Real presence

·3 min read
Sister Beth Murphy, OP
Sister Beth Murphy, OP

Some years ago, I encountered an acquaintance as we walked to join the Good Friday Way of the Cross, an ecumenical event held annually on the streets of downtown Springfield. However it happened, before the prayer began, she confided that she wasn’t so sure about one of the central teachings of Catholicism, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. “I don’t believe in that stuff anymore,” she whispered. “Do you believe in that stuff?”

Yet, there she was, showing up — joining a community of Christians — to re-enact the very events in the life of Jesus at the heart of the sacrament she struggled to grasp. Although she might have been struggling, she was still engaged.

It is this engagement with — and for some of us that means a struggle toward — our liturgical traditions, which Pope Francis writes about in a recent apostolic letter, "On the Liturgical Formation of the People of God." The Latin title of the document signals more of what he means to say. Desiderio Desiderave isfrom the Gospel of Luke 22:15: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” Jesus tells his friends.

So, from the beginning, it is Jesus’ desire, for our real presence, one might say, that compels us to gather around the table of Word and Eucharist. “Do this in remembrance of me.”

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Speaking specifically to Christians who worship in the Roman Catholic rite (there are many other rites in communion with Rome), the pope notes that we are first formed for the liturgy so we can then be formed by the liturgy. He explains with a simple story. A parent teaches a child to make the sign of the cross by physically guiding her hand. That is being formed for liturgy. She can learn this simple gesture in a moment. It is a lifetime of making the sign of the cross over her body that reveals to her, in many contexts and circumstances of life, the truths of the sign’s deep meanings. That is being formed by liturgy. A lifetime of attentive signing forms her consciousness of who she really is: the imago Dei —the image and likeness of the One who gave His life on the cross for the life of the world.

This is what it means to participate in Sunday Mass. It is not a matter of going to church to be entertained or hear music we prefer and, if one is lucky, a decent homily. Nor is it about what Pope Francis calls “a vague sense of mystery.” Mass is not magic. It is the work of the people — that’s what liturgy means. We assemble — or re-member — who we are, Who we receive, and as Pope Francis puts it, what are the “necessary consequences” of our celebration. We are called to imitate the self-sacrificial love of Jesus as members of the Body of Christ. In other words, what we begin together in celebration must be carried outside the church, enacted in the world, and returned to God in thanksgiving. We assent to — and celebrate — the real presence of Christ in Word, Sacrament and Assembly. Then we do it all over again.

So, it takes all of us together — whether on any given Sunday we feel that we are struggling, wounded, or full of God’s Spirit — in communion with one another and with God, to fully practice and live into the consequences of what we celebrate. That’s the way we allow “that stuff” — and Jesus’ desire that we take, bless, break and eat — to be manifest in our world.

Sister Beth Murphy, OP, is the communications director for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield.

This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Real presence