Thursday, March 28, 2013

On the Same Page - The Eucharist and the Poor

Holy Thursday

I’ve been hearing a lot of this lately from brother priests, “This new Pope doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the liturgy.” I guess this is less an observation of a fact than an analysis suggesting that there is a paradigm shift: that Pope Francis has shifted the focus away from rich elaborate liturgical celebrations of his predecessor to more realistic issues of ‘bread and butter.’ Prophets are already predicting that the Holy Father’s tendency toward simplicity will usher in the death of the Benedictine reforms in liturgy. They are quick to point out that on the day of his election, the pope said that he wanted a church that was poor and was with the poor. Applying a hermeneutics of rupture, they see this as a departure of the pious elitism of the past to a more humane solidarity with the poor and the weakest.  Add to this claim the caricature of our new Pope as a man with the following traits: no-frills simplicity, ‘get your hands dirty’ style of pastoral work; a man who is prepared to work on-the-ground. This is welcomed news for those who wish to be free of the rigours of liturgical rubrics, but instills fear and anxiety among the more liturgically nuanced.

But liturgical rubrics are the least of our problems. The above observations, unfortunately, also seem to create or assume a false dichotomy between the priesthood and the Eucharist, between the Eucharist and the Church’s option for the poor. The truth of the matter is this: there is no dichotomy, there is no contradiction, and there is no separation. It would be a mistake to presume that a profound love for the Eucharist would mean neglecting one’s social duties or even disdain for the poor. Likewise, it would be erroneous to think that one could honestly love and serve the poor, without deriving the necessary sustenance from the Eucharist. The absolute wrong response, here, is to cast off the sacred liturgy as something overblown and impractical, and a waste of resources which could be better spent on alleviating the sufferings of the poor. We must never forget that this was the ideological position of Judas too. Our celebration on Holy Thursday, however, affirms the central truth that there is no separation between the Eucharist and service of one’s neighbour, because together they articulate the two-fold dimensions of the great commandment of love. The Eucharist and the poor are inseparable. Pope Francis is certainly a Pope for the poor, but like his predecessors since time immemorial, he cannot but remain as a Pope of the Eucharist. On the day where the Church commemorates the institution of the priesthood as well as the Eucharist, the liturgy’s dramatic representation of the Last Supper shows how Jesus himself translates the Eucharist into a radical service, by washing his disciples’ feet.

Perhaps, one needs to go beyond the rhetoric that attempts to set Pope Francis diametrically against his predecessor, the eminent Benedict. The recent fraternal meeting of these two great popes has put to rest rumours that there is enmity and competition between them. In fact, there is only tenderness and fraternal charity. An archival video on YouTube shows the then Cardinal Mario Bergoglio speaking on the intrinsic link between the priesthood and the Eucharist. This certainly refutes the claims of those who wish to paint him as someone who will steer the Church away from its central emphasis on the Eucharist. I would, however, like to bring you back to the pontificate of their common predecessor, the charismatic Blessed John Paul II.  Solidarity with the poor was a major theme in the social teaching of Blessed John Paul II during his papacy, so was the Eucharist. He affirmed an intrinsic link between solidarity with the poor and the Eucharist. In the document which launched the Year of the Eucharist, John Paul wrote “The Eucharist is not merely an expression of communion in the Church’s life; it is also a project of solidarity for all of humanity.”  While highlighting the intrinsic connection between the Eucharist and the option for the poor, John Paul did not compromise on the insistence of celebrating good liturgies in accordance with the rubrics. He urged obedience of liturgical norms and suggested that every local parish use the Eucharistic year to study in depth the church's rules on proper liturgy. In 2004, he wrote to the youth on the occasion of the 19th World Youth Day: "Dear friends, if you learn to discover Jesus in the Eucharist, you will also know how to discover him in your brothers and sisters, particularly in the very poor. It is with such inner freedom and such burning charity that Jesus teaches us to find him in others, first of all in the disfigured faces of the poor.”

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta also provides a beautiful example of someone who saw no contradiction but only an integral unity between the Eucharist and solidarity with the poor. We can draw inspiration from her life and her Missionary Sisters of Charity. They became famous for simple acts of mercy among the dying poor. The healing of the poor is not the primary goal, neither is the eradication of the causes of an insufficient social system. The body of the man dying alone on the street is the sacred flesh of the crucified Christ. An intimate and mystical union between the body of Christ and the bodies of the homeless poor of the third world is recognised and revered. If someone is brought into the merciful care of the sisters and somehow escapes the shadow of death which brooded over him, there is a victory. And if he comes in and breathes his last breath holding the hand of a sister of Jesus, there is victory. The body of Jesus intertwined with that of the poor has been revered, contemplated, touched, as a priest who handles the Eucharistic species in the liturgy.

In the statutes of her order, the Missionaries of Charity, the sisters and brothers affirm that the celebration of the Eucharist is the centre of their life. “It is the highest expression and strongest support of our life. We have been called to a life which is inspired by this Sacrament. It is the beginning and end of our actions; the source and consummation of our service to God and a principle incentive to be servants of the poor. We must grow in daily knowledge of this mystery, and in a greater love of the Lord who gives Himself in it.”

Some of the Fathers of the Church, such as St. John Chrysostom, were very clear and emphatic in their pronouncements. St. John Chrysostom said: “Do you wish to honour the Body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my Body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,” and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also for me.” Hence, we see the inseparable twofold presence of Jesus, in the Bread of Life and in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.

This year’s Holy Thursday liturgy will take on an additional hue as Pope Francis celebrates it among juvenile detainees of Rome. There will be those who will read this as another radical departure from past practices, and there will also be those who recognise the Pope as merely giving flesh to another aspect of the liturgy of Holy Thursday, which has ancient roots – solidarity with the poor and the weakest. In a similar way, the foot-washing of John’s gospel merely brings out the significance of the Eucharistic ritual in Matthew, Mark and Luke; that the Eucharist means service. The former was never meant to be seen as a departure or even a correction of the latter. In approaching the liturgy, Pope Francis seems always to have in mind its connection to real effects, both in the soul but also in the flesh. Some have already acknowledged that if Benedict reclaimed the Spirit of the Liturgy, then perhaps next for the Church under the leadership of Francis is to focus on its Flesh. Pope Francis does have something to teach us, and I firmly believe it is a lesson that is much needed in the world: a call to simplicity and personal poverty.  There is blessing in simplicity, there is humility in simplicity, there is sacredness in simplicity. At the end of the day, simplicity teaches us that it’s never about choosing between good liturgy or proclaiming the good news to the poor; it’s about both!  Both Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta would be laughing at us if it were not.

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