The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

The Eucharist and Our Call to Mission

Authored by Dr. James Pauley in Issue #10.3 of Catechetical Review

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Painting in Rome showing an angel approaching a worker with four saints in backgroundWhat does it mean to receive the Eucharist, to enter into communion with Jesus?

We catechists can be so (rightfully!) focused on explaining how the Eucharist is Jesus himself that we might not spend time with our students considering the ramifications of receiving this divine gift. What does receiving the Eucharist mean for us? Is it for our personal spiritual welfare alone?

While we may take great consolation in this deep and real union with our Savior, the Gospel of John makes it clear that this isn’t the only benefit God has in mind. After the disciples in the upper room had been given the first Eucharist at the Last Supper, Jesus gives an extraordinary image for what he had just done for them. He says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). We will, of course, note the natural union that exists between a vine and its branches: they form one living organism. This image certainly would have deepened this understanding for the disciples, allowing them to see how they are able now to live in union with Jesus, even as he is taken from them. But we also notice here our Lord’s emphasis on fruitfulness: “[My Father] takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit” (Jn 15:2). This demanding reality of the need for fruitfulness cannot be ignored when reading the texts.

Receiving the Eucharist, then, is meant to change us. Entering into communion with Jesus himself is meant to make us more and more like him—in how he sees, in how he thinks, and in how he loves. Our love for the Father, by virtue of our communion with the Son, is meant to become more and more like the Son’s. And our love for our fellow human beings is meant to become more like his love for them. This change isn’t optional; it is indeed normative Catholicism. It is God’s intent for each person who receives the Eucharist.

Sherry Weddell raises a key question along these lines for us 21st-century Catholics:

In recent decades, there has been little or no serious discussion at the parish level about how an individual receiving the sacraments can prepare his or her heart, soul, and life to do so fruitfully. Nor do we dream about the amazing things God would do in our midst if the lives of our people were characterized by great spiritual fruitfulness. A Church that understands itself as possessing the “fullness of the means of grace” must yearn for the fullness of the manifestation of that grace.[1]

In the Church today, considering our cultural circumstances, we have to begin to speak more concertedly about how to prepare well for the sacramental encounter, as well as how to cooperate with sacramental grace so that we might live a spiritually fruitful life. As the Church in the United States moves into the final period of Eucharistic revival, focused on the mission of those who receive the Eucharist, now is the opportune time for this discussion.

There are two primary Eucharistic principles we will consider here: (1) receiving the Eucharist empowers us to live supernaturally; and (2) being in union with Jesus in the Eucharist imparts new responsibilities for how we live, especially in our relationships.

The Supernatural Effects of the Sacraments

Every sacramental encounter empowers us to live a fruitful Christian life. Something is new in us, something extraordinary is given to us, when any sacrament is received. Let’s consider some examples of what happens within us in several sacraments.

Through the waters of baptism, there are a number of truly life-altering effects. All sin is forgiven, original and personal. The baptized person enters into a new relationship with God, becoming an adopted child of the Father (cf. CCC 1263–65). The Sacrament of Reconciliation restores us to God’s grace and “intimate friendship” (CCC 1468). The grace of the anointing of the sick brings a new union with Christ’s Passion, giving divine strength, peace, and courage for our own suffering. When approaching death, this sacrament fortifies us for the final struggle (CCC 1521–23). For those who marry sacramentally, Jesus himself enters into their relationship in a new way, and his presence gives husband and wife new capacities for fidelity, forgiveness, and love. Indeed, the Catechism tells us that the sacramentally married couple is able to love one another supernaturally. They need not rely only upon their own natural capacities for love, but, because Christ has given himself to them and is present in their marriage, they can draw upon an infinite wellspring of grace. They can now love and forgive in ways that far exceed the usual capacities of us limited and deeply flawed human beings (CCC 1642).[2]

What are the effects of receiving the Eucharist, we might ask? Paragraphs 1391–1401 of the Catechism are worth a close reading. The primary fruit, of course, is an intimate union with Christ. The life of grace is preserved, increased, and renewed. Our union with the Church is made more substantial. And sacramentally receiving the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the One born in poverty in Bethlehem deeply commits us to the poor. And so, to receive Jesus in the Eucharist is no small thing. Each of us receives new or deepened capacities that we could not generate by our own ingenuity or willpower.

