As this editorial was being prepared for publication, news broke that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had “walked back” the mixed messaging on their proposed document on the Eucharist. We welcome this circumspection on the part of the bishops, and offer the reflection below in the spirit of Bishop Shawn McKnight’s statement: “It seems to make the most sense that we keep our eye focused on the mystery of our Communion, that is both symbolized and enacted by the celebration of the Eucharist”—Ed.
Amid the controversy surrounding the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) decision to draft guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist with the aim of eventually denying communion to President Joe Biden, it is worth revisiting Raniero Cantalamessa’s 1983 book, The Eucharist: Our Sanctification. Cantalamessa, a Franciscan Capuchin priest, has been the preacher to the papal household since 1980. This makes him “the only person allowed to preach to the pope.” In 2020 Pope Francis elevated him to the rank of cardinal.
The Eucharist is a series of eight meditations on various dimensions of the sacrament. It is a short book, but like a particularly effective homily, it compresses a range of spiritual, liturgical, and Christological insights into a taut and lucid frame. Throughout, Cantalamessa calls us back to the salvific and mystic qualities of the Eucharist “as the center and the sun, not only of the Church, but of the whole of humanity and the entire inanimate universe.” He relates a memory that is particularly prescient in light of the USCCB’s potential “weaponizing” of the Eucharist:
One day, at the moment of Communion, I was listening to a lovely hymn in which these words were repeated continuously: “God has placed his Body in our hands, God has placed his Body in our hands!” All of a sudden I was seized by a pang of grief: God has placed his Body in our hands but what do we do with God’s Body? And I couldn’t help crying within myself: We do violence to God!
We do this violence, Cantalamessa continues, “by abusing the promise (emphasis mine) with which he bound himself to come upon the altar and into us. Every day we ‘oblige’ him to make this supreme act of love, but we have no love and are often distracted, and this is violence.” This is precisely the scandal of the USCCB’s decision: an “abuse” of the sacred promise of the immolated Christ for the “distraction” of political optics.
It is also a violation of the right posture with which to approach the Eucharist: namely, one of repentance and humility. Cantalamessa quotes Saint Francis’s discourse on the Eucharist: “Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by him. Keep nothing for yourselves, so that he who has given himself wholly to you may receive you wholly.” This exhortation to “keep nothing” involves a profound self-emptying, one which certainly includes our judgment of others. “After saying to our brothers and sisters: ‘Take, eat,’ we must really allow ourselves to be ‘eaten,’ and especially by those who do not act with the gentleness and kindness we expect,” Cantalamessa writes. “If we think about it, each one of us will realize that there are sharp teeth grinding us: criticisms, contrasts, hidden or open oppositions, different ideas in those surrounding us, differences in character.” The point is not to deny these differences, but to use them as little opportunities to die to ourselves—to set aside, in a “spirit of service,” “the wish to domineer, the habit to enforce our wills, our points of view and ways, on others.” This goes for priests as well as laypeople, for “Each member of the Church is simultaneously priest and victim” at the moment of consecration.
There are those who will say that the bishops are not judging others, simply upholding doctrine, and that a public figure’s pro-choice convictions are more than just “different ideas” to be subsumed in a moment of mystical immolation. While debates about doctrine—particularly surrounding the Eucharist, the summit of the church’s life—are no doubt important, one bristles at the bishops’ selectivity. After Pope Francis’s oft-quoted “Equally sacred” statement in Gaudete et Exsultate (“Equally sacred, however, [to the lives of the unborn] are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection”) it becomes more difficult to defend what Bishop Robert McElroy has called “public policy–based Eucharistic exclusion” on the merits of one cause alone.
On a deeper level, there is a contemplative dimension to the Eucharist that is lost when we make ourselves the arbiters rather than the guardians of grace. Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharisteo, meaning “to thank,” and it is only when approaching the sacrament with gratitude and compunction—what Nicholas Cabasilas termed a “grace-filled sorrow”—that (Cabasilas again) “Christ is transfused into us and merges with us, changing and transforming us in him, like a drop of water poured into an endless sea of fragrant unguent.” To reach this place requires an “assiduousness” of heart that cultivates “a sentiment of the presence” of God, to use Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s profound phrase; it conditions an inward turn that casts out judgment, impatience, aggrievement, and opens us to love and serve “freely and disinterestedly.”
“It is not easy in pastoral ministry to avoid the mentality of being a lord of the faith,” Cantalamessa warns. Yet the way of “lordship,” of domination, is “‘not the way’ for the disciples of Jesus; whoever is lord must serve.” He pushes back against the idea that “a bishop is like a monarch, in whose Church nothing can be undertaken without his consent,” and advocates instead for a spirit of selflessness and detachment. He quotes Saint Gregory the Great: “We have entered the state of priesthood but do not do what this state involves. We have become engrossed in worldly affairs which have nothing to do with the priestly state. . . . The more we concern ourselves with worldly affairs, the more indifferent we become interiorly.”
If left unchecked, this “interior indifference” can leave us desensitized to the “gift and responsibility” of the real presence in the Eucharist. This might manifest itself as an overfamiliarity with the sacrament, a rote reception that fails to take into account its deep unspoken mystery. “Priests ought to remind themselves of this first of all,” Cantalamessa writes, once again reserving separate counsel for the clerical class, “for they are the ones who handle the Body and Blood of Christ daily, they are the ‘guardians’ charged by the Church and the most likely to become inured and forget that they are handling God and God is to be adored.”
At the heart of this adoration is an “interior silence,” a way of being “present to the present” that we might overcome our indifference and inurement to the sublimity of Christ’s self-offering: “To meet Jesus in the sacrament, it is necessary first of all to pass from outside to inside, from the exterior to the interior.” Here we return to the one inviolable meeting point between ourselves and God, the sacred climax of the Mass that celebrates and renews the event of the Cross. In signaling that they might use the Eucharist as a disciplinary instrument, members of the USCCB have passed instead from the interior to the exterior; their decision threatens to turn the sacrament into yet another sign of animosity instead of, in Cantalamessa’s luminous phrase, “the supreme symbolic and prophetic action in the history of salvation.”
Editor, Today’s American Catholic