byMost Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito, Bishop of Palm Beach
A great deal of attention has been given to the decision of the Bishops of the United States to prepare an important teaching document on the centrality of the Eucharist within the life of the Church. Reflection on the Eucharist is very timely during this liturgical cycle, as the Gospel of St. John has interrupted the Sunday readings from the Gospel of St. Mark with a very important insertion. It is the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John which centers on Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist. This is currently being read for a six week period. The Sunday Gospels before us at this present time point to the central action of the Church in the celebration of the Eucharist and to the teaching of Jesus regarding His real presence in the Eucharist as the food for our life. We can never give too much attention to this.
Pope Francis has continually shown his great devotion to the Eucharist and to its transforming power in his life in so many ways. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, he tells us, “It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God Himself became man and gave Himself as food for His creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, He comes that we might find Him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is a living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life.”
Pope Francis affirms, in his encyclical, an insight from St. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, which was his final encyclical and a great testimony to his deeply centered spirituality on the Eucharist. Those who were privileged to participate at Mass in the private chapel of St. Pope John Paul II could not help but be moved by his mystical communion with the Lord during these celebrations. Pope Francis, obviously moved by this communion, reflects the words of St. Pope John Paul II by referring to the Eucharist as an act of cosmic love. In his encyclical, St. Pope John Paul II expressed, “When I think of the Eucharist, and look to my life as a priest, as a Bishop and as the Successor of Peter, I naturally recall the many times and places in which I was able to celebrate. I remember the parish church of Niegowić, where I had my first pastoral assignment, the collegiate church of St. Florian in Kraków, Wawel Cathedral, St. Peter’s Basilica and so many other basilicas and churches in Rome and throughout the world. I have been able to celebrate Holy Mass in chapels built on the mountain paths, on lakeshores and seacoasts; I have celebrated it on altars built in stadiums and in city squares. … This varied scenario of celebrations of the Eucharist has given me a powerful experience of its universal and, so to speak, cosmic character. Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world.” Pope Francis makes use of St. Pope John Paul II’s beautiful insight of the cosmic nature of the Eucharist to illustrate how the centrality of the Eucharist helps us appreciate the goodness of God’s creation and gift to us.
The words of Pope Francis, reflecting the words of St. Pope John Paul II, also reflect the words of another pope with great devotion to the Eucharist, Pope Benedict XVI, in his apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis. Here, Pope Benedict makes a striking assertion of the Eucharist’s power to transform the created order. He says, “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into His (Jesus’) Body and Blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of ‘nuclear fission,’ to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1Cor. 15:28).” When Pope Benedict makes this assertion, he is not only stating that bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, but also that this change brings a process that transforms the world in its very essence. His point demonstrates the power of the Eucharist, which is not a private action but a communal one. In fact, it is a universal action in so far as it actually affects the very nature of the cosmos.
The words of these popes truly reflect the essence of what Christ is saying in the Gospel readings from St. John during these Sundays. After performing a miracle of multiplying five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus then begins to open the mystery of the greatest miracle which He would give us at the Last Supper, one that would transform the world. To the crowd of five thousand present before Him, who had been satisfied with the loaves and fish, Jesus teaches that they should not be looking for perishable food but for food that remains for eternal life which the Son of Man will give them. He says, “I myself am the bread of life. No one who comes to me shall ever be hungry, no one who believes in me shall thirst again” (Jn 6:35). He also assures them, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:48- 51). When the people object that this teaching is hard to accept and turn from the Lord, He does not in any way change or soften His teaching. In fact, He turns to His apostles and asks them if they want to leave as well. So central is the teaching of Jesus on the Eucharist that it is what will define a follower of Him. It is Peter, the leader of the apostles to whom the popes are successors, who answers, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6:68-69).
In his Angelus message two Sundays ago on August 8, Pope Francis expressed the following in regard to the current Sunday readings from the Gospel of St. John, “These words of the Lord reawaken in us our amazement for the gift of the Eucharist. No one in the world, as much they might love another person, can make themselves become food for them. God did so, and does so, for us.” Indeed, before the Eucharist, we can only be amazed.
This is an essential time for us to reflect upon the centrality of the Eucharist as followers of Jesus Christ. It is the Eucharist that is able to transform our lives and unite us more to Christ in the joys and sufferings of everyday life. Nothing else has the power of the Eucharist to help us experience the love of God and the meaning of life. As we experience so many devout men and women in churches celebrating the Eucharist each day in quiet and humble ways, we truly experience in them what the popes speak about and what they also experience in their lives. The Eucharist is a gift for everyone, and it is only those who are open to receiving it who experience its joys. Jesus let people walk away from His teaching, on the Eucharist because He knew He could not bestow joy upon them in any other way. As we listen to the Gospel readings from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel at this time of year, may we reflect more deeply upon the great gift God has given to us. As Pope Francis urges us, “Let us renew this amazement. Let us do so as we adore the Bread of Life, because adoration fills life with amazement.”
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
August 20, 2021