Eucharistia means good favor or good grace or good thanks. The mystery of the Holy Eucharist is that by which the God whose delight is to be with the children of men has contrived to remain always with us in via as His unspeakable Gift to us and, at the same time, our most worthy Gift back to Him. In chapters four and five of his book Bread of Life, Father Leonard Feeney gives us the Holy Eucharist under four aspects: (1) the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; (2) the Real Presence; (3) the Blessed Sacrament; and (4) Holy Communion.
It is our hope that by here re-presenting Father’s thoughts in shortened form, our readers will come to appreciate more deeply the ardor this priest had for the Eucharist. May It become the divine obsession of our lives, just as it was for his.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
The Sacrifice of the Mass is the highest thing that the great Gift of God, the Holy Eucharist, can do. And why? Because it is more important that God honor God in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, than that I do. That God loves God is the greatest thing that can happen here on earth. And through the Holy Eucharist, the Son of God can now be offered to His Father for all of us to give God glory and honor. So the Infinite One as Man is given to His Father in thanksgiving, in praise and as a propitiation for man. We need a Divine High Priest and Victim — who is human, a God-Man — in order to atone for sin and give God proper glory. No mere human could do this. Through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, God is given divine propitiation, divine glory, and divine honor.
The act of the Holy Sacrifice is itself a great mystery. The priest begins the Mass by confessing his sins, but as he approaches the consecration, Father Feeney says, he acts with a lot more confidence because very shortly he is going to speak as Christ, in persona Christi. Beginning the prayers of the Canon with the commemoration of Our Lady and the saints, he then prepares the gifts of bread and wine that they may become right and acceptable and approved before God. Next he recounts in narrative form Our Lord’s words of institution during the Last Supper: “On the night He was betrayed He took bread into His holy and venerable hands….” The narration stops as soon as he comes to the words of the consecration. In the traditional Mass there is a halt, and the priest bends over and whispers the sacred words in the Name of Christ. At that moment, eternity enters time. The priest acts in the Eternal Person of the Son of God. He says not, ‘This is the Body of Christ,’ but “This is My Body.”
And instantly, the greatest thing that can happen, happens: the Host is now adorable. The Body of Christ under the appearance of bread is now adorable. God can adore God. This is the unspeakable wonder that is our Catholic Mass; this is the most exalted of the four aspects of the Holy Eucharist — God giving God to God. When the priest places the consecrated Host down on the altar, It is in truth the Body of the Incarnate God that he so places. With this glorified Body goes the Blood, the Soul and the Divinity also of our Emmanuel. Nor does the marvel cease there. The priest next consecrates the wine: “This is the chalice of My Blood.” As soon as those words are uttered, the greatest thing that can happen, happens: the Wine is now adorable, and wherever the Blood of Christ goes, go also His Body, Soul and Divinity.
This is the mysterium fidei (the mystery of faith) which is proclaimed in the Canon of the Mass during the consecration of the wine. It is the same mystery of faith referred to by Saint Paul in his letter to Timothy: “Holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9). If you read the gospels, the mysterium fidei is not mentioned there. It comes from Roman tradition. It may well be that Saint Peter heard those words from Our Lord Himself at the Last Supper and included them in the Roman Canon.
The words of consecration are the most powerful thing in the world when the priest is speaking in the name of Christ. The priest in persona Christi has the power of immolation on the altar; he can mystically slay the divine Victim.
This is where Father Feeney was especially brilliant. He taught that the priest’s words — Our Lord’s words — have the power of slaying the Incarnate God on the altar. Isn’t that a tremendous truth? But it is absolutely a fact! Here we have a sacrificial scene — a mystical separation of Body and Blood — under the appearances of bread and wine. But because the Victim is immortal and can never die again — “Christ rising again from the dead, dieth now no more, death shall no more have dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9) — it is an unbloody sacrifice, as we will show in a moment. But it still must be called sacrifice, an immolation, because it is the true re-presentation (as in, literally, making present again) of Christ’s selfsame Sacrifice offered up on the Cross. It is the Sacrifice of Cross, only the manner of offering is different, as it is a “clean oblation” of the now glorified and deathless Victim, offered now through the agency of the ministerial priest, that is, a man in Holy Orders.
