I have my own LEGO character!

Take a look at the pictures a parishioner showed me of her boys' LEGO creations. First, they made a LEGO version of me.  I was both amused and flattered - "LEGO Fr. Nick" has a sweet head of hair!

LEGO Fr. Nick
Then, they had me celebrate Mass for a LEGO congregation. For those who may be wondering, the chalices are from the Indiana Jones set.

"The Lord be with you."
"And with your spirit."
I am hoping that LEGO Fr. Nick's Mass makes it into the sequel to The LEGO Movie.

(Thanks for the pictures Andrea!)

The Real Presence: dealing with doubt

John 6:51-58 (Corpus Christi, year A)
Christ with the Host, Paolo da San Leocadio, 1520
When I was living in Rome, one of my favorite events to attend was the annual Corpus Christi procession. Every year this begins with the Pope celebrating Mass at the famous basilica of St. John Lateran. After Mass, the Pope places a consecrated host inside a monstrance and leads a crowd of several thousands in procession through the streets of Rome to the nearby basilica Santa Maria Maggiore. There everyone spends some moments in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Now, if you had no knowledge of Catholic tradition and belief, the event would seem very strange. You might ask, quite understandably, why people were adoring what looks like a piece of bread. If you were to ask why we did this, we’d reply it is because we believe that this bread is not bread but that it is really, truly, substantially Jesus. This belief in the Real Presence would no doubt leave you confused and doubtful. This reaction is not uncommon, both among Catholics and non-Catholics.

In fact, the feast of Corpus Christi came about because of doubt in the Real Presence. Back in the year 1263 a German priest was travelling to Rome on pilgrimage. Along the way, he stopped in the small, Italian city of Bolsena to celebrate Mass. During his pilgrimage, this priest was experiencing a crisis of faith. He was struggling to believe in the Real Presence. While he was celebrating Mass, something extraordinary happened. At the moment of consecration the host began to drip blood onto the piece of linen, called a corporal, that sat upon the altar. Shocked, the priest went to visit Pope Urban IV who was staying in the nearby city of Orvieto. After an investigation, the Pope ordered that the host, along with the corporal be displayed in the Cathedral of Orvieto for veneration. You can still see them there today. Soon after this event, Pope Urban instituted the feast of Corpus Christi, in honor of the Body and Blood of Jesus. He even commissioned St. Thomas Aquinas to write the prayers for this special feast, one that came about because of doubts that a priest had in the real presence.

Today it seems that many Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. In 2013, a survey of American Catholics (I assume the numbers would be similar for Canadians) found that approximately 40% of American Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. That is, they do not believe that at the consecration during Mass, the bread and wine really become the Body and Blood of Jesus and are not just mere symbols. That only six out of ten Catholics believe in the Real Presence is hardly encouraging. When you look closer at the study, however, some interesting facts emerge. This study explains that half of American Catholics do not know that the Church teaches the Real Presence. Looking closer we see that 17% of Catholics do not know that the Church teaches the Real Presence, but believe in it nonetheless. On the other hand, 33% do not know that the Church teaches the real presence and do not believe in it. Most interesting of all, of those who actually know that the Church teaches the Real Presence, a mere 4% do not believe in it. From this study, we can draw an important lesson. Though four in ten Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence, the vast majority of these people are ignorant of Church teaching. This study then tells us that lack of belief in Real Presence is more a problem of lack of proper religious education rather than doubt.

