Almost two months ago our second graders from school and the religious education program made their First Communion, and a few days later I asked some of them to write down what the experience was like for them. One girl wrote, “I was so excited about my First Communion because it was the first time I received Jesus. I felt so happy inside, like I was going to faint. I felt nervous at first but then I felt better. Receiving Jesus is very important to me.” A boy stated simply, “It felt terrific when I received First Communion,” and another boy added, “I felt good about it. Jesus came to me. I had a big smile on my face.” One girl wrote, “I felt very good when I took First Communion. I’m now closer to Jesus,” and another girl said, “It is great to spend a day with Jesus at the church. I have been waiting a long time for that day. It finally came.” A boy shared his enthusiasm by writing, “I felt like I was an Apostle eating the Body and the Blood. I felt great. It was awesome!,” and another boy showed a good understanding of how we should respond to the Eucharist by writing, “I felt like I wanted to serve people.” Finally, one girl said, “I was scared at first. When I received Jesus, I felt spectacular. I’ve been waiting my whole life to receive Jesus. . . . I was so blessed that day.”
One of the Psalms praises God by saying, “Above the heavens is Your majesty chanted by the mouths of children” (8:2, Jerusalem Bible), and we definitely see this type of child-like wisdom here. As Catholics, we too easily take the Eucharist for granted, so it’s good when our young people can remind us of what a wonderful and amazing privilege it is to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior. Our Lord loves us so much that He wants to give Himself to us again and again in this truly miraculous way—and recognizing and receiving His Presence here and now helps prepare us to be present to Him for all eternity.
Most Protestants don’t believe Holy Communion is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, and, sadly, even many Catholics have misunderstandings or doubts about this sacred truth. Such a situation isn’t surprising, for we see in the Sixth Chapter of John’s Gospel that some of those who heard this teaching directly from Jesus Himself couldn’t accept it. Our Lord presented Himself as the true bread from Heaven, which—unlike the manna the Israelites ate in the desert—is capable of bestowing eternal life. As Jesus insisted, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you,” and He promised, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me and I in him.” This is the unity St. Paul refers to when he says that the Eucharistic bread and the cup of blessing are a participation or sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. Paul also says that we, though many, are called to be united as one body through the Eucharist—but this only happens if we accept Christ’s words in a spirit of humility and faith, submitting to the authority of the Church He established and obeying the leadership of the shepherds He has appointed.
At a wedding Mass a priest announced, quite properly, that only those who were practicing Catholics should come forward for Communion. One of those who therefore didn’t receive was an Episcopalian, a young man who happened to be studying in the seminary in order to be ordained a minister in his religion. At the wedding reception that evening, the seminarian asked the priest why he wasn’t allowed to receive Communion; after all, he said, the Episcopalian belief about the Eucharist was almost identical to the Catholic teaching, so much so that he didn’t see any really difference between them. The priest responded:
“When you are ordained, and you celebrate the Lord’s Supper for the first time, will you adore the host with the same adoration that you give to God alone?” The young man paused for a moment, then answered, “No,” to which the priest said, “That’s the difference” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, May 2011, p. 39).
As Catholics, we believe not only that the Hosts consecrated by a validly ordained Catholic priest are truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, but that they remain so even after Mass is finished. That’s why the Hosts left over from Communion are placed in the tabernacle, instead of being thrown out or taken back into the sacristy and mixed in with all the unconsecrated hosts. That’s why we genuflect toward the tabernacle upon entering and leaving church, and that’s why we’re supposed to maintain a spirit of reverence and prayerfulness here in church—because of what we as Catholics call the Real Presence. Jesus is truly here, and in every Catholic church, in a way that simply isn’t the case in any Protestant house of worship—and if the many millions of ex-Catholics had truly understood and appreciated this, the way our second graders do, they never would have abandoned the One True Church, and Catholicism would be much larger and stronger, and more influential in our country, than it currently is.
Too many of us Catholics are like people who live with a spectacular view of breath-taking scenery outside our front door, but who instead spend most of our time looking at the garbage dump and ugly abandoned factory visible out our back door: instead of looking at the Eucharistic Jesus with wonder and awe, we let ourselves get distracted by infinitely-less important concerns. We must learn to appreciate the Eucharist ever more deeply, and, by our example, help others to do so, too. This means silently praying before Mass begins, asking the Holy Spirit to help us pay attention and participate in the liturgy; it means making sure we’re free of mortal sin before coming forward for Communion, receiving the Body and Blood of Christ with true gratitude and humility, and afterwards expressing our adoration and gratitude to God. It might also mean spending time here with Jesus in His Real Presence before or after Mass, at different times during the week when the church is unlocked, or during Eucharistic Adoration on Thursday nights or Friday mornings. Every worthy reception of Holy Communion, and every moment of silent prayer here in church, increases our capacity for eternal happiness in Heaven, and prepares us for an even richer experience of eternal life. There are no limits to Our Lord’s desire to share Himself with us—except the limits we impose on Him through our indifference, unrepented sins, or lack of faith. If instead, like our second graders, we show a genuine desire and appreciation for this Most Holy Gift, Jesus will draw us ever closer to Himself and bless us beyond anything we could ever imagine.