What prevents the Mass from being offered as a bloody sacrifice? The fact that our Lord is now in glory and can never die. His Body is immortal and glorified. When He rose from the dead, you could pass a sword through Him and there would be no separation of body from blood. “Do this in memory of Me.” Do what? Offer the Mass in memory of Him. At the Last Supper (when the Mass was instituted), Christ offered an unbloody sacrifice. The bloody sacrifice was the following day, Good Friday, and it was offered once and for all time. It is the Mass that brings us Calvary in an unbloody manner. That is the reason why we do not have a bloody sacrifice on the altar: “I am the living bread which cometh down from heaven” (John 6:51, my emphasis). So it is unbloody because of the state of glory that the Victim enjoys. But the words are still sacrificial. That is why we call it a sacrifice.
Three Prefigurements of the Holy Sacrifice
In the Canon of the Mass, in the prayer Supra quae propitio, the Church gives us three types or figures of the Holy Eucharist. First there was the sacrifice of Abel, which was bloody. Abel’s lamb was acceptable to God because he offered it with faith. Then, closer to Christ’s time, (about 2000 BC), there was the sacrifice of Abraham, which would have been bloody: Abraham was called by God to offer a living human victim, his own son, the son of promise. Isaac carried the wood up to the altar on Mount Moriah, willingly laying himself down on the wood because it was the will of his father. An angel came to prevent the hand of Abraham from slaying his son. Finally there was the sacrifice of Melchisedech, the high priest of Salem, whose unbloody offering of bread and wine was a striking prefigurment of the matter Christ used in instituting the Sacrifice of the Mass.
The priest of the New Testament, ordained in the order of Melchisedech, no longer offers cows or bulls or lambs — once a very bloody business. It was a continuous bloody mess in the temple, Brother Francis taught us. The priest of New Covenant is ordained to offer bread and wine as the acceptable sacrifice — bread and wine, that is, transubstantiated into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
There is a Jewish tradition that Melchisedech was actually Sem, the son of Noah, which would make him very old indeed when he blessed Abraham — around the age of Mathusala (969) if not older. The Jews also believe that Sem/Melchisedech received the priesthood from Noah. Therefore, it was fitting that his descendant, Abraham, paid tithes to him and showed him reverence. Saint Paul in Hebrews uses the mysterious appearance of Melchisdech as a type of Our Lord’s eternal generation, for this Old-Testament figure was “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but likened unto the Son of God, continueth a priest for ever” (Heb. 7:3).
Our priests receive the order of Melchisedech, not that of Aaron. One need not be a Levite to be a priest in this new order. No, one need not even be a Semite.
The Mass is “our sacrifice,” Father Feeney always said. “You own the Mass, this is your Mass.” He based his teaching on the prayer of the Mass, Orate fratres: “Pray, brethren, that my Sacrifice and yours be acceptable to God the Father Almighty.” Saint Peter calls us a royal priesthood, a kingly priesthood: “But you are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people” (1 Peter 2:9). We the baptized, because of our union with Christ in His Mystical Body, share in this. Now all the faithful can offer prayers and sacrifices of their own to God. The priest’s sacrifice is sacramental. By entering the Holy of Holies he alone brings God down on the altar. Once God is on the altar, I can join the priest and adore, though only the priest stands at the altar in persona Christi; through him, Christ, the Man-God offers Himself to the Father. This is why Father Feeney said that the Mass is God giving God to God. But while the priest alone enjoys this privilege, the baptized can join themselves to this sacred act and co-offer the sacrifice, hence the words at the Orate fratres.
