Pope Benedict XVI used a talk he gave at a Eucharistic Congress in the Italian city of Bari last May to recall the story of the small Christian community in Tunisia, north Africa, in the year 304. Forty-nine Christians had gathered in a home to celebrate Mass, defying the decree of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who had forbidden Christians to assemble. Rounded up by the police and taken to the governor, they explained why they had gathered in defiance of the Emperor's orders: "Without the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, we cannot live." Admonished to stop taking part in the Sunday Eucharistic assembly, they refused to make any such promise and were all put to death.
It is a far cry from this sense of the Sunday Eucharist at the core of one's existence to a resented obligation to go to Mass on Sunday. The difference is that between a necessity arising from the very nature of one's life in Christ and a sense of coercion from an external authority which gets in the way of one's own desires. The difference is that between a living faith, the result of genuine conversion, and a superficial identity never really internalized.
Without Sunday Mass, the faith withers, the Church becomes moribund and Catholics gradually cease living in Christ. Despite the increase in the numbers of Catholics worldwide, the number of those participating in the Sunday Eucharist has markedly decreased here and in Canada and Western Europe. When I was growing up in Chicago, over 80 percent of baptized Catholics regularly went to Mass each Sunday. It was simply part of our way of life. Now perhaps 30 percent of us go to Mass each Sunday, and a large number of these are immigrants from Latin America and Poland, people trained to be Catholic elsewhere. Without the immigrants, the number of practicing Catholics in the Archdiocese would not be substantially greater than is the case in Western Europe. It was not the intention of the Second Vatican Council to discourage attendance at Sunday Mass. Something has gone wrong.
One of the major motives that impelled Pope John Paul II to proclaim the Year of the Eucharist, beginning last October and ending this October with the Roman Synod on the Eucharist, was the hope of awakening in the hearts of believers a renewed sense of awe at the great gift Christ left his Church in the Blessed Sacrament. With this sense of awe and wonder would come new efforts to understand and teach the mystery, to make its celebration in the liturgy more worthy and to help Catholics approach holy communion with reverence and adequate preparation.
The Synod, which will last from Oct. 2 to 23, has as its theme, "The Eucharist: Source and summit of the life and Mission of the Church." Thousands of Catholics have been surveyed in the past two years, and the working paper for the Synod comes in great part from their responses. Many said that Catholics often fail to understand that, in the Eucharist, Christ makes present, through the ministry of the ordained priest, the sacrifice offered once and for all on Calvary. In the Eucharist, the offering of the faithful is joined to that of Christ, their Savior, to give glory and thanksgiving to the Father. Through the Eucharist, the power of the Holy Spirit transforms the people into the living Body of Christ, sent to transform the world.
All this happens because the gifts of bread and wine are changed, at the consecration of the Mass, to become the body and blood of Christ, once crucified and now risen from the dead. In the Eucharist, only the appearances of bread and wine remain. What was bread and wine is now totally, in its deepest reality, the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ. This real presence remains as long as the appearances of bread and wine remain. Christ really present in the Blessed Sacrament is adored at the consecration, received in holy communion, and reserved in the tabernacles of our churches. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is more and more a feature of parish life and an invaluable practice of Catholic spirituality. Several associations in the Archdiocese foster Eucharistic adoration. It is encouraged in the working paper preparing the discussions at the upcoming Synod. The movement to promote Eucharistic adoration gets to the heart of what the year of the Eucharist was designed to achieve: the renewal of our deep appreciation of the loving, gracious gift of Christ that is the sacrament of the altar.
As the Archdiocese has worked to implement in the past year the liturgical instructions in the new General Introduction to the Roman Missal, I have noticed that the celebration of Mass is more reverent in many of the parishes I visit. I am grateful to the pastors and liturgists, the lectors and acolytes, the extraordinary ministers of holy communion and all the faithful who have taken to heart the directions of the Church for the celebration of the liturgy.
In a divided world and a Church filled with various tensions, the Eucharist creates unity among us. The entire Church is present at every celebration of the Eucharist, even if the priest is physically the only one present. Human history changes each time the Eucharist is offered. The Eucharist is our best hope for the strengthening of the Church and of her mission to the world. Approached in God's friendship and with the right moral disposition, the Eucharist is the best hope for our attaining personal salvation: "Whoever eats my bread and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (Jn. 6: 54).
On the day that Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his first Mass as Bishop of Rome in St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome, he exclaimed, "Thanks to the Eucharist, the Church is born ever anew." Let us pray this coming month for the Pope and the bishops and the observers gathered in Synod in Rome to reflect on the gift of the Eucharist. I would encourage all Catholics to pray as well for their priests. Christ's presence in the Eucharist is perfect and divine. His presence in the ordained priest is imperfect and human. The eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, head of his Church, is presented to the world through men who are weak and sinful, yet called by the grace of Holy Orders to serve at the altar and to minister Christ's sacraments to the people they are called to serve. This gift of Holy Orders, so closely united to the gift of the Eucharist, is an amazing sign of God's great trust in human beings and is worthy of a deeper and more profound reflection. From thanking Christ for the gift of the Eucharist, we move easily to thanking Him for the gift of ordained priesthood in the Church. Our gratitude will lead to prayer for the priests now serving in the Archdiocese, for our seminarians and for those whom God is calling to the priesthood here. God bless you.