A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to participate in an international interreligious conference at Boston College. The question posed for the scholars was, “Is this the golden age for Jewish/Catholic relations?” I concluded my talk with a tentative suggestion, namely “Early Bronze age!” They all smiled. I wanted to retain a metallic label, but also playfully allude to the primitive period in human culture as illuminating our own contemporary era of interreligious relations. We are once again still at the beginning of things, and history could go both ways, depending on our honesty, mutual respect and determination.
One of the Jewish speakers, curiously enough, teaches a course on Catholic sacraments at the University of Tel Aviv. He told me that once a person makes a leap of faith, the Catholic sacramental system is completely reasonable, logical, integrated and cohesive. It was a good reminder of the profound blessing which our faith can bring to the lives of people who understand its inner power.
That in turn led me to think about all the confirmation letters which we bishops here in southeastern Wisconsin receive this time of the year, and how often the young people admit that they haven’t been very faithful to regular Sunday participation in the Eucharist. Usually the confirmation programs rekindle a spark of new interest and understanding; the retreat experiences often produce a resolution to change the pattern. Sometimes the young people become the ones who get their parents up for Mass on Sunday morning!
Weekly participation in the Sunday Eucharist is far more than a mere duty to be gotten through like a dentist appointment or a cold shower. It is far more than a boring interlude in an otherwise interesting life. Included in every Eucharist is a crash course in all the fundamentals of Christian spirituality. Everything is there! For that reason we need to come back, week after week, to recapture the full reality of our life in Christ.
It is curious that we speak of physicians and dentists and lawyers who “practice” their profession, presumably obtaining more experience and knowledge. They get better and better at it because of the practice. On the contrary, we don’t speak of teachers who “practice” except for a brief period of time within their preparation. Anyone who has been in a classroom, however, knows that some teachers become exceptionally good at it; others do not.
Catholic Christianity is something that requires life-long effort. We even seem proud of the claim to be “practicing Catholics.” Weekly Eucharist is precisely what enables us to hold that title. Because we haven’t quite got it right yet, or because new situations require careful navigation, we keep practicing. Just as saints and scholars tell us that the Lord’s Prayer is the perfect prayer, containing absolutely everything needed for good prayer, so also we learn that the Eucharist, when celebrated fully and actively, is the key to spiritual health, emotional stability and the truly “good life!” So what are the ingredients? What’s all there?
The Eucharist begins with the sign of the cross, a recognition of the grace of baptism which unites us to Christ and each other in a wonderful new way, and gives us a share in the very life of God! We are never alone, isolated or marginal.
The very next moment is the flash of acknowledgement that we are sinful, not evil, but sinful and, once we recognize that reality (each in our own individual way) we are swept into the embrace of a merciful and forgiving God.
We pray for the grace to hear God’s Word, addressed to us at this precise moment of our lives as if we never heard it before! The passages from Scripture witness to truth which remains too important to forget. Someone thoughtfully unpacks it for us so that we can’t miss the point of it all.
We are reminded that absolutely everything is a gift, and we select a few of those gifts, bread of nourishment and wine of gladness, to offer back to the Source of all goodness, who takes our meager offerings and actually becomes them.
At that moment we enter into the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection! He took his entire life in his hands, said “thanks,” blessed it and gave it away! We are invited to do the same, each within the context of our own vocations. Having entered into the prayer of Christ, we become Christ. The external sacramental sign says it all.
After Communion we are sent back to our daily lives to make them different. In fact the entire purpose of the church is to praise God by transforming the world, and to do so by being ourselves transformed by the Lord’s death and resurrection. It is as simple as that.
Each week we arrive with new questions, different bruises, fresh dreams, and once again, bound together as young and mature, we enter into the crash course of Catholic Christianity. If we have caught the fire, tasted the love, been confronted by the truth, we have come alive in a new way.
We can leave newly determined to live lives of integrity, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, humility and even hope. God does it all, but God won’t do it without our cooperation and “help.” Ultimately, every sacrament is for the whole church and for the entire world.
That, my friends, is a truly “practicing Catholic.” That is why the one Eucharist, offered once and for all, is extended and “stretched,” so to speak, in order to become present at every Eucharist throughout the world, and amid every community of disciples everywhere and in all times. We keep practicing and learning. Nothing else really matters.