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The Eucharist Changes the World: Effects on Society and Culture  
Rev. Ronald Lewinski and Andrew Liaugminas  
   

In our previous reflection on Part III of Sacramentum Caritatis, "The Eucharist, A Mystery to Be Lived," we saw how the Eucharist fundamentally reorients our lives. Through communion with God in the Eucharist, we begin to offer all of our life in spiritual worship. In whichever vocation God calls us, we find strength and direction to live it in the Eucharist. In living the love God has for us in concrete actions toward others, we approach the fullness of eucharistic communion and more intrepidly give witness to the presence of Christ we bear within us. The transformation of self in this way leads to the transformation of society. And for that transformation to happen, the individual must become an ever-more conscious member of the body of Christ.

Becoming One Body
The transformation the Eucharist effects in us impels us to live the mystery we receive in the sacrament of charity. That begins with a renewal and reorientation of our lives; a process that moves us toward greater assimilation into the mystical body of Christ. Part of how Christ reorients our approach to others involves our seeing others with the eyes of Christ and sharing Christ's affectivity toward others. Transformed by the Eucharist, we thus begin to "put on the mind of Christ" (Philippians 2:5) and act toward others with that mindset.

After discussing these key elements of the "eucharistic form of the Christian life," Pope Benedict XVI explains the interconnection our eucharistic communion has with self and society. This begins in the liturgy, particularly the Sunday liturgy. The celebration of the Lord's Day, while reordering how we approach work and leisure in our personal lives, "brings us back to the intrinsic relationship between Jesus' victory . . . and our membership in his ecclesial body" (SC, 76).

On the Lord's Day, each Christian rediscovers the communal dimension of his life as one who has been redeemed. Taking part in the liturgy and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ intensifies and deepens our belonging to the one who died for us. (SC, 76)

It is essential to our membership in the body of Christ that we participate in the liturgy, especially the Sunday liturgy.

Since the mystical body of Christ is composed of many members, our communion with Christ's body must involve how we live with those who are also members in it. This is exactly what the Pope conveys next:

The eucharistic mystery helps us to understand the profound meaning of the communio sanctorum. Communion always and inseparably has both a vertical and a horizontal sense: it is communion with God and communion with our brothers and sisters. Both dimensions mysteriously converge in the gift of the Eucharist. (SC, 76)

Pope Benedict leaves no room for ambiguity in how closely he believes those dimensions are related. The Pope says that one form of communion is impossible without the other. And so, "Called to be members of Christ and thus members of one another (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:27), we are a reality grounded ontologically in Baptism and nourished by the Eucharist, a reality that demands visible expression in the life of our communities" (SC, 76).

Our membership in the body of Christ, states the Holy Father, calls us to involvement in each other's lives. The Pope is not merely using poetic language. To say "we are a reality grounded ontologically in Baptism . . ." asserts a real, living unity of all who died and rose with Christ in Baptism. We are one, and thus the Pope refers to us collectively: "we are a reality . . . " (emphasis added). We can thus no longer simply refer to the transformation of the individual. The Eucharist transforms us into a society: the society of Christ's mystical body.

Just as there is a "eucharistic form of the Christian life" for the individual, so too does the Eucharist give a unique form and way of living to the Christian community. One of its primary characteristics is being "clearly an ecclesial and communitarian form" that finds "visible expression" in the territorial structures of Church (such as parishes, dioceses), as well as in extra-diocesan groupings, such as "associations, ecclesial movements and new communities." That means that those who live in a way not ecclesial and communitarian in character are not living a truly eucharistic form of life.

Yet, that is the exact opposite of the direction our culture pulls us. Our culture drives us to live a "non-eucharistic" life. Pope Benedict XVI, in this context, speaks of the effects of secularism in our culture, a major theme of his pontificate:

Secularization, with its inherent emphasis on individualism, has its most negative effects on individuals who are isolated and lack a sense of belonging. Christianity, from its very beginning, has meant fellowship, a network of relationships constantly strengthened by hearing God's word and sharing in the Eucharist, and enlivened by the Holy Spirit. (SC, 76)

So to be authentic to our faith, a faith that not only involves fellowship but actually means it, we cannot operate out of an individualistic worldview. This is a radical message in today's culture and society.

Living as a Eucharistic People in the World
What does our eucharistic form of life look like in the midst of our world overall? What is the eucharistic quality of life that we, as a whole, are called to live? Above all, the mark of our eucharistic quality of life as a Church must be charity. In this document devoted to the sacrament of charity, the Pope stresses the role charity plays in being a eucharistic people. Charity starts in our interactions with fellow members of the body of Christ. By simply living charity toward each other, we give witness to the sacrament of charity to the world.

