The Most Reverend Robert P. Deeley
Twelfth Bishop of Portland
To the clergy, religious, and faithful of the Diocese of Portland
“The grace of our Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” So begins one of the opening greetings of Mass. It summarizes well the reason we come together for the celebration of the Eucharist: We come to worship God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Over the last 18 months, our celebrations of Mass have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even now, some remain concerned about attending any kind of public gathering. Some have grown accustomed to watching Mass through television or on the computer, rather than being present in person. Others have seen their desire to be at Mass grow cold with time. For these reasons, I thought it important to offer this pastoral letter in order to encourage all Catholics to take seriously, within the limits of their own health and mobility, the need to offer worship to God every Sunday at Mass. At the outset, I want to express my profound gratitude to the tens of thousands of Catholics in Maine who are in our churches every Sunday for Mass. For you, this letter is meant to be an opportunity to deepen your own understanding and appreciation of the gift of the Eucharist as well.
Christ’s Sacrifice and Our Offering
Christ instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist on the night before he died when he took bread and wine and told the apostles to “Do this in memory of me.” Since that time, Sunday after Sunday, all over the globe, priest and people together still faithfully take bread and wine as Jesus told us to do at the Last Supper. But Mass is not simply a reenactment of the Last Supper, like a kind of play. At Mass, Christ’s sacrifice of his life, which he intended at the Last Supper and fulfilled on the cross, becomes present to us in the here and now. That is why a cross with an image of Christ crucified is always meant to be on or near the altar, either next to it, above it, or behind it. Since the risen Jesus is alive in heaven at the right hand of the Father, he continues to do now and for all time what he once did. He has not stopped offering himself to the Father. At Mass, Christ’s offering of himself for our sake on Calvary is present to us who were not there when that event took place 2,000 years ago. The risen Jesus, who lives beyond space and time, reaches across those dimensions to us now and says to each of us, personally and individually, “This is my body given up for you today.”
That offering is made present to us so that we can join him! We are meant to join Jesus in offering our lives to God and to one another. We are meant to offer our lives along with the bread and wine that the priest places on the altar for offering. As the spiritual writers often told us: “Place yourself on the altar with the host.” This is often a part of the celebration of Mass that is overlooked. In order for us to fully, actually, and consciously participate at Mass, each of us is meant to make this offering of ourselves to God and to others. In that sense, coming to Mass is less about what we receive or get and more about what we give or offer. We offer God our praise and thanksgiving by what we say and sing at Mass. We can offer God the gifts of our time, talent, and treasure that we made throughout the week. Can we also make it a point to deliberately and consciously offer God our very lives at every Mass?
Communion and Presence
Christ comes to each of us at Mass to be personally and bodily present. That’s why we speak about Christ’s body and blood being present under the appearances of bread and wine. What looks and tastes like bread and wine is no longer bread and wine once Christ’s own words transform them into the sign or sacrament of his personal real presence. Christ wills to become present during the celebration of Mass, as he once promised, so that he can be personally and bodily present to those who never looked upon him or heard his voice when he was on earth. His presence now is the same as his presence then. The manner of being present is different, but it is the same Christ who comes across the centuries and across the globe to believers.
He comes to believers in order to share his life with them and to be united with them. That is the purpose of our receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion. We are able to be intimately united with Christ. Normally, the food we take is transformed into our flesh and blood. But this spiritual food and drink that we take is meant to transform us into the One who is being received. We are meant to grow more and more like Christ by receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion. Our reception of Holy Communion should help us grow in charity for others, too, since the Eucharist is the sign of the great love Jesus had for us, so much so that he gave up his life for us. This is also a reality that is often underappreciated at our celebration of Mass.
Mass is unique and irreplaceable
Just as Christ comes to us bodily and personally, so are we meant to be present to him in return, bodily and personally. This demands one’s physical presence; a virtual presence is not the same. A virtual presence, by its nature, remains artificial. It is an electronic presence, not a human presence. A human presence demands flesh and blood. I need to be here in order to be with the other, especially the others whom I love. No one who loves is satisfied with being physically apart. They want to be with each other. We also need to desire to be with the Lord Jesus in the here and now. And so, while the presentation of Mass electronically will be a great consolation to those who cannot be present physically, it can never replace actually being in the same location, in the body, with the Lord who is also present to us in that same location, in his body and blood.
There is a long tradition in the Church of bringing Holy Communion to the sick, to prisoners, and to those who otherwise are prevented from attending Mass. During the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, any number of the faithful received Holy Communion on Sunday apart from Mass when it was not possible for them to attend Mass in person. Even now, in some communities in Maine, significant numbers of people receive Holy Communion on Sundays apart from Mass simply because there is no priest available to offer Mass with them. Such cases have always been considered exceptional circumstances; they can never be equated with Mass. Catholics affirm Christ’s abiding presence in the consecrated bread and wine even after the celebration of Mass has ended. That is why those who receive Holy Communion apart from Mass experience the true bodily presence of the Risen Lord no less than those present at Mass. However, whenever Holy Communion is received apart from Mass, such persons do not have the opportunity to witness Christ’s own offering and sacrifice on the cross when the priest says the words, “This is my body; this is my blood.” Communion apart from Mass does not give the recipient the opportunity to be present at Calvary, at Christ’s offering of himself, nor the opportunity to join Jesus in offering one’s own life in sacrifice and charity to God and others. This is a big difference! That’s why attending Mass on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, is so important. It is to be present at Calvary and to join Jesus in offering one’s own life to the Father.