The Catholic Church has always taught the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The reason the Church has always taught that the Eucharist is no mere symbol but that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist is simply: Jesus has told us so. He does this clearly in the Gospel of today, taken from John, chapter 6. As many of you know, in John’s account of the Last Supper, he has makes no mention of Jesus instituting the Eucharist. This is no accident; John’s discussion of the Eucharist happens in chapter 6. This chapter begins with Jesus feeding a multitude through the multiplication of loaves. Later in the chapter, Jesus discusses the significance of what He has done. He explains that though He has given them bread in this miracle, He will give them something better. Jesus explains that He will give Himself as bread in two ways.
  1. In the first way, Jesus becomes bread in a symbolic way. In the Old Testament, wisdom from God was seen as bread (see Proverbs 9:15). This is the bread that gives true life. Jesus explains that He is the wisdom of God; He is the bread that gives true life.
  2. In the second way, Jesus literally gives us Himself under the appearance of bread in the Eucharist, which is truly and really His Body and Blood. We just read this in the Gospel of Today. Here Jesus is no longer speaking symbolically. We know this for a few reasons, here are two. First, the verb for “to eat” changes. The greek verb “trogein” is used. This verb is crassly material, meaning “to gnaw”. This serves to emphasize that Jesus will truly give Himself for us to eat. Secondly, it was clear that those Jesus spoke to realized He was speaking literally. For Jews the idea of drinking the blood of an animal, let alone of a human, was repugnant. Throughout the chapter people are becoming more and more hostile to what Jesus is saying. Ultimately most left Him because of this teaching. Jesus could have stopped and said “listen, I am only speaking symbolically!” He could have kept most of His followers by making this clarification, but He didn't.
The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is not some mere symbol. The Church teaches that Jesus is really, truly present in the Eucharist because He has told us so.

There are some simple ways that we can strengthen our faith in these words of Christ.  Recently, Pope Francis said something which I found striking:
Every Sunday we go to Mass, we celebrate the Eucharist together and the Eucharist is like the ‘burning bush’ in which the Trinity humbly dwells and communicates itself.
After reading this, I thought, “how did Moses acknowledge that he was in the presence of God?” He took off his sandals. Because having a body is integral to what it means to be human, we must express our beliefs with gestures. Moses took of his sandals because he believed he was in God’s presence. As Catholics, we have a rich tradition of gestures associated with the Eucharist. These gestures and the way that we act when in the presence of the Eucharist both express our faith and strengthen it. For example, we kneel during the consecration not to take a rest, but to adore Jesus who is really present in the Eucharist. When we enter or leave a Church we genuflect to the tabernacle. In the Middle Ages, when someone entered the presence of a king they would genuflect. Genuflecting toward the tabernacle reminds us that Jesus - the King of kings - is really present there in the Eucharist. Doing these simple gestures like kneeling and genuflecting both expresses and strengthens our faith in Jesus’ teaching that He is truly, really present in the Eucharist.

Today on Corpus Christi we give thanks to Jesus that in His great love for us He has given us in the Eucharist the greatest gift of all, the gift of His very self. The Eucharist is no longer bread. It is not a mere symbol. It is really Jesus. This has never been an easy teaching to accept. We believe in the Real Presence because of the word of Jesus. We believe it because He has told us so. Let us remember that kneeling and genuflecting are not part of some “Catholic Aerobics routine” but are rather powerful, simple ways to strengthen our faith in Jesus’ teaching.

A Problem of Perspective

John 3:16-18 (Trinity Sunday, year A)

Once a group of adventurers were making their way through a dense jungle. In order to make any progress, they had to cut their way through the vegetation with machetes. It was hard, slow work. Eventually, on member of the group had the great idea to climb a tree in order to get a better view and check on their progress. Climbing the tree, he looked out and to his great surprise found that the group was making their way towards a giant cliff. He called down to his friends in an attempt to warn them that they were going the wrong way. The rest of the group would not listen to him. They kept silencing him saying, “we’re making good progress, come down from the tree and help us!” In our life, we can be like this group making our way through the jungle. We feel that we are making good progress. We go through our daily grind and can be satisfied just to soldier on. We rarely check, however, to see if we are even going in the right direction on our journey. Perhaps we are headed for a cliff. Today, Trinity Sunday, is a great chance for us to climb the tree and see which way we are headed. Today is an opportunity to put our lives in perspective and answer some important questions: where have I come from? Where am I going?
The answer to the question, “where have we come from?” is simple: the Trinity. That is our origin. The Trinity both the most important and perplexing Christina belief. A helpful way to consider the Trinity is to start with what is perhaps the most important definition of God: God is love (1 John 3:16). This says much more than simply God is “loving”, something many religions would agree with. In order for God to be love, there must exist within God a community involving a lover, a beloved and the love they share between them. This corresponds to the Persons in the Trinity: Father (lover), Son (beloved) and Holy Spirit (love they share). The communion of love they share is so perfect that they are one in substance. They remain, however, three different Persons, differentiated only by the relationships they have with one another. The Trinity has existed eternally in a state of perfection, before anything was ever created. An important question to consider is “why did the Trinity create”? Was God lacking in anything? We can discover the answer by considering that definition once again: God is love. An elderly priest once told me a story. He said that after his sister got married, she and her husband very much wanted to have a child but were encountering difficulties. They told the priest, “please pray that we can have a child because the love that we share between us is so great that we need to share it with someone”. Likewise, God created out of an overabundance of love and goodness. We have come from the perfect love of the God, who from all eternity has existed in community.

