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The Priest and the Eucharist

by Bruno Forte 

"For over a half century, every day, beginning on 2 November 1946, when I celebrated my first Mass in the Crypt of Saint Leonard in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, my eyes have gazed in recollection upon the host and the chalice, where time and space in some way "merge" and the drama of Golgotha is re-presented in a living way, thus revealing its mysterious "contemporaneity". Each day my faith has been able to recognize in the consecrated bread and wine the divine Wayfarer who joined the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and opened their eyes to the light and their hearts to new hope (cf. Lk 24:13-35).". This is what John Paul II wrote in his recent Encyclical on the Eucharist (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 59), witnessing how at the school of faith one is in love with God made flesh – encountered each day in the Eucharistic celebration – showing that he has educated his eyes to see the invisible and has learned to make his heart beat in unison with that of divine love, to make his mouth the vehicle of evangelical truth, to use his hands to do work of charity and peace, to move his feet to carry the good news to as many men and women as possible. It is this testimony – so personal and moving – that proves, well beyond any abstract reasoning, to what extent the Eucharist is fundamental for life and for the identity of the presbyter, the real culmination and source of all he is and all he does. And it is this example that encourages me to reflect on the relationship between the priest and the Eucharistic sacrament – memorial of the Lord’s Easter – in a direct and colloquial manner, speaking as brother to brother presbyters not only in the light of thought faith, but also of the mystery experienced and celebrated as a faithful appointment day after day. I am therefore writing as if this were a letter addressed to my priest friends, reasoning aloud with them in the presence of our God about the greatest gift ever placed in our hands, and about the motivations for which the Eucharistic celebration is an event that provides a meaning, strength and beauty to each day of ours.

The question I wish to start with is one I have been asked many times: why celebrate the Eucharist everyday? Is the Sunday encounter where the entire Christian community meets not enough? And why should I celebrate Mass when I am alone or just with a few people? Does this not remove the communitarian meaning from the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection? I would like to answer these questions not only on the basis of my theological persuasions (which moreover are those of the Church, expressed in a particular manner at the beginning of the second millennium), but also in the light of that spiritual experience which the words of the Pope quoted at the beginning of a enlightening and convincing testimony. I shall therefore go straight to the heart of the matter: why are we priests? Who has encouraged us to give our entire lives to the ministry of the Gospel of reconciliation, of the Eucharist and of charity? There is only one answer: Jesus. We are priests because He wishes us to be priests, He called us and loved us this way, and this is how he wishes us to remain and love us. He who is forever faithful in His love. The sense of our lives, the real reason for our vocations does not consist in ‘something’, be it even the loveliest thing in the world, but in Someone: and the someone is Him, Christ the Lord. We are priests because one day He caught up with us (each of us knows how: in a word from a witness, in a merciful gesture that touched the heart, in the silence of listening and prayer, even in the pain of a life that suddenly seems wasted without Him…).

To He who called we answered yes: and ever since a flame of living love is lit up within us, which with His grace remains strong. A flame that makes us burn for Him, want Him, wish for whatever He wishes for us. I do not think I am exaggerating or using excessively strong words. Actually, we could not have become priests and remain priests faithfully in spite of everything if He had not bestowed this gift on us, lived within us, allowing us to continuously renew our love for Him. It is this love that has permitted us to undertake all the work we do for others: from the simple and naked acceptance of others into our hearts, to the persevering and patient listening to them, to the efforts made to show them the sense and the beauty of a life lived for God and for His Gospel, the works of charity and the commitment to justice, and sharing in particular the anxieties of the poor and attempting to lend our voices to those who have none. Of course, it always seems that what we have managed to do is not much. But, what is certain is that – if we have done something true and beautiful for others – we have done this because Jesus has allowed us to do it, it is He who gave Himself to us and made us capable of gratuitous gestures which alone we would not even have thought or dreamt of.

This preamble – which is the humble testimony of the lives of those called upon and loved by Christ – helps me to explain the reason for which I believe it is right and necessary to celebrate the Eucharist everyday; it is not a question of precepts, but a real need, not only an emotional one (on the contrary at times emotions seem to stand aside…), but profound and unavoidable. It is the need to fill each day of my life with Him: it was Jesus who told us that each day should not be fretted over (see Mt 6,34), hence that each day is sufficiently long for sustaining the battle for preserving faith in Him. Each day the sun rises for us and each day our hearts, thirsty for love, need the sun of the Beloved One to reach and warm them once again: if He is our life, and its sense and beauty, we cannot do without encountering Him there where He lives and offers Himself for us. What could one say about someone in love who, although presented with this opportunity, did not feel the need to encounter the object of this love each day? And if this is true for human love, which so often is fragile and fickle, how could it not be true for a love that does nor disappoint or betray, a love that enables one to experience in time and for eternity the love of God in Jesus Christ, our life?

