PHOENIX (CNS) — Utilizing the annual celebration of the Last Supper as a focal point, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix released a landmark document April 1 on the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the church.
Described by Bishop Olmsted as an “apostolic exhortation” and titled “Veneremur Cernui — Down in Adoration Falling,” the document explores the key history and theology as well as the beauty of the Eucharist.
The bishop called on priests and laity to embrace a deeper love for and understanding of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Catholic faith.
Holy Thursday, which commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, seemed the appropriate time for issuing the document, Bishop Olmsted said.
“I as your shepherd implore each of you to seek out Jesus in the Eucharist to be strengthened and renewed in your faith,” he wrote.
A vivid personal narrative near the beginning of the document described the bishop’s upbringing in an ardently Catholic family that prayed together daily.
From the reverence his parents showed and the witness of their pastor, he wrote, “a solid conviction about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist” was embedded in his heart.
In setting the stage for the document, the bishop acknowledged the “grave crisis of faith in the Eucharist” the church is experiencing — from declining vocations to the priesthood, marriage and religious life to “abysmal Mass attendance” and attacks on the truths of the Catholic faith. He observed that “in such troubled waters, our greatest anchor in these storms is Christ himself, found in the holy Eucharist.”
The three-part document takes its title from “Tantum Ergo,” the hymn composed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century that illuminates the mystery of the Eucharist.
The first part explores the history of the Eucharist, laying groundwork by describing how Jesus brought the first Passover experienced by the Israelites to ultimate fulfillment at the Last Supper.
“At the Last Supper, which the church commemorates today, Jesus took part in and forever transformed the Jewish Passover ritual meal,” he explained.
Objections that Christ’s words at the Last Supper ought to be understood as merely symbolic are addressed as well.
“Jesus meant exactly what he said: He is truly present in the Eucharist,” the bishop wrote. “If Jesus had meant it as a symbol, he would not have repeated this message seven times in this dialogue. … Despite the uproar caused by his teaching, Jesus did not soften his claim. On the contrary, he strengthened it.”
Whenever the Mass is celebrated, Bishop Olmsted explained, “the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary that happened in the past is really made present to us at Mass, here and now.”
The sacrificial love that Jesus showed by his self-offering on the cross, he continued, is an eternal sacrifice that transcends time and is present to the faithful at every Mass throughout time.
In the second part, Bishop Olmsted clarified that the Eucharist is “truly the sacrament of Christ’s love” and encourages the faithful “to go all out” in their response to “Jesus’ most extravagant gift of himself.”
In consuming the Eucharist, “a Christian … is transformed into Christ” and is invited to accept “Jesus’ invitation to walk the same path of sacrificial love,” the document said.
Bread and wine themselves are powerful symbols of what sacrificial love entails; from the harvesting, thrashing, crushing, grinding, kneading and baking to the plucking and smashing of grapes, we see a foretelling of the agony Jesus suffered in his passion and death, it said.
“This is what true love really means. Every time we come to the Eucharist, we are invited to imitate this sacrificial love of Christ,” it added.
The third part contains practical suggestions for priests and laypeople regarding the Eucharist. Bishop Olmsted encouraged lay Catholics to attend daily Mass, spend time in eucharistic adoration and honor Sunday as the Lord’s day, enumerating specific ways to accomplish such ideals.
He quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church to underscore the significance of the Sabbath.
“Sunday is a ‘day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money,’” he wrote. “Sunday is the time to herald to the world that we are no longer slaves to sin and death. This day is meant to be a weekly gift from God to his people: a day of freedom, joy, charity and peace.”
Bishop Olmsted also addressed his brother priests, encouraging them to make the Eucharist the source of their priestly fruitfulness, setting aside time before the Blessed Sacrament each morning before engaging in pastoral work, having a daily eucharistic Holy Hour and celebrating Mass each day.
He also urged them to “start or join a Jesus Caritas group to provide fraternal love and support ordered around Jesus’ eucharistic love for his priests.” A call to pastors to make eucharistic adoration more available and to organize yearly eucharistic processions at their parishes are other key elements of the document.
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Editor’s Note: The full text of Bishop Olmsted’s exhortation is online in English, at https://dphx.org/veneremur-cernui, and in Spanish, at https://dphx.org/veneremur-cernui-veneremos-inclinados.
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Coronel writes for The Catholic Sun, the online news outlet of the Diocese of Phoenix.