The work of a priest is a hard thing to properly explain. On paper it doesn’t seem like there is a lot to do and if the Church were just a big business, it would be very hard to see the priesthood as being ‘productive’. In fact we would probably all be fired, because a lot of the time we don’t seem to be ‘doing’ an awful lot.
The most important thing that I can do as a priest is to celebrate the mass. There is nothing more important than this, because every time I celebrate mass, I am bringing Jesus to people in the Eucharist. That is primarily why a priest is ordained and that will always be the greatest thing I can do. Having nice church buildings and good parish programs, etc, are all important, but there is nothing more important than having the mass. When we have Jesus, we have everything, because He is the one who created us and He is the one we will be with for all eternity, so what could possibly be greater than for us to be able to receive him each day?
For the most part God’s presence among us is very subtle, sometimes frustratingly so. It is easy to miss it and even to think that God is not there at all. Think of how many people pass by a Catholic church each day and really believe that the body and blood of Jesus Christ is present there? Probably very few. Think of when you come into the church for mass, do you really believe that Jesus is here in the Eucharist? That is what we say we believe.
The first reading about the prophet Elijah refers to this. Elijah is considered the greatest of the prophets and the writings about him are full of extraordinary happenings. Just before this passage, where he encounters God, Elijah has just worked an amazing miracle, calling down fire from heaven to show up the false prophets who are misleading people. Then Queen Jezebel threatens to kill him because he has just killed her prophets. So he flees into the desert and sits down and wishes he was dead. ‘I have had enough Lord, take my life. I am no better than my ancestors.’ (1 Kings 19: 4b) In a way I think it is good that we read about someone like Elijah wishing he was dead, feeling that he can’t go on any farther. Many people can relate to that. But note how God responds to him. He doesn’t tell Elijah to rest and take a few weeks off. Instead he pushes him to keep going. It says that Elijah lay down and fell asleep, but he is woken by an angel who tells him to eat the food that he finds beside him. Elijah eats the food, but then goes back to sleep. But the angel wakes him again and tells him to eat all the food because he will need it for the journey. Then he is told to continue on his journey and eventually he comes to the mountain of God where he has this strange encounter we read about.
Then he sees these frightening powers of nature: a storm force wind, followed by an earthquake and then a fire; all great signs of the powers of nature, which can be so frightening, but it says that God wasn’t in any of these wonders. And then there was the sound of a gentle breeze and Elijah knew that God’s presence was there. In some translations it says, ‘A still, small, voice.’ Why did God send the storm, the earthquake and the fire? I think that God is reminding us that his presence is very subtle and easy to miss, but just because God doesn’t come to us in the form of thunder and lightning, or something very dramatic, doesn’t mean that He is not there. Sometimes I think that it might even be easier if his presence was more dramatic. Then we would be under no doubt about God being there. It would probably be terrifying, but for whatever reason, the Lord prefers to stay hidden from us. Think of each time we come to receive Holy Communion. How much more hidden can you get? Who would believe that God comes to us in the form of a tiny piece of bread? It sounds completely crazy, but this is what Jesus himself has taught us and that is why we believe it is true.
Perhaps when you come up to receive Holy Communion today, think of the gentle breeze that passed in front of the prophet Elijah. God was in that gentle breeze. Jesus is also present to us here in the tiny piece of bread that we receive, which has become his Body and Blood.
I want to finish by telling you about another Eucharistic miracle that began almost 300 years ago in Siena, Italy, but still continues today.
On 14th of August, 1730, as the townspeople were attending devotions for the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, a thief broke into the tabernacle in the Franciscan church and took the gold ciborium, which contained the sacred hosts (Holy Communion). It was only discovered the following day and caused great distress that the hosts had been taken, as this was a sacrilege. The celebrations for the feast were cancelled and the people were asked to pray in reparation and that the hosts would be found.
Two days later a priest was praying in a church when he noticed a host sticking out of the poor box in the wall. On opening the box he discovered the hosts, which were now quite soiled, as the poor box was only opened once a year. They cleaned the hosts as best they could and they were brought back to the Franciscan church where they were kept in a separate ciborium. Normally they would decay within a few years, but these hosts continued to remain perfectly fresh, even smelling fresh.
In 1789 another examination was done by the Archbishop of Siena, Tiberio Borghese, along with several others. Under a microscope the hosts still showed no sign of decay. They decided to put several similar unconsecrated hosts aside in a sealed container. Ten years later these were examined and they had completely decayed, with only a yellow dust remaining.
Two other scientific studies were done of the hosts and to this day, almost 300 years later, they have remained perfectly fresh and intact. They can still be seen in the Franciscan church in Siena.
The Lord continues to give us so many signs and reminders of his real presence in the Eucharist and yet we doubt. In the Gospel, Peter was actually walking on water. But then he began to think about it and his logical mind told him it was impossible and so he began to sink. Jesus’ response, ‘Man of little faith. Why did you doubt?’
There is so much that we cannot understand and many mysteries of our faith that contradict the laws of nature. Those hosts in Siena are an ongoing, living, miracle. So is the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Science cannot explain, what it is made from or how it is still there.