On Sept. 6, I had the privilege to offer Mass for the 10,000th time as a priest. It’s a great source of thanksgiving for me.
Sometimes people are surprised when other priests or I mention exactly how many Masses we have celebrated, as if, on the positive side, we might have the world’s greatest memory or, on the negative side, we might be neurotically obsessed about details.
But there’s a practical reason we know. When priests are ordained, most of us get a book to record the Masses people ask us to pray for their intentions. One part of the book has the Mass requests to which we’ve committed, and the other records the Masses we’ve actually fulfilled. This is so if we die suddenly, another priest, finding the book, can celebrate the Masses we were not able to, fulfilling our duty to those who gave the stipends.
There’s a spiritual reason, however, why this is a good practice. Priests are called to celebrate each Mass as if it were their first, their last and their only. Each Mass is meant to be cherished, because in each we engage in what our faith teaches us is the most important event that happens that day in the world, when the Son of God miraculously becomes incarnate on the altar.
Such an approach toward Jesus’ self-giving in the Eucharist is not just for priests. When I prepare young people for their first Holy Communion, I emphasize that the most important aspect of the experience is not the “first” but the “Communion.” I tell them that the “second” is just as important, as is every subsequent Communion.
Once in a while one of them will come to me some time later and say something moving like, “Father, today is my 100th Holy Communion!” Such a comment reveals the type of eagerness and appreciation for the Gift and the Giver that all believers should have when approaching Holy Communion. Whether or not they keep track, it shows how precious each Mass is.
The recent Pew Research Center study about U.S. Catholics demonstrated that we have much work to do to ensure that priests and the faithful have this awareness and appreciation. Only 50% of U.S. Catholics said that they knew the Church’s teaching that after the consecration, the bread and wine are totally changed into Jesus’ body and blood.
Even among that 50% of those who were aware of the Church’s teaching, a third said that they still regarded the Eucharist as a symbol, leaving only 31% who actually believe the Church’s teaching that the Eucharist actually is Jesus.
Everything begins with knowing clearly what we profess to be doing during Mass. At his ordination, a priest kneels before the bishop who says, as he places a paten and chalice in the baby priest’s hands, “Accept from the holy People of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate.”
It is key for priests to recognize the supernaturally profound reality of what they are doing in the celebration of the Mass and to help the People of God recognize it, too. The Pew Research Center’s study shows that we cannot take knowledge for granted. Without this basic knowledge, we cannot imitate the mystery of the Mass and “do this” in Jesus’ memory. Without it we won’t grasp who it is we receive and how he wishes in the Holy Eucharist to transform us — and, through us, the world.
Therefore, now is the time for bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, parents, godparents, writers and all those with the responsibility to pass on the faith to articulate with clarity and conviction the Church’s Eucharistic faith.
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