Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Corpus Christi, C
June 13, 2004
Gen 14:18-20; 1Cor11:23-26; Lk 9:11-17
1) The multiplication of the loaves and fish in today’s Gospel, in addition to feeding a crowd of several thousand, also pointed toward a much more important multiplication that he would work: the multiplication of his body and blood, throughout the globe, through all of time, in the Eucharist. We celebrate that multiplication and share in it this afternoon, on the feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord.
2) This feast began in the 1200s as a result of two miracles, two interventions of the Lord. The first occurred in the early 1200s, when the Lord Jesus was appearing to a contemplative nun in Belgium, Blessed Juliana of Mont Cornillon (1193-1258). Beginning from the time she was 16, a moon would appear to her throughout the day with a black band in it. She wondered what it meant and the Lord Jesus appeared to her in a dream and mentioned that the moon referred to the liturgical year and the black band to the fact that the liturgical year lacked one thing, a day in honor of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
3) Up until that point, the Church had marked the institution of the Eucharist each year on Holy Thursday, when the Lord gave the apostles his body and blood for the first time and instituted the priesthood so that through his priests, that body and blood might be multiplied to every land in every age. But on Holy Thursday, the focus of most Christians is on the imminent betrayal that will occur after the Last Supper. Even the Gospel of the Mass of the Last Supper does not focus on the Eucharist, but rather on the Lord’s washing his apostles’ feet and commissioning them to do the same in loving, humble service of others. Missing from the liturgical calendar was a feast specifically dedicated to rejoicing in the incredible gift of the Eucharist and thanking God for it.
4) Blessed Juliana went to the local bishop, Bishop Robert of Liège, and asked him to institute a feast in their diocese in Belgium, which he did beginning in 1246. The Archdeacon of the Bishop of Liège was a man by the name of Jacques Pantaleon, whom we will encounter again soon. That was the first intervention of the Lord to bring about this feast.
5) The second intervention happened in the life of a priest, Father Peter of Prague (now of the Czech Republic), who had lost his faith in the reality of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. It might surprise some people to think that a priest might lose his faith in the Eucharist, but sometimes it does occur. A priest can begin to question whether what starts out as mere bread and wine in his hands can change, after a few sacred words, into the body and blood of the God-man, Jesus, even though all the appearances of the bread and wine remain. Father Peter felt like a hypocrite celebrating the Eucharist while having some doubts about whether the Lord Jesus were truly there. But he hadn’t yet lost his faith in God and, hence, decided to give God the opportunity to give him that faith by doing something quite drastic. In 1263, he decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome, to pray at the tomb of his patron, St. Peter, for the gift of a renewed faith in the Eucharist. This was a drastic move because to make a pilgrimage to Rome was quite an undertaking then. Today we can hop on a plane at Logan airport and arrive in Rome several hours later. To make a pilgrimage from Prague to Rome then, however, would have meant WALKING about 900 miles, the equivalent of walking from Hyannis to South Carolina. It would have taken at least a couple of months one way, not to mention considerable hardship. But he went anyway.
6) Why did he make the pilgrimage to St. Peter in Rome? There were tombs of saints and pilgrimage destinations much closer to Prague, but Father Peter did not choose any of them. He went to the tomb of his patron because St. Peter has always been an example to the whole Church of faith in the Eucharist, from the time the Lord talked about the reality of the Eucharist the first time, in a synagogue in Capernaum, one year before his death. You very likely remember the scene. Jesus told his listeners that unless they gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood, they would have no life in them, and the one who eats his flesh and drinks his blood will have eternal life (cf. John 6:53ff). St. John tells us that many of the DISCIPLES, those for whom the Lord had worked so hard for the previous two years to bring to the truth, walked a way, thinking that Jesus was mentally ill. They complained, saying, “This teaching is hard! Who can accept it?” And many of those disciples turned their back on Jesus and walked away. Jesus knew that they had heard him appropriately but were not willing to accept the truth about the Eucharist. He then turned to his closest followers, the twelve, and asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?” They fell silent. None of them could have understood what Jesus was talking about any better than those who had just abandoned Jesus. A Jew couldn’t even touch blood without becoming ritually impure. Yet Jesus was asking them to drink his blood and eat his flesh, which sounded like cannibalism. It would take a year before what Jesus was saying would make any sense, when Jesus, during the Last Supper, took bread and wine into his hands and changed them into his body and blood, “This is my body,” “This is the cup of my blood.” Nevertheless, even though they didn’t understand truly what Jesus was saying and why he was saying it, St. Peter stood up after the Lord’s question of whether they, too, would leave the Lord over his teaching on the Eucharist, and said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” St. Peter believed in the Eucharist because he believed in Christ, which meant believing in what he said. St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote so many beautiful hymns for the first celebration of Corpus Christi, wrote in the Adoro te Devote, “I believe whatever the Son of God has said; Nothing is truer than the Word of Truth.” Jesus, the Word of God, the Truth incarnate, said that we had to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and therefore, St. Peter, believed.