The point here is this: our heavenly Father gives us what he gives us in the sacraments so that we might become spiritually fruitful. He intends sacramental grace to have a profound effect on how we see, think, and live. Yet, the sacraments are not magic, and this kind of change, of course, is not automatic. It’s to our great good to know about these effects and to freely cooperate with sacramental grace. We must intelligently lean into the life and mission that God makes possible through our living a sacramental life. This is especially true in our regular reception of the Eucharist.

Eucharistic Coherence

Receiving any sacrament places an urgent responsibility on us. This is most deeply the case when entering into Eucharistic communion with Jesus. The responsibility is to live in a way that is aligned with the One with whom we are put into union. To enter into communion with Jesus and then to tragically live in a way that is opposed to the One in whom we dwell brings enormous dissonance to our souls and to our relationship with God. It also erodes belief in the Eucharist for others who can see this dissonance. When a person is a public figure, the confusion and spiritual damage is exacerbated. We might remember St. Paul’s caution here: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:27–29). There is no question that taking up this call to live in coherence with our Eucharistic Lord is enormously challenging for all of us. Yet, grace is given with the challenge, and this is the territory upon which saints have been made.

One 20th-century sacramental theologian points out something critically important here. He describes how receiving a sacrament means we are willing “an implied oath” and taking upon ourselves a “moral obligation for the future.”[3] In other words, to receive a sacrament means we are intending to live in a way that follows the way of Christ. We may not live up to this promise, but having the firm intention to take steps forward is important. This kind of freely willed cooperation, empowered by grace, makes greatness possible in the Christian life. Indeed, to enter into union with Jesus requires that we desire to live a new life deeply rooted in him. St. Leo the Great put this important element of the Christian life into memorable words:

Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.[4]

Partaking in the Eucharistic banquet brings us into a profound communion with our Lord. Pope Benedict XVI once compared the spiritual power of this union to the generative power of nuclear fission.[5] Receiving the Eucharist brings into our very selves a catalyst within the spiritual order, One who means to bring about radical change, a real conformity of how we see and think and love to how Jesus sees and thinks and loves. The Eucharist both gives us new capacities for this and charges us with the responsibility to step into this new life in Christ.

Evidence for These Challenging Truths

This is a significant assertion being made here. If you doubt this, here are a few points of evidence.

When people in the New Testament encountered Jesus, many chose to leave him and were unchanged. Yet, there are many examples of women and men who experienced a profound conversion, sometimes very gradual and at other times seemingly immediate.

One such person is Zacchaeus the tax collector. Zacchaeus climbed a tree so as to see Jesus as he passed by. Jesus instead approached Zacchaeus and invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’s house. The tax collector was astonished that Jesus would come to his house. We read: “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost’” (Lk 19:8–10). This account demonstrates the logic of encountering Jesus. When we receive divine love, we come to see that the turning in on self that causes sin has no place in us any longer. The love of God and the darkness of sin cannot coexist for long before the need for repentance arises.

To help us understand these great realities, Jesus tells the story of the servant who owes a great debt to his master (Mt 18:21–35). Begging for more time to pay back this debt, the master instead, astoundingly, forgives the debt entirely. Can you imagine such an act of generous mercy? But then, we know what happens:

When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, “Pay back what you owe.” Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair (Mt 18:28–31).

Why is it that the servants were so deeply disturbed? Clearly, their fellow servant’s actions were violently inconsistent with the extraordinary gift he had just been given. Whereas the master’s super-generous gift should have changed his heart, this man’s treatment of others was unaffected by such mercy. To receive such mercy obligated him to extend mercy also to the servant who owed him money. We don’t frequently apply this Scripture to our sacramental life, but we should. With mercy, grace, and the love of God comes a corresponding obligation to treat others with mercy, grace, and generous love.

A third point of evidence is perhaps the one that is closest to us. When we pray the Our Father, we lift words up to the Father that are, if we think about them, somewhat terrifying. Anyone reading this, of course, knows the words to which I refer. “Forgive us our trespasses [debts] as we forgive those who trespass against us [our debtors].” Praying this prayer places serious demands upon us. We are asking God the Father to measure out to us the same amount of mercy that we give to those who have sinned against us. These words should give us pause.

And, finally, when we pray the traditional Act of Contrition in the confessional, we pray these words: “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” Such a resolution is of course impossible to achieve on our own power and apart from divine grace. And even with grace, the vast majority of us do sin again. Yet, forming this resolve in our heart is a necessary aspect of receiving God’s forgiveness and being restored to relationship with him, helping us to take small steps toward love and holiness. We must intend, though, to align ourselves more deeply with the mercy we have been given. In our human relationships we’ll note that this movement is also required if friendship and love are to be restored when asking forgiveness.

