Sunday, June 26, 2011

Corpus Domini

I may have told this story before, but on Corpus Christi I think it is worth repeating. Almost three decades ago, as a seminarian on sumer assignment, I was assigned to visit Catholic patients in a local hospital. (It was a really horrible old hospital, that has since been thankfully torn down) One day, as I was doing my weekly hospital visit, I found myself trying to communicate with an elderly, totally non-English-speaking, Hungarian woman, whose name was on my list, but who clearly had no notion who I was or why I was there.
Now, generally speaking, the quality of most human interaction depends - in large part - upon how well we listen and communicate with one another. If you can’t understand another person and he or she can’t understand you, communication may certainly still occur in all sorts of non-verbal ways, but it will likely be rather limited - in which case, the quality of whatever relationship you can have will likely also be correspondingly limited.
Speaking for myself, certainly some of my most frustrating experiences have been when I have been unable to understand or communicate with someone because of a language difference. Even when one knows the basics of a language, true communication may elude one. For example, for my first 5 years as a priest, almost every funeral I did was in Italian or, occasionally, Spanish, in neither of which am I fully fluent. All the stuff I was force-fed in seminary about attentively listening to people and responding to them was largely useless in the face of such linguistic obstacles.
Such experiences, of course, contribute to feeling inadequate, which, in turn, further fosters frustration. And frustrated was exactly how I felt that summer day in the hospital. Frustrated and impatient with the whole impossible situation, all I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible. But I was also – or at least wanted to be - conscientious about my duties, one of which was to bring Holy Communion to the sick. So, I took out a Host and held it up in front of her to see if that might spark a response. Suddenly, her confusion about who I was and what I was doing there no longer seemed to matter - because I no longer mattered. The sight of the Host resulted in instant recognition. She made the Sign of the Cross - and began to pray.
In all these intervening years, I have never forgotten my meeting with that devout old woman in that otherwise depressing place - and what that experience impressed on me about the power and importance of the Eucharist, whose minister it is now my privilege, as a priest, to be. Experiencing her response to the Real Presence of the Risen Christ – the real, body-and-blood presence of our living and loving Lord, present and active in his Church - impressed on me the meaning of those familiar and seemingly simple words of St. Paul, which we just heard: The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
In the Eucharist, as the church teaches, Christ is truly, really, and substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine – his flesh given to us, as Jesus himself said, for the life of the world. In both good times and bad, in sickness and in health, Christ is present in the Eucharist, and we in turn experience his presence and share in the new life he offers the world through his Church.
Clearly, the uniquely precious moment of Communion is intended to continue, permeating every moment and aspect of life - just as Christ’s real presence in the Mass continues in his Real Presence in the tabernacle, prolonging our act of adoration as his Church in the world. As St. Augustine famously put it (in his commentary on Psalm 98): “no one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it.”
Corpus Christi originated as a popular expression of the Church’s devotion centered on Christ’s presence in this sacrament. Each of the Church’s liturgical festivals, seasons, and devotions highlights in a particular and specific fashion some significant aspect of our Catholic belief and life. Today’s celebration invites us to focus in such a particular and specific fashion upon our devotion to Christ’s Real Presence, celebrated sacrificially in the Mass and prolonged in continued adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed on the altar for an experience of more intense adoration. This annual festival and our devotion to the Eucharist (the importance of which it highlights) invite us to a fuller, more conscious, and more intense participation in the Body of Christ, the Church, by believing firmly, celebrating devoutly, and living intensely Christ’s Eucharistic Presence, given to us for the life of the world.

Homily for Corpus Christi, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 26, 2011.

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