A wise, elderly priest once celebrated an early morning Mass. Later that day someone asked him, “How many attended Mass this morning?,” and he answered, “There were thousands there—but I only saw three of them.” In other words, in addition to the three early-birds in attendance, the priest was including the thousands of souls from purgatory allowed by God to be present at this Mass, along with a multitude of invisible but very real angels and saints, especially Our Lady, St. Joseph, and St. Michael the Archangel. We don’t see everything that’s going on at Mass, and we would be overwhelmed and amazed if we could. Many deceased persons being cleansed and healed in purgatory are allowed to be present, especially if the Mass is being offered for them, and especially if they had a great devotion to the Eucharist during their lives. Quite often there are priests suffering in purgatory who, through the mercy of God, are allowed to stand behind the altar and concelebrate. They’re often filled with regret that during their lives they were rushed or distracted while saying Mass, and now are very grateful that the Lord is allowing them to see and share in the Holy Sacrifice from a new and richer perspective.
Far more often than we realize, persons in Heaven—especially the loved ones of those present in the congregation—are here with us in church, filling the pews and worshipping the Lord. At the Offertory, when the gifts of bread and wine are brought forward, an invisible offertory procession is also taking place. The guardian angels of every person present in church are bringing forth gifts of love and trust and self-surrender—except some of these angels are empty-handed, because the human beings entrusted to their care are only physically present in church, with their hearts and attention elsewhere. How sad these empty-handed angels appear. All these things are happening, unseen by us, because of the Divine Presence of Jesus Himself. He is robed in glory and seated on a heavenly throne above and behind the altar, and then—at the moment of consecration, when the bread and wine are changed into His Body and Blood—He comes down and stands in place of the priest, with holy light and fire radiating outward and filling the church. At the Lamb of God He appears as the perfect Lamb Who was slain for our salvation—and then, at the moment of Holy Communion, He appears as the Christ Child, held by the Virgin Mary. As each person comes forth to receive, He either reaches out to embrace those who approach Him in a state of grace, or shudders in horror at having to let Himself by consumed by someone in a state of serious sin. During the silent time of prayer following Communion—a moment when Jesus wants us to be intimately aware of our union with Him—He is either pleased when we take the time to thank Him, or saddened when we devote all our prayer to asking favors of Him, without first expressing our gratitude to Him for coming to us in this great Sacrament.
According to many visionaries and prophets, all these things happen at every Mass— something impossible if Holy Communion were merely bread and wine. Our active participation in the Mass is the closest we can come to Heaven while still on earth, for the Eucharist truly is Christ’s Body and Blood, and a foretaste of the new life awaiting us.
Only the Catholic Church, and also the Orthodox Church, truly have the Eucharist, for only they have the line of apostolic succession stretching all the way back to the apostles, who were ordained by Jesus Himself. This means the communion services of other Christian denominations, regardless of what their ministers and people think, merely involve bread and wine; even worse, Catholics who leave the Church for another religion are depriving themselves of the True Bread from Heaven, and are—despite what they may feel—making it harder for themselves to accept the gift of salvation and fulfill their mission in life. St. Paul speaks of how, through the Eucharist, we are to proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes—and only the Catholic Church is able to do this in the fullest way possible. The bread and wine brought forth by Melchizedek, and the bread and fish multiplied by Jesus, were forerunners or signs of what the Lord miraculously accomplishes at every Catholic Mass. He shares Himself with us in a holy, wondrous, and infinite way—and it’s our responsibility never to take this gift for granted.
Our First Communion Mass was held a few weeks ago, and afterwards I asked some of the children to describe what it was like for them. Here are a few of their comments. A girl wrote, “It was special to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus . . . [and] I want to do it again. . . .” Another girl, after saying how happy she was, added, “It was a very special day for everybody in church.” A boy mentioned he was happy not only because his family was present, but especially because he was able to receive Jesus for the first time, and a girl said, “I felt really happy . . . and I felt like Jesus was in me.” According to one very perceptive boy, “When I received the Body and Blood of Christ it reminded me of Jesus dying on the Cross.” Another boy wrote he was nervous at first, but that after receiving Communion, “I felt so awesome!” (He also remarked that during the photographs outside church after Mass, “they took so many my face started to hurt.”) A girl said that she was nervous about singing with her class up front by the altar after Communion, but that “receiving Jesus was not scary.” Another very insightful young lady wrote that after Communion “I was in a holy, calm, and quiet place like Heaven.” A girl wrote that receiving her First Communion “made me feel closer to Jesus, and it makes me want to go to church every weekend!” Lastly, her twin brother exclaimed, “The Eucharist is one of my favorite sacraments, and I’m glad to be Catholic!”
These are all very simple, holy, and inspired comments about a Sacrament we can so easily take for granted—and so the Church is prudent and wise to observe this Solemnity of Corpus Christi every year, for we can all benefit from being reminded of the wondrous Mystery and tremendous Gift that has been entrusted to us. The Eucharist is not imaginary or symbolic, but actually is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, and It’s not supposed to be received in a routine or half-hearted way—and certainly never while in a state of serious sin. Instead, we must approach the altar with as much love, gratitude, and awareness as possible—for this is how we open our hearts to Jesus our Savior, and prepare ourselves for that day when He will welcome us into His Kingdom.
This essay initially appeared at Catholic Journal