The Eucharist & the Church
PASTORAL LETTER OF THE MOST REVEREND VINCENT NICHOLS ARCHBISHOP OF BIRMINGHAM ON THE EUCHARIST AND THE CHURCH (TRINITY SUNDAY 2003)
Today, on this the Feast of The Most Holy Trinity, we proclaim God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the mystery of God. God is the origin of all life, the Father. From all eternity the Father speaks the eternal Word, who is made flesh in Jesus Christ. From the Father and Son comes the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This feast is followed immediately, on Thursday, by the Feast of ‘Corpus Christi’, ‘The Body and Blood of Christ’. In preparation for that Feast, and reflecting on the mystery of God, I would like to speak to you about the Mass and the abiding presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. In doing so I put before you the teaching of Pope John Paul, given in his recent Encyclical Letter on the Eucharist.
In his letter the Holy Father asks us to think about the Eucharist from Our Lady’s point of view. When she was present with the disciples at the first celebrations of the Eucharist, she must have understood with a mother’s instinct exactly what was taking place. She knew that she was again standing at the foot of the cross, re-living the death of her Son. She knew that she was again receiving into her heart the Son she had earlier received in her womb. Her heart and the heart of her Son again beat as one. This is the wonder of the Mass. This is a wonder that every mother can appreciate and share in a special way. And every mother can try to pass on to her children this love for Christ and for the Mass.
As we think about the Mass, and the great gift of Christ given to us, we must be clear about exactly what the Mass is. In our familiarity with it, our understanding of the Mass can become vague.
The Mass makes present for us the words and actions, the death and resurrection of Christ by which we are saved. The Mass is the great ‘mystery of faith’ in every time and place. To take part in the Mass is to be drawn into the saving action of God in our world. It is unlike anything else in the world, beyond all other actions and different to any other celebration that takes place in church. The Mass is unique.
At the heart of the Mass is sacrifice. Christ, in dying willingly on the cross, offered Himself in love to the Father. This is the sacrifice made real in every Mass. We too, united to Christ, can offer ourselves to the Father with all our joys and sorrows. This offering of self, this sacrifice, lies at the heart of Christian living. We begin each day with a morning offering, giving the day, with all its effort, to God who has first given it to us. Whenever possible the highpoint of each day is to complete that offering in the sacrifice of the Mass.
Jesus offered himself to the Father for our sake. Once his sacrifice is made, then, in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ can give himself entirely to us as our food and drink. So the sacrifice of the Mass becomes a true banquet. We too, who offer ourselves to the Father, can become servants of each other, brothers and sisters in the Lord. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Mass is this true sacrifice and this real banquet because in it Christ is truly present. By the power of the Holy Spirit the bread and wine we place on the altar becomes the real presence of Christ, his body and his blood. Christ is held before us in the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass to which we all respond with the Great Amen. It is Christ whom we receive in Holy Communion. The appearances of bread and wine hide the truth. Their inner reality, their substance is changed. Now it is Christ who is truly present.
So when we receive Holy Communion let us never speak of ‘the bread’ or ‘the wine’. Let us speak only of the body and the blood of Christ. This is the reality and the language of faith. This is our language, the one of which we are proud, and which we are to teach our children. When we are careful in what we say then we treasure and hand on our faith.
Next we need to consider how this action of the Mass comes about.
In the Creed, we confess the Church to be ‘apostolic’. This means that the Church is built on the foundation of the first group of Twelve, those to whom Christ entrusted himself. To be ‘apostolic’ also means that the Church always remains true to that gift and foundation. What is more, it means we recognise that we are taught and made holy at the hands of the apostles and their successors. This is particularly true of the Mass. This gift of Christ was first given to the apostles and has been handed on to us through them. The Eucharistic sacrifice can only be offered by a priest, ordained by a bishop in succession to the apostles and, thereby, acting in the person of Christ.
It is not surprising, then, that we long for sufficient numbers of priests for the celebration of Mass. We feel this especially when a parish is without its own priest. Our longing for Mass urges us to pray for vocations to the priesthood.
As well as reflecting on what the Mass really is, and on how it comes about, we now consider what the Mass is for.
The celebration of the Mass builds up the Church. Week by week, day by day, as the sacrifice of Christ is renewed and as we are fed by his body and blood, so the Church grows. The Mass strengthens us in our bond to Christ. We are his people. As we receive him in Holy Communion, he takes us into himself, binding us together in our communion of faith, filling us with the grace of the Holy Spirit and presenting us to His Father.
The Mass, then, is the centre and source of unity in the Church. When we take part in the Mass we are drawn more deeply into the reality of the Church, both the spiritual reality of the Body of Christ and the visible reality of the world-wide Catholic Communion. To receive Holy Communion and share visibly in the sacrifice of Christ we need to be at one with the Church, both in a spiritual, inner way, and in our visible belonging to the Catholic Church.
The invisible unity we share grows in the heart of each of us through our personal faith, hope and love. It is tested in our behaviour. This is why each of us prepares carefully before receiving Holy Communion. If, in conscience, we know that our actions have been significantly at odds with the teaching of the Church then we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or confession, before receiving Holy Communion.
The visible bonds of the Church are evident in the Mass in our prayers for the Pope and for our own diocesan bishop. Pope and bishop are the points of reference of the visible unity of the Catholic Church. Unity with them comes before our sharing in this Eucharistic banquet. This teaching about the Eucharist guides our practice about who can receive Holy Communion at Mass. Some, therefore, come forward in the communion procession to receive a blessing as the appropriate way, at that point, for them to share in the action of the Mass. It also makes clear why Catholics do not receive communion at the services of other churches, for the common bonds of faith which we share with other Christians do not yet extend to visible unity.
In the Mass, Christ also makes us his witnesses in our day to day lives. Through our communion with him we come to share his longing for a world free of sin and of the effects of sin. Christ shares with us his mission to ‘take away the sins of the world’. In the Mass we celebrate the promise that this will be fully achieved in the Kingdom of heaven. We also celebrate the fact that Christ, in the power of his Holy Spirit, is working in the hearts of the faithful to build in this world signs of his love, his compassion and his justice for all. Through the Mass we are strengthened to work for this kingdom, caring passionately about the good of all and especially about the weakest and most vulnerable.
This intimacy with Christ which we are given in the Mass and in Holy Communion is a permanent gift for us. Our Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament is an abiding presence. It is good to spend time in his company in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. I am glad that the Adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is again becoming a widespread practice in our parishes. I hope it continues to do so, more and more.
In this Pastoral Letter I have written about the true nature of the Eucharist, about how the mystery of the Mass takes place and about its centrality in God’s plan for our world. This leaves just one more thing to say.
Do treasure the Mass. Recognise what a supreme gift it is. Prepare for Mass, embrace the Mass, participate in the Mass. I thank those who ensure that our churches are clean and well prepared; those who care for the beauty of the church; those who turn out smartly dressed to serve at Mass; all of you who come and give your best attention and devotion to every word and action of the Mass. Nothing but our best will do, for our celebration is our participation in the greatest gift of all: that of Christ Himself.
May our celebration of Mass always be centred on the Father and never on ourselves. May it be full of reverence for the presence of our living Lord in Word and Sacrament and never casual or off-hand. May our celebrations always be full of joy that we are called to be part of this great mystery of faith. As St Paul says to us today:
“The spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves..it is the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, ‘Abba Father!’ The Spirit himself and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God. And if we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing his suffering so as to share his glory.” (Romans 8.14-17)
Archbishop of Birmingham
Given at Birmingham on the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed
Virgin Mary and appointed to be read in all Churches and Chapels
of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, 15th June 2003.