Why Attending Mass is the Most Important Thing You Can Ever Do

Dr. Scott Hahn is a well-known Catholic speaker and author, and he’s a professor of Biblical Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  But Scott Hahn was very anti-Catholic in school and in his seminary days.  He even gave out anti-Catholic literature, ripped apart a rosary and tore up a Catholic prayer book.  After his seminary training, he became the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia.  He also became a part-time instructor at a local Presbyterian seminary.

The first course that Scott was assigned to teach was the Gospel According to John.  While he was preparing his class for chapter six, something happened to him.  He began to question what he had been taught – and was now teaching others – about the Eucharist: that it was only a symbol of Christ’s body and not the real Body of Christ.  This questioning was the start of a journey that led him into the Catholic Church.

The first big step on that journey came when he persuaded his wife to go with him to study at Marquette University in the 1980s.  He wanted to learn firsthand about the Catholic Theology of the Eucharist.  The more he learned, the more he became convinced that Christ is really present in the Eucharist – body, blood, soul and divinity.  Then, one weekday, Scott decided to something that he never dreamed he would do.  He decided to attend a Mass in the weekday chapel on the campus.

He got there early and sat in the back pew as an observer.  He didn’t want anyone to notice him, and he made sure that there was an easily accessible escape route in case of an emergency.  As he observed, he was amazed at the number of people arriving and with their sincere devotion.  Then the Mass began….and, as he listened to the readings, he was struck by how they took on a special meaning in the context of what was about to take place: the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Scott wrote in his book, called Rome Sweet Home, that all of a sudden he realized that this was the setting in which the bible was meant to be read.  …….Then came the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Scott said that when the priest held up the Host, after the words of consecration, all his doubt about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist vanished completely and forever.  Later he wrote, “With all my heart, I whispered, ‘My Lord and my God.’”  He concluded by saying, “I left the chapel not telling a soul where I had been and what I had done.  But the next day I was back, and the next, and the next…I don’t know how to say it, but I had fallen in love with Our Lord in the Eucharist.

Justin the Martyr is one of the very early Church Fathers.  He lived at a time when the Roman Senate was very suspicious of the Christians.  At that time, the Romans saw the Christians as a sect that grew out of Judaism, and the Jews had revolted against Rome in the year 70A.D.  The Roman Emperor wanted to make sure that the Christians were not conspiring against the Roman government.  He asked Saint Justin to submit a list step-by-step of exactly what Christians did when they meet on Sunday mornings.  Here’s the list:

  • Christians gather on Sunday
  • Writings of the Apostles and prophets are read.
  • The presider challenges the hearers to imitate these things.
  • All then offer prayers of intercession.
  • They exchange the kiss of peace.
  • What is gathered is given to the presider to assist those in need.
  • The gifts of bread and wine (mixed with water) are brought forth.
  • The presider prays for a considerable time as he gives thanks. (Eucharist)
  • At the end all say “Amen”.
  • The deacons give the “Eucharistized”  bread, wine and water to all present and take some to those absent.

Sounds like the Mass, doesn’t it?  But the year was 145 A.D.!!!

But there’s more……. The Roman Senate was satisfied that the Christians were not conspiring against the government.  But they wrote back to Justin and said, “We don’t understand how you are using this word Eucharistia.”  This Greek word normally meant to give thanks, but he was using it in another way.  Here’s what he wrote:

“We call this food Eucharist.  And no one is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined.”

This one paragraph could sum up our Eucharist today.  And the year is 145 A.D.!!!  The Church has believed that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity from the very beginning, from the lips of the apostles themselves!  And don’t ever let anybody tell you anything different!

Scott Hahn calls Holy Communion Covenant Union.  It is union because in it we are intimately united to Christ and to one another.  It is a covenant because Jesus declared that what we are doing at Mass is the “New Covenant in his blood.”  

This is the covenant that all of the previous covenants of salvation history were leading up to, beginning with Adam, Noah and Abraham, continuing through Moses and King David, and finally fulfilled in Christ.  It’s the ultimate covenant; it’s an intimate and sacred family bond between God and us, and each of us with one another.  “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

So when someone holds the Sacred Host out in front of you and declares that “this is the Body of Christ” and you say “Amen,” don’t take it lightly, because it is at that very moment that you are renewing your part of the covenant.  You are pledging your commitment  to live in loving union with God and with your neighbors.

When we receive Holy Communion and renew our commitment  to Covenant Union with Christ and with one another, when we hear what he says and do what he does, when we walk out of Mass as a sacrament, as a visible sign of God’s invisible grace, when we are what we are called to be as Catholic Christians, that is when we are what we are called to be.  If every Catholic knew what you know now, we could change the world.