The eucharistic sacrifice gives us the mandate to be disciples of the sacrament of charity. Every time we gather at Mass we hear the words: "Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you." After telling us that he is the bread broken for us, Jesus says, "Do this in memory of me." Thus, in the same action, Jesus not only gives himself to us, but mandates us to do the same for others. We must not let his words become routine. If they do, we may become immune to the power of Jesus' mandate. Lest that happen, the Pope reminds us:

Our communities, when they celebrate the Eucharist, must become ever more conscious that the sacrifice of Christ is for all, and that the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to become "bread that is broken" for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world. (SC, 88)

We thus cannot say "Amen" to the Eucharistic Prayer and "Amen" when we partake of the consecrated bread and wine and fail to see that we are being asked to commit ourselves to being bread broken and wine poured out for others. Any who catch the radical nature of what they are being asked to do should find the Mass truly invigorating.

These insights into the Eucharist lie at the heart of the Church's social apostolate. The image of the servant Christ washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper and instructing them, "I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do" (John 13:15), serves as a lens through which we can penetrate the meaning and social implications of the eucharistic mystery. This mandate to serve others is not just addressed to us individually, but to us corporately as we are, in reality, a community of disciples.

Interestingly, the early liturgical reformers in the United States in the 1930s, such as Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, of Chicago, and Father Virgil Michel, osb, of St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, were keenly aware of the link between the altar and our life in society. Hillenbrand addressed the crowd at the National Liturgical Week in 1945, saying:

It is infinitely sad when someone devoted to the liturgy will minimize an interest in the social doctrine, in rural life, in the racial problem, in international life, in Catholic action. We cannot, of course, have a comprehensive knowledge of all these things, but we must have an interest and a sympathy. When you find a person who is lacking in that interest and sympathy, you have found a person who is imperfectly schooled in the liturgy, who does not understand it in its completeness, who does not have the vision it is able to give him.

The social dimensions of the liturgical reform fell into the background immediately following the Second Vatican Council, because of the pressing need for a response to the Council's mandate to revise the Church's rites. Preoccupied with the reform and translation of the liturgical books, many people lost the social implications of the Eucharist. In the eucharistic writings of Pope John Paul II, and now that of Pope Benedict XVI, there is happily a recovery of this social dimension to the Eucharist. And, in that vein, the concluding paragraphs of Sacramentum Caritatis challenge us to "transform unjust structures and to restore respect for the dignity of all men and women" and to commit ourselves "to peacemaking in our world scarred by violence and war, and today in particular, by terrorism, economic corruption and sexual exploitation" (SC, 89).

The bridge from the Lord's table reaches to the poor who live below the poverty level or are forced to live in makeshift conditions, to children deprived of a legitimate claim to happiness, to refugees, to victims of certain forms of globalization that widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor (SC, 90). Global issues, such as the huge sums spent on armaments or the neglect of the environment, expand the implications of the Eucharist to all creation (SC, 92). What Pope Benedicts calls "the food of truth and human need" (SC, 90) calls us corporately to live a radically different way of approaching our presence in this world; it "demands that we denounce inhumane situations in which people starve to death because of injustice and exploitation, and it gives us renewed strength and courage to work tirelessly in the service of the civilization of love" (SC, 90).

Being Missionary
"[A]n authentically eucharistic Church is a missionary Church" (SC, 84), asserts Pope Benedict on the connection between Eucharist and mission. The heart of this principle is deeply human. When we experience something grand and powerful, such as love, there is a natural inclination to tell others about it. When we hear news that has a significant bearing on our lives, we feel compelled to share that news. This is the dynamic we see in the Gospel again and again. After conversing with Jesus at the well, the Samaritan woman goes into town to tell others (John 4:28 - 29). When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, they ran back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples (Luke 24:33 - 35).

Yet, for us, of course, the move to tell others how we have experienced the Lord is not just left to natural human instinct. We have a mandate given in Baptism to be missionaries to the world. Our participation in the Eucharist charges us to go forward with a responsibility for mission. The Holy Father writes, "We cannot approach the eucharistic table without being drawn into the mission which, beginning in the very heart of God, is meant to reach all people. Missionary outreach is thus an essential part of the eucharistic form of the Christian life" (SC, 84).

Sacramentum Caritatis builds on the eucharistic teachings of Pope John Paul II, who wrote in On the Mystery and Worship of the Holy Eucharist, "The authentic sense of the Eucharist becomes itself the school of active love of neighbor" (SC, 6). Then, in Mane Nobiscum Domine, John Paul II said:

. . . entering into communion with Christ in the memorial of his Pasch also means sensing the duty to be a missionary of the event made present in that rite. The dismissal at the end of Mass is a charge given to Christians, inviting them to work for the spread of the Gospel and the imbuing of society with Christian values. (SC, 25)

But how is it that so many Catholics neither seem to have the natural inclination to share what they experienced at Eucharist nor feel any sacramental accountability to be a messenger of God's good news? Could it be that we have allowed our consumer-oriented culture to affect our relationship to the Eucharist, making the sacrament more of a personal commodity and less of a responsibility? The Pope says we need to challenge this mentality:
. . . it is clear that the eucharistic mystery puts us in dialogue with various cultures, but also in some way challenges them. . . . The presence of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are events capable of engaging every cultural reality and bringing to it the leaven of the Gospel." (SC, 78)

The missionary vocation of a eucharistic community flows naturally from its transformation by Christ in the Eucharist into a people who "stand forth in a world torn by strife and discord as a sign of oneness and peace" (Eucharistic Prayer for Masses for Various Needs and Occasions). Parish communities need to find their inspiration and motivation for mission more directly from their participation in the sacrament of charity and learn to carry back to the Eucharist what they have experienced in their service to others. In this way, the Eucharist truly becomes "the source and summit not only of the Church's life, but also of her mission" (SC, 84).

