Staying close to the altar


At the seminary I attended there is a story of an elderly priest celebrating Mass one morning. In the large seminary chapel, the deacon had just proclaimed the Gospel and as the elderly priest walked to the ambo to give the homily, he lost his balance and began to fall.

Grabbing the altar to steady himself he said, “I better not move too far from the altar or else I could fall.” Realizing what he had said, he paused and explained, “Maybe that is good enough homily for today.”

I better not move too far from the altar or else I could fall. What the old priest understood is that what happens on the altar is the foundation of our lives. The history of the world—and of our own lives—turns on a single event: the passion of Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is not simply a good example or a sign of God’s love. It is the sacrifice by which salvation is made possible. It is our path to Heaven.

At the Mass—at every Mass, on every altar, everyday throughout the world—that sacrifice is re-presented. We are made partakers in it.

In our continuing series examining the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the next section treats the Eucharist (CCC 1322-1419). Instituted by Christ at the last supper, the Eucharist is the source and summit of all Christian life. All we do leads to the Eucharist and flows from it.

Jesus Himself explains in John’s Gospel, “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.” (Jn 6:53-56).

The change of the bread and wine into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ is called transubstantiation. The Catechism explains, “The Eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist. Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts.”

The celebration of the Holy Mass presumes other moments of prayer and leads to them as well. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass is an especially privileged way, recommended by the Church, of spending time with the Lord.

The Eucharist is a sacrifice offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead. The reception of Holy Communion—even every day—increases one union with the Lord, forgives venial sins, and strengthens one in the Christian life.

To receive Holy Communion we need to be prepared to welcome God into our souls. The Eucharist does not create charity in the soul (Baptism and Penance do that) but strengthens the charity present there. As the Catechism explains, “Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance. “

The reception of Holy Communion also strengthens one’s bond with the church. It is at the same time the sacrifice that re-presents—not simply recalls but makes present in a real way—the passion of Christ. The celebration of the Mass isn’t just the closest thing to Heaven in this world; it is really and truly a participation in the heavenly banquet that will never end.

The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. Only a validly ordained priest confects the Eucharist. Because there is no church without the Eucharist and no Eucharist without the priest, it is crucial to pray and to encourage priestly vocations. In a church that loves the Eucharist they won’t be hard to find.

Like the old priest I mentioned, the lesson is simple: You better not move too far from the altar or else you could fall. Maybe that’s good enough column for today.

Father Connors was ordained in June and is currently studying at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where he is pursuing a licentiate in moral theology. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Connors and Father Joseph Upton.