Visiting the Alamo

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. I was familiar with it through tv shows and general American culture. Still, the visit there left a surprisingly deep impression on me.

Some might not know that it was originally built as the Catholic Mission of San Antonio, and the main building was designed as the chapel. Because of circumstances it ended up spending the majority of its time as a military/government base, but one of its side rooms was maintained as a functioning chapel for many years. The building is now surrounded by downtown San Antonio, although space has been preserved for a park that maintains the feeling of the original complex. Most of it is set-up like a typical museum, with artifacts, dioramas, talks, and even some historical reenactors (we saw one giving a musket demonstration).

What surprised me, though, was the reverence maintained in the old church itself. The door bore an old metal sign with the inscription, “Be silent, friend. Here heroes died to blaze a trail for other men.” In thinking of all those who have given their lives for others, the words of the Gospel came to mind: “No greater love has one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend” (John 15:13). Hats were to be removed and no camera/electronic devices were permitted. The space was clean and simple, with a few displays explaining aspects of the building, and a set of plaques listing the names of all of the deceased. It seemed the deaths were recent events, and the weight of loss was palpable.

Of course, from my perspective it was impossible to think of this without recalling that in a small side room the Franciscan priests at the mission had regularly celebrated Mass – the sacrament of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. “For freedom Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Side-by-side were the temporal struggle and the eternal dimension. It still merits further reflection for me. May I try honor those that have given me the opportunities that I have in this life, and the One that has offered me a freedom beyond that which the world can give.

The Road to Emmaus and the Mass

On the afternoon of Easter Sunday Jesus appeared to two disciples walking to the city of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They did not recognize Him, but spoke of their discouragement about His death. Jesus explained the preparation for this in the Scriptures, and then was invited to dinner as they reached the town. At dinner He performed the blessing and then disappeared. This has been one of my favorite Resurrection appearances since hearing it explained at one of our Diocesan Emmaus Days retreats (the retreat name comes from this passage). It helped me to understand the structure of the Mass, and how to find God in it.

The Mass has two principal parts—the Liturgy of the Word (Scripture readings, preaching) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the consecration and distribution of the Body and Blood). We see both of them echoed in the appearance.

Jesus first spends time speaking with the two disciples about the full meaning of the Scriptures. He shows the way that the Old Testament prepares the way for His work, and how to see God’s plan through it all. The disciples say, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” This is what we seek today when we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word: that the Lord may open the Scriptures to us and set our hearts afire!

However, at this point the disciples had still not recognized Jesus. It was getting late, and so they invited Him to dinner. “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.” These are not random actions they describe—taking the bread, blessing, breaking, giving. These are the actions Jesus had done at the Last Supper, when He said, “this is my Body… this is my Blood.” They hearken back as well to the feeding of the multitude, after which He explained “my flesh is true food and my blood true drink… unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life within you” (see John chapter 6). In fact, it appears that Jesus chose to celebrate His “first supper” after the Resurrection in the same way as the Last Supper! It is in this moment that they finally recognize Him, but then He disappears from their sight. Why? I think the Catholic answer is very profound: because He remains present now under the appearance of the bread and wine. His True Presence does not leave, merely manifests in the new way that He will remain with us until the end of days.

So, when we celebrate Mass, we commemorate not just the Last Supper but also this “first” Supper. Jesus is not dead in the Mass, but alive. When we receive Communion we don’t encounter an inactive body but a living Person. Normal food is broken down and transformed into part of our body when it is consumed. This is different in the case of the Eucharist. Because Jesus is alive, what happens is that bit by bit our old self is broken down and transformed into Who we receive: Christ. Alleluia!

The Eucharist and the Parish

One of the very special events in the life of a priest is his “first Mass.” This is usually celebrated at his home parish the day after his ordination. When I was preparing for mine, the line that kept coming to my mind was what Jesus tells his apostles at the Last Supper, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” (Luke 22:15). It was the fulfillment of many years of preparation, and I was so happy to celebrate it with the community where I had grown up (even though it was probably the most nervous I have ever been celebrating a Mass!).

