Our central act of worship does not take place in a quiet sanctuary apart from the world, nor are we sent back into the ‘real’ world fortified by the medicine of immortality at the end of Mass. Rather, during theMass our world is altogether present and more real than at any other time in our life. As Padre Pio said, "It would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do without Holy Mass."
In 18th century Ireland, the Catholic church was being suppressed by various Penal Laws, and public ceremonies involving Catholic priests, were banned. Catholic churches had been either destroyed or given to the Church of Ireland. Denied the outright practice of their faith, Irish Catholics remained faithful to the celebration of the Mass as two new traditions emerged: the Mass at the rock and the Station Mass.
The Mass at the rock took place in the open countryside, at a designated spot marked by a rock. The priest arrived in disguise and placed the sacred vessels on the rock while assigned locals kept a look-out from vantage points in the landscape in order to spot any approaching English militia. To be caught would be to die. There are, in fact, still hundreds of Mass rocks dotting the countryside, particularly in the west of Ireland. To this day, the Mass on the rock is still celebrated once a year at various Mass rock sites in Ireland, usually in the summer due to better weather. During the COVID-19 lockdown, some people in Ireland began returning to the Mass rocks to pray while the churches up and down the country were closed. This year, in fact, Easter Sunday Mass at dawn was celebrated at a Mass rock on Achill Island, overlooking Keem bay, in the west of Ireland.
An alternative to Mass at the rock, were Masses said in people’s homes, called station Masses. Word was put out locally that Mass would be said in a particular house on a particular day. The neighbors would gather for what was often their only opportunity to be at Mass for a long time. Because it was not safe for the priest to carry sacred vessels or vestments with him on his journeys, these were taken care of by the local people, and passed from house to house as needed. The people of Ireland knew the value of the Mass. For them, the Eucharist was the bread of life sustaining and nourishing them in the midst of their trials and sufferings. This tradition is still honored today with Masses in different parishioners’ houses twice a year.
Every once in a while, we get to participate in a station Mass either in our own home or at a friend’s house, where the priest comes to offer a Mass with and for the family. For me, the kitchen is the best room in the entire home, because it is a place of warmth and welcome where families are fed and bonds are strengthened. The kitchen table, the table of family life, becomes the table of divine life. The table forbreakfasts and dinners becomes the table for the Eucharistic meal. Something familiar becomessomething extraordinary, and this is exactly what Jesus did at the Last Supper. He took what was ordinary and made it into something extraordinary. He took the ordinary food of bread and wine and transformed that bread and wine into his body and blood. Food for the body became food for the Soul.
Sadly, there are more Catholics today who no longer believe that Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, than those who do. Yet, the real presence is a long-standing belief in our Church, as old as our belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Our Church reminds us that outwardly nothing appears different.The consecrated Bread still appears as it was before, and the consecrated Wine still has all the appearances of wine. But it is our faith that tells us that Christ is truly and wholly present in a real and substantial way.
Yet, trying to explain this mystery of the real presence is like trying to explain a beautiful sunset. If you see the sun setting over the horizon, on a beautiful summer's evening at the beach, you are filled with a sense of awe and mystery. You feel connected to something greater than yourself. When you try to explain what it was like and how you felt, even if you show people a picture of the sunset, you find that not only your words, but even the picture falls far short, and cannot describe the ineffable. Explaining the real presence to those who do not have faith is like trying to describe a sunset to the blind.
Theme in Our Life
The Second Vatican Council taught us that the Eucharistic Liturgy “is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life.” (Lumen Gentium, 11). In 1997, Cardinal Bernardin spoke of the dismissal at the end of Mass as similar to the breaking of the bread. “We have become ‘the bread of life’ and the ‘cup of blessing’ for the world. Now we are scattered, broken, poured out to be life for the world.” (Guide for the Assembly, 23). Pope John Paul II called “The dismissal at the end of each Mass … a charge given to Christians, inviting them to work for the spread of the Gospel and the imbuing of society with Christian values.” (Mane Nobiscum Domine, 24, October 7, 2004). In his May 3, 2009, homily for the Ordination Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Eucharistic Celebration is the greatest and highest act of prayer and constitutes the center and the source from which even the other forms receive "nourishment": the Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharistic adoration, Lectio divina, the Holy Rosary, meditation.”
So, when Mass is over and we leave the Church, we do not stop to pick up our lives that we left at the Church doors. Rather, we go forth and become the Body of Christ to others. We witness to the presence of Christ in who we are and in what we say and do. We bring Christ to our kitchen tables so that we can look at those who sit there in a new way. We bring Christ into our businesses and our everyday dealings with people. We bring Christ into our care for the elderly and our guidance of the young. We bring Christ into the situations where we should stand up for the weak and challenge injustice. The question is, “If we don’t witness to the presence of Christ in the person who stands before us, how can we say that we know the Christ who is present to us in his Body and Blood?”
Preparing for Sunday
Each Eucharistic Liturgy we have attended in our lives is connected to the one supreme and heavenly banquet. During the recessional, we are sent forth into our little slice of the world to sanctify our family and neighbors, enemies and friends, business associates, and everyone we meet, in preparation for the processional of our next Eucharistic Liturgy. If we are serious about the real presence in the Eucharist, we need to ask ourselves, “Since our last Eucharistic Liturgy, have we witnessed to Christ in our words and actions?” Padre Pio said, "It would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do without Holy Mass," because he understood this reality.