by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
June 19, 2022 – This Sunday, the Feast of Corpus Christi, in the second reading of the Liturgy of the Word, we will hear the instruction of St. Paul to the early Christian community of Corinth in Greece: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’. In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the death of the Lord Jesus until he comes.” I Cor. 11:23-26)
These unambiguous and reassuring words written about the year 59 have been received and acted on by Catholic Christians for 21 centuries. They are the foundation of our life in Christ. They are remarkable in that so soon after Jesus’ return to his Divine Parent, Paul is affirming that this Christian community is regularly celebrating the Lord’s Supper. However, unfortunately what we shall hear is an incomplete message about the Eucharist.
Paul had heard disturbing news about that community, including criticism about how they were conducting their Eucharistic celebrations. In the passage just quoted he writes to them in no uncertain terms: “I hear that when you meet it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating each one goes ahead with their own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk… [D]o you show contempt for the church of God and make those who have nothing ashamed?” (I Cor. 11:18, 20, 21, 22) He concludes the admonition saying: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” (I Cor. 11:27)
It is beyond incredible that this entire message of Paul is not part of the reading at the Liturgy of the Word – not on the feast of Corpus Christi nor on Holy Thursday. It presents us with crucial questions about Eucharistic celebrations, particularly in our time. Are Catholics aware of the “price tag” on this gift (to put it in somewhat crass terms), or, in the phrase used by Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are Catholics depending on “cheap grace” here – engaging in the representation of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection without recognizing its serious consequences? Or, once again in Paul’s language, does the U.S. American lifestyle “make those who have nothing feel ashamed,” or, more to the point, is the U.S. American Catholic Church sufficiently engaged in removing that shame, whatever form it takes: depravation, dismissal, intolerance? And particularly is there any understanding of the relationship between the Eucharist and the global issues presented to us in Catholic Social Teaching?
Perhaps the best way to underscore this examination of conscience is through real life experiences. Here are two which come to mind.
Some decades ago, a Colombian diocesan priest, Father Camilo Torres, came to the conclusion that he could no longer “bring the gifts to the altar” and celebrate the Eucharist. He judged that his privileged status made “those who had nothing” there feel ashamed. A lesson if not imitable, at least prophetic.
A new Christian community located in the area of Kenya and Tanzania once refrained from celebrating the Eucharist because a serious division had erupted among them. They remained without the sacrament for the time it took to resolve the problem.
As we thankfully return to the table in person after the sad two-year hiatus in actual Eucharistic celebrations, these thoughts are a catechesis for us. The Feast of Corpus Christi is a splendid opportunity for us to examine our consciences on this foundational aspect of our life in Christ.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.