The Real Presence
The second aspect of the Holy Eucharist is the Real Presence. This is God’s great gift to us: that we can have a locate-able God. You say, “Well, God is everywhere,” and so He is by His omnipresence. But once the priest at the consecration says, “This is My Body…This is My Blood,” we can say not only, “God is here,” but also, “God is This.” That is what we call the Real Presence. Not that God’s presence is not real in this room, or on the altar before consecration — He is really there, by His omnipresence. But this is different.
The Curé of Ars would explain it this way: “I can take Him and put Him on my left hand, I can put Him down on my right side, and there He goes. And God forbid I should drop Him on the floor…there is God, on the floor.” This is the great mystery of the Real Presence. This is why we can have Benediction and swing our censors of sweet-smelling incense. This is why we genuflect. This is why we can kneel, indeed, prostrate ourselves.
Continuing with the thought of the Curé of Ars, we can now say we have God-with-us in the consecrated Host. The prophecy concerning the Emmanuel (God with us) has been fulfilled (Isaias 7:14). We can take God, and we can “imprison” Him, as it were, in our tabernacles. We can even snub Him and forget He is there. As true Man and true God, Jesus is multi-located now in every tabernacle with consecrated Hosts, and His Sacred Heart beats within each one. We can come before Him and console Him and visit Him and bring Him our problems. No longer with just the feet of faith, which we could do with God as Spirit, but now we can approach God with our feet of flesh and bones, presenting our petitions before His Physical Presence. That is the gift of the Real Presence.
The Blessed Sacrament
The third aspect or title of the Holy Eucharist is the Blessed Sacrament. We know that a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. But what is it that makes the Blessed Sacrament a sacrament? The way Father Feeney explained it was this: The Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ would not be a sacrament if our Lord appeared in His proper visible manifestation on the altar. That would not be the Blessed Sacrament. What makes the Holy Eucharist a “blessed sacrament” is that we have Jesus under the appearances of bread and wine. We have to have an edible God that can be swallowed. You know the quote from Holy Scripture: “Except you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you shall not have life in you” (John 6:54). This Bread that came down from heaven IS meat, IS food. Jesus under the species of bread and wine, under the sacramental “veils” — that is what makes the Eucharist a sacrament. If these species are not there you may have Jesus, but you have no Blessed Sacrament.
But there is more that is necessary. The other part of the definition of the sacrament is that it is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace, and this is the Author of grace Himself; so this Sacrament must be more than a sign, because it IS what it signifies. IT IS the Body of Christ. For what purpose have we this sign? To give grace — to actually divinize us! That is the purpose of the Blessed Sacrament. “God was made man,” Saint Augustine said, “that man might be made God.”
Holy Communion is what makes us divine because here the Food is greater than the eater. By eating this Living Bread of the Eucharist we are assimilated into Christ. We don’t assimilate Christ as we would ordinary food. Christ assimilates us, hence we can say with Saint Paul, “I live now not I but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). Moreover, how could Saint Paul say that those who partake of the bread and chalice unworthily are guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ? How can that be unless the Bread is the Body and the Wine is the Blood of Christ?
It is the Author of grace Himself whom we are swallowing in the Blessed Sacrament. For this reason, there is more grace contained in the Blessed Sacrament than all the other means of grace. If we fail to profit from this Sacrament by becoming truly holy, the defect lies not with the Sacrament or the priest ministering It to us, but with us — with our preparation, our attention, and our conformity to the sublime Reality we are receiving. And that is true of those who are in the state of grace. But worse by far are those who approach to receive unworthily, in the state of mortal sin. How sad it is that the Gift given to make us “partakers of [His] divinity” too often becomes the cause of so grave a sacrilege!
A dear priest friend, Fr. Michael Jarecki, used to emphasize strongly in his sermons that whatever you do, if you are in the state of mortal sin, do not come to Holy Communion. You know you are a dog if you are in the state of mortal sin. How dare one deliberately take a holy thing and give it to a dog. One of the saints said it would be like throwing a living body into a grave.
