In a recent article in Church Life Journal, Timothy O’Malley wrote about the difficulty Americans have in understanding Catholicism. It’s hard to do justice to the article in a page long note, and if you want to see the whole thing, click here. Here’s an attempt at a summary.
O’Malley writes that we Americans think of religion as a private affair, that we think of salvation as an individual affair (think of the question “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?), and that in general our culture misses what is going on in Catholic liturgy. He unpacks an old Eucharistic hymn written by Thomas Aquinas that begins by reminding us that we gather for a sacred banquet. This gathering is something we are called to, and it is not something we make up on our own. He reminds us that human communities that rely on themselves alone fall into idolatry and violence. If we make up the “community,” it has to include only the people we want to invite. And certainly not our enemies!
The language of the Eucharistic prayer, the Holy Spirit falling on the bread and wine “like the dewfall” calls to mind the manna that fell from heaven to feed the people of Israel as they fled from the Pharaoh. This manna fell on the good and the bad alike, like rain. Remember Jesus saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:45)
Our gathering on Sunday morning isn’t coming together so we can be seen by the right people, or make the right social connections, or fight over the good seats. O’Malley reminds us that St. Paul was annoyed with the people of Corinth who turned the Eucharist into a chance to get drunk and eat as much as possible. (1 Cor 11:20). Even in the early church, they had to struggle to hold on to what was essential! And that was the person of Jesus Christ coming to free us from sin and death.
What we are remembering when we gather to pray on Sunday morning is the passion of Christ. The terrible suffering and emptying out of Jesus on the cross. This was a real, and painful and voluntarily embraced death. And today, Jesus enters into the depth of really desperate and horrible situations. There are people in our neighborhood who bear the cross of terrible pain. The pain of addictions and the pain of children with addictions. The pain of physical abuse and of generational poverty. There are people who cannot imagine that they might be made in the image and likeness of God. These people are ground down. Often enough they don’t think of themselves as human beings. In our Sunday Masses, we can forget this and can be dismissive of real pain. This is the pain Jesus embraces in the passion. And the passion of Jesus leads to the healing of the whole world.
Pope Benedict wrote about this reality in his teaching called “God is Love.” He wrote that a Eucharistic celebration that does not result in concrete acts of love in care for all men and women is intrinsically fragmented. It does not do what the Lord intended it to. Remember the last words of the Mass… “Ite Missa Est,” “Go it has been a Mass.” Go where?
Go into the world and change it. How? By concrete works of mercy. By greeting your neighbors. By visiting the lonely, or the imprisoned, or feeding the hungry. You can certainly make some small difference for someone outside your immediate family and circle of friends. What does Jesus tell us, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same.” (lk6:32-3) In other words, it doesn’t count toward being a disciple if you go to work every day to feed your family. Even people who don’t know Jesus do that! Our faith calls us to local works of mercy.
Or maybe your call is to go and try and break down the systemic oppression that so many people suffer under. Transforming social structures that grind our brothers and sisters down is another way disciples of Jesus have been working for centuries. We are called to both care for our brothers and sisters right in front of us, and we are also called to try and fix what’s grinding them down. Remember all the Catholic Universities that were started to educate the masses. We Catholics began the first universities ever. Or think of all the Catholic Hospitals that were established to take care of the sick. After all, we were the first ones to start hospitals, too!
Finally, what about the prayer of adoration that we practice in Catholic churches? Why come and pray before the Eucharist? In the end, what we are talking about here is a mystery. The mystery of human suffering. The mystery of God’s grace, and that grace transforming us and the world. In adoration, we stop all our activity and remember who is the Lord. Jesus is Lord. And, in truth, He can do all the work that any one of us might do in a lifetime with a snap of his fingers, so to speak. So, one of the things we need as we step into the world is peace and balance. In the prayer of contemplation we can open our hearts to ask the Lord, “What do you want me to do now?” Becoming a disciple of Jesus means letting Him take charge and letting Him use us to change the world. Come to the parish and try some contemplation. Listen to the call that is in your heart, the Lord has a plan for you. There is something you’re supposed to do. A unique contribution only you can make! What might it be?