7) That’s the deeper reason why Father Peter of Prague had made the pilgrimage to Rome, to ask for like faith in Christ’s words. He finally arrived after a journey of eight weeks or more. He prayed for a couple of weeks in front of the tomb of his patron, but after all of that, it seemed as if nothing had happened. Thus, Father Peter started to question his entire faith in God. Hadn’t Jesus said that whoever knocked would have the door opened, whoever asked would receive, whoever sought would find? Hadn’t he said that the Father knows how to give good things to his children? Yet when Father Peter, a priest, had asked for something so important for him to be a disciple and apostle of the Lord — faith in the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist — it seemed like he had come up empty. So, crestfallen, he began on his journey up north, now with very little faith at all. He was travelling in a group of returning pilgrims, because there was safety in numbers in warding off bandits who would wait in hiding to ambush individual travelers. When it came to be Sunday, members of the group asked Father Peter if he might celebrate Mass for them. Out of courtesy, he assented. They stopped at a small Church dedicated to St. Christina in Bolsena, Italy, and celebrated Mass on a side altar. Right before the “Lamb of God,” when Father Peter broke the host, as a priest always does, to put a particle into the chalice, the host in his hands began to bleed profusely. It bled on the corporal, on the altar cloths, on the altar. The people, beholding the miracle in front of their eyes, started to shriek. The priest of St. Christina’s came to see what all the commotion was about and beheld the miracle with his own eyes. They had to decide what to do with the miracle. The local priest knew that Pope Urban IV was at that time in Orvieto, a walled city only about 10 miles away, and they decided to take the miracle to Orvieto to see what the Pope would instruct them to do with it. When they arrived, Father Peter told his story, about how he had lost his faith in the Eucharist, made a pilgrimage to Rome, thought that the Lord hadn’t heard his prayer, but then made his real presence incontrovertibly present during the celebration of the Mass in Bolsena. Father Peter punctuated the truth of the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist by saying, “Holy Father, bread can’t bleed.” That particular Holy Father, Urban IV, was the former archdeacon of Liège, Jacques Pantaleon, and he took that miracle as a sign that Christ wanted a feast to His Body and Blood celebrated not just in a diocese in Belgium, but throughout the whole Church. The first one was celebrated in 1264 and it has been celebrated ever since.
8) What should our reaction be to so great a feast, so mind-blowing a reality? Every time we celebrate Mass, what occurred in Bolsena can occur here. There have been many Eucharistic miracles throughout the centuries in which the Lord has manifested his presence to the faithful. He could do so here today. Regardless of whether he chooses to do so or not, the reality is the same: we receive the same Christ who bled on the Cross, who bled in Father Peter’s hands 741 years ago. And our reaction to the Eucharist should be the same, whether a dramatic manifestation occurs or not, because it is Christ, God, whom we receive. Knowledge of that reality should influence our actions with respect to the God-man in the Eucharist. That’s why the Church asks all communicants to make a profound bow or genuflection before receiving the Eucharist, to help them to recognize inwardly that they are about to receive the Lord of Lords (and to help others to recognize that reality through observing their piety). That’s why the Church says that if we receive the Eucharist on the hands, we should make a throne for the King of Kings, with one hand over another. That’s why the Church says that before receiving, each of us needs to prepare a fitting place for Christ within, because each of us is called to be a living tabernacle, a walking monstrance, a temple of God. That implies both that if our soul is not clean of serious sin, that we first go to be cleansed by Christ in the sacrament he instituted to forgive our sins before coming to receive him here, and that we should prepare for his visit by hungering for him in the Eucharist through a Eucharist fast, and by spiritual communions. The awesome reality of who Christ is in the Eucharist should also lead in us to a profound thanksgiving every time we’ve received the Lord. I always wonder whether those who leave Mass early after having received the Lord really know that they’ve just received God, or, if they know that, whether they really love him. This time with the Lord here is so much more important than anything else we might want to do after Mass.
9) Our actions with respect to the Eucharist do manifest our faith and our love, or lack of it. This point was driven by a story told by Professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College, a convert and one of the great defenders of the Catholic faith. After one of his classes, a devout Muslim student came to ask him a question on a topic unrelated to the philosophical lecture he had just given, knowing that Dr. Kreeft had a reputation for being a famous Christian writer. “Do Catholics really believe that that little white thing they receive is actually not bread, but Jesus?” “Yes,” Kreeft replied. “And you believe that Jesus is actually God?” “Yes we do.” Kreeft began to launch into a defense of how God, who created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all they contain from nothing, could easily change bread and wine into flesh and blood and even to the body, blood, soul and divinity of God. But the Muslim interrupted him. I don’t doubt Allah’s omnipotence. That’s not my problem.” “What is, then?,” Kreeft queried. The Muslim told him that out of curiosity he had gone to a Catholic Mass on the campus of BC, sat in the back and observed what the Catholics did and how they behaved. He watched them go up to receive Holy Communion. And he watched what they did after Communion. Some received with reverence. Some left. Some returned to their pews as if nothing really important had just happened. After watching them, he couldn’t believe that Catholics believed that the little white host was actually God. “Why not?,” Kreeft asked him. “If I thought that that was Allah,” the Muslim student finished, “I don’t think I could ever get up off my knees!” The Muslim knew that if the host were God, that God would deserve all of our love and adoration. Well, we know that that host is God! Therefore we’re called by God to proclaim that truth by our body language — not just for the non-Catholics who might be present at a Mass we attend, but most importantly out of faith and love in the God we receive.