Indeed, the last thing Jesus chose to do before going to his arrest and death was to institute the Eucharist. Jesus emphasized the desire he had for this celebration because it was to be the foundation for the new community he was founding. This communion with his Body and Blood was to be the lifeblood of his “mystical” Body: the Church. St Paul uses this image in a powerful way in Chapter 12 of the first letter to the Corinthians. He says that the Church is the Body of Christ. Each of us is a member of this Body with our own mission and gifts. The body is not a single part, but there is a unity within the distinct parts. Pope Francis speaks of this as “harmony,” which avoids the opposite errors of stale uniformity and destructive disunity (see his first homily for Pentecost as Pope, 19 May 2013).

I think it also teaches us something very important about what a parish is supposed to be. To use another phrase from Pope Francis, he speaks of the parish as a “community of communities” (The Joy of the Gospel, paragraph 28). This is similar to St Paul’s description of the Church as a unified Body with many parts. In our parish we have a variety of communities. Our goal is not to lose what is essential or unique about each of these communities, but similarly not to break down into isolated units. It is our unity in the celebration of the Eucharist that stands as an essential part of what we do together as a parish. We might think of this as the heart that pumps blood through the body. If a hand tries to separate itself from the heart it will wither. If we lose our connection here, we will not bear fruit. There will be events that fall mainly within one of the communities here, and we want to keep all of the distinctive life and gifts manifest in them. Our parish will be at its best, though, when we keep these parts connected in the unity of the parish through union with Christ in his celebration of the Eucharist.

What does the word “Eucharist” mean?

One of the perhaps strangest words that we often use as Catholics is “Eucharist.” It might not even be obvious how to pronounce it if you haven’t heard it before (YOO-ka-rist). Once you master that you can try the Spanish version: Eucaristía (a hint, it has six syllables!).

In itself, it is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” It was used in the early Church, though, to give name to the celebration surrounding the sacrament of the Last Supper (for example, in the excellent accounts given by St Justin Martyr). From there it developed a number of related uses. So, “the Eucharist” may refer to the bread and wine that has become the Body and Blood of Christ. In this case it would be similar to the words “Holy Communion,” “the Most Holy Sacrament,” or the Host/Chalice. Additionally, “celebrating the Eucharist” may be used as an equivalent of Mass, referring to the whole ceremony that is carried out in church. It might seem odd to refer to the consecrated Host as “the Eucharist” (ie “the Thanksgiving”), but it flows from remembering the spirit of thanks that should surround this sacramental gift.  Our prayer is often filled with expressions of “please” and “I’m sorry.” Let this word be a reminder to also fill them with the words “thank you!”

What were my struggles with the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist?

The Church teaches that during the celebration of Mass the bread and the wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. It is a distinctive teaching of the Catholic Church, and at the heart of our worship. This became a struggle for me when I entered college, because I couldn’t tell how the elements were any different, and didn’t know how to answer those who challenged this belief. I ended up asking one of the priests at the Newman Center, which was a blessing. Unfortunately these types of questions are sometimes just left to fester without remedy!

The priest suggested two things, which helped me immensely. The first was study. At a basic level, I didn’t really understand what the Church teaches. We do not claim that the sensible elements change (how it looks, tastes, etc). Instead, we believe that the substance changes (what stands beneath the appearance, classically called “accidents”). This answered my first question; it’s not a question of sensible change, but whether the change is merely symbolic.

In my study I examined the scriptural texts, and realized how strongly Jesus states the truth of the substantial change in the Scriptures (eg “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” from John 6:55). Paul likewise speaks of it in his letters. Elsewhere you can find a fuller explanation, but I just want to say here that the Catholic belief is certainly not unscriptural.

The other aspect of my study was the writings of the early Christians, shortly after the time of Christ. For example, St Justin Martyr writes this (around the year 150 AD):

“And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.”

In short, I found that the belief in the true change of the elements is the ancient belief. Reducing it to merely a symbolic/figurative change is a development of the last centuries. Just appeals to the recent teaching of the apostles as the source of his belief–a distance of less than 100 years. Either the apostles completely failed to explain the symbolic nature of the Eucharist and the belief became corrupted within the first generation, or Justin is in fact correctly representing their teaching.

In addition to this objective study, the priest recommended a second approach: prayer. As I began to pray more seriously in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (and to be more attentive in receiving Communion), I experienced the truth of these words personally. Jesus didn’t desire to leave only a symbolic or figurative presence with us. He is present, truly, under the appearance of the bread and wine.

From that point, instead of experiencing this teaching as a source of confusion, I found it to be a source of Communion—from the Mass I experience today, back through the ages and saints, to Christ Himself.