This year marks the 750th anniversary of the promulgation of the feast of Corpus Christi in the universal Church. Here are some thoughts about the importance of this wonderful sacrament. I invite you to watch and read my full letter and respond to some of the questions below:
Pastoral Letter to the Priests, Religious and People of the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi 2014
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The great philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe once told the story of a child – I suspect one of her own children – who was nearly three years old and only then beginning to talk. The child had gradually been introduced to the mystery of the Eucharist in simple language. The mother was coming back from Holy Communion and was met by the child in the free space at the back of the church. “Is He in you?” the child asked. “Yes,” said the mother and to her amazement the child immediately prostrated before her!
What that infant grasped, with childish innocence, is one of the Church’s central proclamations: that this really is the Body and Blood of Christ that we celebrate today. Christ is really present here in a way, with an intensity, He is nowhere else on earth.
This year marks the 750th anniversary of the papal bull, Transiturus, by which Pope Urban IV promulgated the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Our Lord, for the Universal Church. He also commissioned St Thomas Aquinas to write the prayers and hymns for the feast we still use in the liturgy today. Let me share with you some thoughts about the importance of this wonderful Sacrament for our daily lives and how we might better express this.
O Sacrum Convivum: The Sacred Banquet in which Christ is received
An ancient love-song, Psalm 62, begins with the hunger in the human soul: “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting, my body pines for you.” This theme recurs throughout the Old Testament. With the coming of Christ it became clear that He is the food and drink we most deeply desire.
But is physical contact with God really desirable? Aren’t words and thoughts enough? No: we are spiritual and material beings. Only by becoming a bodily being could God express Himself in touch and tears, through soothing words and loud cries, in all the ways human beings do. Jesus is no ghost or theory: He is God communicating His life to us as a flesh and blood human being, in bodily signs and visible symbols. So before returning to the Father, He chose to continue this physical-spiritual connection with us through the sacraments.
The greatest of these is the Eucharist, “the sacred banquet in which Christ is received”. Here Jesus gives His all: His body, blood, soul and divinity. As St John Paul II put it, under simple signs of bread and wine we receive “the unfathomable holiness of God”. This is why we approach with the humility of the centurion who said: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” (Mt 8:8).
Memoria passionis: The memory of His passion is renewed
The psalmist continues: “your love is better than life, my lips will speak your praise” (v.3). God gives Himself to us and in return we render Him eucharistou, which means thanks and praise. The Eucharist is our biggest ‘thank-you to God for sending His Son to save us – indeed the only adequate thanks we could offer.
So the Mass is not just a nostalgia trip to 1st Century Palestine: rather, it extends the all-sufficient sacrifice of Good Friday to every time and place; here and now “the work of our redemption is accomplished” and we participate in it. When the priest says the words of consecration – “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body … Take this, all of you, and drink of it, for this is the chalice of my Blood” – the Sacrifice of Love anticipated on Holy Thursday, consummated on Good Friday, and victorious at Easter, is ours to receive and to offer to the Father!
Mens impletur gratia: The mind is filled with grace
“My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,” sings our psalmist (v. 5). More than our bellies the Eucharist fills our hearts, minds, souls. We all know the experience of emotional and spiritual exhaustion, of lacking inspiration and purpose, of just going through the motions of living. We need regularly to be recharged with divine life or grace.
But Holy Communion is not magic. If we don’t prepare well, we won’t get what we could from the Mass. So we fast for at least an hour before Holy Communion. We confess all serious sins in Confession and all lesser ones during the Penitential Rite in Mass. If we are not yet a Catholic, or have committed some serious but not-yet-absolved sin, or if we are otherwise not well disposed, we abstain from Communion until we have rectified things. Likewise, we try to let go of the grudges and distractions that might block our receptiveness.
We can prepare also by reading the set Scriptures prayerfully in advance; by attending Mass or visiting the Blessed Sacrament during the week; and by arriving early to pray before Mass (quiet in church permitting). One way or another we must get into the rhythm of attending Mass every Sunday as God and the Church call us to and open ourselves up to receiving the graces of the Mass.
Futurae gloriae pignus: The pledge of future glory is given to us
Our psalmist continues: “my soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast” (v. 8). The lovers’ hope – never to be parted – is our Eucharistic hope, foreshadowing, as Pope Francis points out, that more perfect union we will have with God and each other in the heavenly banquet. In old English couples “pledged their troth” in marriage, that is, gave their truth or word of honour. Corpus Christi commemorates God giving His word – His Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ – as Bridegroom to the Church. At the Last Supper Jesus washed the feet of His bride the Church, as some of the ancients did in their wedding ceremonies; He then gave His Body to her in the Eucharist; and finally, from the Cross, He declared “it is consummated”. Jesus renews that marriage vow, to be with us always, whenever the Eucharist is celebrated.
