On the Feast of Corpus Christi (June 19 this year), Catholics celebrate the Lord’s gift of his Body and Blood under the forms of bread and wine. The Holy Eucharist fulfills the promise Jesus made to his disciples when he said, “my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6: 56-57) The ceremonies of Corpus Christi, when the Body of Christ is carried in procession through the streets and displayed on altars for worship, make it clear that in this humble form Our Lord is really present, giving himself to be our food, our life.
The Holy Eucharist has saving power. This was demonstrated to me once by a man in my parish who for most of his adulthood had led an evil life. It is not just that this man was a sinner, as we all are; it was that he deliberately and consciously, with full consent, habitually offended God. The whole path of his life was littered, indeed defined, by mortal sin.
For nearly forty years, this man could be seen attending Mass in our church every Sunday. And for all that time, he never once received Holy Communion. He would say of himself that he was a believing Catholic, but a bad one. He believed in Christ, but refused to follow Christ. He had no quarrel with the Church; he never tried to justify himself by arguing against the Church. He was determined to be honest with himself, and with his Lord, so he did not receive the Holy Eucharist.
I met this man shortly after he retired. He now attended daily Mass, but was still not receiving Holy Communion. Then one day I noticed that he did receive. He knew that I had noticed, and called to make an appointment with me to explain the change. He was a quiet man. Hardly anybody in our parish knew his story. But he wanted to tell it to me.
This is what happened. One day at Mass, as people were going up for Communion, he stayed in his pew as usual and had what is called an “inner locution.” He heard a voice within him saying, Do you not want me? There was no doubt who the speaker was. The man told me that he could not ignore that question. His faith, which had kept him coming to Mass through all those years of sin, would not allow him to say no. And so, paraphrasing St. Peter in his last encounter with the risen Lord (John 21:15-19), this man replied, Yes, Lord; you know that I want you.
During the next few days, he prepared his confession—not without abundant tears, as he told me. And, not without a lot of trouble, he set about reforming the whole pattern of his life. But that was a small price to pay, he said, for the extraordinary grace he had received from God: the invitation to accept his love and to receive eternal life from him.
This man’s story illustrates three things about the Eucharist.
First, it is holy: It must not be taken lightly. If someone is aware of something in his way of life that contradicts the way of the Lord Jesus, then he must not presume to receive Holy Communion. He must not receive the Lord whom in his actions he rejects—for then, as St. Paul says, he will call down judgment on himself. (1 Corinthians 11:27) My parishioner knew this and practiced accordingly, not realizing that his faithful attendance at Mass had kept alive a desire in him for the Lord.
Second, this man’s story shows that one can keep one’s faith—and keep faith with the Church—however far one is from living it. Our Lord knows that many people who are in a state of sin need time, and extra graces, if they are to make the necessary changes in their way of life. He knows that he can save us only through our faith. So, he provides a way for us to sustain our faith, and that is the Mass. For all those years when my parishioner was very far from Christ, because he remained attached to the Mass, he was aware of Christ being close to him. And that is just what St. Augustine said in his Confessions: “You, my God, were with me, though I was not with you.” Our Lord is with us through the times when we are not with him: That is our faith, which the Mass enables us to keep until the Lord, by an extraordinary grace, comes through the closed doors of our hearts. The Mass is the anchor of faith.
Finally, our faith is that the Holy Eucharist is really Jesus, crucified for us and risen from the dead. Jesus said, This is my Body, and This is my Blood: Note the simple verb “to be.” And to the question, how do bread and wine become what Jesus says they are, the Church answers with the formulation of St. Thomas Aquinas, that the substances of bread and wine are changed, while their sensible qualities remain. That miracle is what the Church calls “Transubstantiation.” Our faith is none other than the Church’s faith, which we must never reduce to the measure of our own minds. Because my parishioner did not make that mistake; because he believed the Church’s teaching and the words of Jesus; he was able to hear and respond to those saving words, personally addressed to him, Do you not want me?