The Transforming Power of the Eucharist
As I read Christina Wassell’s essay, I was reminded of a statement by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen that I first read in a book written by Scott and Kimberly Hahn entitled Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism (Ignatius, 1993, 1). Quoting: “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Roman Catholic Church; there are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Roman Catholic Church.” As one who belongs to a church that is rather consistently misunderstood and misrepresented, I identified with the Archbishop’s remark.
I begin my response to Christina’s article in this way to say how much I appreciated her description of her family’s journey to Rome. It’s always fascinating to me to read the accounts of people who are searching to find what religious denomination or movement or spiritual perspective best meets their deepest needs, that satisfies their yearnings for spiritual fulfillment. Christina’s family’s transition—Protestant, Episcopal, Catholic—“moving steadily toward more liturgy as we went” reflects what I have encountered in a growing number of God-loving, Christ-affirming Evangelicals, who are being drawn to a more formal worship through a greater emphasis on liturgy.
My attention was captured by Christina’s simple comment that “It was the theology of the Eucharist and the sacraments that drew us to Rome.” The Latter-day Saint worship service is called the sacrament meeting, although the weekly blessing and passing of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in that meeting never takes more than about twenty minutes. For many years, people of my faith sensed that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was an important part of the meeting, but most of the focus tended to be on the sermons or addresses that were delivered after the emblems were passed to the congregation. Members frequently spoke of partaking of the Sacrament as a means of “renewing our covenants” made with God at the time of our baptism.
In recent decades, however, the leaders of my Church have emphasized that partaking of the Sacrament is the major purpose of the hour-long meeting. They have stressed the need for each of the members of the congregation to spend the moments of the distribution of the emblems reflecting on and remembering Jesus Christ—His divine birth, His miracles, His teachings, His tender and loving ministry, and, most important, His suffering and death on the cross, linked with His glorious resurrection.
I was fascinated by Christina’s description of what takes place during the time that the Eucharist is being celebrated. Two statements stand out to me: “All faithful Catholics assert that what happens at Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary.” Also, “When the priest says the words Christ spoke at the Last Supper, that bread and wine becomes Christ as perfect victim, offered for your sins and mine.” I have had many wonderful Roman Catholic friends through the years, from the time I grew up as a boy in Louisiana until I became involved in interfaith endeavors as a university professor. Over that period of time I have, on a number of occasions, asked my Catholic associates about the doctrine of transubstantiation—what it is and why it is necessary. I ask that in light of the language of Jesus: “This do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-24). Many Christian faiths partake of Communion “in remembrance of Him.” My questions are: What is the purpose of believing that the bread is transformed into Christ’s flesh, and the wine is transformed into His blood? What is the spiritual benefit to one who holds to this belief? this belief? The Savior’s words in His Bread of Life Sermon in John 6 regarding eating His flesh and drinking His blood might lead one toward such a belief and practice, but did Jesus really have this in mind that day in the synagogue in Capernaum?
Christina mentions the trauma and tragedy of the sex scandals involving priests and bishops that were highlighted in 2018. She explained that they “feared like so many families around us, we would fail to keep our children in the Church. We were engaged in a fierce battle against the culture with our dear Catholic friends, but this battle wasn’t truly led by our Catholic priests and bishops.” Today we are witnessing painfully the growing numbers of people (including multitudes of young people) who are forsaking any form of organized religion, who identify themselves as “nones” and describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” One can only hope that those conducting the research on this heartrending phenomenon are exaggerating the numbers of such people who have dropped out (the Pew Research organization puts the figure at anywhere from 23-27% of the American population—between 7-8 million men and women). What is the Catholic Church doing to deal with this among their membership, particularly those between the ages of 18-30? What facets of the Catholic belief or practice could help to stem the tide of those who are voting with their feet? I ask this, not just seeking information, but also for very personal reasons: (1) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is feeling the impact of this waning of belief, just as many other denominations are; and (2) my wife and I have grieved as more than one of our children have been deeply affected by this terrible trend.