So the Eucharist recalls not only the past (what Christ has done for us) and informs the present (by uniting and inspiring us now), but also promises future glory (preparing us for it). Early Christians called it “the food that prepares us for incorruptibility”, “the journey food” on the way to heaven and “the medicine of immortality”. Like spiritual superannuation it gives us security for the future, getting us ready for the afterlife.
But the future starts today. When the priest says “Go forth, the Mass is ended”, he’s not just saying “get out of here”! He is saying: go and unpack the Eucharist in your everyday life. Give thanks for gifts received. Now turn your gaze to your neighbour in need. Live the ideals proclaimed in this Mass. Build a more just and compassionate society. Take Him whom you have received in word and sacrament to your next six days of work and family. Act in communion with God and the saints all week long.
Sacra mysteria venerari: Revering this sacred mystery
Our psalmist was in love but also in awe of his Beloved: “I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and glory … I will bless you all my life … On you I muse through the night” (Ps 62:2,4,6). With similar passion St Francis of Assisi declared:
Our whole being should be seized with awe, the whole world should tremble and heaven rejoice, when Christ the Son of the living God is present on the altar in the hands of the priest. What wonderful majesty! What stupendous condescension! … In this world I cannot see the Most High Son of God with my own eyes, except in His Most Holy Body and Blood.
Around the same time St Thomas Aquinas explained in a way still unsurpassed how bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ (‘transubstantiation’); but he was a devotee of that sacrament before he was its metaphysician. He understood that such love and awe must be expressed bodily. So devotion towards the Blessed Sacrament came to be expressed in prayer before the tabernacle, Exposition for Adoration and Benediction, even processions and all-night vigils – all of which are still valuable practices today.
One particular way we demonstrate our love is on our knees. Even today men often go down on one knee to propose to their future wives. For the ancients it was natural to fall prostrate before the mystery of God. In the Gospels wise men kneel to shower the Christ-child with gifts and Peter does so in awe of Jesus’ power; a leper kneels to ask Jesus for a cure and another to thank Him for the cure; parents kneel before Him to ask for cures for their children; a woman kneels to ask that she be healed of a haemorrhage and a young man to ask how to live. If Jesus Himself could kneel to pray in the Garden that was good enough for His followers: and so the first martyr Stephen was on his knees as he died and the apostles knelt down to pray.
In C.S. Lewis’ famous Screwtape Letters amaster demon teaches an apprentice various tricks to lure human beings off the right path: one good one, he explains, is to trick them into thinking the body doesn’t matter in prayer. Stop them kneeling and eventually you’ll stop them adoring. This devil was clever!
There is wisdom, then, in the clear direction of the Roman Missal for us to kneel for the Eucharistic Prayer unless serious reasons prevent us. That’s also why we genuflect to the tabernacle on arrival at church, bow (or genuflect) before receiving Holy Communion reverently in the hand (or on the tongue), and kneel or sit during the sacred silence after Communion.
Some think such ‘bowing and scraping’, even to God, is demeaning. People are right to say we shouldn’t kneel if, due to arthritis or another condition, this would detract from devotion; kneeling is only one way of demonstrating reverence; and what is in the heart is more important. But bodily beings must find postures that cultivate ‘the sense of sacred’, and express their awe and trust before the mystery of God.
Of course, kneeling at crucial points in the Mass does not mean we fall down lifeless: the Mass gives us new standing work to do as well: “Whom shall I send to be my messenger?” asks God and we leap up and respond, almost shocked to hear ourselves say it, “Me Lord, send me.” (Isa 6:8)
Fructum sentiamus: Experiencing the fruits of the Eucharist
On this beautiful feast and 750th jubilee I would like to draw your attention to some ways we might enrich our Eucharistic lives, mostly taken from our Diocesan Pastoral Plan, Faith in Our Future. In particular I ask that:
- our parishes consider how to make our Masses more reverent, welcoming and vibrant, so they draw families, young people, migrants and others to full, active participation and closer union with Christ (see FF 1.1, 2.3, 3.2, 4.3)
- opening hours and security of our churches be reviewed and arrangements made so that people can pray before the tabernacle during the day and early evening (FF 1.1.13)
- where our churches lack pews and/or kneelers we work towards obtaining these as soon as practicable so that there is no obstacle to people kneeling
- we all consider how we might better prepare for Mass
- families, schools and parishes teach children reverence, postures and responses at Mass, and involve them in altar-serving and other ways
- opportunities for personal and group prayer outside the liturgy be fostered, including periods of Eucharistic Adoration in every church (see FF 4.4)
- places be established in each deanery for extended opportunities for Eucharistic Adoration (see FF 158)
- we each bring to our Eucharistic Lord our personal joys and hopes, needs and anxieties, as well as the needs of our world and especially of our Church at this time of scrutiny, purification and renewal (see FF 155) and
- we all consider how we might live more Eucharistic lives after Mass.
