As I mentioned in my bulletin article for last week, it is my plan to dedicate the next several articles to the Eucharist, given our Sunday Gospel readings from the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6. In particular, we will look to some of the Eucharistic reflections of our recent popes as they offer us some helpful insights into this great gift that Christ has left His Church.
It seems fitting to begin our series with our current Holy Father, Pope Francis. As you likely know, an important theme for his pontificate has been mercy. In one of his early statements about the Church, he spoke of the Church as a field hospital where those who are sick can come to encounter the healing offered through Jesus Christ. An important medicine that the Church administers to aid in that healing is the Eucharist. In his document Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), he wrote the following: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” (EG, 47)
Every one of us is weak in some way, thus we are all in need of the healing medicine that comes to us in the Eucharist. This is an important reality to keep in mind when we come to Mass. The Lord invites us to acknowledge our woundedness, where we are in need of healing, and invite His grace into those wounds to restore us by His strength. Unfortunately, many have taken the words of Pope Francis to conclude that there is no reason that a person should not be able to receive the Eucharist. For example, if somebody has committed a mortal sin, there is no reason they should not be able to receive the Eucharist, for they are in need of God’s healing grace more than anybody, right? But is that really what the Holy Father is saying?
Jesus says the following in the Gospel on this point: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32) Jesus is constantly preaching the important of repentance, which is turning away from sin and toward the life of grace. If there is no willingness to change one’s ways, will this medicine truly be of benefit? Mark Brumley, the CEO of Ignatius Press, in a column he wrote offers the following helpful clarification:
When Catholic Tradition understands the Eucharist as medicine for the soul, it does not mean the Eucharist heals even when the sinner clings to his sin. The Eucharist isn’t magic. It heals repentant sinners — people who have been raised to life in Christ through grace, even while they still struggle to grow in that life. We may fall into serious sin and cut ourselves off from spiritual life for a time, but through the gift of repentance — especially through the gift of the sacrament of reconciliation — the Spirit restores us to life in Christ.
There is nothing to suggest that Pope Francis is proposing anything contrary to this above point, but we all know how sound bites can take on a life of their own. When we look at his words through the eyes of the tradition of the Church, we can appreicate how his words are not at odds at all with the need to be in a state of grace to receive the Eucharist, which is to have repented of any serious sin through sacramental confession and to desire to remain in relationship with Jesus. Being in the state of grace is far from being perfect, for none of us will ever be able to achieve that status in this life, thus our need for His grace that comes to us in this powerful medicine that nourishes us in our weakness.