Pope Benedict makes it clear that the ultimate content of our proclamation as Eucharist-bound missionaries is not merely to pass on information about the faith, but "to bring Christ to others" (SC, 86). We witness by our words and actions and our way of being. Through these humble means, says the Pope, "Another makes himself present" (SC, 85).

This applies, above all, to the Church as sacrament in the world. To be an effective sacrament requires that we are transformed personally and communally in surrendering our lives to God through the sacrifice of Christ. This means that we must be willing to offer our lives to God, to empty ourselves as Christ emptied himself in sacrifice to the Father. This is what we are challenged to do at Mass when we "give thanks to God and offer the spotless Victim not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, and so that they may learn to offer themselves" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #95). We cannot expect to be transformed if we have not participated in the Eucharist fully and consciously in this manner.

Conclusion
Pope Benedict XVI observes that secularization has "relegated the Christian faith to the margins of life as if it were irrelevant to everyday affairs" (SC, 77). Research studies and popular polls appear to confirm the disconnect between faith and life. Catholics are reported to be drifting away from participation in the liturgy. Some see little relevance in liturgy for our life today. Others are persuaded by the culture to make Sunday worship optional, especially when it conflicts with athletic, shopping, or recreational pursuits. There is an urgency to break through the barriers that keep our ecclesial communities from experiencing the heart of the mystery and the hope and meaning it offers.

For the Christian community that is firmly rooted in the Eucharist, the whole world becomes the fertile field "in which God plants his children as good seed" (SC, 79). How do we transform the whole world? This presents an overwhelming challenge. However, Christians simply have to begin wherever they find themselves; be it the workplace, in the voting booth, or in the neighborhoods we call home. Wherever we are participating in the Eucharist, we enliven and strengthen our communion with the body of Christ.

The influence of a eucharistic community should extend to every segment of our culture. There can be a tension between the culture's influence on the Church and the Church's influence on culture. While incorporating the unique gifts of every culture, the Eucharist also gives us a mandate to form a "Eucharistic culture" in the midst of our society, here and now. "The Eucharist becomes a criterion for our evaluation of everything that Christianity encounters in different cultures" (SC, 78), affirms the Pope. This implies drawing from our experience of the Eucharist the values, beliefs, and graces that can shape the culture in which we live.

Our participation in the Eucharist is essential for this to happen. We cannot expect to spread the power and grace of the Eucharist if we are not participating actively and consciously in the Eucharist on the Lord's Day. Likewise, we cannot expect a community to have a well-developed sense of how the Eucharist sends them into society to proclaim the eucharistic mystery if they have not had the benefit of an effective mystagogy on the sacrament of charity. This mystagogy, in turn, needs to be followed by pastoral counsel and direction for how we can shape life and society as individuals and as a community grounded in our encounter with Christ in the Eucharist.

The social and missionary implications of the Eucharist present a challenge to every Catholic community that shares in the sacrament of Christ's love. Beginning with the transformation of the individual, who is incorporated into a transformed community, the Eucharist prepares us for mission. "Formed at the school of the Eucharist" (SC, 91), we enter into the world as messengers of hope and a people who proclaim the mystery we have celebrated.

Questions for Reflection
1. How can the Eucharist help us recover faith from the margins of life?

2. What are some values in society that are contrary to the values we find in the Eucharist?

3. How is our participation in the Eucharist a radical call to imitate Christ's self-emptying love?

4. What in our society awaits to be transformed by what we celebrate at the altar?

5. What is the hope you see rising from the eucharistic mystery?

6. How can we foster, in our eucharistic communities, a deeper appreciation for the missionary dimensions of the Eucharist?

7. How would you sum up Pope Benedict XVI's teaching on the effects of the Eucharist on us as individuals and on us as a community of faith in the world?

Rev. Ronald Lewinski,
the pastor of St. Mary of the Annunciation, Mundelein, Illinois, is the author of Guide for Sponsors, published by Liturgy Training Publications.

Andrew Liaugminas
is a seminarian at Mundelein Seminary.

This is the final installment in a series of six articles reflecting on the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis. Those using the study guide may find it helpful to read the document, which can be found online at the Vatican's web site, www.Vatican.va.

Part I: Reflecting on God's Action in the Eucharist
Part II: Each Sacrament Connects to the Eucharist
Part III: The Liturgy as Communal Ritual Action
Part IV: The Eucharist: A Mystery to be Celebrated
Part V: The Eucharist Changes the World: Effects on the Person
Part VI: The Eucharist Changes the World: Effects on Society and Culture

 
         
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