An austerely Protestant friend once confided to me that she didn’t really ‘get’ the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Two things in particular bothered her. One was the Church’s refusal to open reception of the sacrament to all Trinitarian Christians as her own denomination did, and the other was Catholic devotion to the reserved sacrament. She had been to Spain and been rather aghast at a Corpus Christi procession and the way in which people flopped to their knees as the priest passed by under a canopy of white silk, holding ‘some great gold thinggy in his hands’. I tried to explain.
Catholics have a very high doctrine of the Eucharist. We believe that it is much more than a memorial meal. It is a sacrifice, one with the sacrifice of Calvary. Bread and wine are transformed by the action of the priest into the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour, and it is necessary to share the faith of the Church in order to share in the sacrament. This did not satisfy her, nor did my patient offering of all the relevant numbers in the Catechism, Dominus Est and so on. I had slightly more success when I read through the Eucharistic Prayers with her and threw in some little tidbits of history and theology from Jungmann (see below). However, it was when we went into a nearby Catholic church during Adoration that light began to dawn. The sight of many people kneeling in silent prayer before the Host in the monstrance affected my friend profoundly. The candles, the flowers, the faint smell of incense probably helped, too; but it was the prayer and the depth of the silence that moved her most. That wasn’t faked; it wasn’t in any way exclusionary; it was simply a group of people united in their love of the Lord, kneeling before him and listening.
Today Catholics in Britain will celebrate Corpus Christi in many different ways. Some will hold Corpus Christi processions, scattering rose petals and singing hymns; others will spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament (how we usually refer to the reserved sacrament), either exposed in the monstrance for Adoration and Benediction or contained within the tabernacle (its place of reservation); all, I trust, will take part in the Mass because, of course, it is the Mass from which all worship of the Blessed Sacrament proceeds. It is in the action of the Mass that we are united with the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, with his death and resurrection, and in communion made one with him in love and prayer.