Sacred reality of the Eucharist

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

In observance of the National Eucharistic Revival, I offer these reflections on how I came to understand what Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen meant when he said: “The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white Host.”

When I was growing up in the Baptist Church, the observance of the Lord’s Supper was always a special occasion, partly because it was observed so infrequently, but also because of its solemnity. Children knew they had better not be caught whispering or passing notes during this service. Church members believed the bread and grape juice they consumed merely symbolized the Body and Blood of Christ because the service was only a remembrance rather than a re-enactment. Nevertheless, we were always warned not to partake if we knew ourselves to be unworthy.

GLUCKSTADT – Father Ajani Gibson, of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, looks to the Eucharist as Bishop Joseph Kopacz holds the host up during Mass at St. Joseph parish, as a part of a Eucharistic Revival event on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. Mississippi Catholic columnist, Melvin Arrington reflects on the sacred reality of the Eucharist in his column “Reflections on Life.” (Photo by Joanna Puddister King)

My first exposure to the Catholic Church was in graduate school when I started attending Mass with Terry, my future wife. It quickly became obvious to me that the focal point of the Mass was always the same thing week after week: the priest would consecrate the bread and wine and repeat the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper. Then the people would come forward and receive communion.

One day, after having attended Mass several times, I asked Terry, a cradle Catholic, if she had ever gotten tired of repeating the same ritual every Sunday. She replied simply, “No.” But she said it with a slight, almost imperceptible, smile while looking off in the distance, as if contemplating something beautiful. This was more than 50 years ago, and I still remember that conversation. Needless to say, her answer made a deep and permanent impression on me. Now, as a Catholic, I can appreciate why this sacrament is the essential element of the Mass. After all, the one thing Christ asked his disciples to remember was His sacrificial death.

After we were married, we tried to focus on those doctrines baptized Christians hold in common. Unfortunately, belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist wasn’t one I shared with her. But after praying, studying and attending Mass for many years, I finally came to accept this teaching and found my way into the Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, the writings of Archbishop Sheen, and Terry’s wonderful example of faith.

During this journey I learned that the first-century Christians believed Christ was actually present in the Eucharist. This was not just a symbol for them. Jesus said when we gather to worship He is in our midst. (Matt. 18:20) So, from the very beginning when the first Christians met in homes for prayer and the “breaking of the bread,” they sincerely believed what they were receiving was the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord.

The church has maintained a firm belief in the Real Presence throughout its history. The early Church Fathers taught this, and the teaching largely remained unchallenged until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Of course, Protestants to this day hold to a symbolic interpretation. But it’s important to keep in mind that during the church’s first 1500 years (75% of its 2000 year history), all Christians believed Christ was truly present in the Sacrament of the Altar.

Growing up, I had learned to interpret the Lord’s Supper symbolically, but the first-century Christians didn’t understand it that way, for one reason because they were able to distinguish between literal and figurative language. For example, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), they realized He was speaking metaphorically because He wasn’t really a shepherd; He was a carpenter turned teacher/preacher. They knew Jesus was using this expression to show how He watched over and cared for his own.

In like manner, when Jesus told Peter and Andrew He would make them fishers of men (Matt. 4:19), He didn’t mean these two fishermen would literally be snaring people in their nets. They must have instantly grasped the metaphorical significance of His remark – that they were being called to lead men and women to follow Jesus – because upon hearing those words the two men left their boats without hesitation and went along with Him.

However, when we come to John chapter six Jesus speaks literally, leaving no room for ambiguity: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (vv. 54-55) How do we know that? We know because when He explained this pronouncement in greater detail and they understood He meant it literally, many left Him, claiming this teaching was too hard. Even the persecutors of the early Christians took these words at face value because one of the charges they leveled at Jesus’ followers was cannibalism.

Toward the end of this passage Jesus stated, “There are some of you who do not believe.” (John 6:64) We still have scoffers with us today. In fact, surveys show that seventy percent of Catholics in this country don’t believe in the Real Presence. Despite this sad fact, the church’s teachings have not changed. We, like those in Jesus’ day, should take His words in the “Bread of Life” discourse literally. There is no other option. What Jesus said is true because He said it, and He is Truth itself.

As Christoph Cardinal Schönborn has commented, the people do not kneel and the priest does not genuflect “in front of a mere symbol.” He goes on to explain, “No one genuflects in front of a piece of bread. I bow down before God in person.”

The Eucharist, like other “mysteries of faith” (e.g. the Trinity), is difficult to explain, but it’s not necessary to comprehend something fully in order to believe it. Without understanding how gravity works or how light can travel at 186,000 miles per second, I still accept these things as true.

