The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic faith. It’s what makes us Catholic and makes us different from most other faiths. Also, this belief affects every aspect of our worship and it should impact how we live our life.
I'll start by giving some of my background and explaining why I am so passionate about our church and so convinced that it proclaims the truth. I'll be talking about church teaching in two areas, which initially might not seem related, contraception and the Eucharist. I'm not trying to condemn or to judge anyone. As I'll describe, I've struggled with the issue of contraception. But, I have been very blessed that I have been led to the truth and now will attempt to explain this to you as I describe my spiritual journey.
I grew up on the west side of Cincinnati in a area which was about 90% Catholic. I went to a Catholic grade school and a Catholic high school. Then, I attended UC in Engineering where I met my wife Kathleen. She was, and is a very strong Catholic and this attracted me to her.
My personality is that of a rule follower and this worked well for me. I always went to Sunday mass and followed the teaching of the Church. This was all that I knew and I was very comfortable with it.
After college, Kathleen and I got married. Then, I went to graduate school and spent several years in the Air Force. Now, it was the early seventies and I had managed to get through the sixties without having a major faith crises. I was a Sunday Catholic with a basic understanding of my faith. But, I didn't have a personal relationship with Jesus and my faith hadn't really been tested.
Kathleen's faith was a little stronger than mine was. Also, she had embraced natural childbirth, breastfeeding, natural mothering, and eventually natural family planning. Even though this might seem very normal today, it was very unusual in the early seventies. When our oldest, Tim, was born in 1971, I can still remember Kathleen telling the hospital staff at the Army hospital in Hawaii that I had to be with her in labor because she was relying on me to help with her Lamaze breathing techniques. Eventually, they did let me into the labor room, but absolutely refused to let me in the delivery room.
After we moved to Lebanon, we had our second, Lynn, in 1973, and our third child, Andrew, in 1976. When Kathleen became pregnant with Michael in early 1977, we faced our first faith crises. We were both 31 years old and now were expecting our fourth child. We were practicing Natural family planning, based upon reading a book. But we missed reading a critical chapter and were now faced with an unexpected pregnancy. How many children would we have? How can the church not allow us to use contraceptives? Was this church teaching going to ruin our marriage? And how could we possibly expect to send all of these children to college?
For a short time after Michael was born, we decided to use a contraceptive. While it wasn't difficult to find a priest who said that this was OK, it didn't seem right, especially to Kathleen. So, we decided to take a course from Couple to Couple League in Natural Family Planning. We found out that, when properly used, it was 99% effective in postponing pregnancy. Also, we learned that less than 5% of couples who practice NFP get divorced versus 50% of couples who contracept.
This all lead me to learn more about this topic so that I could understand why the church recommended this and why it was so effective. I read the encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) which was written the same month we were married. I also read several outstanding books on this topic including one written by Janet Smith who is a staunch defender of church teaching. A few years' later I read Pope Saint John Paul's Theology of the Body which further explains the church's teaching on human sexuality.
In short, I eventually realized that I was wrong in thinking that this teaching was bad for married couples. I realized that the church, lead by the Holy Spirit, was right in this critical but controversial area. I realized that the marital act, the union of husband and wife, is meant to be a holy communion, a renewal of the marriage covenant, free from any barriers to life. So, what does contraception and this church teaching have to do with the Eucharist and this controversial teaching of our church. Now, let me talk about the Eucharist.
Jesus tells us in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel: “
This is a remarkable claim. Jesus claims that he will give his own flesh as our food, so that we might enter into that divine life. We will remain men but we will have the life of God within us. No wonder his claims caused his listeners to argue among themselves and still cause disagreements today.
His disciples struggled with this teaching. This was the perfect opportunity for Him to say, “Wait a minute, what I really meant was that bread and wine will just be symbols of my body and blood."
Jesus doesn’t water down his claim. On the contrary, he reiterates the importance of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Seven times throughout his speech he repeats that his flesh is to be eaten and his blood to be drunk by those who wish to have eternal life. His listeners understood him to mean what he said. Many of them didn’t accept it, and abandoned him.
How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Many Catholics live their lives as if they don’t believe it. Our faith must be strong to believe that during the consecration of the mass bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood. We believe that Jesus left us when he ascended into heaven but he remains with us in the form of bread and wine until he comes again at the end of time. He accomplishes this great mystery through his Church, through the authority passed down from Peter and the apostles to our pope and bishops.
For many years, I didn’t appreciate what I was receiving, Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity. I could have gone to daily mass but only began to do this in the last ten years. And I still have trouble comprehending this great mystery. How can that host be Jesus Christ? How is this possible? I am an engineer by background and a very logical person. But, I cannot prove that that consecrated host is Jesus Christ and I also cannot prove that it isn’t. I just have to accept it by faith.
So, tonight, I am talking about two different holy communions, two sacraments, two mysteries. There is the holy communion of husband and wife in the marital act. When this act is truly free, total, faithful and fruitful, it is a renewal of the promises that we made when we are married, a renewal of our marriage covenant. Then, there is the Holy Communion with Jesus when we receive him body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist. Jesus gives himself to his bride, the church freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully. Each of these holy communions is controversial, each is counter cultural. Most non-Catholics don't believe in either of these. Many Catholics believe in the Eucharist but don't accept the church's teaching on contraception. If this is what you believe, I'll ask you to ponder if our church, led by the Holy Spirit, can really be half right and half wrong. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus passes divine authority to his bride, the church when he says: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." Our church is truly the bride of Christ and our leaders carry his authority which has been passed down for 2000 years. It is a church led by sinners, as we all are, which consecrates the Eucharist and is guided by the Holy Spirit in matters of faith, including its teaching on contraception.