In addition, a number of Christian communities born from the Protestant Reformation have services of the Lord’s Supper or services of the Holy Eucharist. Some maintain a belief in Christ’s spiritual or symbolic presence during such services; others hold to Jesus’ bodily presence, although without the sacrificing priesthood which we believe has been entrusted by Jesus with making that bodily presence possible. Typically, they believe that Christians remember Christ’s sacrifice in faith. That sacrifice is experienced as a past event in the mind and heart, not in the reality of the here and now. Nor do they generally believe that it is possible to join Jesus in making an offering of ourselves to God. For a Catholic, this way of remembering the Lord Jesus leaves a number of elements missing from what Christ intended for his Church. And so, for Catholics, there is no substitute possible for Mass offered in the communion of the Catholic Church.
The Challenges Before Us
The COVID-19 pandemic has weakened the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist throughout our country. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, some estimated that only 20-25% of Catholics were at Mass on any given Sunday in the United States. Since COVID-19, that number has decreased further. God still calls us to be faithful! Christ Jesus still calls us, despite our unworthiness, to “Do this” in memory of him. In the face of all the challenges, which we know too well, we are still called to come together with one another and with Christ and offer God the Father our worship at Mass. When we ponder the spiritual realities that take place during the course of the celebration of Mass, it is clear that there is nothing else like it on earth. Heaven comes down to us so that we may be raised up to heaven. The beauty and the wonder of this event will not be evident, however, to those who have closed their eyes to the transcendent. Only if we take a spiritual outlook on life now and beyond death will any of the teachings about the Mass make sense.
To the priests of the diocese, I encourage you to make your own the words of St. Leo the Great when he recalled that “our participation in the Body and Blood of Christ aspires to nothing other than to become what we receive.” I ask you as well to do everything you can to improve the quality of the celebrations of the Eucharist in your parishes. That means training readers to proclaim the word of God effectively and with comprehension. It means helping musicians and singers to fully engage everyone present at singing the Mass and not simply singing at Mass. It means encouraging all those with a ministry in the sanctuary to act with the kind of grace and decorum that indicates they understand that they are in a holy place where God is about to do great things for them. It means leading the prayer of the community yourself with piety, devotion, and sincerity, in fidelity to the demands in each of the liturgical books the Church has entrusted to us. I ask pastors to share this letter with your pastoral council members, your worship commission members, and your catechists in order to discuss with them how your parish can make each and every celebration of Mass a time of real encounter with God for everyone.
To the deacons of the diocese, I remind you that you are meant to pour out your own lives in loving sacrifice to your families, your communities, and your parishes. As ministers of the Lord’s blood, make your ministry at Mass the center of your own spiritual life and ministry of service. Many of you exercise your ministry in the workplace. Be that living connection between the altar and work for the people you meet. Invite them to join you for the Lord’s banquet.
To the religious men and women of the diocese, to all those living any form of consecrated life in Maine, I encourage you to do what you can to catechize the faithful to listen well to God’s word, to offer praise and thanks to God at Mass, to unite themselves to Christ in his sacrifice to the Father, and to receive the Eucharist in Holy Communion worthily and well. The witness of your prayer and adoration before the Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament extends the worship of God beyond the end of the Mass itself. Eucharistic adoration can call people back to Mass when they experience its power and beauty.
To the faithful of the diocese, prayerful participation at Mass begins with prayer at home. In prayer, we lift our minds and hearts to God. We teach children to know the God who created them and who cares for them. Prayer at home is the necessary preparation for the celebration of Mass, but it can never be a sufficient substitute for Mass. Make the necessary decisions so that your family can be at Mass every Sunday. That may mean sacrificing other activities. Is not the relationship with God worth it? God wants to meet you and speak to you. How can we always be too busy to meet him and speak to him in person? For those who are already regularly participating in the Sunday Eucharist, each of you can play an important role in inviting your relatives, neighbors, and friends to join you for Mass. Each of you can make a positive impact on others by the way you warmly greet and welcome newcomers in your midst.
Over the course of the next year, you will hear a great deal in the parish about many of the topics I raise in this letter. Your priests and your fellow parishioners are being asked to communicate the meaning and reality of the Mass to all who are near to the Church and to those who may be at some distance from her. You may have questions about your own faith in the Eucharist. Don’t be afraid to share those questions with the priests and ministers of your parish or with a trusted and knowledgeable friend. Questions do not mean the absence of faith. Questions are often the way to arrive at deeper faith. Christ gave the Church answers to your questions. Take the time to find out what those answers are.
As you deepen your own amazement at the Eucharist, be prepared for your life to change. We can never encounter God in person and not be changed by that encounter. Do not fear what God may ask of you. Growing closer to him never asks more of us than we can accomplish with his help. Thank you for your own witness of faith in your families, your workplace, and your neighborhood. Followers of Jesus are truly salt of the earth and light for the world. Your faith makes a difference not only to you but also to everyone you meet. When the opportunity arises, share that faith with those who have yet to discover the person of Jesus.
Entrusting our diocese to Mary, Mother of the Church, I pray that she will intercede for all of us before her Son. May Jesus give each of us the grace we need to be faithful disciples in our day and in our time. May Jesus draw many to himself, “Come unto me.” May Jesus lead many to find him in the celebration of Mass at your parish.
Asking God’s blessing upon you and your families, I remain,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Bishop Robert P. Deeley, JCD
12th Bishop of Portland