When we approach the altar with bread and wine, two of the basic elements that sustain life, we are bringing gifts that represent our own sacrificial offering. Bread and wine are most appropriate because, as Archbishop Sheen explains, “no two substances have to undergo more to become what they are than do wheat and grapes. One passes through the Gethsemane of a mill, the other through the Calvary of the winepress before they can be presented to the Beloved on the altar.”

In contemplating this “holy and living sacrifice,” I’m reminded of a weekly feature than used to run in a local entertainment paper. The feature asked selected individuals to answer a single question. One week the editors, probably thinking of celebrity sightings, asked: “When have you ever been in the presence of greatness?” One of our parishioners was among those questioned. He gave the best response imaginable: “Every Sunday.”

Like Coca-Cola’s advertising slogan of the 1970s, “It’s the Real Thing,” we, in turn, boldly proclaim that the Eucharist is really and truly the “Real Thing.” It is sacred reality – Jesus in our midst, offering us intimate participation in His Divine Life. And that’s a love story for all time.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)

The greatest gift

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
Gift giving and the Christmas season go together like trees and decorations. It’s hard to think of one without the other. Adults understand this, but children usually have a different perspective.

When I was a little boy, Christmas to me was all about getting gifts rather than giving them. What was the best present you received as a child? I can still remember a few of mine. When I was in second grade my parents gave me a little robot. It was only about a foot tall, but it was simply the finest Christmas toy ever because it would come alive when I moved it forward and backward by remote control! Another year my favorite present was an illustrated copy of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, a book I still have on my shelf after all these years.

When I was around ten my favorite was a transistor radio. That little Zenith model really opened up the world to me. It wasn’t even necessary to stay home to listen to it. I could take it with me practically anywhere and listen to ball games and all the wonderful music of that era. To my young, immature way of thinking that was the greatest present ever.

But as I grew older those childhood attachments gradually became less significant as the things that really matter began to occupy more of my time and thoughts. Eventually, I came to realize that residents of Western democracies have been endowed with individual God-given liberties that oppressed and/or poverty-stricken peoples around the world do not have. How often do Americans take for granted clean air and water, abundant food, warm clothing, comfortable housing, good health and loving family members? And what a wonderful blessing to have children and grandchildren! Of course, not everyone in our country enjoys these benefits, but a lot of us do, and we should take the time to acknowledge these things and give thanks for them. And most of all we should be grateful for the gift of life itself.

But rather than focus on things received, our thoughts should concentrate on giving during this holy season. This means not only material gifts but monetary ones as well. Everybody has probably received requests for charitable contributions in which the sender lists a series of suggested donation amounts, ending with a blank space and the words “my best gift,” or something to that effect. The amount written in may be less than the minimum suggested donation or it may be greater. Either way, that phrase allows the contributor to set the amount according to his or her own resources.

This raises a question worth pondering: What’s my best offering? A friend of mine likes to say, God sent us His best: His Son and His Spirit. He loved us so much that He sent His love, His only Son, to be our Savior; and He sent the love He shares with the Son, the Holy Spirit, to be our advocate and comforter. Those are gifts that can’t be topped!

The Holy Family also left us beautiful models to follow. Mary gave her best when she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) What hope would the human race have if she had not agreed to become the Mother of God? In addition, Joseph set a high standard when he responded in the affirmative to God’s call by lovingly taking Mary into his home rather than denouncing her as the law prescribed.

Jesus offered Himself as well. The King of Kings left his celestial home and humbled himself by becoming the Babe in the manger. Then, at the end of His earthly life he sacrificed himself on the Cross in order to pay our sin debt. And now, so that we might have the Divine Life within us He offers His precious Body and Blood in the Eucharist.

So, if the members of the Holy Family gave their finest gifts, why shouldn’t I try to do likewise? Giving of self in service to others is not easy, but it affords tremendous bonuses because the giver receives abundant spiritual gifts in return. As St. Paul, quoting the words of Jesus, tells us: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

During this time of year many people, unfortunately, suffer from sadness and loneliness. If you are one of these, here’s a suggestion to bring some happiness into your life: do something to help another person. In doing so you will experience the joy that comes from cooperating with God’s plan. Here’s a quotation that helps put service to others in perspective: “Whenever you have an opportunity to do something for someone, do it, because you may be the instrument God uses to answer that person’s prayer.” The chorus to an old Protestant hymn gracefully captures the essence of these thoughts: “Others, Lord, yes others. Let this my motto be. Help me to live for others, that I may live like Thee.”
If we have God’s love in our hearts, it will be nearly impossible to keep it bottled up inside; we will feel compelled to share it with others. Christmas is about giving, and nothing has greater lasting value than the gift of God’s love. The more we love, the more we will want to give of ourselves. After all, that’s the most precious thing we can give this Christmas.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)

Reflections on St. Martin de Porres and racial reconciliation

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

Martin de Porres, the first black saint of the Americas, knew bigotry and racial discrimination firsthand. Born in 1579 in Lima, Peru, he was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a black woman from Panama. He and his sister Juana were socially stigmatized for being of mixed race. For many years their father refused to acknowledge them as his children, mainly because of their dark skin. Lacking his support, they spent their childhood in poverty.

