Voices Online Edition
Volume XVIII, No. 1
This Mystery of Faith
Seeing Salvation with new eyes
Late in the afternoon on a cold, damp day of touring the west coast of Ireland, we found ourselves alone on the streets of the small village of Sneem, out on the edge of the Ring of Kerry. The gray skies and mist were descending more as the day progressed toward dusk, and the village seemed cast in a mystical air. We wandered about, my husband taking pictures and video everywhere, my sons investigating the square. I drifted along silently in the middle of the empty street, taking it all in, but transfixed by something. Torn between wanting to proceed on to see more, and turning back before dusk, I just idly walked, on this ancestral land, and suspended thinking.
Off on a side street I noticed a small church. It seized my attention and held it captive. It was a stone church, with a beautiful Celtic cross in the side yard, and it beckoned. The attraction was great. But I had to catch up with the family, and so moved on. I kept thinking of the church. After a few photos in the roundabout, I turned and saw the church again, and it called more insistently. I wandered that way, saying I'd be back shortly. My sons followed. Mystical, this place, I thought. So reassuring, in its promise of a brief visit with Our Lord in so quiet and spiritual a setting. As we walked in, I looked for the tabernacle, but didn't have to. Upon the center of the altar stood a monstrance, and exposed in it the Blessed Sacrament.
Of course. This was First Friday.
Amazing, the power and pull of the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, the call to come into the Presence. How to describe this? It speaks to the soul, this pull, this beckoning. On a level that does not use words. They are wholly inadequate anyway.
Pope John Paul II said the same thing in the first year of his pontificate in the encyclical letter Redemptor Hominis, Redeemer of Man1:
The Church lives by the Eucharist, by the fullness of this sacrament, the stupendous content and meaning of which have often been expressed in the Church's magisterium from the most distant times down to our own days. However, we can say with certainty that, although this teaching is sustained by the acuteness of theologians, by men of deep faith and prayer, and by ascetics and mystics, in complete fidelity to the Eucharistic mystery, it still reaches no more than the threshold, since it is incapable of grasping and translating into words what the Eucharist is in all its fullness, what is expressed by it and what is actuated by it. Indeed, the Eucharist is the ineffable sacrament!
But it has been, and must be, taught in all ages. And has always been at the heart of the Church, which does her best to translate into words this ineffable mystery. It is so simple, but it takes so many words to even attempt to express such paradox.
At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the ages until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.
Thus the Church addressed the institution, the origin, of the Eucharist in the first decree of the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:
The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ's faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.2
How conscious can we be of so great a mystery? How devoted? The problem with all the words grasping at explaining the Eucharist is that they tend to wash over people -- even those who may be listening -- never to be heard or contemplated. Especially by those who never learned the catechism in the first place and don't even know that they don't know. Ignorance cannot be bliss, when bliss is so completely contained in the unknown.
He Meant What He Said
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger calls it "the deepest sacramental mystery of the Church -- the Holy Eucharist".3 At the Consecration of the Mass, Christ becomes present in the Eucharist, and is hidden beyond the veil of what we can see. We know this because He said this.
"Some Protestants once asked Daniel O'Connell, the liberator of Ireland, how he could be so narrow-minded as to believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist", recounts Father Lawrence Lovasik in his book The Eucharist in Catholic Life.4 "This faithful son of the Church answered without hesitation, 'You'll have to discuss that with Jesus Christ Himself. He said so; therefore I believe".
A rather obscure early Church Father, Macarius, engaged such recusants in his Answer-Book or Rather the Only-Begotten Christ Himself to the Pagans.5 "[Christ] took the bread and the cup, each in similar fashion, and said: 'This is My Body and this My Blood' (Mt. 26:26,28). Not a figure of His body nor a figure of His blood, as some persons of petrified mind are wont to rhapsodize, but in truth the Body and the Blood of Christ..."
In a similar fashion, Saint John Damascene elaborated the Apostolic teaching and tradition to those who believed that Christ's words were intended as a symbolic reference to his self-sacrifice: "The Bread and the Wine are not a type of the Body and Blood of Christ -- perish the thought! -- but the deified Body Itself of the Lord, since the Lord Himself has said: 'This is My Body.' He did not say a type of His Body, but His Body".6
The trouble with grasping this truth goes back to its beginning, when Jesus first spoke of it at Capernaum. It was "a hard saying", and many disciples who had known and followed Him turned and left. Their sense of reason had no way to grapple with this divine plan, and so they could or would not believe it on sheer faith. But it was never, from the beginning, to be a matter of reason. Saint John Damascene addressed those who struggled with it:
If you inquire into the way in which this happens, let it suffice for you to hear that it is through the Holy Spirit, just as it was through the Holy Spirit that the Lord took on Himself from the Holy Mother of God the flesh that subsisted in Himself. More than this we do not know, except that the word of God is true and effective and all-powerful; but the manner [of the Eucharistic transformation] is inscrutable.
