One of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a renewal of devotion to the Eucharist. When “Safer at Home” executive orders originally resulted in the closure of churches for the public celebration of the Mass, a large number of Catholics expressed a reinvigoration of their longing for the Eucharist. Some spoke of their yearning to rejoin the members of their parish to experience the special bond of its warmth and community spirit. Others spoke of the desire to express their faith in the communal prayer of the Liturgy of the Church. Still more spoke of a profound hunger to receive the spiritual nourishment of Holy Communion.

A similar expression of that intensity of longing for the Eucharist caught my attention recently when I was reading an editorial from America Magazine, a religious journal published by the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. There, the author made a very dramatic point. He wrote, “In the face of racism, Catholics must hunger for justice as we hunger for the Eucharist.” The point being that there is something about the very nature and meaning of the Eucharist which compels those who revere it to express a similar sacred commitment to the eradication of racism and all forms of oppression. Thus, there is something about celebrating the Eucharist that should inspire us to address such issues as the national struggle we are facing as a consequence of the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, which remind us how the sin of racism still casts the stain of injustice upon our effort to pursue holiness.

What is the link between the Eucharist and the quest for justice? I would like to suggest a number of insights which come from some passages in the writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that illustrate how the pursuit of justice is woven in the very fabric of Eucharistic Spirituality. These passages come from a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation he wrote in 2007 entitled Sacramentum Caritatis, or the Sacrament of Charity.

One of the key insights Pope Benedict highlights is that the Eucharist is not simply something we receive and then hold as a personal possession. Rather, it is a gift which is bestowed upon us to be offered to the world. That point is especially emphasized in the Bread of Life Discourse located in the Gospel of John (6:51), when Jesus states, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” From this, Pope Benedict discloses, “Each celebration of the Eucharist makes sacramentally present the gift that the crucified Lord made of his life, for us and for the whole world. In the Eucharist, Jesus also makes us witnesses of God’s compassion toward all of our brothers and sisters. The Eucharistic mystery thus gives rise to a service of charity toward neighbor, which ‘consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know.’” Moreover, he adds, “the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to become ‘bread that is broken’ for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world.”

Pope Benedict also reminds us that the union Christ brought about by the Eucharist also brings a newness to our social relations. Saint Paul makes the same point in the First Letter to the Corinthians (10:16b-17), “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” From this, Pope Benedict concludes, “The relationship between the Eucharistic mystery and social commitment must be made explicit, ‘In the memorial of his sacrifice, the Lord strengthens our fraternal communion and, in a particular way, urges those in conflict to hasten their reconciliation by opening themselves to dialogue and a commitment to justice. … The recognition of this fact leads to a determination to transform unjust structures and to restore respect for the dignity of all men and women, created in God’s image and likeness.’”

To fully understand the meaning of the Eucharist, it also is important to remember that the origin of the Lord’s Supper is set in the context of the celebration of the Passover and the Exodus, and thus we are reminded it is a meal of liberation. Pope Benedict expounds upon this theme when he writes that the “sacrifice of Christ is a mystery of liberation that constantly and insistently challenges us. I therefore urge all the faithful to be true promoters of peace and justice: ‘All who partake of the Eucharist must commit themselves to peacemaking in our world scarred by violence and war.’”

And, so, it is not only the editors of America Magazine who see the intimate connection between the hunger for the Eucharist and the hunger for justice. The witness of our Biblical Tradition and the writing of Pope Benedict literally send us forth in mission. In fact, the Holy Father Emeritus even pronounces that the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.” The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine is meant to lead us into a communion with his will, to empower and propel us, like him, to give of ourselves for the life of the world.