Celebrating the Eucharist

Over the past few years, The Bishop’s Bulletin has had reflections on each of the Sacraments; these moments of grace and glory that transform and transfix our lives. This month we will focus on the Eucharist. We wanted this reflection to share the experience of the Eucharist from a stand point that only 139 people out of the 113,000 Catholics who make up the diocese have, the perspective of one who presides at the Eucharist.

So my extended column this month is the experiences of one priest, and what it is like to celebrate this most awesome of mysteries.

-Bishop Robert J. Carlson

Several years ago, the priests of the diocese were invited to a day of reflection and continuing education. We gathered with, then, Bishop Robert Carlson and prayed and listened and learned. Those are always great days, this one included.

As part of the day, we broke into small groups for some time spent sharing. My group happened to include Bishop Carlson, which could cause a small group to be a bit more, well, thoughtful.

We were given a few introductory questions to answer around the table, to break the ice and get the conversation going, and then we came to one of the big questions. If there was one thing you could change about the Church, what would be it?

When it came time for me to answer, I had to preface my remarks by admitting that what I was about to say would be somewhat unorthodox, perhaps even heretical, but I was going to say it anyway.

The Bishop’s response was, “Oh-oh. Here we go.” I said that if I could make one change it would be that every baptized Catholic would be able to celebrate the Eucharist at least once in their lives. My reason was simple. Nothing I have ever done has transformed my life, or made me understand the deep complexity and beauty of the Eucharistic celebration like celebrating it has; I cannot help but wonder how the Church would be transformed if that experience was a part of every Catholic’s life.

Thank goodness the Bishop smiled at the thought.

Presiding at the Eucharist gives an intimacy to the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising that simply cannot be duplicated in any other way. As a priest, after years of celebrating the Eucharist, I can forget that, and forget that the people I am praying with may not have that same encounter, and it encourages me to keep striving to find ways to share that experience.

Be invisible
-A chorus of seminary professors

It is one of the Church’s deepest teachings, and deepest mysteries, that the priest, when he is celebrating the Sacraments, is acting in Persona Christi, that Christ takes over the priest and becomes the celebrant of every Sacrament, but in a particular way at the celebration of the Eucharist.

In the evocative thought of Cardinal Avery Dulles, Christ borrows the hands, the voice and the life of the priest at every Eucharist. In short, the priest is supposed to be invisible so that Christ might be seen.

Now, that sounds beautiful, and it is. It is also not nearly as easy as it sounds. Each priest has his own personality and style, his own flaws and talents, and his own connection to the community he serves. I would imagine it is difficult for people to see me standing at the altar and not to think that it is Fr. Michael standing there. Yet, by words and actions and conscious attempts, Christ shines forth and the sacrifice is made.

It all begins right after ordination. Soon afterward, he will celebrate his Mass of Thanksgiving, presiding over the Eucharist for the first time. This Mass is actually quite easy; there is normally a priest who preaches and a number of priests who concelebrate, and perhaps a deacon as well.

Each one of them helps to make sure that things go according to tradition and rubric, and that the pages of the Roman Missal are turned to the right prayers so the new priest doesn’t end up installing an abbot or something. Then, however, comes the weekend and a new priest is at the back of the church, standing behind a group of servers as the gathering hymn is announced, and you realize at that moment that you are on your own.

I remember thinking that I had been to Mass every Sunday and Holy Days since I was born, prayed at countless Masses during the week, and yet, at this moment, I found it hard to remember what comes after the Creed. I reached the front and there were so many faces, so many eyes looking at me, waiting, smiling, ready to be led in prayer. The enormity of it was overwhelming.

I took a deep breath and touched my forehead. “In the name of…”

It was those words; they were the words that reminded me that it wasn’t me, or about me. It’s someone else, in their name. Be invisible and relax.

It might sound strange, but even now, 28 years after that first Sunday Mass, I am still nervous before Mass, pacing, filled with nervous energy. Those first words calm me still.

I had been presiding and praying at Mass for 21 years when I was thrown back to the beginning. In the year 2011, the Bishops of the United States mandated that the revised Roman Missal was to be used at all Masses beginning on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27.

For several evenings, after the church was locked for the night, I would stand at the altar of Ss. Peter and Paul in Pierre and do something I had not done for over two decades; I practiced saying Mass. I stood in the dimly lit church, practicing the Eucharistic Prayers, the rituals and the prayers so that, when Advent began, I wouldn’t be stumbling around, and I could more easily let Christ borrow me again.

