Given at the Solemn Mass at Saint John the Evangelist, Silver Spring, during which there was the first administration of Holy Communion for children.
Last weekend I had the great privilege of attending the ordination of a new priest for the diocese of Covington, Kentucky. In the very pleasing surroundings of the exquisite French gothic cathedral, the bishop prayed that the new priest would be good, faithful, and obedient to the life to which – in that sacred ceremony – he was being conformed. On Sunday we gathered again in the cathedral as the new priest celebrated his first Mass at the high altar, and for the first time made present the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, as he will do with and for the Christian faithful each day from now until the day he dies.
Any priest will tell you that preparing for his first Mass is a labour of love. Between planning every little detail, to best and properly honour the Lord to whom the new priest has just given his life, there is also a great and profound spiritual preparation which, if done well, becomes a source of strength throughout his life. Last weekend was a wonderful example of that, and a joy to behold as my friend offered the Eucharistic sacrifice for the first time with great awe and reverence, with great care and attention.
In the houses of the Missionaries of Charity founded by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Teresa, there is a sign in the sacristy which greets each priest as he comes to the convent to celebrate Mass. It reads: “O Priest of God, celebrate this Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass”. It is the hope and intention of every faithful priest to imitate that “newness” each time he ascends the altar of the Lord, and it is the duty of you, the Christian faithful, to pray for us priests, that we might remain ever obedient to this auspicious demand.
Today, as Elizabeth and Josephine come to receive Holy Communion for the first time – as they come to kneel and receive Christ in all his fullness – we pray that this First Communion, marked by humility and piety and devotion, may be the first of hundreds of thousands of reverent and awe-filled communions, when their souls will be united with God through the gift of the Most Holy Eucharist. We pray that, like a new priest, they may be filled with a love and devotion for the Mass and the Eucharist today, that each time they receive Holy Communion they may do so “with the purity, humility and devotion with which [our] most holy Mother received [Christ]”, and so be as closely united to him as was she.
And as we rightly celebrate with these children of God this glorious moment, each of us is also reminded of our first communion. By our presence here today we are called to rekindle in our hearts the joy and devotion of that solemn moment, and to express it each and every time we come to the Lord’s banquet of charity to receive his Eucharistic presence. The example of these children humbles us all to be ourselves children before our heavenly Father, coming to be fed with the Panis Angelorum – the Bread of Angels – which is our food for the journey towards the kingdom of God.
Just as the new priest prepares for his first Mass, and as the girls have prepared themselves for today, so each time we come to Holy Communion it is right that we ready ourselves for the great gift we are to receive. As we come to receive the Lord, hidden under the forms of bread and wine in Holy Communion, we should follow in his steps in order to receive worthily the great gift of himself. It is for this reason that the Church reminds us that “a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to […] receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession”, and that we must “abstain for at least one hour before Holy Communion from any food and drink”, in order to be properly disposed to receive the great gift which is offered (cc. 916, 919 §1).
These are not only laws that bind us as a sign of our respect and love for the Eucharist, but outward means of expressing to God our desire to be ourselves a dwelling-place fit for his beloved Son. This is why the Alleluia at this Mass proclaims, “The disciples knew the Lord in the breaking of bread”; because it is our call as his missionaries in the world to acknowledge in this “breaking of bread” the full reality of Christ’s presence amongst us, and to honour that presence by our actions.
Monsignor Ronald Knox, commenting on the parable of the good shepherd which we hear in today’s gospel, writes that just as the shepherd guides and cares for each of his flock individually, so God in this very church “doesn’t see a mob of people hearing Mass; he sees you and me” (Knox, Homily on 31 August 1947). Of course, we come as the Church at prayer in the Eucharistic sacrifice, but we also come, each of us, as the individuals who make up the Body of Christ, to receive the sacrament of his body and blood. The Lord knows us each and we, by our reverence and devotion to him in Holy Communion – by our proper disposition and preparation – come to know and acknowledge him.
So, Josephine and Elizabeth, may you receive this great and awesome gift today with the prayerful piety of the saints; may this devotion be a constant means of keeping close to Christ throughout your life – that every communion may be as reverent and sincere as your first. And we may each of us be drawn, through the humility of these would-be saints, to a more fervent and burning love of our Eucharistic King, that we might live more faithfully according to his will for our lives, and so be drawn more profoundly into the one fold with the one shepherd, who is Christ our Lord.