As a seminarian in the early 70's, I helped out in a downtown parish in Washington, D.C. To be more precise, I was a custodian at Old Saint Mary's Parish at 5th and H Streets, NW. Among my tasks were hauling cases of votive candles from the church basement and placing them on marble stands in front of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. This was no small task because, you see, every Monday, the Novena to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal was prayed in that church 13 times.
On Mondays, this downtown parish bustled all day long with Mass, Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Confessions, and the Novena refrain, "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee." After being present for most of the Novena services, I would wake up in the middle of the night practically humming that refrain. But, just as quickly, I would fall asleep again, because I was confident that Our Blessed Lady was watching out for me.
It was during that time, as a first-year theologian, that I began to see the link between Mary and the Eucharist. I was learning about that in my theology classes, but I also saw it in the lives of those who regularly attended the Novena services. For in the course of hauling candles, mopping floors, and painting walls, I came to know many of those who visited Old Saint Mary's. More than a few of them told me how their devotion to Mary gave them a new start in their spiritual journey. They told me how Mary's intercession helped them find the courage to address problems in their lives. They told me how they sought and found Mary's help in healing the wounds of sin and the wounds unjustly inflicted on them by others. And many told me how Mary's prayers helped them to return to the practice of the faith, especially regular attendance at Sunday Mass.
Those 30-year-old memories came flooding back to me when I read the Holy Father's beautiful reflection on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. In that letter, he calls Mary the "woman of the Eucharist," and with fresh insight describes Mary's relationship to the Eucharist. He points to passages in the Acts of the Apostles which indicate that Mary was present when the first generation of Christians celebrated the Eucharist. He reminds us that Mary prepared the way for the Eucharist by contemplating the Word of God in her heart and by offering her virginal womb for the incarnation of God's Word.
The pope draws a beautiful parallel between Mary's "yes" to the announcement of the angel that she would be the Mother of God, and our "Amen" when we receive into our hearts the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ in Holy Communion. Our Holy Father also helps us see how Mary, more than any other human being, shared in the sacrifice of her Son, beginning with the prophecy of Simeon that she would be pierced by a sword of sorrow, and culminating with her presence at the foot of the Cross - the same sacrifice of which we partake at every Mass.
As He was dying, Jesus entrusted Mary to the beloved disciple, John, as his mother. The Holy Father teaches us that, at every Mass, the Lord does the same for us. Never do we celebrate Mass without commemorating Mary as our mother and welcoming her presence and her prayers in our midst.
Finally, the Holy Father tells us how Mary's Magnificat, her beautiful song of praise, should be our song of thanksgiving. With the Eternal Son of God taking flesh in her womb, Mary sang, "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." So, too, every time we participate in the liturgy and truly encounter Christ who speaks to us in His Word, Christ whose sacrifice of love is truly present on the altar, Christ who gives Himself as our food and drink - we should say, as did Mary, "the Lord has done great things for me, and holy is His name."
The pope's teachings, which give substance to my memories of Old Saint Mary's, are more than nice thoughts. They are prophetic, given the pastoral situation in which we find ourselves. Many Catholics, even a majority, have little more than a casual relationship to Jesus in the Eucharist. Too many Catholics feel they have virtually no need of the Eucharist, even though Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer, instinctively knew its importance and took part in the Church's first Eucharistic celebrations.
Although Sunday Mass is readily available, many stay away because they consider it a low priority, an option to be exercised only occasionally, rather than a solemn obligation expressed by the Third Commandment and the Precepts of the Church.
In many homes, sports, shopping, business pursuits, and leisure activities out-rank Sunday Mass. Many parents no longer bring their children to Sunday Mass, except for First Communion, Confirmation, or some other special occasion. They may bring them to religious education classes and even send them to Catholic schools - but fail to help them to meet the Lord regularly who gives Himself to us in truth and reality in the celebration of the Eucharist.
It's time for a new beginning. Two factors make that timely and urgent:
Factor One is the First Sunday of Advent now upon us - the beginning of a new liturgical year. Just as we do at New Year's, each of us, relying on the grace of God, we should make a resolution to attend Mass faithfully every Sunday. As we listen to the Gospel accounts of how Mary said "yes" to the plan of God in which she was called to be the Mother of the Redeemer, so, too, we should ask for the grace to say "yes" to the Redeemer's True Presence in the Holy Eucharist.
Factor Two is the Year of the Eucharist, declared by our Holy Father, which began in October and extends until October 2005. This is a year when the whole Church will focus on Christ present in the Eucharist. It will be an opportunity to deepen our knowledge and appreciation for the celebration of the Mass and to make Sunday Mass once again the center of our spiritual lives.
The Year of the Eucharist is also a graced opportunity for all of us to draw closer to Jesus who remains with us, really, truly, and personally, in the Blessed Sacrament reserved. To help us observe the Year of the Eucharist, I am asking pastors to preach more frequently on the Eucharist and providing homily suggestions for various Sundays in the liturgical year when the readings seem to focus on the Eucharist. The ongoing clergy formation program will focus on improving our Eucharistic liturgies, coupled with a deeper understanding of the mystery which we lead and in which we participate. The priests' Convocation will have a Eucharistic theme.
And all around the diocese there will be expanded opportunities for us to engage in Holy Hours of Eucharistic Adoration - to pray before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, especially for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Jeff Cavins, a Scripture scholar who spoke here in the diocese a few weeks ago, once said that if we really absorbed what the Bible says about the Eucharist, we couldn't stay away. My prayer is that, through Mary's prayers, we will allow the Word of God to penetrate our hearts and lead us, in ever greater numbers, to the Eucharistic mystery.
May you have a Blessed Advent and a Blessed Year of the Eucharist!
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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