Such firm and unrelenting apologetics have continued from the time of the Apostles, so great is this foundation of the Catholic faith. And faith is what it requires, after all. The senses fail, reason and intellect fail -- but they must surrender. And any need for evidence must be, for all time, confounded. It recalls the observation: "For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is enough". To modern sensibilities, so enlivened by techno-graphics and Hollywood special effects, perhaps the image of Jesus Christ emanating from the Eucharist in a hologram would be convincing that He is as present as He really is.
"Do not, therefore, regard the Bread and the Wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master's declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ", wrote Saint Cyril of Jerusalem.7 "Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm".
Taken From the Source
Why is it so important to learn what the early Church Fathers said about this? To learn the faith. The great history and tradition of the Catholic faith has not been taught and handed down well for at least the past four decades, and teaching must begin at the beginning. Whatever we lack in the form of material evidence or proof in the teaching, we have from the mouths and hands of the first Apostles, their own contemporaries, their immediate successors.
"Beginning with the Upper Room and Holy Thursday, the celebration of the Eucharist has a long history, a history as long as that of the Church", writes Pope John Paul II in Dominicae Cenae, On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist.8
In the course of this history the secondary elements have undergone certain changes, but there has been no change in the essence of the 'Mysterium' instituted by the Redeemer of the world at the Last Supper...9 The Church was founded, as the new community of the People of God, in the apostolic community of those Twelve who, at the Last Supper, became partakers of the body and blood of the Lord under the species of bread and wine.10
Their earliest writings reflect most accurately what the earliest Church did and believed. Which is why non-Catholic Christians, or even modern Catholics intent on restructuring (or deconstructing) the Church, tend to turn to the early Church Fathers and respect their accounts of the Church that Christ established -- and the liturgy those earliest Christians practiced -- as being the purest version of the true Church.
And yet, it has been at best a selective reading of those Fathers and the earliest accounts of liturgical practices and beliefs that led many modernist reformers to strip churches and alter liturgies drastically, and shift the thrust of Church attention from devotions and piety to social justice and action. But it is not, and never has been, an either/or proposition. It has always been both/and. Cardinal Ratzinger addressed this clearly in his lecture to the Eucharistic Congress of Benevento:
Often, in the primitive Church, the Eucharist was called simply "agape", that is, "love", or even simply "pax", that is "peace". The Christians of that time thus expressed in a dramatic way the unbreakable link between the mystery of the hidden presence of God and the praxis of serving the cause of peace, of Christians being peace. For the early Christians, there was no difference between what today is often distinguished as orthodoxy and orthopraxis, as right doctrine and right action...
Cardinal Ratzinger goes on to address the contemporary tension between the two, explaining that those who disdain orthodoxy today regard members of the Church who hold "right doctrine" as narrow-minded, rigid and intolerant. For them, everything depends on "right action", the cardinal observes,
with doctrine regarded as something always open to further discussion... Such a comparison would have been incomprehensible and unacceptable for those in the ancient Church, for they rightly understood the word "orthodoxy" not to mean "right doctrine" but to mean the authentic adoration and glorification of God.
They were convinced that everything depended on being in the right relationship with God, on knowing what pleases him and what one can do to respond to him in the right way. For this reason, Israel loved the law: from it, they knew God's will, they knew how to live justly and how to honor God in the right way: by acting in accord with his will, bringing order into the world, opening it to the transcendent.
Right and just action -- Christian living -- follows from encountering Christ. In that order. That's why Mother Teresa always opened every one of her houses around the world by first finding the space for the tabernacle. Before their daily work of serving the poorest of the poor on wretched city streets and alleys, Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity would always first seek the source of their strength and the grace needed for such self-sacrifice -- Christ, at Mass and Adoration. I once interviewed a priest who worked with Mother Teresa, who gave her retreats, but regarded her as his own spiritual director. He recalled that she spoke of the love of the Trinity, which she sought and absorbed during the Mass, and that she asked God to make her a "living monstrance of Eucharistic healing" after Communion. Social action deriving from transcendent prayer.
"The great social saints were in reality always the great Eucharistic saints", states Cardinal Ratzinger. He cites Saint Martin de Porres, who would pass entire nights in prayer before the tabernacle, "while during the day he tirelessly cared for the sick and assisted the socially outcast and despised. Whoever recognizes the Lord in the tabernacle, recognizes him in the suffering and the needy".
A just world derives from the knowledge of Jesus Christ, Cardinal Ratzinger declares:
That these two things should go together -- how God is glorified and how justice comes -- the angels had proclaimed on the holy night: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill toward men", they had said (Lk 2:14). God's glory and peace on earth are inseparable. Where God is excluded, there is a breakdown of peace in the world; without God, no orthopraxis can save us. In fact, there does not exist an orthopraxis which is simply just, detached from a knowledge of what is good... Knowledge and action are closely united, as are faith and life.
