On the Eucharist and Service to Others

On the Eucharist and Service to Others

Being a talk given by the Bishop to head-teachers of schools within the diocese, on the 15th of January, 2018

During the Year of Mercy there were many wonderful initiatives and responses in all our diocesan schools to what Pope Francis asked of us when he urged us to open our own hearts afresh to God’s mercy so that we, in turn, could be ambassadors of, and witnesses to, that mercy, when we open our hearts to the pain, the violence and woundedness in our own society and wider world. In his own words, ‘How much I desire that this year will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God! May the balm of mercy reach everyone, both believers and those far away, as a sign that the Kingdom of God is already present in our midst.’ (Misericordiae Vultus, 5)

I thank you for all that happened in your schools then, and I thank you also for the imaginative and most generous service to others that you continue to promote and are engaged in. Many of our schools work hard to raise money for and awareness of the various CAFOD projects throughout the world. CAFOD, as you know is the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development which, through its partnership with local agencies on the ground across the world, is able to support a great deal of relief work following emergencies and natural disasters, or warfare and the forced migration of people from their homes throughout the poorest or most needy parts of our world. More positively, CAFOD also works tirelessly to give some of the poorest people the essential tools they need to develop their own self-supporting infrastructure. As a very new CAFOD Trustee, I have been asked to visit some local projects, in which CAFOD is involved, in the Central American countries of Nicaragua and El Salvador. So I will be travelling down to Heathrow later this afternoon for an early morning flight tomorrow, by way of Heuston USA, to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. I will be away for 10 days, 4 days in each country and 2 days of travel. I am greatly looking forward to it, though not without a little bit of apprehension. I would welcome your prayer. But back again to this topic of the amazing outreach work, service to others, that goes on in our schools, not only with CAFOD, but with very many national or more local projects that our schools are involved in. If all the money raised by the staff & young people in our schools, and the time spent in working on projects, were added up, it would be very impressive indeed. I am truly proud of this quite amazing work that the staff and pupils in our schools are so generously engaged in.

My gentle challenge, however, is this: how much of this work is based upon a very noble desire to help those less fortunate than ourselves? That’s a good starting point. But I believe that if all our outreach work, our service to others, were to be motivated by, and driven by, the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Catholic Church, in the life, therefore, of our Catholic schools, this excellent outreach work, this service to others, could be much more radical and personally challenging. This outreach work, this service to others, could be our personal response to the Lord, whom we personally encounter in the Eucharist, it could be an action for justice, it could be your response as a school, as individuals, to the great tradition of Catholic Social Teaching. I know that this generous outreach work, this service of others, is very often, if not always, celebrated within a year Mass or a section of the school Mass, or indeed a whole school Mass where a suitable venue makes that possible. But that’s not the focus of my gentle challenge. That’s always a good thing to do, to celebrate and thank God in Mass for his help in enabling this work and seeking his blessing upon it.

What I’m speaking of, however, is a little different. It’s where our understanding of the Lord in the Mass, our encounter with Christ, is what principally motivates and drives us to care for others and to respond, as best we can, to their needs. Pope John Paul II, now recognised as a saint, often spoke of the Eucharist as ‘the active school of love for neighbour’. He saw clearly that if our celebration of the Mass is sincere, then it is in and through the Mass and times of Eucharistic Adoration that we are each helped to grow in greater awareness of the dignity of each and every person in the eyes of Christ, and that this in turn may help us to become more sensitive to the pain and struggles that so many people carry in their hearts, and to the injustices and wrongs that they often face in their daily lives. This fuller understanding of the Mass and of Adoration, as a personal encounter with the Lord who motivates us to reach out to others with love, respect and practical help, is what I would like to see developed in all our schools, and particularly this year as we prepare for the National Eucharistic Congress being held in Liverpool in September. Relatively few from our diocese will get the opportunity to participate in the Eucharistic Congress, so I look upon this time as an opportunity in our schools and parishes to try and deepen our understanding of the Mass and of Eucharistic Adoration. I am very grateful to those schools who felt able to join in the Diocesan Schools Time of Adoration last November, and I would ask you to encourage and enable the young people in your schools to experience short times of Adoration in the coming months, and especially during Lent. Pope St John Paul saw clearly the unity there is called to be, between the breaking of the Eucharistic bread in the Mass and the Christian commitment to the creation of a new and more just society and wider world.

