Mission and ministry flow from the abiding, transforming presence of Christ.
Earlier this year, in March, Pope Francis announced that Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, would be canonized on September 4 along with several other beati. Mother Teresa is widely regarded as a tireless champion of the dying and the destitute and a model of Christian charity.
Mother Teresa’s life has touched many with her call to compassion and concern for the poor. Among them was Malcolm Muggeridge, the late British journalist, author, media personality, and satirist who penned a biography of her in 1971 entitled Something Beautiful for God. Muggeridge credits his conversion to Christianity (and later to Catholicism) to her example. Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, the archbishop of Ranchi, India, has said: “Mother Teresa’s life was driven by a passion to build lives through forgiveness, healing, giving them respect, and through making them true human beings in the image and likeness of God.”
I had the pleasure of hearing Mother Teresa speak to a national gathering of Catholic educators many years ago in Chicago, and afterward encountered her in the exhibit hall as she talked with passersby near her order’s display. To this day, I cherish the memory of that experience and the lasting impression she made on me.
In 1950, shortly after leaving the Sisters of Loreto, this diminutive Albanian nun founded the Missionaries of Charity, whose members today serve in more than 130 countries, including the United States. They operate hospices and homes for people with leprosy, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, soup kitchens, dispensaries, clinics, and counseling centers for children and families. Their days are long and tiring, filled with hard work and menial tasks attending to the needs of others.
What many may not realize is that the sisters’ day begins long before the light of dawn, when they gather for community Mass followed by an hour of quiet prayer in the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. “Our lives,” Mother Teresa insistently reminded the sisters and often stated publicly, “are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist. In Holy Communion, we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work, we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.’”
As a woman of eucharistic contemplation and Christian service, Mother Teresa can teach us much, I believe, about the movement from the abiding presence of Christ under signs of bread and wine in the Eucharist to mission in his name and Spirit.
The Eucharist is at the center of our life as Catholics. This is something we know from experience and others, even nonbelievers, recognize as well.
A seminary professor once said something that has stayed with me throughout the years: “The Eucharist isn’t simply about Christ’s presence to us; it is also about our presence to one another.” In times of missionary fervor and expansion and in periods of intense suffering and persecution, Christ has been present to us in word and in sacrament, and thus has kept us, the members of his body, together and present to one another as church. In the exquisite phrasing of Carmelite nun Mary Grace Melcher, “His presence has passed into the sacraments for our consolation and joy” (Intercessions for Mass, Liturgical Press, 2013, 88).
Mother Teresa can teach us much about the movement from Christ’s abiding presence under signs of bread and wine to mission in his name and Spirit.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Lord, having loved those who were his own, loved them to the end. Knowing that the hour had come to leave this world and return to the Father, in the course of a meal he washed their feet and gave them the commandment of love. In order to leave them a pledge of this love, in order never to depart from his own and to make them sharers in his Passover, he instituted the Eucharist as the memorial of his death and resurrection, and commanded his apostles to celebrate it until his return . . .” (1337).
And in number 1341: “The command of Jesus to repeat his actions and words ‘until he comes’ does not only ask us to remember Jesus and what he did.” It calls us to imitate his love, to die to self and to give our lives away in loving service, as Jesus did. Thus, we offer the true worship the Father seeks.”
Throughout its history, the church has faithfully proclaimed the true presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, believing that it is the risen Lord who gathers his followers, shares God’s word with them, and feeds them with his body and blood in Holy Communion. The Eucharist is a privileged place of encounter with him. It is where we meet the heart of God in his Son.
A Transforming Presence
The presence of Christ in the Eucharist, however, is not a static presence, like an object. As Susan K. Wood, SCL, writes in her article “Vinculum Caritatis: Bond of Love” in the November/December 2015 issue of Emmanuel, the French theologian, Louis-Marie Chauvet, distinguishes between the Eucharist as esse and adesse, that is, being in itself and being for, being for us. Chauvet notes that Christ is in the liturgy in the assembly, the Scriptures, and the Eucharist, “not here like a thing,” but in the gift of his life for us.
The Eucharist does not exist for Christ to be present sacramentally for himself, as an end in itself, but that we might be united with him and each other in a “bond of charity,” in the hallowed words of Augustine of Hippo, and be transformed into his living presence in the world.
