From the Lord and St. Paul to Us

Each year, in January and July, I have to go to Rome for meetings with two Vatican offices to which I have been assigned as a kind of consultor. This past January, we began our first session promptly at 9:30 a.m. At 1:30 p.m. we broke for lunch, and at 4:30 p.m. we were back at work.

After lunch, despite a rather heavy rainfall, I decided to make my way across a little "piazza" in front of the building in which we had eaten to a side door of St. Peter’s Basilica to finish reading my "Office" and have a few minutes alone with the Lord.

Because of the "economic downturn," tourists in Rome were few in the streets and few in St. Peter’s as well. When I entered the Basilica, I would guess that there were less than 500 praying at the various shrines and walking about, guidebooks in hand.

I went directly to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament which is on the right as you look toward the main altar. Its central door is covered with heavy grey drapes to make it clear, it would seem, that the Chapel is to be a place of prayer and quiet. And if there were any doubt about this, a sign on a tall brass stand has been placed in front of the Chapel announcing in several languages that one is to enter to pray, not to sightsee.

Shortly after I had ensconced myself on a bench in the rear of the chapel and begun reciting my "Office," a young lady approached. Without saying a word, she handed me a brochure in Italian, English and French. I accepted it with a smile: and she returned to the opposite side of the chapel to join five other young ladies who, like her, were all dressed in what seemed to be hiking clothes. The brochure was printed on glossy paper and in color. I expected that it would concern works of art in the chapel, such as a painting of the Trinity by Pietro da Cortona over the main altar.

Actually, the brochure was a collection of brief passages from the Epistles of St. Paul that were evidently published in connection with the "Pauline Year" inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI last June. The first of the passages, which was illustrated by a pen sketch of the Last Supper, was taken from Chapter 11 of the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, verses 23 through 29. Setting my Breviary aside, I read it to myself several times in all three languages; and somehow in that quiet Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament the words tugged at my mind and heart and would not let them go. I just kept reading and rereading them over and over again.

The story underlying the passage is this. When Paul was in Ephesus on the third and last of his missionary journeys, he was told that a number of the recently converted Christians of Corinth were comporting themselves rather badly when they came together for a common meal followed by the Eucharist. Some were said to refuse to share their food with the poor, and others were even accused of drunkenness. Paul picked up his pen to remind the Corinthians of the meaning and sublimity of the Eucharist, and he did so masterfully.

He began by giving an account of the Last Supper in virtually the same words in which it is reported in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and especially Luke. However, he prefaced his account with a declaration that he had learned directly from the Savior Himself all that he was relating. "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you," he announced; and he continued on as follows:

"The Lord Jesus, on the night He was handed over, took bread and, after He had given thanks, broke it and said: ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying: ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes’."

At the conclusion of his brief narration, the Apostle of the Gentiles goes on to make two statements that leave no doubt whatever about his firm belief that the Eucharist is the body and blood of the Son of God Made Man. They are—(1) Whoever receives the Eucharist unworthily "will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord," and (2) Whoever receives the Eucharist without "discerning" that it is the body and blood of the Lord "eats and drinks a judgment to himself."

One could hardly imagine clearer affirmations of what the theologians have come to call the "Real Presence" of Jesus in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine. Treat the Eucharist improperly, Paul is saying, and you will be guilty of an offense against the very body and blood of the Lord. Fail to admit that the Eucharist is the body and blood of the Lord, he continues, and you will earn for yourself a condemnation. Rejoice therefore, and know, he concludes, that what seems to be bread and wine in the Eucharist is not bread and wine at all. It is the Redeemer’s body and blood, and about this no one is to harbor any doubt or hesitation whatsoever.

All of this the Corinthians learned from Paul; all of this Paul learned from Christ Himself; and all of this we learn from a letter written in Ephesus to misbehaving Corinthians almost 2,000 years ago. We can never read it too often. We can never contemplate it too deeply. We can never love it too intensely.

I left the Basilica by the main door, dodged the raindrops until I got myself under the colonnade that embraces the "Piazza San Pietro," walked to the far end of one arm of it, and stopped because of a sudden burst of thunder followed by sheets of rain. Waiting with me under the roof that covers the colonnade was a group of nine young men, laughing, talking and dressed for hiking. When I noticed that several of them had in their backpacks bundles of brochures like the one that had been given to me in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, I struck up a conversation as the thunder and rain continued. They had come down from Northern Italy and were distributing brochures along the way to encourage participation in the "Pauline Year," they told me, and Rome was to be their last stop. I asked if they could give me another copy of the brochure and then, for reasons I cannot explain, invited them to join me in reading the first of the passages in it. They agreed, though I did catch a few quizzical glances on the faces of two of them as we began the recitation. Meanwhile, the young ladies from the Chapel appeared; and we decided to recite the passage again with them. And this we did at the top of our voices.

The rain abated for a moment. I quickly shook the hands of my new friends and ran across the "Via del Colonnato" to the building where my afternoon meeting was soon to begin.

As I slid into my place, the Archbishop of Cologne on my left and the Archbishop of Madrid on my right, noting that my hair was wet, asked where I had been. I might have responded that I had been reading Chapter 11 of the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians out loud with a group of hikers under a colonnade in a rainstorm, but thought better of it lest I appear altogether foolish, even though in the First Chapter of the same Epistle Paul has some remarkably positive things to say about foolishness when it deepens belief in truths revealed by the Lord (Cf. verses 17 through 25).

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York