I mentioned in my last post that two weeks into my freshman year of college, my brother came to visit me.
Up until this point, Catholicism had solely been an intellectual project for me. It was fun to study, fun to argue about, fun to upset people about. But now it was getting to the point where the truth of these “fun” arguments was starting to become apparent to me, and so were the implications of realizing that truth. And I was very frightened. I did not want the Catholic Church to be anything more than a concept.
My brother was going to take me to Mass the next day. I hadn’t been to Mass since the 3rd grade when I went to Catholic school. My friends and I would sit in the back and get in trouble for giggling and putting our feet on the kneelers. Other than that, I remember hating it. Now, I knew that I was going to go back, and I might hate it again. But if all of this was true, I would be stuck going to Mass every week. I would have to go to boring, lifeless Mass instead of the church I loved.
So that night, I locked myself in the bathroom (the only place to be alone in a college dorm), and prayed. I asked God to either show me where the Catholic schema broke down, or else to show me why Catholicism was beautiful. I told him I was terrified of it being true because it still seemed so dark, ugly, and lifeless to me. I prayed: “God, if this is from you it has to be beautiful… so please, if it is from you, show me how it is beautiful.”
I wasn’t really that hopeful.
The next day I got up early and went with my brother to a daily mass. It was 7 am and yet there were at least fifteen people gathered into a tiny chapel on the bottom floor of the church. To be honest, the Mass itself was not that “impressive”; it was a lot like I remembered Mass being—kind of dry, rushed, a little awkward, and not that challenging (at least from my need-to-be-intellectually-stimulated standpoint). But then—
“Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb.”
The priest spoke those words—he spoke them as he lifted the Eucharist for us all to see—and then I watched as people, called to the “supper of the Lamb,” came to receive Him. There was a crippled man. A single mom and her two kids. A mentally-retarded man. A businessman. My brother. They all walked to the front of this tiny chapel and were given “the body of Christ.”
I started crying as I realized that not only were the “lame, the crippled, and the blind” all called to receive the Lamb, but that they could. It seemed like this was at least part of the answer to my question about the universality of the Church. I had wondered, if a church’s Sunday worship service is primarily a sermon and singing songs, what place is there for children, non-academics, mentally or severely physically handicapped persons? How can it that the grace of God truly extends equally to the mental-athlete and the mentally impaired? At least, in any way that affects this present life?
If the primary means of receiving God’s grace is via “faith alone,” which in our day and age is practically translated into receiving information via a sermon or Scripture reading which produces an intellectual response that somehow affects our lives, then these two men can never receive God equally. Even if worship is expressed through sacrament, but the sacrament is merely a symbol whose real efficacy relies on the subject’s ability to “remember” the meaning of the sacrament (another intellectual task), then hope is lost for this life.
But if God gives himself to man in the form of an efficacious sacrament, as I was watching that day at Mass, then truly his grace is available to all people—from the infant who is sprinkled with the waters of baptism (obviously through no intellectual or moral effort of her own), to the mentally-ill man from the streets of Chicago who is able to swallow the Eucharist as it is placed on his tongue.
Of course, God does give himself to his people through the Word, through the hearing of faith. I in no way mean to belittle or diminish the import or efficacy of the Word of God. I merely mean to emphasize, as it was pointed out to me, that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. And the Word of God promised to remain with us until the end of the age.
The Word of God, who is the Bread of Heaven, said in his own words: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
It wasn’t that I had been totally misled about God’s grace up until this point, but that it was bigger than I had previously known. His grace meant that he not only gave his body for us on the cross 2000 years ago so that all who hear and believe may be saved, but that he continually gives his body to us every day so that all who eat his flesh may abide in him and live.
And this struck me as achingly and overwhelmingly beautiful.