Discrimination based on race has a long and shameful history. Unfortunately, our country appears in several chapters of that history, with our state comprising an entire chapter of its own. During my childhood, there was no meaningful social interaction between the races, so I was blissfully ignorant of the struggles of people of color.

OXFORD – A stained glass window at St. John the Evangelist Church depicts St. Martin de Porres. Columnist, Melvin Arrington writes the column “Reflections of Life,” this week he reflects on his childhood in segregated Mississippi and the life of this very special saint. (Photo courtesy of Melvin Arrington)

I grew up in the 1950s in the Northwest section of Jackson on a little street off of Northside Drive. This was during the era of separate facilities for schools, hotels, restaurants – everything. And this included housing. There were five houses on my street, all occupied by white families. Adjoining my house, the fifth one, was a huge, overgrown vacant lot functioning as a barrier separating whites from the black families that lived on the other side of it. Families on the two ends of the street didn’t socialize in any way; it was as if they lived on separate planets. I knew there were boys my age who lived beyond that weedy field, but we couldn’t play together. That was just the way things were.

As an illegitimate, mixed-race child, Martin de Porres faced a bleak future because of the way things were during his era. At age 12 he had the good fortune to became apprenticed to a barber-surgeon (a person skilled at bloodletting), an experience that taught him about medicine and how to care for the sick. At 15 he had a vision of Mary, who told him to go to the local Dominican friary and ask to be admitted. He did so, and the Order accepted him as a lay helper, the most he could expect given his color and lack of social standing. In 1603, after serving nine years, he was finally allowed to take full vows as a friar.

Martin worked in the kitchen, laundry, and infirmary and also distributed alms to the poor. Always willing to do any menial chore, he was assigned the task of sweeping floors, earning him the nickname Brother Broom. People also called him Martin of Charity because of his love and passion for service. In addition to devoting much time to caring for the sick and the poor, he founded an orphanage, and took on the task of tending to black slaves brought from Africa, because they had no one to care for them. He even set up a shelter/hospital for stray dogs and cats. Martin never judged a person by his race or social class; in looking at someone in need, he only saw Jesus.

Martin had the gift of healing, sometimes performing an instant cure just by walking into a sick person’s room. Like his good friend, Rose of Lima, he often experienced mystical ecstasy during prayer. Other gifts included the ability to levitate and also to be in two places at once (bilocation). It was said that any room where he went to pray would become filled with light. Another rare talent was his ability to communicate with animals. According to one well-known story, he taught a dog, a cat, and a mouse to eat from the same bowl at the same time.

The beloved Brother Broom died in 1639, surrounded by the Dominican friars. All of Lima turned out to mourn his death. Pope John XXIII canonized him in 1962. His feast is Nov. 3. He is the patron of barbers, hairdressers, black and mixed-race peoples, and social justice. This black saint, who endured the bitter realities of racial prejudice and discrimination and struggled throughout his life to bring diverse peoples together, is also our patron of racial reconciliation.

In Oxford, one of the stained-glass windows at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church honors St. Martin de Porres. Fittingly, the window was placed in the southeast corner of the building facing University Avenue at precisely the spot where, in the fall of 1962 (the year of Martin’s canonization), U.S. Marshals lined up to begin escorting James Meredith to the Ole Miss campus. After several failed attempts to gain admission to the University, Meredith ultimately enrolled following a night of rioting that left two dead and hundreds injured. All of this bloodshed resulted from the state’s refusal to allow Meredith, an African American U. S. Air Force veteran and native Mississippian, to enroll in one of its institutions of higher learning.

Our state has made much progress since that incident. By way of illustration, here is the rest of my story. In my early thirties, I accepted a teaching position at Ole Miss and moved with my family to Oxford. One day, while having lunch at a civic club meeting, I met an African American gentleman who was a high-ranking administrator at the University. In talking, we discovered we had grown up in the same city and even in the same part of town! When we learned that we had actually lived on the same street, we were shocked! As a child he had lived on the other side of that infamous vacant lot! We had long ago been neighbors and yet, because of segregated housing, we had never met until that day at the civic club. My new-found friend should have been someone I grew up playing baseball with. As a child, we had been deprived of each other’s friendship because that was “the way things were.” Today, when my friend tells our story, he calls it a “Mississippi story.”