Presence demands communication; it entails self-giving. It is more than mere proximity. In the Eucharist, the risen Christ is present to us in a new and highly expressive manner — sacramentally. He is no longer here, as he was long ago in Palestine in a physical body like ours, but is in our midst sacramentally, under signs of bread and wine. And he continues to communicate to us and give himself to us in this way. The teacher and Lord who once gathered, taught, encouraged, healed, forgave, loved, and fed his followers continues to gather, teach, encourage, heal, forgive, love, and feed the community of his disciples with his body and blood through the ages.
A Power for Mission
The New Testament scholar Donald Senior, CP, in his classic work Jesus, A Gospel Portrait, describes the relationship between Jesus and his followers as one of the most tender and distinctive features of his ministry.
Senior points out that the master-disciple relationship did not originate with Jesus nor was it unique to him. Greek philosophers had schools of disciples around them intent on learning the master’s approach to wisdom. Jewish prophets had disciples, for example, Elijah and his successor Elisha. In the ancient world, distinguished rabbis had disciples. Shortly after the death of Jesus, Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, came to Jerusalem to study the Torah under the guidance of the respected rabbi Gamaliel. Saul became his disciple.
Though similar, discipleship for the Christian was markedly different from its secular and Jewish antecedents. It is discipleship on Jesus’ terms. We do not choose him; he chooses us (see Jn 15:16). It is not a matter of our willing it, but of a divine call. It involves more than learning Jesus’ teachings or his approach to the wisdom and discipline of kingdom living; it means submitting to his authority and allowing ourselves to be changed by him.
Consider Jesus’ interaction with his followers as reflected in the Gospels: the power of his call; the gentle way he taught them and corrected them; how he led them to a fuller understanding of himself and of his saving mission; the moments of intimacy in his company; the times he prayed with them, especially at table; and the trust he showed in sending them forth on mission.
The trust he showed in sending them forth! Discipleship on Jesus’ terms is sealed with a share in his mission. Intimacy and formation on the word of God and on the living word of Jesus’ actions lead to mission and ministry. In sending his disciples out on mission, Jesus tells them: “The gift you have received, give as a gift.” Recognizing the hungers of the masses that came to him to hear God’s word and to be fed, Jesus said to his disciples, and he says to us: “There is no need to send them away; you give them something to eat.” Serve them with the bread of your lives!
The eucharistic body of Christ brings us to the mystical body of Christ in all people.
The risen Lord, who reveals his presence to us in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup in the Eucharist, reveals himself, too, in the brokenness of his body, the church, and of all humanity to whom he has been eternally joined in the mystery of the incarnation and redemption.
Let me repeat the words of Mother Teresa quoted earlier: “Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist. In Holy Communion, we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work, we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.’”
The eucharistic body of Christ brings us to the mystical body of Christ in all people, especially the poor, the neglected, and the outcast.
One day, Mother Teresa took in a woman off the streets of Calcutta. Her body was a mass of open sores infested with bugs. Mother Teresa patiently bathed her, cleaned, and dressed her wounds. As she did so, the woman never stopped shouting insults and threats at her. Mother Teresa only smiled.
Finally, the woman snarled, “Sister, why are you doing this? Not everyone behaves like you. Who taught you?” Mother Teresa replied simply, “My God taught me.” When the woman asked her who this god was, she kissed her forehead gently and said, “You know my God. My God is called love.”
The Example of Another Saint
Peter Julian Eymard, a French priest and the founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament 160 years ago, was captivated by the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Naturally drawn to contemplation, he loved celebrating Mass and praying quietly in the presence of Christ in the sacrament. He spent many hours in the sanctuary, because he believed as he frequently said, “Jesus is there! Everyone to him.”
Saint Peter Julian Eymard moved comfortably from the sanctuary into the streets. He would wander the teeming city streets of Paris in search of the destitute, the forgotten, and the disillusioned. He ministered to those whom no one else in the church wanted anything to do with.
At the lowest rung of French society after the revolution and the beginning of the age of industrialization were the ragpickers, roaming bands of kids and youth who would eke out an existence selling pieces of cloth. They were the first to whom he went. He wrote:
“Tomorrow begins the retreat for the little ragpickers. God gave us the gift of the ultimate work of charity. They are the dregs of society. We teach them about God and about themselves. . . . What a ministry! I would not trade it for worthier causes. They are the little princes of the Eucharist whom we have sought out of the gutter.”
Christ is in the bread broken and the cup shared, and he abides in all humanity. See, and respond to their needs in faith.
A dynamic eucharistic spirituality encompasses three aspects: celebration, contemplation, and service. It starts at the table of God’s word and sacrament, is deepened in prayer in the presence of the risen Lord, and fulfilled in service to others, imitating the self-giving of the Lord Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples and commanded them, and us, to do the same.