Homily of Bishop Boyce, OCD, Bishop of Raphoe, Knock Novena, Saturday 18 August
Homily of Bishop Philip Boyce, OCD, Bishop of Raphoe, Knock Novena
The Eucharist as Prayer
“Not even in Israel have I found such faith”
The Gospel passage we have listened to reminds us of an all-important attitude of soul we should have when we assist at Mass or kneel in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. That disposition of mind and heart is one of faith. Like the Roman centurion, faith makes us aware of the God into whose presence we enter. It gives us a realisation of unworthiness and reverence before what is holy and sacred. It blossoms into deep trust in God and expresses itself in a spoken or silent petition for a favour we cannot procure by our own resources. In other words, each Mass should be for us an experience of faith, an experience of God, a prayer.
This is first of all an internal reality of mind, heart and soul. It reflects itself externally in gestures and postures of the body. It includes making the sign of the Cross at the beginning of Mass or at the final blessing; standing to hear the Gospel proclaimed, sitting to listen to the Readings of God’s word or the homily; genuflecting on entering or leaving the Church; bowing the head at the name of Jesus or Mary or of the Saint of the day; and kneeling at the more solemn parts of the celebration, as a sign of reverence, humility and submission. What the soul experiences, the body expresses in visible actions and postures. If it were an earthly king or queen we were to meet, there would be protocol, forms of address and codes of behaviour. How much more so when we enter the presence of the King and Creator of heaven and earth. As the present Holy Father writes: “Amid the legitimate diversity of signs used in the context of different cultures, everyone should be able to experience and express the awareness that at each [Eucharistic] celebration we stand before the infinite majesty of God, who comes to us in the lowliness of the sacramental signs” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 65).
All this means that the Mass has to be a prayer for each person. Although fine music, splendid choirs and liturgical grandeur are important in their own way, their scope is to enable people to pray and to experience the living God. Prayer gets us into contact with Christ. It is a meeting with him in the darkness of faith but nevertheless in spirit and in truth. Our faith it is that assures us that we are in the presence of the Lord, even though we do not see him.
“To contemplate Christ involves being able to recognize him wherever he manifests himself, in his many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of his body and his blood” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 6). This is true for all who are present at Mass with a living faith. In a certain sense they experience something of what the two disciples lived on their journey to Emmaus on the evening of Christ’s Resurrection: “their eyes were opened and they recognized him…Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:31-32). All this means that we must pray the Mass, make the Eucharist for ourselves a personal and living prayer. For as the Papal Legate, Cardinal Ouellet, said in the homily at the Opening Mass for the Eucharistic Congress: “The greatest and most sublime prayer ever known to the world (is) the Holy Eucharist.” However, as always when we go to pray, we have to prepare ourselves to enter into the presence of God.
Indeed, if Christ has little or no place in our daily lives, we cannot expect to have a revelation of him when we come to Mass. We are the same people kneeling in the pew as we were before we entered the church. A good faith-inspired life prepares us to get a lot out of the Holy Eucharist. But the very fact of recollecting our thoughts and acknowledging our sins in the Penitential Act at the start of Mass helps to prepare us for the Holy Eucharist.
Another obstacle to making the Mass a meaningful personal prayer can be habit or routine when one attends regularly. For this reason Blessed John Paul II asked us, priests and lay faithful, to rekindle a sense of amazement at this great mystery. For if we lose completely this attitude of wonder and awe, the Readings and prayers of the Mass can become a pure habit or routine. When an experience is new, it seems fresh and full of interest. When it is repeated many times, it can easily become burdensome and boring. The same can be quite true for the Mass, whether you are standing at the altar facing the people or in the congregation looking towards the celebrant. For the texts and prayers are more or less the same, the parts of the Mass follow the same pattern, the priest in the parish is often the same for years. This unchanging repetition can dull the sense of admiration and interest. It needs a spirit of prayer and lively faith to counteract the listlessness of weekly or daily custom.
We cannot hope to have new and creative initiatives at every celebration. There may well be some novelty at the Holy Week and Easter vigil celebration, at Confirmation or Ordination ceremonies, but our souls are not enlivened only by new and stimulating experiences, just as our bodies cannot live on dainties and liqueurs. They need plain and nourishing food. At Mass, too, we do not seek new experiences, but the deepening of the one experience of faith and prayer. After all, the Risen Lord whom we meet and receive at each Mass is always new and fresh. We too are different at each Eucharistic celebration, for at each meeting with him, he changes us more and more into himself and deepens our union with each other. The main effect of the Eucharist, as we repeatedly heard at the recent Eucharistic Congress is communion with Christ and with one another. And that is never the same from one day to another. It is a continuously deepening process.
If we are to break the monotony of repetition we must make the Mass a living prayer that is sustained by an ardent faith. Then we have that full and authentic participation by all who are present at the Eucharistic Sacrifice, something eagerly desired by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. This active participation “does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration” but to “a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life.” The Church asks the faithful to take part in the Eucharist “not as strangers or silent spectators” but as participants in the sacred action who do so “actively and devoutly, and with an awareness of the mystery that is being celebrated” (cf. Sacramentum Caritatis, No. 52).
