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Michael OlsonMarch 04, 2024
(OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

The call for Eucharistic revival we have heard in the church is particularly important to priests. Why? Because we are responsible for presiding and offering the Mass, which priests do in persona Christi. This configuration to Christ as head and shepherd of the church that takes place at our ordination as priests comes to its full expression gradually through our devoted pastoral ministry and care for God’s people. This expression is centered upon Christ present in the sacrifice and offering of the Eucharist that then is extended through the other sacraments and apostolic works that we celebrate and administer to the faithful.

The development and fruition of this configuration is entirely owed to grace. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “the Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life.’ All sacraments, ministries, and works of the apostolate are bound up and oriented to the Eucharist” (No. 1324).

I would offer, however, that we currently might be placing a disproportionate emphasis upon the Eucharist as the summit of Christian life through our intense focus on the form of liturgical celebration and its accompanying emotional consolation—one strictly identified with interior healing—while overlooking or even ignoring the Eucharist offered and received in its sacrificial character as the source of Christian life.

In praying the Mass, we are reminded that Christ is not the instrument of evangelization: We are his instruments. Similarly, we are not the primary agents of evangelization: Christ is.

This disproportionate emphasis soon leads us to value the Mass only as the object of our desires and priorities, to the point that its celebration becomes something functional that we do for ourselves, to which we invite God. When we approach Mass this way, we begin to subordinate the Eucharist into an instrument for evangelization, instead of the other way around. We confuse ends and means, cause and effect; the Eucharist soon becomes reduced to spectacle, whether at Mass or in procession and adoration.

The contemporary challenge of evangelization for the church should be at the heart of our pastoral ministry and mission as priests, configured to Christ as head and shepherd of the church, entrusted by him to offer the sacred mysteries and preach his Gospel. In praying the Mass, we are reminded that Christ is not the instrument of evangelization: We are his instruments. Similarly, we are not the primary agents of evangelization: Christ is.

When we priests offer the elements of bread and wine, unworthy as we are to do so, we also place our entire selves upon the altar as an oblation. To place our entire selves upon the altar means that we surrender to the might and love of God the three powers of our soul: memory, understanding and will. Do we remember what Christ has done for us in forgiving us, healing us and teaching us? Do we remember what he has done for us in calling us to follow him as priests? Do we understand the mystery of our vocation: that he must increase and that we must decrease? Are we willing to be conformed to his real example in every aspect of our human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation, so that people might encounter Christ the Good Shepherd when they encounter us?

At Mass, the priest enters the mystery of the incarnate Word through his preaching and presiding by giving his human voice and hands to the divine work of the eternal sacrifice of the Mass for the sanctification and salvation of the people of God. The sacrifice of Christ that we offer as priests is not a type of conditional giving. It requires on our part the entire (albeit imperfect) offering of ourselves in persona Christi to be presented and sacrificed to God. While we offer bread and wine, we also offer ourselves in persona Christi as one with the offering.

“This is my body; this is my blood.” If we hold back, if we compromise, if we choose to withhold our powers and capacities and keep them to ourselves in a refusal to be converted, then what we do not offer to God does not remain our own but is stolen and corrupted by the evil one. Similarly, when we make worship a personal project—which is the temptation when we disproportionately emphasize the Eucharist as the summit of the Christian life while ignoring the Eucharist as the source of Christian life—we forget the necessary truth that worship is the human and divine response to an exclusively divine initiative.

Worship cannot start with us, because we cannot give God what he deserves without the aid of God’s grace. We need a mediator, who is Jesus Christ the priest, who is at once fully human and divine. God initiates worship. It is this sacred mediation that Christ shares with his priests, which, if it is truly to benefit the priest, requires ongoing conversion by the priest to imitate the mysteries that he celebrates.

For the Eucharistic revival to be effective in the life of the church in the United States, it cannot simply be a large event and a spectacle.

Our choice is stark and clear. It is a choice between conversion to Christ or inversion of Christ. Inversion of Christ brands Christ as a mascot for our own agenda instead of offering our entire selves to him for his purposes and priorities at the altar of sacrifice. If we invert Christ, the Eucharist soon becomes mistreated as a spectacle instead of being embraced as a mystery to be received that requires our full and active response and participation.

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in “Deus Caritas Est”:

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words, the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction [No. 1].

Perhaps we would be more effective at evangelization if instead of inviting a non-Catholic or an inactive Catholic friend to Mass, we would instead invite these friends into our lives. From that invitation, flowing from the perfect sacrifice of Christ offered and received at Mass, people might be introduced to the Mass, not as something to be observed, analyzed and criticized but rather as that which is to be encountered as the living fount of true Christian life and virtue.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus instructed his disciples to listen to the scribes and Pharisees but not to do as they do. Why not? Because “they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen” (Mt 23:3-4).

For us as priests and bishops to be spared the same admonition that Jesus gives to his disciples about the scribes and Pharisees, we must speak, act and love as Jesus does, as he shares with us his seat upon the throne of humble greatness, the cross. As the church in the United States answers the call to Eucharistic revival, priests and bishops cannot overlook the necessity for sacramental confession in their own lives. Their own conversion will be impeded if they are not the first penitents to become compassionate and generous confessors.

For the Eucharistic revival to be effective in the life of the church in the United States, it cannot simply be a large event and a spectacle. The revival must be an occasion for conversion, initiated and sustained by God’s grace. This requires that we recognize the Eucharist as both the source and summit of our lives. We run the risk of underestimating the heights of the summit of Christian life if we underestimate the depths of Christian life; we also need to keep in our thoughts the pierced side of Christ, from which water and blood flowed forth on the cross at Calvary.

One of the forms of dismissal from Mass in the current translation of the Roman Missal requires the deacon or priest to direct the gathered assembly to “go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your lives.” It is this glory—made manifest through ministry, witness and discipleship in the daily lives of faithful Catholics—that serves as a chief conduit for evangelization. These are the most ordinary means by which people are introduced to the Lord Jesus Christ, whose gift of the Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives as Christians.

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