They derive from the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament. Pope John Paul II is eminently Christocentric, and directs the Church through his vast body of teachings and writings11 -- most written before the Blessed Sacrament -- toward seeking Christ. He declared that the Jubilee Year, and the new millennium, would be "intensely Eucharistic", since "Christ is the only way to the Father", and the Eucharist highlights "His living and saving presence in the Church and the world".
The Second Vatican Council issued Sacrosanctum Concilium as its first decree to establish the centrality of the liturgy and the celebration of the Eucharist in the life of the Church. The intentions of that council and document were variously interpreted and applied, and in 1985 Pope John Paul II called the Extraordinary Synod to re-establish the focus and mandates of Vatican II. "As a consequence", explains Cardinal Ratzinger in Eucharist, Communion and Solidarity, "the Synod of 1985 sought a new beginning by focusing on the word 'communion', which refers first of all to the Eucharistic center of the Church, and so again returns to the understanding of the Church as the most intimate place of the encounter between Jesus and mankind, in his act of giving himself to us".
The Holy Father even stated specifically that the "encouragement and the deepening of Eucharistic worship are proofs of that authentic renewal which the council set itself as an aim and of which they are the central point" [emphasis added]. "The Church and the world have a great need of eucharistic worship. Jesus waits for us in this sacrament of love. May our adoration never cease".12
It never did for Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who also produced the great body of his writings before the Blessed Sacrament. "Theological insights are gained not only from the two covers of a treatise, but from two knees on a prie-dieu [kneeler] before a tabernacle", explains Archbishop Sheen in his autobiography Treasure in Clay.13 On the day of his ordination, Sheen made the resolution "to spend a continuous Holy Hour every day in the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament". Every day.
He not only kept that resolution throughout his priesthood, but also vigorously promoted the practice of making a Holy Hour, careful to avoid referring to it as a devotion. "First, the Holy Hour is not a devotion; it is a sharing in the work of redemption... Secondly, the only time Our Lord asked the Apostles for anything was the night he went into his agony" and asked them to spend an hour with Him. "The third reason I keep up the Holy Hour is to grow more and more into his likeness... We become like that which we gaze upon".
Just what do we gaze upon in the tabernacle? Or in the monstrance when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed? What is beyond what we can see? Some of the most sublime descriptions of "this mystery", this Presence, come from Saint Thomas Aquinas. Consider his profoundly inspired and inspiring Adore Te Devote:
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting, are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.
Reference is often made to Christ dwelling under a Eucharistic veil, our eyes only able to perceive what is on this side of it. But the extent to which the Presence is "seen" is in the eye of the beholder, or heart of the believer. Raphael's sweeping sanctuary scene in "Disputation of the Eucharist" captures this reality in startling detail.
Simple faith can be so powerful. One of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had of the awesome presence of Christ in the Eucharist happened in a most unlikely place. It was in Lithuania, where the faith had been nearly erased by decades of Communist occupation. Some explained to us that they were forbidden from going into a church under threat of punishment and job loss, that school children were taught atheism, and parents were afraid to teach the faith at home. The Cathedral of Vilnius, among other churches, had been turned into a state museum, but it has slowly been restored. After Lithuania gained independence in 1991, the Catholic faith has been slow in coming back.
One morning, I slipped over to the very old Sventos Onos, Saint Anne's Church, in the old quarter where we were staying, for an early Mass. The small church was packed, and I took an old wooden bench in the very back, in the midst of a dense crowd. There were many old people, but a number of young people as well, including the couple next to me with their two small children. The future of the Church in Lithuania.
All during the Mass, an unusual seriousness and devotion attended the liturgy, especially during the Consecration. What happened then, I have never seen before -- or since. The entire congregation stood to ready themselves for communion, and lines formed up the center aisle. But instead of moving forward, the people went down on their knees in succession as the priest and his sacristan moved toward them with the Eucharist. From the back, I witnessed this awesome spectacle of silent reverence, just as subjects would kneel at the procession of their King. And so it was here. They knew that. As the priest approached the back, my heart quickened. Those around me dropped to their knees, and I knelt, holding back tears.
It recalled, and gave new meaning to, the exquisite poetry of Saint Thomas Aquinas's adoring Pange Lingua:
Therefore we, before him falling,
This great sacrament revere;
Ancient forms are now departed,
For new acts of grace are here,
Faith our feeble senses aiding
Makes the Savior's presence clear.
The wise men adored this Body when it lay in the manger; they prostrated themselves before it in fear and trembling. Now you behold the same Body which the wise men adored in the manger, lying upon the altar; you also know its power and salutary effect... Already in the present life this mystery changes the earth for you into Heaven. The sublimest thing that is there -- the Body of the Lord -- you can behold here on earth.
