By Father John P. Cush, STD
There is a famous story about a meeting at a party between two famous Southern writers of the 20th century – Flannery O’Connor and Mary McCarthy.
O’Connor, a great Catholic short story writer, recounts her encounter in her collection of letters, “The Habit of Being” (1988). She writes:
“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
If the Eucharist is merely a symbol – a nice thing to show community and unity among people – then we, as Catholics, are wasting our time.
Source and Summit
The Eucharist – which the Church will focus on for five weeks as we proclaim the Bread of Life Discourse from St. John’s Gospel – is at the center of our lives of faith. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, as both the documents of Vatican II and Pope St. John Paul II remind us. It is the supreme act of unity, bringing the People of God into communion with Almighty God and into communion with each other.
And yet, at times it seems to be something that does not unite the Christian community, but rather causes tempers to flare. Think about some of the theological controversies the Church seems to be embroiled in today – almost all of them, in one way or the other, involve the Eucharist. Why is this? It is for one reason and one reason only – because nothing is more important than the Eucharist.
Why is this? No one is more important, worthier of our love, respect and adoration than the Lord Jesus, and it is precisely He who is sacramentally present in the Eucharist.
Yes, the Holy Mass is not just a reenactment of what Jesus did as The Last Supper. No, the Mass is the celebration of the Paschal Mystery – the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord – every single time it is celebrated. The Eucharist is not just a sign; it is not just a symbol. We believe that it is the true Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of our Lord Jesus, sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine. The Mass is the unbloodied sacrifice of Christ and it is also the action of the gathering together of the Qahal Yahweh, the People of God.
Pope St. John Paul II’s reflection on the occasion of his 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination was called “Gift and Mystery” (1996) and this is an appropriate title. The priesthood is a gift – a tremendous gift – and every day, in the course of my living out of the ordained life, I realize just what a gift it is. Beginning with the encouragement of my religion teachers in grade school at Holy Name in Windsor Terrace, I began to consider the possibility of a priestly vocation.
To Become Like Them
I really thought about being a priest in high school at Cathedral Prep because I adored the priests who taught me. They were my heroes and I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. It’s as simple as that. It really was a case of what the French philosopher Rene Girard called mimetic desire. They had something I wanted and so I knew the only way that I could get it was to become like them.
And what was it that they had that I wanted? It was pretty simple: the ability to celebrate Mass. It is Jesus Christ in the Eucharist; He is the sole reason. What a mystery this gift of a vocation is. I never thought my priesthood, my life, would be what it is. Surely there are holier men, better men, than me and yet, knowing my weaknesses even more than I do, the Lord called me to be His priest, and has given me this great gift of the Eucharist.
Bridge Between God and Man
To receive the Eucharist is an awesome thing, but to consecrate it, to be the bridge between God and man, to be the one who, through no power of my own, transcends time and eternity on the altar, that place where Heaven and Earth kiss, is indescribable. There is nothing like the Eucharist because there is no one like Jesus.
“The Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist,” according to the great 20th century theologian, Father Henri de Lubac, S.J. Today, and over the next several weeks as we read at Mass from St. John’s Gospel and his Bread of Life Discourse, pray for a greater understanding in the Church of the reality of the Eucharist, of the beauty and dignity of the Mass, and of who we are as a Church.
Readings for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Kings 4: 42-44
Psalm 145: 10-11, 15-16, 17-18
Ephesians 4: 1-6
John 6: 1-15
Father Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, serves as academic dean of the Pontifical North American College, and as a professor of theology and U.S. Catholic Church history.