10) That Lord is worth all our love, all our sacrifices, even our very life. I’ll never forget one of the most powerful homilies I’ve ever heard. It was preached by a Sudanese priest doing the missionary appeal at SS. Peter & Paul Parish in Fall River, a few weeks after my ordination as a priest. The priest was very nervous. His English was not very good. He wasn’t good in asking for money. He had just arrived in the United States. He implored me, “Father, please help me. What should I say to your people?” I had read a lot about the persecution of Christians in the Sudan and how much their discipleship cost them. So I told him, “Just preach about what your people need to do to get to Mass and, I promise you, the people will be very generous.” So he told them. He described how many of his parishioners have to walk up to 20 miles to attend Mass each Sunday, leaving in the middle of the night. They march as sitting ducks not just for bandits, but for the Muslim fundamentalist snipers, sent from Khartoum, who occasionally machine-gun them down from the roadsides. They pray the Rosary the whole time, asking the Mother of God, to pray for them “now and at the moment of [their] death,” which they know could come at any time. Their Mass takes 3-4 hours and is very joyous. They treasure the gift of the Lord in Holy Communion, because they know that communion very well may be their viaticum. After the Mass, they return home praying the Rosary, hoping that the snipers won’t be there. Why do they go through all the effort? Why do they walk for hours, each way? Why do they joyfully participate in a liturgy that lasts for hours? Why do they risk their very lives? The priest said, “Because we love the Lord and he comes to meet us in the Eucharist.” In other words, the Lord is worth it all. Well, even though we don’t risk our lives coming to Mass, even though most of us drive here from short distances, even though our Masses are much shorter, there is no reason why American Catholics here in Hyannis should love the Lord any less than our Sudanese brothers and sisters.
11) That’s why each Corpus Christi is an opportunity for us to examine our consciences to ask us whether we take for granted the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist, or whether we make it the central reality of our lives. Pope John Paul II announced on Thursday that, beginning this October, we will have a Eucharistic Year, dedicated to helping all Catholics make the Eucharist the source and the summit of their lives. This feast of Corpus Christi is a chance for us to get a head start. This Mass may be our last Mass — let us celebrate it with the love of the Sudanese, with the joy that that Muslim student at BC should have seen, with the jubilation of the pilgrims in Bolsena when the Lord removed all doubt about his real presence.
12) To help us to do that, I will end with the lyrics of a new Eucharistic hymn which I hope one day will become famous. A few months ago, I was asked by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (a confederation of women’s religious orders) to be one of the judges of a hymn contest for their upcoming Eucharistic Congress. One of the submissions, by Sr. Miriam David Baker, was so good that I have taken it to my prayer on several occasions. It points to what occurs in every Mass and is based on the theme taken from the Preface for the Holy Eucharist, “Earth Unites with Heaven.” Please listen contemplatively to these lyrics as we ask the intercession of the saints and angels to help us at this Mass to see what they see:
1. Behold the realm of the angels’ bliss; altar beckons: enter in.
Rise up from earth; seek eternity where God dwells among mere men.
Man lifted up into Love unseen, glimpsing divine mystery.
Approach in hope, through firm faith with love, for here earth unites with heaven.
2. Receive and eat, taste the Flesh of God; Bread of Angels feeds mankind.
Bathe in the Blood of the Lamb pierced, slain; mortal man to make divine.
Eternal meal transcends space and time; Heaven and earth are made one.
Myst’ry of faith, far beyond man’s grasp: Sacred Sign, Mystical Vine.
3. Myriads of angels bow down in awe; Seraphs tremble as they gaze.
All heav’nly host worship at the throne; All creation echoes praise.
Man joins his voice to the heav’nly throng, before the Lamb, all adore.
Heaven and earth here embrace in love, piercing night with glorious rays.
4. Fall down before Him, the Lamb of God, Source of immortality.
Heaven and earth joined by Tree of Life; Word made Man has set man free.
Sing Alleluia to God on high, Glory and honor and praise.
Draped in the mantle of timelessness, Altar holds infinity.
5. Spirit and Bride call, “Come, enter in to the Banquet of the King.”
Blessed are those who partake in faith of this Feast which cures all sin.
Draw near and take the true Bread of Life; With fear and awe lift the veil.
The wedding day of the Lamb has come; Heaven calls, earth enters in.
(“Realms of Angels’ Bliss by Sr. Miriam David Baker, copyright LPB Communications, 2004).