AS YOU KNOW a very important event is happening in Liverpool this week-end, the first national Eucharistic Congress in England since 1908, entitled Adoremus. Three of our parishioners will be there, commissioned recently at Mass to be our delegates – Sister Pat Devine, Alicja Krivicky and Ruth McConkey. I think you can follow events on links from the websites of the Archdiocese of Southwark or the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and I hope that our delegates will be able to share their experience of this event when they get back. Much has also been written about the event in our diocesan newspaper The Pilgrim and in other places. It’s a time for the Catholic community simply to celebrate what is central to our life as Christians – the Eucharist, the Mass, the presence of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, in the Blessed Sacrament. This is what defines us and at various points in history our beliefs in the Eucharist have cost lives in martyrdom.
At the same time there is always a danger that when we come to Mass, or when we take time to pray before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, we will use it as a way of escaping from the world and its problems, or from the problems in our own lives. Of course we need time to be apart in prayer, as Jesus did himself, but that can-not be an act of running away. Indeed intercessory prayer at Mass and on other occasions deliberately brings the world and its concerns into the liturgy, into our worship, whether we’re praying for victims of the flooding in Kerala or people we know who are sick or who have died. What Catholics believe about the Mass, if we get these beliefs right, roots all that we do in the physical world. God chooses the material substances of bread and wine as the instruments of his love, to be changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. They are material substances which we see, can touch and consume. The Mass is never removed from the world, from its joys and pains, its glories and sufferings.
A theologian who has explored this very well is the American Bill Cavanaugh, who teaches at DePaul university in Chicago. About twenty years ago he wrote a phenomenal book called Torture and Eucharist (published by Blackwell – it’s still in print). Cavanaugh looks at the experience of the Catholic Church in Chile during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet following the coup in September 1973, particularly in relation to the kidnapping, torture and murder of those seen as opposed to the regime.
Cavanaugh’s study shows how the Catholic Church in Chile, initially very hesitant in its response to Pinochet’s rule, gradually became radicalised through theological reflection and the efforts to try and support those who were held in detention and their families. States which use torture rely on being able to make people’s bodies disappear; by contrast the Christian experience of martyrdom makes the Church visible as the Body of Christ. This process of change by the Church was nurtured by people’s experience of the Eucharist, which also makes the Church visible as the Body of Christ on earth, in which we also receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Cavanaugh demonstrates how the Church became more focused and disciplined – and crucially in the early 1980s the bishops excommunicated all those who were involved in any way in torture (including, arguably, Pinochet himself). In all this the Church learnt to be oppressed but was also strengthened as the Body of Christ. I do realise that in recent years the leadership of the Church in Chile has been weakened and compromised by deceit and ineptitude, but the story of the twenty odd years after 1972 remains instructive.
Fortunately we don’t live in Pinochet’s Chile. However we can gain insights from places or periods in history where the experience which Catholics have of the Mass, the Eucharist, has been enriched in the midst of persecution or cruelty. This is authentic when the Church is identified with the struggle of the poor and the oppressed, when we are welcoming rather than excluding, when we are accepting rather than rejecting. I am sure themes of this kind are being considered this weekend in Liverpool. Please pray for Pat, Alicja and Ruth this weekend, and for all those taking part in Adoremus, that this congress will enrich the whole Church in this country.