Thanks be to God for this wonderful Sacrament that the Second Vatican Council so memorably called “the source and summit of the whole Christian life”. Thanks be to God for your devotion to it! May our Eucharistic Lord hold you close to Him always. In the words of our blessing prayer: “Grant, O Lord, we pray, that the Christian people may understand the truths they profess and love the heavenly liturgy in which they participate, through Christ our Lord.” Amen!
Yours sincerely in Christ our Eucharistic Lord
(Most Reverend) Anthony Fisher op
Bishop of Parramatta
SOLEMNITY OF CORPUS CHRISTI 2014
 G.E.M. Anscombe, “On Tranbsubstantiation,” Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics (ed. M. Geach & L. Gormally, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2008), 84-91, p. 86.
 On which see Paul Murray op, “Corpus Christi: authorship, history and composition,” Aquinas at Prayer (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), ch. 7.
 In Protestant Bibles this is numbered Psalm 63.
 e.g. Pss 36:8; 143:6; Isa 12:3; 25:6; 44:3; 49:10; 55:2; Ezek 47:1-12; Zech 14:8.
 Jn 4:10,13-5; 6:35,53-8; 7:37-9; 19:34; Rev 7:15-7; 21:6.
 St John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia: Encyclical on the Eucharist and its Relationship to the Church §48. A good treatment of his Eucharistic devotion is Jason Evert, “John Paul II and the Blessed Sacrament” at http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/stories_of_faith_and_character/cs0646.htm
 Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium: Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy §2.
 Cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae III, 79.7.2.
 Regarding the need for Confession see my previous pastoral letter, Come back to me with all your heart: On Rediscovering the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Lent 2011).
 On the importance of the Sunday Mass attendance, see especially St John Paul II, Dies Domini: Apostolic Letter on Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy, Dies Domini (1998) esp. 30, 46-50.
 Pope Francis, General Audiences, 5 and 12 February 2014.
 Mt 26:26-9; Mk 14:22-5; Lk 22:17-9; 1Cor 10:16; 11:23-6; Jn ch 13; 19:30
 Mt 28:20; John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia §48; cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est: Encyclical on Christian Love (2005) §§13-4 on Eucharistic mysticism.
 St Ignatius of Antioch (c.110 ad), Ad Eph 20:2; Ad Symr. Ch. 6; Ad Phil. 4:1; Ad Rom 7:3; St Justin Martyr (c.150 ad), Apologia I, 66; Trypho 41; St Irenaeus (c.140-202), Ad Haer. IV,17:5; 18:4-5; Ad Haer. V, 2:2-3; Tertullian (c.155-250), De Resur. 8:3; Origen (185-254), Contra Celsum 8:33; Hom. in Ex. 13:3; St Clement of Alexandria (c.150-216), Paedag. I, 6:42; St Cyprian of Carthage (c.200-258), Pater Noster 18.
 In D.P. Guernsey (ed.), Adoration: Eucharistic Texts and Prayers throughout Church History (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), p. 62.
 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiæ, II-II, 168, 1; Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), pp. 190-1.
 e.g. Ex 3:1-6; Lev 9:24; Dt 9:18,25; Num 17:10; 20:6; Josh 5:14; 7:6; 1Kgs 8:54; 2Kgs 17:36; Pss 22:29; 86:9; 95:6; 138:2; Isa 45:23; Mic 6:6; Job 1:20; Judith 6:18; 9:1; Sir 50:17,21; Isa 49:7; Ez 10:1; Dan 6:11; Acts 7:32-33.
 Mt 2:118:2; 9:18; 15:25; 17:14; Mk 5:33; 10:17; Lk 5:8; 17:16.
 Mt 17:6; 26:39; Lk 5:8; 22:41; Acts 7:60; 9:40; 20:36; 21:5; Eph 3:14; Rom 14:11; Phil 2:10.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Harper Collins,, 2002), p. 16.
 General Instruction to the Roman Missal, 3rd edition for Australia, §43: “The people should kneel at the consecration, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason… In Australia the people are to kneel from the completion of the Sanctus until after the Great Amen… [At] the completion of the Agnus Dei… they are to kneel again until the distribution of Holy Communion.”
 Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum concilium: Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy §10. The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes this description as the starting point for its treatment of the Eucharist in §§1322-1419.
- What does the Eucharist mean to me, my family and friends?
- How could my parish or community draw people into greater devotion to this wonderful sacrament?
- How can we share this better with our young people?
- What are the implications of the Eucharist for life after Mass?