“ As often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until He come”
Dear Brothers and Friends,
For what is perhaps the first time in history, holy Church this year is forced to celebrate the central mysteries of our faith in a context reminiscent of that of the catacombs. Our civil and religious superiors have left us no choice in the matter, and so we seek to make the best of it. It is perhaps a providential opportunity to look at aspects of our faith which, to tell the truth, have been left in the shadow for a number of decades.
In what concerns the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which was instituted on this day, it is well-known that after Vatican II there was great insistence upon the Eucharist as the gathering of the Church around the altar. Some priests even came to the point of considering it irrelevant to offer Mass if the people could not be present. This of course is wrong. It was rejected by Vatican II and Pope Paul VI in no uncertain terms.
Vatican II declared: “In the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which priests fulfil their office most especially, the work of our redemption is continually carried out, and therefore its daily offering is warmly commended. Even if the presence of the faithful is not possible, this offering is an act of Christ and the Church” (Presbyterorum Ordinis 13).
Pope Paul VI clearly did not think the Council’s teaching on the Eucharist was sufficient, and so, just before its last session in 1965 he published a beautiful encyclical entitled Mysterium Fidei in which we read: “Each and every Mass is not something private, even if a priest celebrates it privately; instead, it is an act of Christ and of the Church. In offering this sacrifice, the Church learns to offer herself as a sacrifice for all and she applies the unique and infinite redemptive power of the sacrifice of the Cross to the salvation of the whole world. For every Mass that is celebrated is being offered not just for the salvation of certain people, but also for the salvation of the whole world. The conclusion from this is that even though active participation by many faithful is of its very nature particularly fitting when Mass is celebrated, still there is no reason to criticise but rather only to approve a Mass that a priest celebrates privately.… For such a Mass brings a rich and abundant treasure of special graces to help the priest himself, the faithful, the whole Church and the whole world toward salvation—and this same abundance of graces is not gained through mere reception of Holy Communion” (Mysterium Fidei 32).
The same Pope returned to the subject a few years later in writing to the Prior General of the Carthusian order. The monks of this order, the strictest in the Church, celebrate Mass daily, alone in their cells. After the Council a number of voices were lifted to protest such a custom, and even the very fact of ordaining priests in a monastery, which seemed out of sync with the modern approach. Pope Paul took their defence. He writes:
“There are those today who are of the opinion that this is not fitting that cenobites or hermits, who are never going to exercise the sacred ministry, should be raised to the priesthood. …This opinion certainly lacks a firm foundation. For many Saints and very many religious have combined the profession of the monastic or indeed the eremitical life with the priesthood because they have had a sound perspective of the fitting relationship between both consecrations, that proper to the priest, and that proper to the monk. Indeed, solitude, the absolute loss of the goods of this world, the abnegation of one’s own will: things that are undertaken by those who enclose themselves within the bounds of the monastery, most singularly prepare the soul of the priest to be devoutly and ardently offered up for the Eucharistic sacrifice which is ‘ the source and summit of the whole Christian life’. Furthermore, when that full self-giving, to which the religious devotes himself, is added to the priesthood, he is configured in a special way to Christ who is at the same time priest and victim. When the second Vatican Council treated in a special document about priests and their duties, it rightly laid down that those duties include the care of the people of God. However, this care is carried out by yourselves in celebrating the eucharistic sacrifice as you are accustomed to do every day. This celebration most often takes place in your eremitical oratories, that is to say, in a devout recess, where the soul of the monk, fixed on the things of above, drinks in more richly the Spirit of love and light. Therefore the vocation of the Carthusian, when it is faithfully adhered to, brings it about that the universal intention, which is present in the Eucharistic sacrifice, becomes the intention of each monk who is carrying out the sacred rites.”
This beautiful teaching, which applies to any other priest who, because of circumstances can only offer Mass privately, leads to another question: what is it exactly that makes the Mass so powerful? How is it that the Mass celebrated by a priest in an obscure chapel, can bring salvation to the world which doesn’t even know about it? In the 16th century, when the Protestant reformers rejected the Mass as a sacrifice and refused to allow for any celebration of the “Lord’s supper” without the participation of the people, the Council of Trent in its 22nd session, carefully and painstakingly hammered out in the most remarkable terms what the Catholic Church has always professed concerning the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is certainly among the most precious gems of our tradition. Let’s read what the council said. It will help us understand what we are doing here this evening on this Maundy Thursday:
“ Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, though He was about to offer Himself once on the altar of the cross unto God the Father, by means of his death, there to operate an eternal redemption; nevertheless, because His priesthood was not to be extinguished by His death, in the last supper, on the night in which He was betrayed,–that He might leave to His own beloved Spouse the Church a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, whereby that bloody sacrifice, once to be accomplished on the cross, might be represented, and the memory thereof remain even unto the end of the world, and its salutary virtue be applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit,–declaring Himself constituted a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedech, He offered up to God the Father His own body and blood under the species of bread and wine; and, under the symbols of those same things, He delivered His own body and blood to be received by His apostles, whom He then constituted priests of the New Testament; and by those words, ‘Do this in commemoration of me’, He commanded them and their successors in the priesthood, to offer them… For, having celebrated the ancient Passover, which the multitude of the children of Israel immolated in memory of their going out of Egypt, He instituted the new Passover, to wit Himself to be immolated, under visible signs, by the Church through the ministry of priests, in memory of His own passage from this world unto the Father, when by the effusion of His own blood He redeemed us, and delivered us from the power of darkness, and translated us into his kingdom. And this is indeed that clean oblation, which cannot be defiled by any unworthiness, or malice of those that offer it; which the Lord foretold by Malachias was to be offered in every place, clean to his name, which was to be great amongst the Gentiles…”
This is why the Mass is so important, and why it is crucial that it be offered as often as is possible. To tell the truth, this entire doctrine is contained in germ in the words of the Apostle St Paul in today’s epistle: As often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until He come. As often as. In other words, each time the Holy Mass is celebrated, the sacrificial death of Our Lord is made present with all its infinite power of sanctification and salvation. That is why there is nothing better the priest can do thank to offer Mass. It is actually for that reason that he is ordained “to offer sacrifice to God” as the ordination rite says so clearly.
On this holy night, let us give thanks for such an amazing gift of grace. For those of us who are privileged to have the Blessed Sacrament, let us honour Him with due affection and thanksgiving. For those who are deprived, turn the gaze of your heart to your churches, and fall down in adoration before the Lord of majesty who loved us to the end, who poured out every drop of His precious blood for us, so that we could live.
May the Mother of Sorrows, who gave us the bread of Life, teach us to surround the Blessed Sacrament with renewed devotion, and may this Eucharistic fast which has been imposed on our Christian people provoke in them an intense hunger for God that may soon be satisfied, and blossom in a liturgy which rediscovers all its majesty and veneration for so great a mystery.