For each of the sacraments, there are supernatural effects, divine empowerment, that come in encountering God. And there are specific ways that our lives must become, by the power of grace and also by our freely chosen cooperation, aligned with the way of divine love. In the same way that people who encountered Jesus two thousand years ago were challenged to a conversion of life, so too are we who enter into communion with him today.

The Saints: Our Models of Eucharistic Mission

When it comes to living our lives in communion with Jesus, the saints show us the way. St. Teresa of Calcutta began each day with Mass and Eucharistic adoration, and then she and her sisters were empowered to serve the poorest of the poor—made capable of recognizing and serving Christ in his “most distressing disguise.”

St. Thomas More, after being unjustly condemned to death, forgave those who had brought about his ruin, composing an extraordinary prayer in the last days of his life:

Almighty God, have mercy . . . on all that bear me evil will and would harm me. And by such easy, tender, and merciful means as your infinite wisdom can best devise, grant that their faults and mine may both be amended and redressed; and make us saved souls in heaven together, where we may ever live and love together with you and your blessed saints.[6]

This great English saint, in his own final passion and death, was, by the grace of Christ, conformed more closely to Christ, who forgave his own enemies from the Cross. Thomas’ final words in this prayer are striking: “The things, good Lord that I pray for, give me the grace to labor for.”[7] In his final hours, then, rather than being focused on the manifold injustices visited upon him and his family, rather than giving in to anger and self-pity, there he was in his prison cell laboring to forgive his enemies. This kind of virtue doesn’t arise automatically. All his life he lived a sacramental life and sought to cooperate with grace and grow in virtue. His is an extraordinary example of an ordinary human being working to align himself more and more to the grace of Christ that had been lavished upon him.[8]

The saints here mentioned may feel out of reach to those of us engaged in our own interior battles. I wish to leave you with the beautiful, practical wisdom of Ven. Madeleine Delbrêl, who was a 20th-century Parisian woman who experienced a profound conversion and grew very gradually, by the grace of God, to become more and more like Jesus. This saintly woman offers this tangible way to take little steps in our cooperation with grace and in our love for others. She writes:

Consider this. Let us take a very small piece of our life and set free the charity of Christ in it to see everything it can do, everything it wants to do, and to let it do it. You change trains, you wait in the waiting room in the middle of the night. The charity of the Lord is in you in the midst of this waiting room. What is it going to do? What will that very polite lady, this very proper gentleman, say when you share coffee from your thermos with the neighbor to your right, your bread and your cheese with the neighbor to your left, if you wrap that child in your coat . . . But what will Christ say if you do not do it? The holy Church expects saints, and saints are those who love.[9]

The Eucharist gives us everything we need to take little steps forward in love. This is, indeed, the essential dynamic of the sacramental life. Eucharistic communion requires spiritual fruitfulness, but it also empowers such a life. During this time of Eucharistic revival, our Church and our world will benefit greatly from many living witnesses to this kind of sacramental fruitfulness.

Dr. James Pauley is Professor of Theology and Catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Editor of the Catechetical Review. He was appointed to the USCCB’s executive team for the Eucharistic revival and is author of several books, one of which is focused on the renewal of liturgical and sacramental catechesis. He enjoys offering days of reflection and formation for catechists as well as parish missions.

Notes

[1] Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, rev. ed. (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2022), 97, emphasis original.

[2] There are many more effects listed than these for these sacraments. The relevant sections in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are invaluable reading.

[3] Cyprian Vagaggini, OSB, Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1976), 71.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1691, quoting St. Leo the Great, Sermo 21 in nat. Dom., 3: PL 54, 192C.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 11.

[6] Gerard B. Wegemer, Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Publishers, 1995), 219.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Wegemer’s book (cited above) is very helpful in learning about Thomas More’s growth in virtue and holiness throughout his life, as the book focuses specifically on how More challenged himself to develop virtues in many different situations within his family and professional life.

[9] Madeleine Delbrêl, The Dazzling Light of God: A Madeleine Delbrêl Reader (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2023), 56.

This article originally appeared on pages 14-17 in the printed edition.

Art Credit: Divine Grace and Human Works by Ludwig Seitz, Flickr.com CC


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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