By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Dec 11, 2008)
I received a letter recently from a fellow who finds himself in a predicament that some of our readers may face when they go to spend time with their relatives over the holidays. A man named James from Chicago wrote to me and said:
My family wants me to come and stay with them over the holidays. I said I would love to, of course, but they aren't Catholic, so I said, "Please, can I get to Church for Christmas?" They said sure, we can all go to their Presbyterian Church on Christmas Day and worship Jesus together as one big happy family! Well, I know I should probably go to Catholic Mass on Christmas Day, since it's a special holy day right? But they say "whatever denomination we belong to, we all believe in keeping Christ in Christmas, so why can't we celebrate that together?" I didn't know what to say. ...
It's always tough when you are caught "off guard" like that, James. But the next time they ask you, you might say: "Well, as Catholics, we believe not only in keeping the 'Christ' in 'Christmas,' but also in keeping the 'Mass' in 'Christ-Mass' — which is precisely where the word Christmas comes from! Of course, if you have a special service of Christmas carol singing or something like that at your Presbyterian Church, I would be happy to go with you as an expression of our Christian fellowship, but I also need to go to Mass, or it just isn't a real 'Christ-mass' for me."
Let's take some time together, over the next few weeks, to explore this wonderful mystery of the Mass. As we shall see, in the end, the Mass is a great mystery of Divine Mercy, and it is inextricably linked with the mystery of Christmas as well.
In her Diary, entry 914, St. Faustina writes:
Oh, what awesome mysteries take place during Mass! A great mystery is accomplished in the Holy Mass. With what great devotion should we listen to and take part in this death of Jesus. One day we will know what God is doing for us in each Mass, and what sort of gift He is preparing in it for us. Only His divine love could permit that such a gift be provided for us.
In fact, there are so many mysteries of God's merciful love contained in the Eucharist that Pope Leo XIII once said: "In the Eucharist alone are contained in a remarkable richness and a variety of miracles all supernatural realities." Did you get that? All supernatural realities are made present to us in the Mass: God the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all His angels and saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the birth, life, death and Resurrection of our Lord, His Second Coming, all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit — in short, everything supernatural that is good and that flows from God, is made present to us in the Holy Eucharist! That is why the Council of Trent back in the 16th century taught us that the Mass is the fountain of all graces — not just some graces, but all graces. Even the graces we receive from the other sacraments, or from personal prayer, are like little streams flowing out to us from the one mighty river of the merciful love of our Lord, who is present for us in the Eucharist, the one great source and fountain of Mercy.
Now, how can this be? How can all graces and all supernatural realities be made present for us in the Eucharist? I am not going to presume to try to uncover for you all of the mysteries of the Mass over the next few weeks. I will just touch on a few of the most important ones, with the help of St. Faustina, the popes, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
First of all, there is the mystery that you all learned about in your own first communion or catechism classes: the miracle of the Real Presence of Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine. What does this "Real presence" mean? It means that in the Eucharist we encounter not a lifeless object, not just a symbolic piece of bread, but a Living Person: Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is not really an "it," it's a "He." It's not something but Someone, our living Savior. Perhaps we get confused about this sometimes because the Church often speaks about the Eucharistic elements as the "Body" of Christ and the "Blood" of Christ, as if only the material elements of His Body and Blood are made present for us. But those words "Body" and "Blood" are just shorthand for the fullness of the mystery. As the Catechism tells us in entry 1374, what is actually made present for us in the consecrated bread and wine are "The Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore the whole Christ." In other words, Jesus is fully present for us in the Eucharist, in the fullness of His divinity and His humanity, under the outer signs of bread and wine.
Our Lord impressed this truth upon St. Faustina numerous times, according to her Diary. For example, in entries 1447 and 1385, she recorded our Savior's words to her as follows:
Oh how painful it is to Me that souls seldom unite themselves to Me in Holy Communion. I wait for souls, and they are indifferent toward Me. I love them tenderly and sincerely, and they distrust Me. I want to lavish My graces on them, and they do not want to accept them. They treat Me as a dead object, whereas My heart is full of love and mercy. ...
I desire to unite Myself with human souls; My great delight is to unite Myself with human souls. Know, My daughter, that when I come to a human heart in Holy Communion, My hands are full of all kinds of graces which I want to give to the soul. But souls do not even pay any attention to Me; they leave Me to Myself and busy themselves with other things. Oh how sad I am that souls do not recognize love! They treat Me as a dead object.
It makes you think, doesn't it? How many souls would be transformed by God's merciful love, how the Church herself would be completely renewed, if only we Catholics would go to each and every Mass not out of habit or custom, not even just to take part in some "meaningful" religious symbolism, but actually to abide in the presence of Jesus Himself, to entrust ourselves to His care, and to receive all the graces that He is longing to shower upon us when we come to Him.