Deacon Greg Ollick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online. He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and runs The Epiphany Initiative website.

Receiving the Eucharist with the Proper Disposition

Father Michael Schmitz has one of the most effective campus ministries in the country at the University of Minnesota.  He tells a story about back when he was in the seminary in the late 1970s.  Though we wouldn’t do it today, back then his particular seminary used regular loaves of bread for Holy Communion. During the distribution of the Eucharist the priest would break off pieces and give them to the people when they came up to the altar.  Though they tried their best, there were always crumbs that would fall to the floor.  One of the seminarians would stay in the chapel after Mass every day and quietly and reverently kneel down and eat all the crumbs off of the floor.  One day Schmitz asked him why he did that, and the answer was something that he would never forget.

real presenceThe seminarian had spent a year in China as a missionary.  He heard a true story about the days when the Communists first took over, and how they would go into churches and ransack everything.  One day they attacked a Catholic Church.  They took down all the statues and broke them to into pieces.  They smashed out all of the stain glass windows, and toppled the altar.  Then they took the tabernacle and through it out the back door.  The priest watched in horror as it hit the ground and all of the consecrated hosts were scattered.  There was nothing he could do.  The soldiers had arrested him and locked him in a tool shed in back of the church.  The priest was in there for days, as three young Chinese soldiers stood guard with rifles.  He kept an eye out for the scattered hosts as he prayed, asking that God would somehow send deliverance.

That evening, once it was dark, he saw a little girl, about 10 years old, outside.  She hid behind the trees and bushes so that the guards wouldn’t see her.  Then she kneeled down and picked up one of the sacred hosts with her mouth.  She slowly and reverently consumed the host and left.  The children were taught that they could never touch the Blessed Sacrament, and they could only receive once a day.  So she returned each evening.  Darting in and out between the shadows.  And each night she would kneel down and consume one of the hosts.

The priest knew how many hosts had been in the tabernacle.  And he watch as the girl returned every night until there was only one host left.  The priest kept an eye on that host from the window of the shed, and he also kept an eye on the guards.  That night he saw the little girl again.  She was quiet, fast and very careful not to be noticed by the soldiers.  She knelt down and consumed the very last host, and as she got up, she tripped and fell.  The guards heard her and rushed over.  Then they beat the poor little girl to death with the butts of their rifles.  With tears in his eyes, the seminarian said, “That’s why I do it.  That’s why I eat the crumbs off the floor every day.  I never forgot that story, and ever since then, there’s nothing more precious to me than the Blessed Sacrament.”

In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, in what is known as the Bread of Life Discourse, are some of the most profound words in all of scripture. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  Jesus told the Jews that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, and that whoever eats this bread will live forever.  And the bread that He will give is his flesh for the life of the world.

The Jews understood this very literally, and that’s why most of them left and went back to their families and former ways of living.  They said, “This is a hard saying, who can accept it?”  Jesus didn’t try to explain that he was just speaking symbolically.  No, he meant exactly what he said.  The Church has understood from the beginning that the Bread of Life refers to the Sacrament of the Eucharist.  The New Testament scriptures make this clear, and so does the history and testimony of the early church.

Saint Justin, around the year 145, explained what the Church believes about the Eucharist: “We call this food Eucharist, and no one is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is hereby living as Christ has enjoined.  For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught by his apostles, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic Prayer set down by him, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus.” The Eucharist is indeed the “Bread of Life,” and by it we are nourished for all eternity.

At Mass, the King of the universe comes down from heaven, onto the altar and into you and me.  When we receive the Bread of Life with the proper disposition, we are changed forever.  Disposition is an attitude of mind and heart.  Let me share with you an example of someone who had the proper disposition.  One Saturday morning, I was at Mass sitting in a pew beside a young boy in the second grade who was receiving his first Holy Communion that day.  He had missed receiving his first Holy Communion with his class.  His father was sitting on the other side of him……When the time came, the young boy went up to receive Communion.  He bowed reverently, received in his hands and consumed the sacred host.  When he returned to his pew, he knelt and prayed.  I knelt down next to him.  After several minutes his father turned to him and asked, “Son, do you feel any different now that you have received your first Holy Communion?”  The boy turned and looked his father in the eye and said, “Yes, Dad, I do feel different.  I feel very different.  I feel God inside.”