The new world to which he refers is of course the Kingdom of God, announced and promised by Jesus, brought into being by his life, ministry, death and resurrection, and by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It will reach completion and final perfection only in the fullness of time when Christ Jesus will come again in glory and will unite all things in heaven and on earth (Eph. 1:9-10). In the meantime, therefore, this new world exists only in embryonic form, but it does exist, whenever and wherever the values of God’s Kingdom are being lived and promoted: values such as justice, peace, compassion, respect for human life everywhere, for human rights, for the fair sharing of the limited resources of our world, etc, etc.

Pope St John Paul’s teaching is of course not something new, he didn’t make it up. It echoes the teaching of all our Popes, including Pope Francis, and it also consistent with the strong and clear biblical and patristic tradition in the Catholic Church of there being an indissoluble link between true worship of God and social justice. Because of limited time today, let me give you just a few examples from the bible to illustrate this point, and then just one from the teaching of one of the early Fathers of the church (patristic tradition).

So, from the Old Testament: all of the prophets are critical of worship of God that is without justice and concern for the poor and the vulnerable in the community, but let me give some examples from the prophets, Amos & Isaiah:

“I hate and despise your feasts,
I take no delight in your solemn festivals.
When you offer me holocausts
I reject your oblations
And refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle.
Let me have no more of the din of your chanting
No more of your strumming on harps.
But let justice flow like water
And integrity like an unfailing stream.” (5:21-24)
“Bring me your worthless offerings no more
The smoke of them fills me with disgust…
When you stretch out your hands
I turn my eyes away.
You may multiply your prayers
I shall not listen…
Take your wrong-doing out of my sight
Cease to do evil
Learn to do good
Search for justice
Help the oppressed
Be just to the orphan
Plead for the widow.” (1:13-17)

Later on in the book of Isaiah we hear that the people are angry because they have fasted and God does not seem to be impressed. God responds through the prophet Isaiah pointing out that their fasting has only made them quarrel among themselves and oppress their fellow human beings. This is not the kind of fasting or worship that God wants. Instead God says:

“Look, you do business on your fast days
You oppress all your workers;
Look, you quarrel and squabble when you fast
And strike the poor man with your fist.
Fasting like yours today
Will never make your voice heard on high.
Is that the sort of fast that pleases me,
A truly penitential day for people?
Hanging your head like a reed
Lying down on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call fasting
A day acceptable to Yahweh?
Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me
It is the Lord who speaks
To break unjust fetters
And undo the thongs of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke
To share your bread with the hungry
And shelter the homeless poor
To clothe the person you see to be naked
And not turn from your own kin.” (58: 3-7)

This strong tradition of the prophets is taken up by Jesus who explicitly refers to it in one of his many angry discussions with some of the Pharisees. He appeals to them:

“Go and learn what this means,
‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’.” (Matt. 9:13 cf Hos 6:6)

On another occasion, Jesus instructs his disciples,

“If you are offering your gift at the altar
And there remember that your brother or sister has something against you
Leave your gift, first be reconciled
And then offer your gift.” (Matt 25: 23-24)

Moreover, the practice of the early Church as portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles shows that there was a real concern for the poor and vulnerable in the context of the Eucharistic breaking of the bread:

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
To the breaking of bread and the prayers…
And all who believed were together and had all things in common;
And they sold their possessions and goods,
And distributed them to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2: 42, 44, 45)

It seems clear too that, as early as the 1st century, a collection was taken up during the celebration of the Eucharist and distributed to the poor and needy. The point that emerges from this rather rapid overview of the biblical tradition is that an indissoluble link exits between worship of God and social care and concern for others. This is brought out rather dramatically in a homily by St John Chrysostom, who was bishop of Constantinople around the year 400 AD.

