It was my first weekend at the parish. I had arrived the previous Monday as a new associate pastor recently ordained to the priesthood. At 32 years (and looking like I was 25, I was told), I was still surprised to be called a ‘baby’ priest. During the reception that was organized after Mass that weekend, several people came up to welcome me to the parish. I also heard a few comments that made me smile. “Gosh, you’re young!,” “You look like you’re still a teenager.” “Oh, you’re still wet behind the ears, but we’re glad to have you as part of our parish.” “I could be your grandmother,” the parish secretary rightly observed. I acknowledged all their comments with my characteristic grin, letting them know how happy I was to be part of their community.
I was glad to have just completed seminary and thrilled to be a priest. I knew that I had a lot to learn and a great deal to look forward to. I was also fortunate to work with a veteran pastor who did not feel threatened by the presence of a younger, more energetic, if inexperienced colleague. He was wise, supportive, generous, thoughtful, patient, and witty. With his delightfully self-deprecating sense of humour, his entire demeanour said that he was comfortable in his own skin and so should you be. Living alongside him in the rectory was a joy. He also liked to cook and would also sample and good-naturedly critique my own feeble attempts at the culinary arts. It is, however, the memory of that first Sunday liturgy that most vividly comes to me.
The church was brightly lit, the microphone worked, the ambience was joyous, and the music was decent. I do not remember what I preached in the homily. What I do remember is that most of the people who received communion that day had smiles on their faces as I said the ritual words “The Body of Christ” before depositing the sacred host on their tongues or placing it on their open palms. Towards the end of communion, an older gentleman approached to receive the Body of Christ, singing loudly and swaying slightly from side to side to the music. He did not seem to mind that his voice was slightly off-key. His face was glowing as I placed the sacred host on his palm. I did not hear clearly what he said as I gave him Holy Communion. It did not sound like he responded in the traditional way to the words I said earlier. Whatever his response was, I was certain it was not “Amen.” At the end of Mass, he shook my hand at the back of church and wished me a nice day.
Most Sundays, I would see him in Church, and notice that, just like most of the parishioners, he sat in exactly the same spot. We are creatures of habit, after all. When it was time for communion, the same scenario was played out again. He would shake hands with me at the end of Mass as I stood by the church entrance, express his thanks for Mass and wish me a fine day. It was almost one year into my assignment at the parish before I could work up the courage to ask him what exactly he responded when he came to receive communion as I held up the consecrated host saying, “The Body of Christ.” “Oh, I just say thank you,” he said, “but I think it sounds better in French. So I just say, ‘Merci.’” I was speechless. But then I burst out laughing. He looked at me strangely as if wondering what was funny in what he had just told me. “Is that wrong, Father?” he asked with a puzzled expression. “Not entirely,” I said. “It is better though, to simply say, ‘Amen,’” I tried to explain. “Using that word, you say ‘Thank you,’ ‘I believe’ ‘Indeed it is true’ and much else.’” “Oh, Okay,” he said. “But I still like to say it the French way though if you do not mind. It’s one of the few good words I still remember from my high school French class.” Then he smiled and went on his merry way.
This conversation came to my mind recently as I was thinking about the recent survey by the Pew Research Center. According to this study, 70 percent of American Catholics believe that the consecrated bread and wine used for holy communion during mass are “symbols of the Body and Blood of Jesus” while only 30 percent of American Catholics believe that the bread and wine consecrated during Mass “actually become” the Body and Blood of Christ. The Catechism calls this the doctrine of transubstantiation: “that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood” (CCC 1376).
It was not a surprise that this survey had elicited many strong reactions from Catholic leaders, theologians, bishops and pastors. And it should. According to Bishop Robert Barron who serves as auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, “it represents a massive failure – and I include myself in this, we’re all guilty - a massive failure on the part of Catholic educators and catechists, evangelists, teachers.” Bishop Barron’s words need to be taken seriously. The questions, though, remain. What do we do about this? Where do we go from here? How do we help our people to deepen their faith in the real presence of Christ and their reverence for Him in the Holy Eucharist? In what ways can we as church more fully live out our identity as Eucharistic people?
Perhaps we should preach about the Eucharist and transubstantiation more explicitly. What better opportunity than the solemnity of Corpus Christi? Rediscovering the value of Eucharistic Adorations and Processions would also help. The Eucharist is the central doctrine of Catholic faith and life. It is what the Second Vatican Council called “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Last, but not least, the Church also needs to help the faithful to grasp better what it means to live as a Eucharistic people, namely, as a people united as one in the Body of Christ and sent on a mission to transform the world by loving service of God and neighbour. The fifth-century bishop, St. Cyril of Alexandria, emphasized this unity made possible by the Eucharist, with simple eloquence. “All who receive the sacred flesh of Christ are united with him as members of his body. He is the bond that unites us, because he is at once both God and man.” To live as Eucharistic people is to be agents of unity in the Church and in the world. It is to share the healing power and grace of the Eucharist with a wounded, broken and divided world.
From that first weekend at my first assignment till now, I have realized that accomplishing this task will be contributing mightily to the work of making God’s Kingdom present on earth as it is in heaven.
Fr. Alvan I. Amadi serves as pastor of St. Mary Parish, Algoma in the Diocese of Green Bay Wisconsin