This is why we feel the need to encounter Him each day and this need is always renewed: and where could we meet Him if not where He promised and guaranteed us the gift of His presence? "This is my Body – this is the cup of the new and eternal alliance, in my Blood that is to be shed for you and for the remission of sins". Yes, each day we need You, Jesus; and while on Sundays we encounter You on the festivity of the first and last day, the eighth day of Your Resurrection and of the new life, You give to Your Church and to the world the grace You offer us with Your infinite generosity to celebrate each day the memory of Your Easter fills us with joy and peace. In truth we are not alone on the path of our ministry: You always reach out to us with Your Word of life; it is You who visits us in the brothers and sisters You send on our path; it is You who asks for our love in the poor and in all those who need the love You call upon us to give. You are at the summit of all this as the living source of this river of life and love and You make Yourself present in the Eucharist that we may nourish ourselves, live in You, love You today and forever.

Why then celebrate the Eucharist everyday and do all that is possible that it should never be lacking? Why celebrate it also when only the Virgin Mother Mary, the angels and the saints and a tiny group of believers (perhaps not even these: it does happen!) are there to experience this event with me? To encounter You, Jesus, the love that makes sense of and transforms everything, love that alone makes us capable of grace and forgiveness. Celebrating the Eucharist everyday means asking You once again in time that all may know You and believe in You in the manner in which only You render each of us capable of. Celebrating everyday means being aware that – just as each day we have enough bread to survive – thus each day we are in need of You to experience never-ending life: in this dual sense we say to the Father, for ourselves and for our brothers, the words that You have taught us: "Give us this day our daily bread". Celebrating the Eucharist each day means meeting You, Lord Jesus, that You may reach us and transform us more and more with Your beauty that frees and redeems so that we may be – in spite of ourselves - a poor and loving reflection of You, the Good Shepherd. Of course, all this could become a habit: it is therefore necessary to be vigilant so that the encounter with Christ is new and true each day. Habit however, if it is a mark of faithfulness, is something true and beautiful. In meeting You, we can really say that we are celebrating the Eucharist for others and with others, even if they are not visibly present, because in You we meet the people you have entrusted to us, to You we entrust their love and their pain, even though many of them will never know. This is the ministry of intercession, to which You have called us, of prayer for others and in their place, also for those we have not met and will never meet, the prayer we can only really experience united with You and through You, because You are the Priest of the new and eternal alliance consigned for the life, the joy and the beauty of each of Your creatures.

Yes, this because You, Lord Jesus Christ, are not only truth and goodness: You are beauty, redeeming beauty. You are the Good Shepherd who guides us to the pastures of life, where there is never-ending beauty. By celebrating the Eucharist each day we too hope to become a little more truthful, more good, and a little more beautiful in You, who come to us in Your Church as the only goodness, the perfect goodness and the beauty that transfigures everything. It is not rash to think that there is this need at the bottom of the heart of each presbyter, the servant of reconciliation, witness of the Gospel, united with You, Head of the ecclesial Body. It is therefore really a grace that we are able to meet each day at the feet of the altar of life. Each of us will bring others, and all the others will bring another, and all together it is Christ who will carry us, helping us to carry our crosses and those of others we must help, giving us His Risen Life, which has won over sin and death so as to win over them in us and in those who accompany us on our journey, in time and for eternity.

Really – as the Pope states in the conclusion of his encyclical letter – "In the humble signs of bread and wine, changed into his body and blood, Christ walks beside us as our strength and our food for the journey, and he enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope. If, in the presence of this mystery, reason experiences its limits, the heart, enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, clearly sees the response that is demanded, and bows low in adoration and unbounded love.

Let us make our own the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an eminent theologian and an impassioned poet of Christ in the Eucharist, and turn in hope to the contemplation of that goal to which our hearts aspire in their thirst for joy and peace: 

Bone pastor, panis vere, Iesu, nostri miserere... ". 

"Come then, good Shepherd, bread divine,
Still show to us thy mercy sign;
Oh, feed us, still keep us thine;
So we may see thy glories shine
in fields of immortality.

O thou, the wisest, mightiest, best,
Our present food, our future rest,
Come, make us each thy chosen guest,
Co-heirs of thine, and comrades blest
With saints whose dwelling is with thee. Amen"
(Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 62).

 

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