to recognize what I believed about the Eucharist had been lost in the Reformation; that this was merely a symbol, that it was not really the Lord who was with us.

A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found just 31% of U.S. Catholics say they believe that “during the Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.” The surveys perhaps are difficult to judge as I am not sure how the questions were asked or how people responded to those questions. The fact is, we have seen a diminution of the attendance at Mass since the 1960s, when almost 60 percent of Catholics attended Mass each Sunday. Now, we see that the number is down to about 25 percent.

The obligation for the Liturgy is certainly something that has been part of the Church for centuries. The Sunday Eucharist has shaped the Church for almost 2,000 years. And now, because of the culture in which we live and the pressures of today, it is harder to fulfill the Sunday obligations because there are so many activities that impinge on the Lord’s day; sporting events, leisure activities, the weekend mentality of complete relaxation have made the Sunday obligation something that seems to take a back seat. The Church must continue to catechize and let people realize what, indeed, people are missing by not going to the Eucharist each week.

The obligation for the Eucharist is compared by St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter, Dies Domini, to a mother wanting the best for her children. When a mother sees that her child is sick, she may keep the child home from the Eucharist, and maybe herself as well to care for that child. We should have the attitude of a mother making a decision for the good of her child; should I go, can I go? I think this is the best way to look at the Eucharist. The strict rules of the past were meant to help us truly appreciate the Eucharist and what it means in our life. However, the laxity of the present times has allowed us to forget the Eucharistic obligation. But more, what we miss when we do not attend the Eucharist for some unnecessary reason.

We have become accustomed during this time of COVID-19 to have live-streamed Masses, and we relied more on televised Masses. This has been a great experience that filled the gap of not being able to attend Mass in Church. The attendance of viewing the Mass on television or our computers does not strictly fulfill our obligation. It does, however, give us a chance to pray and make a spiritual communion and to participate, especially when one views the live celebrations of the Mass.

I, myself, particularly like the live-streaming from parishes, as it keeps the faithful in touch with their parish. It certainly is the standard on our own NET-TV that very seldom are Masses taped and then rebroadcast. Rather, we are viewing the live celebration, which is so important as it allows us to join ourselves to the celebration of the Eucharist directly. This is more than watching a baseball game, and we all know how excited we can get viewing sporting events. The Mass, indeed, televised, can help our devotion when we are not able to go to the Eucharist.

My hope now is that we can receive the work of the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, so that those who are homebound and can only participate in the Mass on live stream or television, also will be able to receive the Eucharist at home, especially on Sundays or other days of the week.

If we ever needed to return to the Eucharist, it is now. The COVID-19 pandemic has left us with a lot of, what one might say, bad memories, difficulties, uncertainties, concern for the sick, and mourning for those who died of the virus. How important it is that we see the memory of Jesus in the Eucharist that will be able to heal those bad memories. Last year on the Feast of Corpus Christi, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, reminded us that “Scripture has been given to us that we might overcome our forgetfulness of God.”

The Pope emphasized the importance of remembering in our prayers the “deeds of the Lord and those wonders that the Lord has worked in our own lives.” He continued, “Indeed, if we do not remember it, we become strangers to ourselves, passers-by of existence. Without memory, we uproot ourselves from the soil that nourishes us and allow ourselves to be carried away like leaves in the wind.”

The memory of what Jesus did at the Last Supper is not private; it is not meant for any ‘one’ but rather for all. How important it is that, as the Holy Father tells us, “We cannot do without the Eucharist, for it is God’s memorial. And it heals our wounded memory.” Pope Francis then gave us an example of how the Eucharist heals our memory; “First, the Eucharist heals orphaned memory … so many people have memories marked by lack of affection and bitter disappointments caused by those who should have given them love and instead orphaned their hearts.”

We need the Eucharist to heal us from the ill effects of this pandemic. Regular attendance at the Eucharist puts us in contact with the Church. St. John Paul II, in his Encyclical, wrote, “The Church of the Eucharist” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia), reminds us that the Hour of the Mass is “The holy hour, the hour of the redemption of the world.”

John Paul II summarizes effectively when he tells us, “The Eucharist’s particular effectiveness in promoting communion is one of the reasons for the importance of Sunday Mass. I have already dwelt on this and on the other reasons which make Sunday Mass fundamental for the life of the Church and of individual believers in my Apostolic Letter on the sanctification of Sunday Dies Domini. There I recalled the faithful have the obligation to attend Mass unless they are seriously impeded, and that Pastors have the corresponding duty to see that it is practical and possible for all to fulfill this precept.

More recently, in my Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineuente, in setting forth the pastoral path which the Church must take at the beginning of the third millennium, I drew particular attention to the Sunday Eucharist, emphasizing its effectiveness for building communion. ‘It is’ — I wrote — the privileged place where communion is ceaselessly proclaimed and nurtured. Precisely through sharing in the Eucharist, the Lord’s Day also becomes the Day of the Church, when she can effectively exercise her role as the sacrament of unity.”

He continued, “Every commitment to holiness, every activity aimed at carrying out the Church’s Mission, every work of pastoral planning, must draw the strength it needs from the Eucharistic mystery and in turn be directed to that mystery as its culmination. In the Eucharist, we have Jesus, we have his redemptive sacrifice, we have his resurrection, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have adoration, obedience and love of the Father. Were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our own deficiency?”

Our theology is clear, and our pastoral practices of millennia attest to the fact that the Sunday Eucharist is fundamental to the life of the Church. We face particular problems today that we must address if we are to restore the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of every parish and in the life of our Diocese here in Brooklyn and Queens. Our culture today seems to wage war against us. There was the day in the United States of America that Sunday morning truly was the Day of the Lord, where everyone worshiped in their own Church.

This is hardly the case today. We need to restore this; we need to change our culture and not just accept this new culture as immutable. We need to have our children come back to the Eucharist and not be shuffled from one sports activity to another, filling the entire day of Sunday, leaving no time for a Sunday family meal for discussion of the Lord’s Day in a civil way.

We need to assist our elderly who find it difficult to come to the Eucharist by having volunteers assist them to attend Mass, or at the very least having Communion brought to them each week.

We need to stop and make the Lord’s Day truly the central time of our week, the time that belongs to God, that sabbath, that time of rest that is so important to our physical and spiritual life. This is because, as St. John Paul II tells us in Dies Domini, the Day of the Lord, “As the day of Resurrection, Sunday is not only the remembrance of a past event: it is a celebration of the living presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of his own people.” The Holy Father continued, “Like the first witnesses of the Resurrection, Christians who gathered each Sunday to experience and proclaim the presence of the Risen Lord are called to evangelize and bear witness in their daily lives.”

Now, as, thank God, this pandemic seems to be coming to an end, we must become witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is no better witness, as we put out into the deep of our culture that makes no room for God, that we are the heralds of the Eucharist, that we believe the Eucharist as its true presence and that we attend Mass, even when it might be rather difficult to do so. We need to restore to our Church its spiritual life, because from the Eucharist comes the energy of the other sacraments. Without the Eucharist, we are lost. With the Eucharist, we recognize our salvation.