Sometimes we get ourselves into the mindset that the Church will only be renewed, the "new springtime' of the Church will only truly come, when our favorite devotional movement or renewal program is "up and running" everywhere. We think to ourselves: "If only Focolare (or Opus Dei, or Cursillo, or Regnum Christi, or the Legion of Mary, etc.) would grow and spread everywhere, then the Church would really be spiritually renewed!" But, good as each of these movements may be, in themselves they cannot renew the Church. Not even the Divine Mercy movement can do that. Saint Faustina knew better: it is only Jesus Himself, through the Eucharistic gift of Himself, who can truly bring the Church to life again! All other movements and programs in the Church are really only of help if they bring us to Jesus in the Eucharist, and enable us to receive Him there with greater trust in His merciful love. As St. Faustina wrote:
All the good that is in me is due to Holy Communion. Herein lies the whole secret of my sanctity. ... One thing alone sustains me, and that is Holy Communion. From it I draw my strength; in it is all my comfort. ... Jesus concealed in the Host is everything to me. ... I would not know how to give glory to God if I did not have the Eucharist in my heart. ... O Living Host, my one and only strength, fountain of love and mercy, embrace the whole world, [and] fortify faint souls. Oh blessed be the instant and the moment when Jesus left us His most merciful Heart! (Diary, 1392, 1489, 1037, and 223)
The first great mystery of the Eucharist, therefore, is simply this: the Eucharist is not just a "dead object" or a lifeless symbol. Rather, the Eucharist is Jesus Himself, our living Lord and Savior, giving Himself to us in a unique, intimate, and miraculous manner. He wants to draw us to His merciful Heart in the Eucharist, and pour out upon us all the graces of His love and compassion. If only we Catholics would come to meet Him in the Mass longing for that — even expecting that in faith, as St. Faustina did — then indeed our hearts, and the heart of the whole Church universal, truly would be renewed.
A second great mystery of the Mass is simply this: Jesus is not only present for us in this special way during the Eucharistic celebration. In fact, wherever the consecrated Host is reserved, in every tabernacle in every Catholic Church throughout the world, He is waiting there for us, and longing for us to come to him.
Jesus said to St. Faustina in Diary, entry 1485:
Behold, for you I have established a throne of mercy on earth — the tabernacle — and from this throne I desire to enter into your heart. I am not surrounded by a retinue or guards. You can come to Me at any moment, at any time; I want to speak to you and desire to grant you grace.
To these words of Jesus I want to add some words form that fantastic statement of faith penned by Pope Paul VI just after the Second Vatican Council, entitled "The Credo of the People of God." Paul VI wrote of the Eucharist in that document:
The unique and indivisible existence of the lord, glorious in heaven ... is rendered present by the sacrament in the many places on earth where Mass is celebrated. And this existence remains present after the sacrifice [of the Mass] in the Blessed Sacrament, which is, in the tabernacle, the living heart of each of our churches. And it is our very sweet duty to honor and adore in the blessed Host which our eyes see, the Incarnate Word whom they cannot see, and who, without leaving heaven, is made present for us.
So let's put these thoughts by St. Faustina and Pope Paul VI together. The Pope said that it is our "very sweet duty" to honor and adore Jesus, the Son of God, in His Real Presence for us in the tabernacle. Saint Faustina said that Jesus is actually longing for us to come and visit Him there, and that He wants to pour out upon us all the graces of His mercy whenever we do come to Him. Pope Paul VI told us that the tabernacle should be seen as "the living heart of each of our churches" — and St. Faustina called the Blessed Sacrament "the living Host" where Jesus gives to us "His most merciful Heart," and that we should come to Him at any moment, at any time, because He is not surrounded by a retinue of guards.
Yes, but sadly, these days Jesus in the tabernacle is often surrounded by a barrier of locked church doors! How many of our parish churches must be kept closed and locked most of the time, for insurance reasons, because there is no one there to keep watch, and no one there to receive all the graces that Jesus in the tabernacle is longing to give to us! And in how many of our churches is the tabernacle really exalted as the "living heart" of the church building, where the living Host, the merciful Heart of Jesus, is waiting to welcome us?
Thanks be to God that there are some Catholic parishes where Jesus really is honoured and adored in the tabernacle, and where His sacramental presence is even frequently exposed — sometimes even perpetually exposed! — so that faithful hearts can wonder and adore Him, and more readily receive His grace. In fact, I owe my own conversion to the Catholic Faith to one little parish in Vancouver, British Columbia, the only one in that archdiocese at that time that had nearly perpetual exposition and adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Because of our Lord's special and gracious presence in that place, my heart was gradually melted down, and I was able to find my way into the fullness of the Faith.
Jesus even told St. Faustina that He longs for souls to visit Him in the Blessed Sacrament. It is a selfless, not a selfish, longing: What He longs to do is to pour His graces of His merciful Heart into the hearts of all those who come to visit Him. For example, listen to His words to St. Faustina, recorded in her Diary, entry 367:
My Heart overflows with great mercy for souls, and especially for poor sinners ... for them I dwell in the tabernacle as King of Mercy. I desire to bestow My graces upon souls, but they do not want to accept them. You, at least, come to Me as often as possible and take those graces they do not want to accept. In this way you will console My Heart. Oh, how indifferent are souls to so much goodness, to so many proofs of love! My Heart drinks only of the ingratitude and forgetfulness of souls living in the world. They have time for everything, but they have no time to come to Me for graces.
In short, if the merciful Jesus longs for us to visit Him in the Blessed Sacrament, if He longs to pour the graces of His merciful love into our hearts whenever we do visit Him there, if He says it even "consoles" His longing Heart whenever we come to Him for grace — then how can we who profess to believe in Him and love Him possibly keep away from Him?
To be continued next week.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.