St. Martin de Porres, you taught the dog, the cat and the mouse to get along with each other. Pray for us that we might learn how to treat everyone with dignity and respect and live in peace with all our brothers and sisters, regardless of race. Amen.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)

St. Rose of Lima and the call to service

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

We know we all have a purpose in life. We are here to know, love and serve God. If we come to know Him, we will love Him. And if we love Him, we will want to serve Him. St. Rose of Lima learned these truths at a young age and took them to heart. I, on the other hand, was nearing retirement age when I discovered them and began putting them into practice.

St. Rose of Lima (1586-1617) was born into a well-to-do family in Peru’s capital city during Spanish America’s Colonial era. Early on, she showed an inclination to the austere life, fasting often and praying constantly. As a young lady she was considered to be very beautiful. But she was so fearful of the pitfall of vanity that, before going out into the street, she would soak her hands in lime and intentionally disfigure her face by rubbing pepper on her cheeks to mar her complexion. At one point she began wearing a self-fashioned crown of thorns because of a deep desire to imitate Christ.

Why perform these excessive mortifications? Perhaps it was an attempt to take the words of our Lord a little too literally when He proclaimed, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out” and “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” (Matthew 5:29-30) In any case, the object was to enhance her spiritual rather than physical beauty. These extreme forms of penance seem strange to us, like the actions of someone who is out of touch with reality. But we can also view them as a protest against the materialism and evils of those times, an era plagued by violent acts of cruelty and the savage lust for gold.

When the family fell on hard times, Rose began working in their home vegetable garden by day and doing needlework, including making exquisite lace and embroidered silks, at night. Many friends encouraged her to marry in order to escape poverty, and her great beauty would have easily made this possible. But instead, at age 20, she joined the Third Order of St. Dominic after seeing a black and white butterfly come to rest on her shoulder, taking that as a sign God wanted her to wear the black and white habit. As a member of the Third Order, Rose was allowed to wear the habit and continue living and working at home.

She greatly admired and hoped to imitate St. Catherine of Siena and chose the great Italian saint as her patron. Like St. Catherine, Rose received visions from God and experienced mystical ecstasy. This aroused the suspicions of church authorities, including the Inquisition. But after theologians conducted an examination, they concluded that her holiness was genuine.

Hoping to live a life of solitude, Rose managed to construct a hut as a little hermitage on the grounds of the family home. There she lived as a recluse, spending much time in prayer.

St. Rose reportedly protected the city of Lima from disaster three times. When Dutch pirates invaded the city in 1615, the fearless young woman stood guarding the tabernacle in the Church of Santo Domingo as the raiding party entered the church. When they saw her there, they returned to the ships and canceled their plans to plunder the city. In two other instances her prayers saved Lima, once from attack during an indigenous uprising and, on another occasion, from damage by an earthquake.

In reading about this saint, I found out that she’s considered the founder of social services and social work in Peru. The term “social services” refers to promoting the welfare of others by providing assistance such as medical care and housing for the benefit of those in need in the community, and that’s exactly what Rose did. During the latter portion of her life, in true Dominican fashion, she added an active component to the contemplative life by roaming the city in search of homeless children, the sick, the elderly and the dying and taking them to some rooms reserved in her parents’ house, where she fed and bathed them and saw to their needs. In fact, that’s the sort of thing we should all be doing in some form or other – serving the less fortunate – either directly or indirectly through prayer and financial support.
At age 31 Rose fell sick and died. She was so highly regarded by the citizens of Lima that during the funeral procession the city’s leaders took turns carrying her coffin. St. Rose of Lima is the patron saint of Latin America (feast day, Aug. 23). Canonized in 1671, she was the first person born in the New World to be raised to the altars.

One lesson we can learn from this saintly life is that faith must be put into action. As mentioned earlier, I came to this realization rather late. As a young man, I spent most of my time selfishly caring for my own needs, with relatively little concern for the common good. Later, after I had a family of my own, I just didn’t seem to have enough free time to pull away from obligations at home to become involved in community service. Only in mid life did I come to understand that I needed to make time for volunteer work. There are opportunities for involvement in every community. In retirement I’ve found mine. These activities are good for the soul. They have changed the direction of my life, and clearly for the better.

In the final analysis, we’re here to serve others, not ourselves. As Pope Francis says, “It is not enough to say we are Christians. We must live the faith, not only with our words, but with our actions.” St. Rose of Lima would wholeheartedly agree.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus at University of Mississippi and member of St. John Oxford.)