‘Do you want to honour Christ’s body? Then do not honour him here in the Church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked…Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups when he himself is dying of hunger? First fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table’. (Hom 50 Mt. Ev., 3-4)

This rich tradition of the Church, which I can only hint at today, is perhaps best expressed, simply and directly, in this way: that Christ Jesus, who is really, truly and ‘substantially’ present whenever we gather to celebrate the Mass and in times of Eucharistic Adoration as a school or parish community, is the same Christ who is also personally present in the poor and exploited of our society and wider world. This means that for all of us, when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, when we encounter and spend time with Our Lord in Adoration, we cannot simply choose the more comfortable real presence of Christ Jesus in the Eucharist and ignore the more disturbing presence of Christ Jesus in the poor and exploited of our day, within our own society and throughout the world. The Lord, whom we truly encounter in the Mass and in times of Eucharistic Adoration, is our motivation for all we do by way of outreach to others around us who are in need, and those whom we will probably never meet in other parts of our world. We see in them the suffering face of Christ, and we respond, as best we can.

Our love for and our personal commitment to Christ Jesus, truly present in the Eucharist, carries with it a commitment to the presence of Christ in the poor and exploited of our day. This is why we, as a diocese, have extended our understanding of our commitment to the safeguarding of children and adults at risk, to include a concern to express our care and concern for anyone who may be a victim of human trafficking or any form of Modern Slavery. Because to share and commune with Christ Jesus, our brother and our Saviour, in our celebration of the Eucharist, without sharing and communing with our poor or vulnerable or exploited brothers and sisters in our society and throughout the world, would be something of a contradiction. The truth is that the breaking of bread around the altar in our celebration of Mass, commits each of us to the breaking of earthly food, and real care and concern, in solidarity with, and out of a sense of awareness of the needs our brothers and sisters, especially those most in need or those who are vulnerable and at risk.

This solid biblical and Catholic tradition reminds us therefore that the sacrifice of the Mass points us beyond an understanding of the duty to help those less fortunate than ourselves, which is, of course, always a good starting point. A fuller understanding of the Eucharist can help us, can help the pupils in our schools, to see that our motivation for why we do this outreach work is not just charity, not just a concern for those less fortunate than ourselves, but is in fact an expression of our concern for others, is an action for justice; it flows from the radical Catholic Social Teaching that espouses the principles of human dignity, social justice and human rights, solidarity, peace, community and the common good, the option for the poor and vulnerable, the dignity of work and the rights of workers, the stewardship of creation, etc., etc.

So this is why I feel frustrated when I hear young people, and indeed people of all ages, say that the Mass is irrelevant to what’s going on in the world, or that it’s an escape from the harsh realities of life. The Eucharist is never irrelevant to the social issues facing our society and world, and it has the potential to make us all question ourselves, and indeed why we are doing our outreach work. The Eucharist asks questions of us, and challenges us to change personally and communally. This might involve a change in life-style, in becoming less wasteful of the water, light and heating we use, or less picky about our food, or it might lead us to a deeper questioning of the structures in our society and world which leave things as they are, or indeed open up the gap still more between rich and poor. It can lead to us examining what part we each play in consciously, or often unconsciously, just accepting and going along with those sinful structures in our own society, and across our world, that deny justice and serve to repress people. Because to share and commune in the Eucharist with Christ our brother, our Lord and Saviour, without being prepared to share and commune with mercy, justice and compassion for our suffering and vulnerable brothers and sisters in our community or wider world, would be something of a contradiction. The breaking of Eucharistic bread, the transformation of what is bread into the sacramental presence of Christ that takes place in the Mass, surely demands of us that we allow ourselves to be broken and changed or transformed by the Lord so that we can each, and together, play our part as the Lord’s instruments in shaping our society and our world more in accordance with the values of the Kingdom of God. This means that we can never celebrate the Mass with eyes and hearts closed to the needs of those around us. The Lord whom we encounter there and in times of Eucharistic Adoration is the one who motivates us to reach out to others in need with love, compassion, mercy and practical help. The intrinsic connection between the Eucharist and our service to others cannot be overemphasised. So our Catholic emphasis upon the Mass is not just a pious practice but something essential for anyone who takes his or her Catholic life seriously. Going to Mass does matter, and all the wonderful acts of service to others and social justice activities are directly related to and flow from our encounter with the Lord in Mass and Eucharistic Adoration.