That young man received Communion with the proper disposition, the attitude of mind and heart that leads to eternal life.  Saint Cyril, in the 4th century, said that the Christian who consumes the Bread of Life becomes a “Christbearer,” one body and blood with him and the covenant is sealed.  Then we are sent out of the church to be what we are called to be – a sacrament, a visible sign of God’s invisible grace for the whole world to see, and know and draw closer to him.  This is the proper disposition.  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  This is why we do it.

Deacon Greg Ollick is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and teaches in the Catholic Catechesis Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

United in Christ

IMG_1158Do we come to Mass to worship God and offer sacrifice? Or do we come to Mass to be part of a community and share a meal? The answer is both. The liturgy contains within it both a vertical and a horizontal dimension, and these are related to each other.

The vertical dimension of the liturgy refers to each person’s individual relationship with God. Each of us comes to the liturgy as a unique person. We come to offer these individual lives to God the Father, through Jesus the Son. I offer my life, contrite for my sin, to the Father in heaven. Jesus mediates this offering for me. Uniting my offering to that of Jesus enables my offering to be accepted by God the Father. The Father accepts my offering and returns my life to me full of grace, united with Jesus in Holy Communion.

The horizontal dimension of the liturgy refers to each person’s relationship to those with whom they are worshipping. This should be considered in the broadest of terms, that is,  not only those present, but to all of humanity, and all the angels and saints, as well. In the liturgy, bread and wine are offered and shared, and in the sharing of the elements, a unity results. The shared elements, by virtue of the sacrificial offering, are the Body and Blood of Christ.

The unity, then, is not a result of the act of sharing, but rather of the fact that each individual is united to Jesus Christ, both in the offering of themselves to the Father with Christ, and in the reception of Holy Communion. We are not united by common interests or similar tastes, or simply because we happen to belong to the same parish community. We are united in Christ, the strongest of bonds.

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College.

Corpus Christi Makes the Church

The celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi is a good time to ponder, not only the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but our personal identity as Christians – the Body of Christ.

The Eucharist constitutes the fullness of communion with the Church. We are not fully initiated into the Christian faith until we are united sacramentally with Christ himself. It may seem odd to think of it as a sacrament of initiation since we continue to participate in the Eucharist, and in fact are obligated to do so long after we have been baptized and confirmed. How is it that, though fully initiated, we continue to participate in it?

We are human beings, susceptible to sin – very susceptible! The only way we can keep from sinning is by the power of God. The power of sin does not go away once we are initiated into the Body of Christ (in fact, it may get worse!). We are in a constant battle. Our initiation opens the door for us to God’s grace, giving us access to the power that we need to resist temptation to sin.

But we need to freely cooEucharistic Adorationperate in those graces and to return often to the font of those graces. We repeatedly bring our sinful lives before Christ on the cross to redeem us, so that we can live lives that are true to our identity as the Body of Christ, the People of God. (Notice that the first thing we do at Mass is the Penitential Rite. We acknowledge our sins in preparation for our offering of ourselves. We offer a contrite heart.)

The words and the elements of the Eucharist are the same as those used by Jesus at the Last Supper. We see how it is Jesus who gives the elements their spiritual power, making them his Body and Blood. The words of Jesus do what they say. We do things as God himself has told us to do so, showing respect for God as our Creator and Redeemer and Jesus as the institutor of the sacraments.

In the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is remembered (in the anamnesis sense of the word) and celebrated within the context of a meal. We call it the Lord’s Supper, or the Paschal Banquet. This must be understood in light of the Old Testament sacrifices. Depending on the sacrifice, what was offered was either burnt up completely, thus given completely over to God as the smoke rose to heaven, or was eaten by the priests, who had been chosen by God for the purpose of making the offerings. At the Passover, each family was to offer a lamb in sacrifice and was to consume it completely. In fact, if one family could not consume an entire lamb, they were to come together with another family so that none would be left over (they were about to leave Egypt, after all). We see in these examples those who offer the sacrifices consuming that which is sacrificed.

At the Exodus, the blood of the lamb saved the lives of the first-born sons of the Israelites. The Eucharist was instituted at a Passover meal. The new meaning of the celebration is thus given by Jesus, who is the Lamb of God, slaughtered to free humanity from sin and to bring eternal life. In the Eucharist, the blood of the Lamb does the same thing as in the Exodus, but by virtue of our baptism, we are all considered “first sons” as we are all children of the Father.

The celebration of the Eucharist concludes with our consuming the sacrificial lamb, by receiving the Body of Christ – Corpus Christi, and being sent out into the world to go and make disciples of all nations. Our intimate union with Christ – both spiritually and physically, by the grace of the sacrament – enables us to bring the love of Christ to every person we meet. It changes us! It makes us holy, transforms us into other Christs – into Christians!

Carmina Chapp teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.