Before I was a Catholic priest I was an alcohol counselor. Many recovering alcoholics will tell me this about AA meetings: “Sometimes it is hard to go to them. The air is often thick with cigarette smoke. There is often something I would rather be doing. Sometimes the AA meetings can be boring. Sometimes I object to some members of the AA community who are obnoxious. But I keep going because if I don’t I will die.”
That is literally the truth. Untreated alcoholics die. I go to Mass because of the same reason. If I don’t go, I will die. I won’t die the horrible physical death of an alcoholic, but I will die. My spirit and my soul will die.
I know what that means as I was out of the Catholic Church for 14 years. I left due to a resentment against a bishop, and it was by far the dumbest thing I have ever done. I thought I was having a wonderful time, but my soul was dying for lack of nourishment.
My first Mass after returning to the Catholic Church was at St. Christopher’s in North Las Vegas Nevada. I had been stationed at that parish while serving as a seminarian in the late 70’s, and knew it to be a good and welcoming place. There was a mixture of Hispanic and Anglos.
I was there because I was dying inside. St. Paul speaks to my condition at that time when he says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”
Through Christ we all recognize our common brotherhood, our common unity. I recognized that unity with the people I worshiped with that Mass. But it was more then just them. It was the entire host of heaven, the angels, the saints, perhaps even men and women of good well who aren’t Catholic but are still trying to follow the light.
I also realized that the Eucharist helped unite me. I was all over the place. I was very fragmented. With Christ I began to have clarity, and more unity in my soul. I also, most importantly, began a journey of unity with Christ. Christ walks with us in the unity of the Eucharist. But there was more.
Not only did Christ offer me unity, he also offered me eternal life. "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” and “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”
Now eternal life is fully realized when we are in heaven, after we leave this mortal body behind. We have no idea how wonderful heaven will be, though it is our goal here on earth to go to heaven. However, we have flashes of heaven here on earth. The Church teaches us that in the Mass we celebrate we see Christ in the assembly, in our brothers and sisters celebrating Mass with us. We see Christ in the scripture readings, and in the person of the priest. We see Christ most profoundly in receiving the true presence of Christ in the appearance of bread and wine. When we participate in the Eucharist we participate in the life of the Trinity, the very life of God Himself.
That first Mass when I returned to the Church after all those years of absence, I did not receive Communion. I needed to go to confession very badly. But when I did go to communion the next Sunday, after being reconciled, I received wonderful blessings of community and of participating in the life of God. I was also challenged by God.
St Augustine used to say “Become what you consume” when he distributed Communion. He said this because Communion should make us more Christ-like. Being Christ-like means we have to live as Christ did. That means no more racist jokes. That means respecting everyone, giving up on grievances, and helping those who are marginalized.
At the very end of Mass we are sent out with the words, “Go in peace to glorify the Lord with your lives.” It is my hope that you let the Eucharist change your heart.
I want to end by talking to the people that have had a similar journey. All journeys are different. But if you went away from the Church, and then came back, it is very similar to my journey. I want you to know that you are welcomed back, and made the best decision of your life.
—Father Mike Van Cleve
Father Mike is a priest for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.