Father Feeney said, “this little gulp is a little gulp of God.” In the Blessed Sacrament we receive God. The Protestants are scandalized and we Catholics are in awe. But it certainly gives us greater respect for our own bodies. Now we know why God designed the stomach the way He did, the throat the way He did. He had all these things in mind. He knew He was going to be placed on the tongue of Saint Thérèse, and He was going to divinize her and all the millions of saints throughout the centuries. He wanted to enter into their bodies (and ours!) for a purpose higher than anything man could have conceived apart from divine revelation. But first He must be swallowed.
When the Blessed Sacrament is swallowed, the consecrated Host remains within us for a certain amount of time, perhaps ten minutes. In that time, the innocence of our digestive system attacks the species of bread (and wine, for those who partake of the sacred chalice) just as it would ordinary food, but there is an infinite difference. When the digestive juices attack the sacramental species and destroy them, the Eucharist does not become part of our human substance. No! Here, the normal order of eater assimilating food is exactly reversed. Here, the Food is greater than the eater, and we are assimilated into Jesus through His human nature, through His Flesh and Blood. What else could happen? Would the Body and Blood of Christ be assimilated into us? God forbid!
The Mystical Body of Christ
That Our Lord becomes digestible in the Blessed Sacrament so He can assimilate us into Himself, into His living Mystical Body, is the tremendous mystery that moved Father Feeney to distinguish between a person becoming a baptized member of the Church and becoming concorporeally one with Our Lord by Holy Communion. Let me give you the wisdom of Saint John Eudes whose teaching was identical to Father Feeney, as was Saint Augustine’s:
Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, King of angels and of men, is not only your God, your Savior, and your Sovereign Lord, but is also your Head and you are “members of His Body” as Saint Paul says, “of His Flesh and of His Bones,” (Eph. 5:30). You are consequently united with Him in the most intimate union possible, that is, the union of members with their head. You are united with Him spiritually by faith and by the grace you have in your holy Baptism. You are united with Him corporeally in the union of His most sacred Body with yours in the Blessed Eucharist. It necessarily follows, just as the members are animated by the spirit of the Head and live the same life, so you must also be animated by the Spirit of Jesus, live His Life, walk His ways, be clothed with His sentiments and inclination, and perform all your actions in the dispositions and intentions that actuated His. In a word, you must carry on and perpetuate the life, religion, and devotion which He exercised upon earth.
That, says Father Feeney, is the living Mystical Body of Christ. That’s how it can be said, without fear of exaggeration, that we are almost little images of the Hypostatic Union. Our person is not absorbed, our person is not annihilated, but everything else about our human existence becomes assimilated into Christ. Everything. Of course, if my sins are wiped out, they are excluded, as are all my imperfections; but everything that God has made and that He wishes to remake in me, He assimilates into Himself through Holy Communion.
As Saint Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This is because we are all assimilated into Christ through the Eucharist in this mystical union that we call Holy Communion.
Let me end with one stanza from a poem by Father Feeney. He had such a beautiful heart for poetry and a notable talent for rhyme and meter. Some of the things he penned regarding his own priesthood, the sacramental dignity, and his love for Our Lord hidden under the Eucharist are simply sublime.
Had I a whiter host to give
In snowier garments wouldst Thou live.
Thine were a chalice rich and old
Had I a better thing than gold.
Thy wine-press would know the sweet
Warm treading of an angel’s feet.
Thy wheatfields were grown afar
In the soft meadowland of – star!
If priceless linen could I buy
Upon such linen wouldst Thou lie;
Something more virginal than bees
Would spin Thee purer lights than these.
I’d going, borrowing, take a hymn
From the white, born-singing Seraphim.
I’d plunder beauty in the night,
Star-stripping yonder worlds of light,
I’d color-strip each wondrous, rare
High-blooming, low-blooming, radiant there
Refolded flower, firm and fair
In a green-valleyed everywhere.
(Christ’s Mother! Attend this feast.
Gift-load to-day His giftless priest.)
(From In Towns and Little Towns, “A Priest’s Offertory”)