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‘Lift up your hearts’

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The last several months have been an unusual and spiritually trying time for the people of God. Until recently, most of the lay faithful were unable to attend Mass in person. Priests and bishops, whose very lives are dedicated to the spiritual care of the faithful, have been separated from their people. During this time of isolation, we have been reminded frequently to make acts of spiritual communion. By an act of spiritual communion, those who cannot receive Our Lord sacramentally express their desire to be united with him, ask him to be present within them through his Holy Spirit, and beg for the grace that would normally come from receiving the Eucharist when actual reception is impossible.

Spiritual communion is indeed an important aspect of Catholic prayer life, especially when it is not possible to attend Mass. However, of at least equal importance is spiritual offering. That is because whereas the faithful are encouraged to make an act of spiritual communion when they cannot receive the Eucharist, they are enjoined to make a spiritual offering every Mass, even when they can receive the Eucharist. This explains the church’s otherwise puzzling precept that Catholics normally are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday, while on the other hand they are obliged to receive Communion only once per year (ideally during the Easter season).

Why is this so? The possibility of unrepented mortal sin might partially explain the lack of obligation to receive every Sunday. But it does not explain the positive duty to attend Mass every Sunday. What explains the Sunday Mass obligation is not principally our sinfulness, but God’s great generosity in granting us the extraordinary privilege of being his people. What sets the people of God apart and makes them a people is God’s endowment to them of that same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus, making him to be, as man, God’s anointed one — the Messiah (“Christos”) —  even though Jesus was already from eternity the only-begotten Son of God (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” 782). By this outpouring of the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation, believers are incorporated into Jesus’ mystical body, the church. Engrafted into Christ’s body, believers share in his priestly capacities and mission. Baptism and confirmation equip the believer for participation in priestly activity by conferring a sacramental character, the indelible spiritual mark which signs the recipient of baptism, confirmation or holy orders as belonging to Christ. 

However, the most important thing about the sacramental character is that it actually confers a new capacity on the recipient — the capacity to worship: that is, to honor God by offering atoning sacrifice to him. It is important not to confuse the priesthood of the faithful with the ministerial priesthood conferred by the sacrament of holy orders, which differs from the baptismal priesthood of the faithful “essentially, and not only in degree” (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” 1547). Nevertheless, every member of the church, each according to his or her own vocation, truly participates in the one priesthood of Christ.

Because of this, the faithful have a duty not only to be present physically at Mass, but actually to assist at Mass by joining with the celebrant’s offering of the bread and wine their own spiritual sacrifices. These include “their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit — indeed even the hardships of life if patiently born” (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” 901). In short, what the faithful offer through their priestly participation at Mass is the moral substance of their everyday lives, lived in God’s grace. Such offering completes the cycle of the Eucharist so that the liturgy becomes something not only celebrated for an hour on Sunday, but also lived out in everyday affairs. The faithful run on the spiritual nourishment of the Eucharist as the source of their Christian lives, but they also lead all things back to the Eucharist as they seek to do God’s will in the world, thus preparing the “stuff” of their spiritual offering.

“Sursum corda.” Lift up your hearts. As our churches reopen and we emerge out of the darkness of sacramental separation from Our Lord, remember that it is not only we who desire Our Lord, but that it is the Lord who also desires us and, in a certain real sense, needs our participation in order to carry out his priestly saving work on behalf of the human race. To cooperate with Jesus in the liturgy in this way is, objectively speaking, the single most important thing a person could do in this life.

Matava is associate professor and dean of Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria. Graduate.christendom.edu.



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020