A priest acts in Persona Christi by virtue of his ordination, but it also doesn’t just happen. It takes some thought, practice and effort. This mingling of the human and divine is a part of the Mystery of Faith. It is not an easy mingling, it’s not supposed to be; the People of God deserve more than just me celebrating the Mass, they deserve nothing less than Christ, and yet, Christ has also chosen me, strange vessel I am, to be the instrument He uses.

As the one used by Christ, I have a responsibility to let that “borrowing” be a gift I give to Christ and His people. I have often said that if a priest doesn’t need a nap on Sunday afternoon, he hasn’t done his job. It should take everything out of him, and he should leave it all in the sanctuary, a gift which also makes Christ’s dying and rising a Eucharistic reality.

There have been times when I have been so tired I can barely think straight, standing in the sacristy before Mass, hearing the people gathering in the Church beyond the door and I am afraid. These times are Christmas and Easter mornings. For years I would celebrate Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve and then, a few hours later, Mass in the morning; after a long and beautiful Easter Vigil, there would be a few hours of sleep and then back to the church for Easter morning.

I am afraid because the People of God deserve, especially at these moments, the best I can humanly give. In the weary fog there is a reminder to give what I have, give it all, but it is Christ using me, He does everything.

I just have to remember, tired or irritable or weak or afraid, to be invisible.

He is the conductor of a great symphony of praise
-A note written in the margin of a seminary textbook

A priest may be used by Christ when he presides at the Eucharist, but he is still firmly and irrevocably a human being, leading a gathering of human beings in the praise of the Triune God. That means that everything that happens at Mass is also going to be amazingly human, and subject to the talents, moods and flaws of a human priest.

When I was a seminarian, I had the honor of being the Master of Ceremonies at the seminary. I was responsible for making sure everything was in its place and everything happened when and how it should. It was a gift and a horror. There are so many details and I always had to be thinking one or two steps ahead, I found prayer or recollection at Mass was impossible.

I expressed this concern to the previous year’s Master of Ceremonies who gave me some advice. He said, “Yeah, but that’s the gift you give, isn’t it? You don’t pray so they can.”

As the years have progressed, the ability to pray and recollect at Mass have come back, but never fully, never like it was when I was a young man sitting in the pews. It probably never will. There are just too many details and things to keep in mind. But that’s still the gift I give, isn’t it?

Like all symphonies, it has its discordant moments that bring life to the harmonies. Many times I will lift the pall off the chalice and discover the host is missing, or the servers will turn and look at me because the water wasn’t placed on the table before Mass. Candles don’t work or pages get turned incorrectly, and people pass out, responses aren’t given, the new song is hard to sing, little kids get sick, babies cry, people come late or leave early, and the symphony plays on.

On December 8, 2011, just a few days after the Roman Missal was mandated, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. I had Mass at 7 a.m., and the Mass was going great until we came to the Prayer over the Offerings and I began to pray the words: “…as we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace…” I stumbled over the word “prevenient” several times before I finally got it right, noticeably and painfully. For the next few minutes my mind was not on the Preface I was praying, I was trying to imagine who thought it would be a good idea to drop “prevenient” on a poor priest at 7 in the morning.

Some are just mistakes and some are just frustrating, and still we are human beings doing our best in the Presence of God.

Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him.
-Presentation of the Gifts
Rite of Ordination of a Priest

During the Rite of Ordination, some of the faithful bring forward bread and wine and present them to the Bishop who presents them to the newly ordained priest. The words Bishop Paul Dudley said to me at this moment were important, I was receiving these gifts from the “holy people of God.” They are their gifts, given to me to be given to God. The Church’s wisdom in these words is lovely. At the Mass, I am offering those gifts, their lives and mine, “my sacrifice and yours.”

A bond is forged at that moment through those gifts given to me. A priest is a priest of God and for the holy people of God. I find a great deal of strength in the presence of those holy people when I celebrate the Eucharist. Their energy and strength flows through me, especially on Christmas and Easter mornings, encourages and inspires me. I need it, desperately. This is why the responses the people give at Mass are so vital, to know you are praying for me as I am for you, entering into this living dialogue of praise, and together, lifting up our hearts to the Lord our God.

