The Mystery of Faith

When I was in Italy recently, Premier Berlusconi rather dramatically begged his bishop to allow him and other divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. Since the request was public, it drew a public response, from Pope Benedict XVI, no less. The Pope reminded the Premier of the requirements for receiving the Eucharist and then added a consoling pastoral suggestion. One unworthy to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist because of serious sin should make what used to be called a spiritual communion, expressing a longing for the sacrament, which longing, the Pope added, can itself be salvific.

I returned to find that Sally Quinn had caused a flap by writing of her own defiant reception of the Eucharist at the funeral of Tim Russert, an act she seemed to view as a means of getting in touch with her departed colleague.

Who has not felt unease at such discussions? Some demands that priests slam the ciborium shut on politicians who are in public and flagrant opposition to the teachings of the Church sound a bit pharisaical, as if the demanders were pronouncing themselves unlike the rest of men. As the Pope pointed out, the conditions for reception of Communion are what they are and cannot be waived for sentimental reasons. For all that, his addendum supplies what is often the missing ingredient in such discussions, namely the attitude of anyone who can in conscience receive: O Lord, I am not worthy.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of sacraments, one in which faith requires a suspension of disbelief in the very senses, as Thomas Aquinas wrote in his magnificent Eucharistic hymn.


In cruce latebat sola Deitas;
At hic latet simul et humanitas

Contemporaries of the Incarnate God, saw and heard a man and believed that He was divine, but in the Eucharist the very humanity of Jesus is hidden under the appearance of bread and wine. “On the cross only His divinity was hidden, but here His humanity too is invisible.”

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur;
Sed audito sola tuto creditur

Here all the senses save hearing fail us and faith clings to the promissory words: This is my Body, this is my Blood. No wonder the Eucharist is called the mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith par excellence.

The Eucharist is the greatest stumbling block to faith. When Jesus announced that only by eating His body and drinking His blood could one be saved, many who had hitherto followed Him found the saying too hard, and went away. In the Mass of old, now coming back, the priest prior to consuming the Host, prayed that his reception of the body of the Lord would not be a judgment and condemnation of him. It is a solemn, awful thing to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist. It should be done in fear and trembling. All venial sins are removed by the reception of Communion, but who goes forward without a load of sin and imperfection on his soul? Saint Teresa of Avila had a vision of a priest saying Mass in a state of mortal sin; she saw frightful demons squirming around the priest and altar. Such a priest can say a valid Mass, of course, it is the deed done not the personal doer that is efficacious; ex opere operato, as we used to say, dropping into Latin for the occasion.

In recent years, the distribution of Communion has lost its reverence. Extraordinary ministers, as they are called – and are, in several senses – insist on eye contact with the recipient and fix him with a manic smile. One might uncharitably describe this as the Sally Quinn smile. The merriment of the occasion may of course be spiritual joy but one does wish that the minister acted a little less like someone out of Mother Goose serving up a sugar plum. Doubtless I am being pharisaical.

Some years ago the gifted philosopher Anthony Kenny wrote of his loss of faith and consequent leaving of the priesthood. The great stumbling block was the Eucharist. He could no longer believe that the bread he held became the body and blood of Jesus when he said the words of consecration. It was a tragic moment. The reader feels the profound pathos of his realization. Coming to disbelieve what one has believed is as solemn as faith itself. And that is as it should be.

By contrast, Padre Pio went into ecstasy while saying Mass. He became for many a necessary reminder of what is going on when, in the theological phrase, the priests confects the Eucharist.

I knew a woman who, throughout her life, attended Mass faithfully yet never received Communion. She held back because she was in a condition like Premier Berlusconi’s. She was my mother-in-law. It is easy for me to believe that her attitude when staying in her pew was, as the Pope suggests, salvific.


Ralph McInerny (1929-2010)

Ralph McInerny was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.