By Cardinal Justin Rigali
We have just celebrated the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, commonly known as Corpus Christi. To help us to continue to express our spirit of faith and thanksgiving for that gift, I am making it my topic this week.
A sacramental God
It has been said that God is sacramental in revealing Himself to us. I am not referring here to the Sacraments, those seven personal encounters which bring us into intimacy with Jesus; we will see that they are a part of what I am saying. I am referring to the fact that God has almost always made use of external signs in order to reveal Himself to us. The Latin word for sign is sacramentum, and so we begin by speaking in a general way of God’s use of externals in drawing us to Himself.
We know that the Church teaches that any person, merely by encountering the evidence of the beauty, majesty and order of the world around him, may come to the conclusion that there is a Being greater than any of us, who has created all that is around us and keeps it in existence. These are certainly marvelous signs that God makes use of to communicate His existence, power and care for us. These are the first signs that God gives to all His creatures, so that they may recognize His existence, power and love.
Under the Covenant with the Jewish people, God allowed His chosen spokesmen, the Prophets, to perform signs and foretell wonders as part of their credentials as authentic leaders chosen by Him to constantly recall Israel to fidelity to the True God, who had revealed Himself to them. We sometimes think of the Prophets as merely being those who foretold the future. This was not their purpose. Their external predictions were a power given to them by God, so that the Chosen People might recognize their power through the signs that God enabled them to show forth.
In God’s ultimate revelation to His people, His Son Jesus Christ, we also see external signs performed in order to show forth spiritual realities. We recall that, in the Gospels, Jesus is often asked to perform miracles. He generally hesitates to do so because He does not want the people to be overly‑concerned with externals while ignoring internal faith and conversion, which is the ultimate purpose of His mission. However, He says: “so that you may know that the Son of God has power,” followed by the working of some external sign which shows forth His power.
Signs of grace
All of the signs that have been given to us from the beginning culminate in the person of Jesus, who transmits the life of the Father to us through the Holy Spirit. This moves us into the Sacraments, which are those seven efficacious signs established by Christ and ministered through the Church, so that His life may continue among us. As the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” teaches: “The Sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which spanine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the Sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each Sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (CCC, n. 1121).
Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that, although all the Sacraments are encounters with Christ because they communicate His life to us, the Sacrament of the Eucharist is the greatest of all because in this Sacrament we receive not only the life of Christ, but Christ himself. This is why we call this Sacrament “Blessed,” because it is the greatest of all the Sacraments. This Sacrament is made present within the context of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, as the Council of Trent teaches: “Christ our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper ‘on the night he was betrayed,’ he wanted to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as our nature demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re‑presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit” (Teaching concerning the Sacrifice of the Mass, chapter 2).
The response of the faithful
Just as God shows himself forth by using external means, which conform to our human nature, we are also called to respond to Him in love by using that same nature. In one of his great Eucharistic hymns, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote: “just as you visit us, so we worship you.” This is why external actions are necessary, so that we may express with the body God gave us the sentiments of faith and love which our minds and hearts can experience.
This past Sunday, I participated in one of those great external manifestations: the annual procession of the Blessed Sacrament for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Perhaps many of you experienced similar processions in your own parishes, as you also do during the annual Forty Hours Devotion. These are some of the means that we use to express with our bodies the faith we profess with our minds and hearts. Of course, these expressions are not limited to only two or three great occasions during the year. We have many occasions when we can externally express our faith that Jesus is truly present under the sacramental signs.
Of course, we must first acknowledge the truth of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Pope Paul VI summed up this faith in his Encyclical on the Eucharist, which he issued during the Second Vatican Council. He wrote: “For the constant teaching that the Catholic Church has passed on to her catechumens, the understanding of the Christian people, the doctrine defined by the Council of Trent, the very words that Christ used when He instituted the Most Holy Eucharist, all require us to profess that ‘the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins and which the Father in His loving kindness raised again.’ To these words of St. Ignatius, we may well add those which Theodore of Mopsuestia, who is a faithful witness to the faith of the Church on this point, addressed to the people: ‘The Lord did not say: This is symbol of my body, and this is a symbol of my blood, but rather: This is my body and my blood.'” Pope Paul continues: “The Council of Trent, basing itself on this faith of the Church, ‘openly and sincerely professes that after the consecration of the bread and wine, Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is really, truly and substantially contained in the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist under the outward appearances of sensible things'” (Mysterium Fidei, 44 and 45).
We express this faith, which we have received and accepted, by means of external signs. We do this by participating in the Eucharist with that active participation of mind and heart, so sought after by the Second Vatican Council. We do it by sacrificing our time to participate in Eucharistic adoration; by the worthy and devout reception of Holy Communion; by kneeling and genuflecting and by participating in external acts of faith and devotion sponsored by the parish and the archdiocese.
To receive worthily
This topic can also be the opportunity to reflect on those things which are necessary on our part when we wish to receive Jesus worthily in Holy Communion. These are our full communion with the Church in all that she teaches in Jesus’ name; freedom from any serious sin which may have made it necessary for us to go to confession before receiving the Eucharist and observing the Eucharistic fast of one hour before receiving Holy Communion. We should also be conscious of our external attitude in approaching Holy Communion and in receiving Jesus. These are the means that we use to show with our bodies the faith we profess with our minds and hearts.
This is also an opportunity for us to reflect on our manner of dress in Church. I realize that this is a sensitive issue and some may say: “At least I am here” or “At least they are here.” While it is true that a person’s presence at Mass is of primary importance, this does not mean that there are not other aspects that are also important. These would include genuine participation in the Liturgy and dressing in an appropriate manner for Church. While today’s fashions are challenging, they also present many lightweight and comfortable materials for summer, which are also appropriate for Church. I would also hope that our Extraordinary Ministers would be especially conscious of their manner of dress when distributing Our Lord in Holy Communion. This is another aspect of the role of service that they are performing for the good of the worshiping community.
Pope Benedict XVI took part in the procession of the Blessed Sacrament through the streets of Rome, which took place last week. He summarized for us the challenge we are given to respond to the greatest gift that Jesus gave to us; the gift of his very self in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Pope Benedict said: “With the acknowledgment of being unworthy, due to our sins, but in need of receiving the love that the Lord offers us in the Eucharistic sacrament, we renew our faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We cannot take this faith for granted! Today there arises, even within the Church, the risk of a creeping secularization, which can turn into formal and empty Eucharistic worship, in celebrations lacking this participation from the heart that is expressed in veneration and respect” (Homily, 11 June 2009).
18 June 2009