Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
He is the expiation for our sins,
and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
I have some really good news for you about Holy Mass and Communion. At first what I say may seem a little tough or sad, but read on to the end and you will be encouraged!
Not long before his death, the emperor Napoleon was in exile on the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic. He was asked by a guest which day had been the happiest in his life. He’d had, of course, many stunning military victories and had been made emperor of the French in Notre Dame by Pope Pius VII, but he had also persecuted the Church and spread the French Revolution across Europe. He did not choose any day of public triumph; he simply, replied: “The happiest day of my life was the day of my First Communion.”
Some years before at his coronation as emperor, he was asked if he would receive Holy Communion from the hand of the pope at the Mass of coronation. He replied then, “No. I do not believe completely, but I believe enough not to commit a sacrilege.”
When was the last time you went to Mass and saw any noticeable number of the faithful not receiving Holy Communion? My guess is that if you are over seventy you might remember such a scene.
Frequent and even daily Communion is highly recommended by the Church; of this there can be no doubt. Yet, as a priest, I sometimes have the impression that receiving Communion has now become an automatic gesture, an expectation, and that few if any of the faithful have been taught to examine themselves to see if they are really disposed to receive.
For someone who is conscious of grave sin, or who simply has not prepared or is not recollected, abstaining from Holy Communion can, in fact, show a true faith and awareness of the great dignity of this sacrament. When such a person abstains from receiving, he shows more reverence and honor to Our Lord than someone who simply receives out of habit or routine or human respect. To such a one I say, “When was the last time you went to confession or examined your conscience before God?”
Napoleon showed more love for the Holy Eucharist by not receiving without absolution from his many and grave sins than many who receive and think that the sacrament is some kind of human right that no one can deny them. And this love was rewarded by his sincere repentance and death in the Church he had first followed and then had persecuted.
Now for even happier news: many people have the impression that if they do not receive Communion that they have not really participated fully in the Holy Mass. But this is not so. The Holy Eucharist in the Mass is different from all the other sacraments in that it is conferred not just on single individuals (or a couple, in matrimony), but rather it is a universal sacrament because it is a universal sacrifice. Let’s see what St. Thomas Aquinas says about this:
The usefulness of this sacrament is universal because the life it gives is not only the life of one person, but, so far as concerns itself, the life of the entire world: and for this the death of Christ is fully sufficient. “He is the offering for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the entire world” (1 John 2:2). We should note that this sacrament is different from the others: for the other sacraments have individual effects: as in baptism, only the one baptized receives grace. But in the immolation of this sacrament, the effect is universal: because it affects not just the priest, but also those for whom he prays, as well as the entire Church, of the living and of the dead. The reason for this is that it contains the universal cause of all the sacraments, Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI underlined this truth some years ago when he pointed out that those who for whatever reason cannot receive at a given celebration still share fully in it because the Mass is a sacrifice offered for all. Holy Communion is an ideal way to share in the sacrifice, but not receiving does not mean that one is not sharing in the sacrament, because for a baptized Christian intentionally participating at the Mass it is impossible not to share in the sacrament insofar as it is the sacrifice of Christ offered for all.
What grace can we not implore as we offer up with the priest the very body and blood of the Lord? The Eucharist is nothing other than the application of the power of Christ’s saving Passion to us. What can we not hope for if we bring to God this offering? The fact is we do not have enough of a sense of the power and effectiveness of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The sacrament of the altar is not just about me, it is about the whole world. That is why St. Thomas uses St. John’s wonderful and assuring words from his first letter to illustrate the infinite extent of the power of the Holy Mass. This power goes way beyond any individual’s Communion and reaches from earth to heaven and to purgatory.
If we find ourselves in need of a deeper repentance by confession before receiving, that is a good thing; but in the meantime, our worship at the Mass is still a thing of incomparable power for our consolation and conversion of heart.
Would that all Catholics today had at least the little bit of faith that led the revolutionary emperor to assist at Mass without receiving. Then, little by little, they might begin to comprehend the greatness of the gift which the Savior’s goodness lays before them.