The following sermon was delivered by Bishop Chad Zielinski on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ on June 14, 2020.
During a recent interview with Relevant Radio, the host asked, “What was it like for you to close churches during the pandemic?” I told him the decision “came with a horrible angst.” I shared that before and after the decision, I prayed and prayed, that I was doing the right thing and that God would forgive me if I wasn’t. I prayed for God’s people, that they would understand I was making the decision out of love not just for them, but to protect the wider community, for whose welfare I am also responsible as a bishop. I prayed for the Lord to sustain the faithful, whom I knew yearned for him in the Eucharist. It was horrible to go through this and I experienced a profound sadness and emptiness during the shutdown.
The decision was so difficult because I believe with all my heart, mind, and soul that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. I know that in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I hold the same Jesus that Mary held in her arms at his birth. I believe all that--and then I had to shut the doors to God’s house where people are fed with his Body and Blood for the journey. It was an unimaginable anguish for me, as it was for every faithful priest across the world whose parish was temporarily shuttered.
I could not help but notice that the Church’s liturgical calendar providentially reflected our experiences this past spring both as individuals and as a people. The pandemic oddly started just after Ash Wednesday, with the readings that day portending a great spiritual battle: “The Spirit it led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” For some, the pandemic brought relaxing time off work, more time with family, and stronger connections. Others, however, experienced great emotional and financial suffering from the isolation and job loss. Everyone suffered confusion, fear, and uncertainty about the future. We were all led into our own deserts and were tempted by the devil, forcing us to rely on Christ more than ever.
Nor was it a coincidence that most dioceses began reopening parishes on the Feast of Corpus Christ in mid-June. The day’s reading from Deuteronomy had Moses telling the people in the desert that God was directing their journey: “He let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you manna.” This resonates with the faithful, who experienced a great hunger for God during the pandemic when they could not attend Mass. The sacrifice was painful but it also ignited a stronger love for God in many souls, who have shared with me that they now feel an increased thirst and hunger for the Body and Blood of Christ.
Moses reminded the people that they were fed by God and that he led them out of slavery. When things were not going as they wanted, they complained they were better off in slavery. This is the nature of sin--it tempts us to move back toward the familiar, even when it is destructive to body or soul. This tendency is why we struggle with habitual sin.
Fortunately, we have hope in this battle and it was given to us when Jesus led the Apostles to establish his Church on Pentecost Sunday. Scripture describes the Church as the Body of Christ and as the “pillar and foundation of Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and when they shared this fuller understanding of the Gospel, each person heard the message in his own language. St. Paul images this as one Spirit distributing many gifts throughout one body (1 Cor. 12).
Pentecost was followed by Trinity Sunday, where the first reading has Moses holding the Ten Commandments (still applicable today!) and asking God to dwell among the people. Moses entreats the Lord to gift humanity with an intimate, covenantal relationship, which is the very heart of the Trinity: a communion of persons. Like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who are unified in love for one another, we are called to that same perfect union with God, both personally and as the whole Body of Christ.
The Trinity’s oneness is a living fire of God’s burning love. The Israelites understood their covenant with God as the embodiment of rachamim, which means that unconditional, endearing love a mother has for her baby. The Trinity reaches out and grabs our entire person in baptism. We are never let go, but God does allow us to choose to stay with him or separate from him through sin. God led the Israelites out of slavery just as Christ leads us into a living relationship with the Holy Trinity. When we humbly confess our sins and ask Jesus to lift us out of bondage, he does not point to the past, but draws our eyes forward into the light: “Your faith has saved you. Go and sin no more.”
While all the sacraments give us grace and sustain our relationship with Christ, the Eucharist brings Jesus to us in a unique and especially efficacious way. Jesus said, “I am the living bread come down from Heaven. For my flesh is true food and my blood true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6). Many followers were so repulsed by this that they left and returned to their former way of life. Jesus’ words about the Eucharist in John 6 are challenging; he does not back down or explain that he will give himself to us symbolically. He asks the apostles if they planned to leave, too. Peter speaks for all the faithful when he says, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68).
As a priest and now as a bishop, I have passionately emphasized the words of Christ about being truly present in the Eucharist because this truth is needed now more than ever. Last year, the PEW Research Institute published survey results in which 70% of Catholics polled stated they do not believe in the Real Presence. Think about that--nearly three out of four baptized Catholics do not believe Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. This tragic lack of faith has prompted many of us bishops to ask how we have failed in our responsibilities and how we can restore belief in the Real Presence to God’s people.
Of course, our most intimate encounter with Christ happens at Mass and it is instructive to look at the movement leading to this communion. We begin Mass with the Penitential Rite, acknowledging we are sinners who need God’s forgiveness, then we are fed by his Holy Word. What we do next is important--we profess our faith by reciting the Nicene Creed. Those preparing to enter the Church through RCIA typically spend significant time studying the Creed to understand our core beliefs as Catholics. The second part of the Mass moves us toward the Eucharist, as the priest consecrates the bread and wine and turns those substances into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ himself. That reality is why we have such reverence for the Eucharist and insist on using sacred vessels, linens, and vestments during the Mass.
The Lord’s Prayer is said in unison just prior to receiving Holy Communion. In his Gospel reflection, Bishop Robert Barron drew attention to the Lord’s Prayer. We ask God to give us our daily bread or Arto epiusion, which actually means supersubstantial bread in Greek. Clearly, this bread is far more nourishing than the regular food that sustains just our body.
Finally, we come forward to receive Communion and the priest, deacon, or Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion declares, “The Body of Christ.” We respond “Amen” or in other words, I believe! We affirm that we are receiving Jesus himself, truly and substantially present in the Eucharist. We assent to the Nicene Creed, professed by the Church under the apostles and continued in union with the pope, the bishop, and the priest celebrating the Mass. Yes, this all really happens when we say Amen! This is part of why RCIA is a longer process, because it prepares the person to understand all their “Amen” truly signifies--a total affirmation of the teachings of Christ, especially about the Real Presence.
After Communion, we thank God in our hearts and in song. The hallmark of American society is rugged individualism, but Holy Communion is not just between me and Jesus. After all, the people around me have just received the Lord, too, and that makes us “Blood brothers and sisters,” spiritually united by Christ. This supernatural bond runs far deeper than any ethnic or family relation. Finally, we are dismissed and instructed to, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” We are sent into the world on a specific day in history, to interact with souls and build up God’s kingdom in our own unique way.
In the past few months, I have received lots of emails from those in quarantine. Some have fearfully asked, “What is happening, where is God?” Others ask, “Why the violence, why the divisions?” Yes, these are confusing and strange times and the evil one wants to divide and conquer us. As Catholics, we must stand against the grave sins of racism, ethnic hatred, division, and riotous behavior that leads to harm of both people and property. We must protect the common good of the human family through law and order. Right now, there is much focus on what we are against but the entire movement of the Gospel--and especially the Mass--is toward the good that we take a stand for. We stand for the truth that all people, from conception to natural death, are created in the sacred image and likeness of God. This message of God’s beauty, goodness, and truth needs to be passionately proclaimed, not just by priests and bishops, but by all of the faithful. As we leave Mass, we are filled with the Real Presence of Christ, the living Jesus who takes a stand for all souls created in his image and likeness and who are part of his Mystical Body. Let us go forth glorifying God by our lives, with our hearts, minds, and souls anchored in this reality.