We were created in order to be in a relationship with the Trinity. This is the purpose of our existence. This idea is illustrated in a very interesting way in one of the most famous artistic representations of the Trinity, an icon by Andrei Rublev. In this icon, the Persons of the Trinity are seated at a table. The Father is seated to the left, the Son in the back and the Holy Spirit to the right. It is an image of loving communion and perfect happiness. If you have seen the icon, however, you will realize that there is an empty seat at the table, directly in the front. With this, Rublev sends the message that this place at the table is meant to be taken by each one of us. We have been created by the Trinity so that we could share in their communion of love. This relationship defines who we are as a human being. There is a space for us at the table with the Trinity.
This wonderful plan was destroyed by sin. Sin separates us from God, because it is the opposite of love. It prevents us from entering into this communion of love with the Trinity. Sometimes we fail to realize how serious and destructive sin is. That it destroys something so beautiful. If you have ever visited St. Peter’s Basilica, you will no doubt have noticed that a large crowd usually gathers in a spot in the back of the Church, just to the right, when you enter the Basilica. People gather there to catch a glimpse of Michelangelo’s Pieta. This statue, which depicts Mary cradling the dead body of her Son, is among the most beautiful and priceless works of art in the world. If you have ever viewed it, you also know that there is a large plexiglass screen separating visitors from the masterpiece. This was not always the case. In 1972, a man attacked the statue with a hammer. Before visitors constrained him, he was able to strike the statute more than ten times, breaking off Mary’s nose and arm. Though the statue was repaired, it was never quite the same. In the wake of this attack, people could not comprehend how someone could deface a work of such beauty and goodness. This event is a apt analogy for sin and should help us better comprehend the its severity. Sin destroys something infinitely more good and beautiful than the Pieta: our loving relationship with the Trinity.
Jesus’ mission was to allow us to enter into communion with the Trinity once again. The Gospel of today contained what is among the most famous passages of the New Testament, John 3:16. You have probably seen people holding posters at sporting events with this passage on it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” The Trinity created us out of love. The Father sent His Son to save us out of love. Let’s return back to the story about people hiking through the jungle. By His passion, death and resurrection, Jesus has cut path for us through the jungle and back to the heart of the Trinity. He has allowed us to enter once again into a relationship with God, this is the destination of our life. Jesus has cleared this path and opened it to all as a free gift. Our salvation, however, is not automatic. As we heard in the Gospel, we have to walk down the path laid out by Jesus. We need to trust Him, believe in Him and live a life in conformity with the Gospel. It is important to ask ourselves: are we following the path laid out by Jesus that leads us into communion with the Trinity in this life and the next? Or, are there areas in our life, certain behaviours or attitudes, that are bringing us towards a cliff? Out of love, Jesus came so that we would once again be able to live in a loving relationship with the Trinity.

Because life is busy, it is easy to get caught up in our day to day commitments and lose sight of the ultimate destination in our life. We get stuck in the jungle, hacking with our machete, and easily lose our way. Trinity Sunday is meant to give us perspective. We often make the sign of the cross. It is such a simple and powerful prayer. Often, however, we don’t pay attention to what we are doing. Whenever we make the sign of the cross, let it be an opportunity to consciously remember that we have come from the love of the Trinity and are meant to return back to this loving communion. Knowing from where we’ve come and to where we are going should determine how we live and the choices we make.