Knowing What We Are Doing

September 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, along with their date, location and number since our ordination Mass. 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 faithful have this awareness and appreciation. Only 50 percent 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 percent 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 percent who actually believe the Church's teaching that the Eucharist actually is Jesus.

In my last column, I reflected on where, I think, this grave crisis in Eucharistic faith originated and on ten practices I believe would help us know, love and live this faith better. Everything begins, however, 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 that knowledge for granted. Without this basic understanding, 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 transform 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.

We do not have to reinvent the wheel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 1374-80, presents succinctly what we believe about the Eucharist. It underlines, "In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained. This presence is called 'real' ... because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present." The Eucharist is not a symbol, but truly Jesus.

The Catechism defines transubstantiation -- a term that many of the Catholics surveyed couldn't define -- as the "conversion of the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood," saying, "It has always been the conviction of the Church ... that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation." This term was first used in the 12th century by the future Pope Alexander III to describe how after the consecration, the whole substance of the bread and wine are changed into Jesus while the appearances of bread and wine -- their size, extent, weight, shape, color, taste, smell -- are preserved miraculously by God. "The Eucharistic presence of Christ," it continues, "endures as long as the Eucharistic [appearances] subsist," and for that reason it is fitting that we adore and love him, bring him to the sick and pray before him in the tabernacle.

The Catechism then turns from the "that" of the Eucharist to the "why."

"It is highly fitting," it says, "that Christ should have wanted to remain present to his Church in this unique way. Since Christ was about to take his departure from his own in his visible form, he wanted to give ushis sacramental presence, ...the memorial of the love with which he loved us 'to the end,' even to the giving of his life. In his Eucharistic presence he remains mysteriously in our midst ... under signs that express and communicate this love." What Jesus ultimately wants is an encounter: "Jesus," it emphasizes, "awaits us in this sacrament of love."

In teaching about Jesus' Real Presence, I have always found it helpful to ponder his words in Capernaum (Jn 6:22-69). There he identified himself as the "Real Manna" and the "Bread of Life" and underlined, "My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains and me and I in him." Many disciples -- not strangers, but those who already believed in him -- responded, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?," and many of them left. They were probably disgusted, thinking that Jesus was speaking like a cannibal. Jesus then turned to his closest followers, the apostles, and asked whether they too would leave. Peter spoke up and gave the fundamental principle of Eucharistic faith: "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God." He had no better idea of how Jesus would give his flesh and blood to consume than the departing disciples did, but because he believed in Jesus, he believed in what he said. The Church's Eucharistic faith is based directly on our trust in Jesus.

Jesus' words about how we would eat his flesh and drink his blood would finally make better sense a year later, when during the Last Supper, Jesus would take bread and wine, change it into his body and blood, and say, "Take and eat," "Take and drink." He kept the appearances of bread and wine, it seems, so that we would not be nauseated eating something that looked like human body parts rather than something reminiscent of normal food. They knew, however, that he who had changed water into wine in Cana was certainly capable of changing wine into blood. They would then become ministers of that miracle.

Today, September 6, I have the awesome privilege of being Christ's instrument to bring about that wondrous transubstantiation for the 10,000th time -- as I continue to strive to know what I'm doing and imitate what I'm celebrating.

- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.