The Eucharist: heart of our faith

The Eucharist: heart of our faith

Cardinal George Pell

The Eucharist is the heart of our faith. It is an act of worship, of prayer to the one true God through Jesus Christ, His Son. It is a memorial to the death and resurrection of Jesus, a sacrament of love, a sign of world-wide unity, a bond of charity, and an anticipation of eternal life.

When Jesus Christ was born, the Son of God took on a human nature. God became more accessible to us, so that in Jesus we see God the Father.

God respects and loves the universe that He has created, especially man and woman who are the centre piece of this immense masterpiece.

Material creation is not second rate and certainly not sinful. Matter is good and important. So we can understand why God's Spirit in the sacraments always requires material creation.

Therefore it comes as no surprise that, in all the sacraments, Christ and the Church have decreed that symbols should be used. Water and oil are used at baptism and confirmation, while bread and wine are used at Mass and turned into the Body and Blood of Christ.

There is another deeper level to this symbolism when we eat the bread and drink the wine which the priest has consecrated to become the Body and Blood of Christ.

Many Jews left Jesus when He told them they would have to eat his Body and drink his Blood. They were scandalised (John 6: 48-66).

Similarly today even good Christians can be surprised to hear Catholic teaching that the bread and wine are not just symbols, but become the Body and Blood, the soul and divinity of Jesus Christ Our Lord. So we speak of the "real presence" of Jesus in the host.

We receive Jesus into our hearts at Communion spiritually and into our bodies actually as we consume the host.

The origins of the Eucharistic prayers and actions derive of course from Jesus' Last Supper, celebrated with the apostles on the night before He died.

But this ritual in turn was rooted in Jewish customs from the Old Testament. The unleavened bread eaten at each Passover feast commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt. We also remember the manna the Jews received to sustain them in the desert. We recall too the priest Melchisedec from the first book of the Bible offering bread and wine (Genesis 14. 17- 20).

But there would have been no point to the Last Supper on Holy Thursday without Jesus' death on Good Friday.

In faith we are celebrating the death of the Lord until He comes again. The power of the universe has acted through His Son, the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. It is this gaining of salvation through Jesus' unique sacrifice that we commemorate in every Mass.

But we also look forward because Holy Communion is what St Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in the Colosseum in 107AD, called "the medicine of immortality". Holy Communion in particular, and all the sacraments, give us the spiritual energy or grace to enjoy happiness after death. In fact the Eucharist is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come.

Marriage imagery

Because the Mass is such an important event we need to work to participate properly. Mass is not an opportunity to relax and daydream, to let our minds wander wherever they might. We are called to participate, with our hearts, minds and bodies. Such participation must be internal and spiritual; it requires periods of silence and listening, but above all it requires prayer.

A Mass is only a "good Mass" when it is prayerful.

From Old Testament times marriage imagery has been used to describe the relationship between God and His chosen people. So too theologians speak of Christ as the bridegroom and the whole Catholic community as His bride.

We can accurately speak of Jesus facing death to save his bride, the Church, just as we speak of Christ as a warrior dedicated to defeating the power of evil. The Eucharist is a kind of celebration of this marriage and of this total giving unto death.

The Eucharist in particular should give us the strength and energy to take God's love into the world. But for this to be effective every lover must be a fighter. We cannot follow Christ without a struggle, without fighting and battling to control and purify our selfish instincts.

We are called to fight and battle against evil in its many forms. We know that evil will triumph if enough people do nothing.

The Eucharist gives us energy for this essential struggle.

During the last ten years or so, there has been a revival of the practice of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. An increased number of parishes now has a weekly period of such adoration. There is a hunger in our busy, distracted society for silence and contemplation, and an encouraging number of young people feel that the celebration of Benediction and quiet prayer meet this need. Such devotions enrich us personally and prepare us better for participation at Mass.

Attendance at Mass is not an optional extra for Catholics but part of the obligations we assume by being followers of Christ.

Participation requires a level of faith and understanding, a serious effort to repent of our sins so that we are in a worthy state, able to participate truly and honestly, rather than making a show. Those in serious unrepented sin should not go to receive communion, although all are welcome in Church to pray.

Talk about the Eucharist highlights the debt of the Catholic community towards their priests, and as archbishop I gratefully acknowledge the wonderful support the Catholic community gives to them, as I acknowledge the faith and fidelity of the priests themselves.

I ask the Catholics of Sydney to continue to pray for their priests and to pray for more seminarians and priests. The Eucharist is the heart of our faith and for the Eucharist to be celebrated we need more priests and people.

Let us remember this in the Year of the Eucharist.

This is an abbreviated version of Cardinal Pell's Letter for Pentecost Sunday, 15 May 2005, to the Catholics of Sydney.

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