About 20 years ago, liturgical composers, Julie and Timothy Smith, released a song entitled Make Us a Eucharistic People. With a simple, yet elegant melody, set to the accompaniment of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the song has been on my mind and heart lately as I’ve reflected what it means to live as a Eucharistic people at a time without the Eucharist.

Kim Mandelkow

There’s no doubt the pandemic emergency has challenged who we are as Catholic Christians. The immediate and necessary need for social distancing in order to “flatten the curve,” slow the spread, and protect those who are most vulnerable has prevented us from assembling to share the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. It’s been more than a month now and many of us have begun to settle into a “new normal.” Tuning in to a livestreamed liturgy via Facebook or YouTube, we are still invited into prayer, but when it comes time for Holy Communion, reciting the prayer of spiritual communion has become our way of participating in the sacrifice of the Mass during these difficult times. But spiritual communion does not replace our actual communion, and our own participation in the liturgy is incomplete when we participate from behind a computer or television screen. How then do we live as Eucharistic People?

Regular and frequent communion and full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy are two of the greatest gifts we received from the work of the Second Vatican Council. I remember my late grandfather telling stories of going to church in the “old days.” Mass consisted of singing some hymns, listening to a sermon, and looking up when the bells rang, announcing the moment of consecration of the bread and wine. Receiving Holy Communion was an annual – not a weekly – experience. It was enough for him to adore the Eucharist from his pew, while beating his breast, crying out “My Lord and my God.” This was fairly typical of most Catholics’ understanding of the Eucharist at that time, as prior to the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council, we focused mostly on the bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of the Lord. Eucharist seemed to equal the Blessed Sacrament on the altar or reserved in the tabernacle.

The Council’s liturgical renewal prompted the Church to restore the practice of regular communion received at every liturgy. For many of us today, regular communion is essential to our living as Catholics. In 2000, I was living in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, in the former Communist East Germany. It was only 11 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and religious services were on the rise. Yet in the city where the Protestant Reformation began, accessibility to the Catholic Mass was difficult. For the first time since second grade, I had to go without receiving the Eucharist, and I was at a loss about how to maintain my Catholic identity.

For many Catholics today, the high points of Mass are the consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and the worthy reception of Holy Communion. Even our formation of children preparing to receive First Communion is focused on helping them believe in the real presence of Christ in the consecrated elements. What happens, then, when reception of Holy Communion is not available to us? Just as I had to during my year in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, we have to learn how live as Eucharistic People without the Eucharist.

The suspension of public celebrations of the Mass during this time of “safer-at-home” is certainly causing a crisis for us as Catholics, here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and worldwide. We are so dependent on our accessibility to Holy Communion that we don’t know how to live without it. We are hungry – starving – for the Bread of Life to strengthen and sustain us during these exceptionally difficult times. Our parish priests are striving to do the best they can to maintain at least a minimal Eucharistic life in the parish. Likewise, lay liturgical ministers are navigating uncharted waters as they work to keep the faithful fed and nourished. As a result, this struggle seems to be leading us to a movement back to pre-Vatican II theology and practice of marveling at the consecrated species. One may think – if we cannot gather to participate in the Supper of the Lord, what else is there than to adore the Eucharist in Exposition and Adoration, Eucharistic Processions, and Benediction?

Let me suggest a possibility for us during this indefinite time of fasting from the Eucharist. This is our opportunity to live as witnesses to the power of the Eucharist. The Eucharist we have received regularly is not merely consuming the consecrated host and wine. The Eucharist has been preparing us to live as priestly people who give thanks, offer sacrifice, and pray for the world. This is what it means to live as a Eucharistic People.

The Eucharistic species, the consecrated bread and wine, are more than a thing to be reified. Eucharist is a process – Christ’s self-giving as bread broken and wine poured out in loving service for the world. When the gifts of bread and wine are brought forward during the Mass, they represent us as a community. When these gifts are placed on the altar, we are placed on the altar. When we offer the bread and wine as sacrificial gifts, we are offering ourselves as sacrificing people. To truly celebrate and live as Eucharistic People we must become an alter Christus (another Christ) in our world today. We must live as bread broken and wine poured out in loving service for the needs of our world.

The challenge during this time is not about receiving Eucharist, though that is certainly a tremendous trial for us. It is a challenge of what the Eucharist demands of us; that is, to become followers of Christ. And as followers of Christ, we must allow ourselves to be broken and poured out for others; in doing so, we will be emulating Christ and living the Paschal Mystery.

Kim Mandelow is the director of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s office for worship.