Saint John Chrysostom, known as the Doctor of the Eucharist, spoke eloquently of the Presence of Christ in this mystery of faith. "The Magi came from the uttermost ends of Persia to the stable, to visit and adore the Child; and we, who need not expose ourselves to the hardships of a long, wearisome journey, in order to be able to adore it in our churches and tabernacles, we who need only leave our houses, refuse to do this? Is this not the grossest negligence...?"
Fear and trembling. They are invoked by that terrifying and awesome immediacy of the presence of the Divine. In an article titled "The Eucharist", Benedict M. Ashley, O.P., refers to the attraction of the sense of the sacred in the Catholic Church:
The philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto in his well known phenomenological analysis of "the holy" describes it as "that which causes us to tremble yet at the same time attracts us." What could be more sublimely simple or more filled with the sense of the sacred and of Mystery than Jesus' words, "This is my Body. This is my Blood!". The Good News is that Jesus, Lord of History, is truly present and active in the Eucharist, and if we, too, actively participate in His act of worship, the Church will be renewed and victory will be ours.14
Acts of Faith
Actively participate. This is a culture capable of actively participating in the worship of celebrities, especially from the entertainment and sports world. Whenever someone of such fame visits Chicago, the local newspaper gossip columns track their movements in a "celebrity watch" activity. I recall a time when locals discovered that a famous actress was visiting our small village outside Chicago for personal reasons. Word spread fast and friends called friends to jump in cars and rush to get a glimpse of her.
Pilgrims from all over the world invest money and time and effort traveling to famous shrines, and even sites of purported apparitions, to be where heaven has touched earth, where miracles have happened or may be happening today, whether seen or unseen, but are so firmly believed that crowds flock and tears flow and people are converted. Imagine, if there were just one church in the world in which a Consecration could take place that would miraculously call down the Son of God to be present in that church, how many of these people would journey as far across the continents as it would take to be present for this miracle. But Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is present in the Eucharist, every day, in the nearest Catholic church. For many, even most, Catholics it is still too hard a saying.
G.K. Chesterton, in one of his most famous books, The Everlasting Man, made the point that whenever the critics have spoken of the limitations of the Galilean, it has been the limitations of the critics that have been most apparent.
Some of my loved ones left the Catholic Church a long time ago. But they left a Church they do not know. One of them, who loves Jesus Christ deeply, who faithfully attends her fundamentalist Christian church and participates in worship there fervently, told me that when they hold their communion service once a month, she is moved to tears by the emotion of the Lord's supper that they commemorate. What I want to say to her, if she would really listen, is that when Christ ascended into heaven, He did not leave us with only a sign or symbol of His presence among us. He left us with the Eucharist. And everywhere in which there is a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament, He beckons.
"No one comes unless he is drawn", said Saint Augustine in a homily on the Gospel of John. "You are not yet drawn? Pray that you may be drawn... A man is able to come into the Church unwillingly, he is able to approach the altar unwillingly, he is able to receive the Sacrament unwillingly; but he is not able to believe except willingly".
How can one stay away? He is here, and the call is so strong. It is like the presence of God that the prophet Elijah encountered in the account of I Kings 19:11-13, in which He was not in the wind, or the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice that followed all the noise. More discernible in silence.
That is how this story came about. I had been considering one of two other stories for this issue, and never even thought of this. Then one weekend, while standing in line for confession, I looked across this new, stark, modern church at the small enclosed room in the far right corner designated to reserve the Blessed Sacrament, as something of a side chapel. Through the glass, I looked at the tabernacle for a while, and just... gazed. Thought was suspended for a time, and I was transfixed. Then, suddenly, the incident in the village in Ireland came back -- the call, the pull. And the story suggested itself. All I could think was, "Speak, Lord, your servant listens".
1 March 4, 1979. The first Sunday of Lent.
2 Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 47.
3 "Eucharist, Communion and Solidarity", lecture given on June 2, 2002 at the Eucharistic Congress of the Archdiocese of Benevento, Italy.
4 1960, The Macmillan Company, abridged by Sophia Institute Press in 2001.
5 ca. A.D. 400
6 The Source of Knowledge, ca. A.D. 743 or after.
7 Catechetical Lectures, ca. A.D. 350.
8 February 24, 1980.
9 Dominicae Cenae (DC) no. 8.
10 DC no. 4.
11 Many of these can be accessed online on the WFF web site at www.wf-f.org or on the Adoremus web site at www.adoremus.org. See the Church Documents section for a listing.
12 DC no. 3.
13 original printing Doubleday; 1980 Ignatius Press.
14 Catholic Dossier Sept-Oct. 1996.
Sheila Gribben Liaugminas is a Chicago journalist and a member of the editorial board of Voices. She is married and the mother of two sons.
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