If our faith made us more aware of whose presence we are in when we pray at Mass or at a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, our preparation and attitude would be changed. It is said that Matt Talbot would wash at the water tap in the yard and tidy up after his day’s work. Any spots or stains on his clothes would be washed off for he wanted to be clean for his visit to the Blessed Sacrament on his way home. Saint Teresa, the great Mistress of prayer, asks us to “try to consider and to realise with whom we are speaking at prayer”, and since he is all-powerful to ask him for things that are of great value, for “it would be insulting a great emperor to ask him for a cent”(Way of Perfection, 42, 4. Escorial.).
The holy Eucharistic celebration is a time of sublime prayer. There we find ourselves in the presence of the Crucified and Risen Saviour. He speaks to us through the proclamation of his inspired word; he invites us to offer ourselves with him, the Immaculate Victim, to the Father; he feeds us and changes us into himself in Holy Communion; he sends us forth to announce the gospel by our lives.
Our prayer at Mass is a profession of our faith. The prayer of the Church in the texts of the Mass corresponds to and faithfully reflects what she believes in faith (lex orandi, lex credendi. Cf. CCC 1124). That same faith teaches us that the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and its sacramental renewal on the altar are one and the same, differing only in the manner of their offering and that as a result, the Mass contains all the principal forms of prayer: a sacrifice of praise and adoration, thanksgiving, petition and satisfaction. At Mass, we are led into this great prayer of the Church and we are asked to make it our own. There we express the most sublime attitudes of prayer: praise of the Most High; intercession for all the members of the Church, both living and dead; confession of faith; offering of ourselves to God; reparation for our sins. It is the source and norm of all authentic prayer. No other prayer equals it.
The highest form of prayer is praise and adoration. Above all other types of prayer, praise is the most eminent one in the Holy Mass. We have a wonderful example in the Gloria which is a very ancient hymn of the early Church. It opens with the song of the angels on the night that Christ was born at Bethlehem. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.” The praise of God is repeated giving the impression that we cannot find enough words to express adequately his greatness and glory: “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory.” Our attention is taken away from ourselves and we give the praise to God, to whom all praise belongs. We do not praise him simply for the benefits we receive from him, but purely for being what he is.
“We are happy to be allowed to praise his glory. For this reason, a hymn such as the Gloria has such wonderful power to free us from our narrow selfishness and to bring us all together on a higher plane” (Jungmann).
Moreover, we thank him again and again for being chosen to be his children, “giving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you” (Euch. Prayer, II). The Preface at each Mass is an exclamation of gratitude for the unbelievable vocation that is ours, as sons and daughters of the Father and co-heirs to glory with Christ. It begins with the words: “It is indeed right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God”. All we can do is to thank him again and again. Indeed the very meaning of the word Eucharist is thanksgiving.
The marvellous deeds of the Lord in working out our salvation are recalled with gratitude. The saving Passion and wondrous Resurrection and Ascension of Christ into heaven are brought to mind. As we look forward to Christ’s second coming we offer the Father in thanksgiving the holy and living sacrifice of the Eucharist.
Our petition and intercession for others was expressed in the Prayers of the Faithful, but it also forms part of the Eucharistic Prayers. There we ask to be made ourselves an eternal offering to the Father; we implore the protection of Our Lady, the Saints and Martyrs; we ask for the gift of peace and reconciliation for the world; we pray for all members of the Church, mentioning the Pope and local Bishop by name. We pray for all bishops and members of the clergy and the entire people redeemed by Christ. We remember all the faithful departed, and at times some of them by name.
As the Mass is the one single sacrifice of Christ, differing only in the manner of offering, if makes reparation to God for the sins of all the living and the dead. As we prepare to receive in Holy Communion the fruit of the sacrifice, the priest says: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” At Mass we are reconciled to the Father who was offended by our may sins and infidelities.
At the centre of every Eucharist we have the great Prayer of the Church which is the Canon of the Mass or the Eucharistic Prayer. It is an effort to lead us into the mystery of faith that is being celebrated, in so far as human words can do so. It expresses the awareness we have of owing God all adoration and praise, for he is our Creator and Saviour. This prayer comes to a mighty crescendo of praise when the celebrant sums it all up in the solemn expression of high praise to God in what is called the Doxology: “Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.” The “Amen” at this moment is a thunderous expression by all the people, their signature of acceptance to all that was expressed in the Eucharistic Prayer, their ownership of all that was said and done, and of all the glory, thanks, petition and expiation offered to God.
We then pray together the most excellent of prayers, the one the Lord Jesus himself taught us: “The Our Father.” It sums up all we could and should ask for about God himself and ourselves. It is an excellent preparation for Holy Communion, where our prayer turns into silent adoration as we receive the very Body and Blood of Christ and not simply holy Bread or a nourishing symbol of his presence. We are closely united with him with whom we shall be united for eternity.
And in every Mass before we receive the Lord in Holy Communion, the Church puts on our lips those words of the pagan Centurion who displayed such trust and reverence before Christ: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” If these words come from our heart and we make the prayers and actions of the Eucharist our own, then our lives become more spiritual and the Mass becomes a prayer for us.
The Holy Eucharist is the Church’s greatest prayer and greatest treasure. We are not so much obliged as privileged to go to Mass on the Lord’s day. And our prayer should not end abruptly with the final dismissal: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life”. Some moments of quiet personal prayer should follow during which we think of the drama of salvation at which we were present, the benefits we received and the Divine Guest who came among his people and into our own souls as the food of immorality and the bond that deepens our Communion with God and with one another.
• This homily was delivered on Saturday 18 August as part of the National Public Novena in Honour of Our Lady of Knock
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