"What does it mean to be Catholic?" The question comes to me from different folks at various times. Most recently it was raised during a meeting of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council. For some Christian groups, a particular belief or practice defines them clearly. It's harder for Catholics to be specific, because our faith professes all the truths revealed by God through Jesus Christ and our Church is universally inclusive. That's what "Catholic" means. The problem is felt more keenly, I believe, because many practices that defined a Catholic way of life have been abandoned or even deliberately suppressed in the past 40 years. Catholic practice is now more individually defined, even as the faith itself remains what has come to us from the apostles.
The Catholic faith contains much more than what is professed in many Christian groups; but at the heart of our faith, as must be the case for all Christians, is the belief that Jesus is risen bodily from the grave to a new life that lasts forever. Among the gifts of faith that are given to Catholics, along with the Orthodox who have also preserved the seven sacraments of the apostolic Church, is the very physical presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharist. In the celebration of the Mass, through the action of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the ordained priest, bread and wine become quite literally the body and blood of the risen Christ. The Mass is a memorial of Calvary, during which the Jesus who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday becomes really present.
Easter is therefore a privileged time to deepen our understanding of the Eucharist and our love for the risen Lord present to us under the forms of bread and wine. Pope John Paul II, in his recent encyclical letter on the Eucharist, writes: "The Eucharistic sacrifice makes present not only the mystery of the Savior's passion and death but also the mystery of the resurrection which crowned his sacrifice. It is as the living and risen One that Christ can become in the Eucharist the 'bread of life' (Jn 6:35, 48), the 'living bread' (Jn 6: 57)."
The Eucharist brings the hope of resurrection into our lives, into our very bodies. No matter what sorrow or pain we may be struggling with, no matter how difficult we may be finding life or how overwhelmed with problems we may be, the Eucharistic presence of the risen Christ can touch us profoundly and intimately. We are not alone; Christ's victorious love enfolds us. Christ's triumph over sin and death becomes our own. This belief and this experience are at the heart of what it means to be Catholic.
When the Pope proclaimed the Year of the Eucharist last October, he invited us to recapture the "amazement" that this wonderful gift should awaken in us. Because the Eucharist brings heaven into our midst, we who belong to Christ by baptism touch eternity as we celebrate the Mass. Raised above what is only human, we discover in the Eucharist what it means to be fully human. Writes the Pope: "The Eucharist reinforces the incorporation into Christ which took place in baptism through the gift of the Holy Spirit." The Eucharist is the pledge of our own bodily resurrection at the end of time. "The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day." (Jn 6:54). In receiving the body and blood of the risen Lord, we receive into our still mortal flesh the seeds of immortality.
The Pope suggests we take as our guide for the Year of the Eucharist the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, fleeing Jerusalem on Easter Sunday evening. Sad and dejected, they did not recognize the risen Christ when he came and walked with them. He interpreted for them the Scripture passages that foretold the death of the Messiah, and they then recognized him in the "breaking of the bread" (Lk 24:35). Their encounter with the risen Christ in the word he proclaimed to them and in the bread he broke for them became for them a summons to give testimony to his rising. They conquered their fears, returned to Jerusalem and told the apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Our encounter with the risen Christ in Holy Communion is a summons to each of us to proclaim his resurrection to others. Like St. Mary Magdalen on Easter morning, we meet the risen Lord every time we receive Holy Communion. Once we have met the Lord by partaking of his body and blood, we cannot keep to ourselves the hope and joy we have found. The Eucharist is to provide the motive and the inner strength we need to do our part in the mission that Christ has entrusted to his Church. The Good News we are to proclaim, however, is a Person, who is present to us in the Eucharist.
What it means to be Catholic, therefore, is to be part of a Eucharistic people. May the joy of your encounter with the Risen Christ in the Eucharist this Easter transform your lives and make all of us bearers of hope to the world.