Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.
In the year 1264, Pope Urban IV established for the Universal Church the feast we are celebrating today, almost seven hundred and fifty years later, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, or as we call it today, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Pope Urban established this great feast because during that period of history the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist, the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in this sacrament, the real presence of His body blood, soul and divinity, was being positively denied by heresy and more broadly undermined by bad theology that threatened the faith of the Church. The faith of the Church is deeply tied to her belief in the truth of the Eucharist, for from her beginning this supreme sacrament was believed to contain the true body and true blood of Jesus Christ intended for our spiritual nourishment and for our adoration. Corpus Christi solemnized that faith in the great liturgy the Church has celebrated every year since the year 1272 in the Middle Ages.
Today the Catholic Church Universal celebrates most solemnly the truth of Christ’s promise to remain with us always, not only in his words, nor simply in our memories, nor simply in the power of His Spirit whom he gave to us on Pentecost, but also and most wonderfully in the Most Blessed Sacrament which he gave us on Holy Thursday. The Holy Eucharist is the supreme sacrament in which He remains with us in His flesh and blood, this is, as both God and man, to be the food for our Eternal Life.
Indeed, through this supreme sacrament, the Lord remains not only “with” us, but, as Jesus himself states in the Gospel of John, chapter 6, He remains “in” us: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood,” says Jesus, “remains in me and I in him.” In and through this supreme sacrament, then, Jesus comes into our souls and unites us to his humanity and divinity. By this means, He gives us a more perfect sharing in His Life, as He again states in that same Gospel passage, “so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.”
In the Eucharist, then, we participate in His Life, and we do so by being united with His sacred humanity, His body and His blood, in a way similar to the way the unborn child in the womb lives and grows from the body and blood of the mother. Jesus has eternally determined that Divine Life, as He lives it in His humanity, shall come to us in this mysterious communion that we can share with his humanity. Thus we, sharing in the one same Eucharist, experience uniquely what St. Paul speaks about when he says,“we, though many, are one body.” The Church is supremely “one body” when her members become one flesh with the Lord in the Holy Eucharist.
It was this great article of faith that was already under attack in the Middle Ages, was even more under attack in the Protestant revolution, and is under severe attack today. So the establishing of today’s feast was meant to set into the liturgical life of the whole Church the Church’s her unwavering faith in the hard teaching of Jesus concerning the Eucharist, in order to support our Catholic belief that the result of the words of Jesus over bread and wine is a total transformation of these humble earthly elements into the very substance of his sacred body and blood.
This Eucharistic faith, then, means that the words of Jesus found in Chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel are to be taken quite literally and not reduced to mere figures of speech, mere religious symbolism. This literalism was shocking when Jesus first spoke them as they are today. Jesus Himself testified that His words shocked the crowds when he said: “Do not murmur among yourselves…. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. …For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”
Yes the Church takes these words absolutely as they stand, no matter how shocking they may be, no matter how difficult to accept. The Eucharist is not simply a sacred memorial meal. It is the great banquet of Christ’s Sacrifice, in which the children of the Kingdom consume His body and blood, so they may have his Eternal Life in them. So what literally happens at the consecration, when the priest repeats the words of Jesus at the Last Supper is no mere recalling of the words of Jesus, but the total conversion of the bread and wine on that altar into the Body and Blood of Christ, to be received in Holy Communion and to be adored in the tabernacle where this most Holy Sacrament is reserved.
The Church’s faith in the Eucharist is one with her faith in Christ. If her faith in the Eucharist could be destroyed, her faith in Christ would collapse, and ultimately the Church itself would be destroyed. But the Church knows that the Holy Spirit will never allow this to happen, for Christ has guaranteed that the Church will remain until he returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. So. it was the Holy Spirit who worked through Pope Urban IV in 1264, through the Council of Trent four hundred years later, and continues to secure this faith through the teaching of the Church today. The Church and the Spirit work to secure the faith of the little ones Jesus so loves, to enable them, us, to hold on to the faith of the Church in the midst of the turmoil that is always erupting around the true doctrine of the Eucharist.
Today, religion polls tell us that since the middle of the 20th century a massive loss of faith has occurred among Catholics concerning the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Some polls say that only about 30% of Catholics today say they believe that Christ is really present In the Eucharist. If those numbers are correct – and while I certainly don’t believe they reflect the faith of those who actually attend Mass faithfully – nonetheless, they suggest that the Church in this Country is truly in big trouble given the loss of faith of many Catholics. Again, there can be no true Catholicism without Catholicism’s faith in the Eucharist. Thus the true doctrine of the Eucharist surely has to be the main concern of the new evangelization efforts of the Church as we continue in the Third Millennium.
How this loss of faith has come about is difficult to understand. But perhaps one of the doubtless multiple causes of this loss of faith has to be the great decline in Mass attendance in our time. How does anyone hold on to faith in this difficult truth once one stops attending Mass on Sundays? How could anyone truly believe for long that Christ becomes truly present in the Mass, truly feeds us with his very being as the God-man, and yet not think it was the most urgent and glorious thing we do when we share in the Eucharistic sacrifice and banquet? Absence does not make one’s faith grow deeper, but surely kills it over time. One might suggest that the lack of faith preceded the regular absence from Mass, and that may be true as well, but I think that the large scale loss of faith suggests the opposite for our age.’
Likewise, the loss of faith in the moral teaching of the Church had to contribute to this massive decline in Eucharistic faith. For such Catholics not only stop going to Church – which erodes faith in the Eucharist over time – but, since faith is a seamless garment, their loss of faith in the moral teaching of the Church surely contributes to their loss of faith in the even harder doctrinal teachings of the Church as well. If one no longer believes in the perennial moral teachings of the Church, why would one believe in the equally perennial doctrines like the Eucharist?
Finally, even lesser factors can gradually contribute to the erosion of faith of those who continue to go to Mass, for instance, the extreme casualness or carelessness with which so many Catholics today approach the celebration of the Eucharist. If Christ is really and truly present in the Mass, if it is really His Saving Sacrifice that is being offered to God, and if it is really his Body and Blood we receive in Communion, how can a believer be careless about this most sacred and most sublime mysteries of our faith? I often wonder if people who are so casual about being late for Mass and leaving early, often right after receiving Communion, realize how this can undermine their faith over time. Or when people come to the Divine liturgy dressed so casually, as if they were going to the beach, or when people sit and talk to each other during the liturgy, does this not affect their faith over time? If one really believes that Jesus Himself is here celebrating His sacrificial Banquet with us, sharing his sacred body and blood with us, does how we dress and behave not have implications for our faith?
Corpus Christi is a great feast, a great Church celebration of her greatest sacrament, and it can also be a wake up call for all of us. This Feast proclaims the most important doctrine for our practical life as a Christian. The Holy Eucharist is the key to our salvation, to Eternal life. We cannot afford to allow our faith in any way to be undermined in this greatest of sacraments. On the contrary, our faith must grow through the years, until the Eucharist becomes the very center of our existence. Whatever will help our faith must be pursued, and whatever might in any way undermine it must be corrected. That is true of our whole life, but especially of our life of faith.