I appreciated what Ms. Wassell had to say about the significant place of service to our fellow beings (and, very often, service to “the least of these”) as a crucial component of the Christian life. Two of my favorite New Testament passages are: Jesus “went about doing good” and “I [Christ] am among you as He who serves.” One of the tragedies of our fast-paced, agenda-driven, overly busy way of life today is that far too often the things that are of greatest worth go unattended. If there is anything that could be said of Jesus of Nazareth that would be acknowledged by anyone even slightly familiar with His life, it would be that He loved people. People were His agenda. He was always willing to be inconvenienced. God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, are in the business of people, and they have charged those of us who aspire to Christian discipleship to adopt the same agenda.
I served as a bishop (pastor) of a ward (congregation) in Tallahassee, Florida during the early 1980s. During the Christmas season, the youth leaders felt that it would be a worthwhile experience to have the young people visit a local residential facility for the elderly. That evening, as we met for a few moments before driving away, I explained to the young women and young men what we would be doing. For the first thirty seconds or so, there was silence. Then the complaints began: “Bishop, it’s Christmastime, and we want to have some fun!” Another person cried out, “That sounds so boring. Do we really have to do it?” Similar comments were made, even as we were driving into the facility. We took the youth inside, and the young women leader said: “Go into those rooms and greet these sweet people. Help them to have a Merry Christmas.” We then divided the youth into groups of three or four and assigned them to rooms to meet and greet the people. Timidly the girls and the boys did as they were asked.
An hour and a half later we announced to the group that we would be leaving in a few moments. We didn’t, however, leave in a few moments. It took everything we had to get those kids out of the facility! As the group in my car drove away, nothing was said for about ten minutes. Then one of the rough-and-tumble boys said, with much emotion in his voice, “That is the greatest experience I have ever had.” Several of the young people then made similar remarks and asked when we could return to the facility and meet with their new friends again.
The youth didn’t realize it, but what they were doing was ministering, in a holy way, to elderly children of God. To some extent, the young people, after they overcame their objections, were being inconvenienced. They could have spent their time doing other things—playing video games, scrolling through social media, participating in athletic events, or just watching a movie. For two hours, however, they were involved in the work of the Master, and in the process began to feel the sweet fruits that come from the Holy Spirit. Service sanctifies both the giver and the receiver.
Robert L. Millet
P.S. If I may, I’d like to share a humorous personal experience with Catholicism, one from very early in my life. When I had finished the fifth grade in the Baton Rouse area, our family moved to a very small town named White Castle, some thirty miles southwest of Baton Rouge. We were not there very long before I discovered that the population of that town was about 90% Roman Catholic, with a few Baptists scattered here and there. On the very first day in class, our teacher, a Mrs. Tomplet (pr. tom-play) brought the room to order and indicated that she had a matter of business to take care of. She then asked: “Is there anyone in this class who is not Roman Catholic?” (I add that this was a public school.) I panicked and looked around the room and didn’t see any raised hands. I knew there wasn’t a soul in that school (perhaps including the teacher) who had the foggiest idea what a Mormon or a Latter-day Saint was. I began to sweat, and my heart rate increased as I sat wondering what I should do.
I was saved, at least momentarily, by a blond-headed boy on the other side of the room who raised his hand timidly. He seemed to be as nervous as I was. Mrs. Templet then asked the boy: “What are you?” He managed to get control of himself long enough to say, almost in a whisper, “I’m a Baptist.” The teacher grunted and frowned. “Anyone else?” she followed up. I knew I had to say something, and so I managed to lift my hand, just above my head. “And what are you?” she asked rather brusquely. I paused longer than I should have, my faith failed me, and I then found myself blurting out: “I’m a Baptist too.” (My Evangelical associates love that story and usually say, “Bob, it’s very clear that God has had His hand upon you for a long time!”)
Sorry for that diversion. I should add that in spite of my differences in belief and practice from my new friends, I drew close to many members of the class and enjoyed the three years we spent in White Castle. I was able to attend a few masses, walk down the street to the Catholic Church and have a black cross placed on my forehead on Ash Wednesday, and fairly regularly help a friend memorize some matters from his catechism. Through it all, I came away with a bit better understanding of and respect for Roman Catholics.
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