A priest can celebrate Mass anywhere and for any group. We can visit other churches, or substitute for one another, but what makes the Mass something deeper and more profound is the close connection the Mass forges with a community and its priests, as they share together the joys and sorrows of human life, offering them together to the God of undying love.

I once told the people of God in a homily that I felt a little sorry for them because I have such a premier position at the altar, when I lift up the Body of Christ, I see the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but I also see all of them, while they see the Blessed Sacrament and only me. I have the clearer vision of holiness than they. I get to see the holy people of God who gave me their gifts of bread and wine which are now filled with the real and mysterious presence of Christ.

Looking out upon the people during Mass, you begin to see them and to remember events, words, struggles, hopes, times of sadness and times of joy and you know this moment, this Eucharist is making us something special. As St. Augustine cried out, “The Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church.”

…for this is my Body…for this is the chalice of my Blood…
-Words of Institution
Roman Rite

I was standing in the bedroom of a Bed and Breakfast in Northern Ireland. A friend of mine and I were celebrating Mass and, as we prayed, the helicopters of the British army flew overhead following a terrorist attack.

I was standing in the KELO-TV studio, celebrating the Mass to be broadcast the next Sunday for the TV Mass. On the multitude of screens in front of me as I prayed, CBS News was broadcasting the bombing of Baghdad.

I was standing at the altar of the Kandahar Air Field chapel when the mortar attack warning was issued. As the mortars fell, I felt the vibrations through the floor, close, too close; the Soldiers praying with me crawled under the pews, but I was at a place where I could not validly stop, and so I consecrated the Blood, finished the Eucharistic Prayer and then crawled under the altar.

The first person singular of the Words of Institution are jarring, and can be difficult to speak out loud. I know in my heart and soul that it is Christ speaking through me, that it is “his Body” being broken, and “his Blood” being poured out, but it is strange to hear those words spoken with my voice; my body and my blood.

Historically, a priest is one who offers sacrifice, that is the difference between a priest and a minister. Roman Catholic priests are given the privilege through ordination of offering to the Father the death of His Son on the cross and the revelation of the power of the resurrection. This is the Sacrifice of the Mass, one, perfect sacrifice. In a myriad of ways however, we add to that sacrifice with our own suffering, and the suffering of the world.

All of it becomes one with the Body of Christ broken, the Blood of Christ poured out for us and for the world. All of it is offered to the Father who accepts the gift and gives it back to us, now as an outpouring of love and grace.

Certainly we offer the sacrifices of the world, the war and terror, the suffering, poverty and death. We pray those words of Christ at the Mass of Christian Burial, offering the grief of a family and a community. Yet, there are also the sacrifices of joy. I love to celebrate the Nuptial Mass as a young couple kneels before the altar to hear those words of Christ and to know, in their own way, they make them their own. They offer to each other their bodies and their lives, given in love. It is a sacrifice, a beautiful one.

The priest, because he is the one called to speak those words, must also take them to heart. There are a lot of sacrifices he makes, and more joys than can be numbered. I try to remember all that as I stand at the altar and look out over the gathering of God’s people kneeling. I lift up the Body of Christ and the people cry out “Lamb of God,” and I break it.

Gift and Mystery
-Pope Saint John Paul II

Every year, on Holy Thursday, Pope John Paul II would write a letter to the priests of the world. He would invite us to join with him in the Upper Room to reflect on the gift and mystery of the priesthood as it was born in the celebration of the first Eucharist.

I would often sit and read this letter during the time of adoration following the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. His words would help me to focus again on the beauty of the life to which the Lord called me. The Holy Father would challenge each priest to once again remember the meaning of the Eucharist, and how there is no priesthood without it. It is, and will be forever, the most important act we perform.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by it, sometimes so lacking in focus that I wonder where my mind has gone, sometimes I am tired and sometimes so aware of the loveliness of it all that I never want this Mass to end; in all of these times, there is the Eucharist and the fullest meaning of priest and people.

As the priest enters and exits the celebration of the Mass, he stops to kiss the altar, the primary symbol of Christ in the Church, Christ around whom we all, priest and people, gather. Years ago I started a personal tradition that expresses in its own small way all that I have been trying to share in these thoughts.

At the end of Mass, I kiss the altar and whisper, “Thank you.”

For this moment, for what we have just done, for all of it; for everything.