Sunday, June 02, 2013

The Health of a Body Determines its Ability to Process Natural Food; the Health of a Soul Determines its Ability to Process SPIRITUAL FOOD (i.e., the Holy Eucharist!)

(Corpus Christi 2013 (C): This homily was given on June 2, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; Luke 9:11b-17.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Corpus Christi 2013]

The health of a body determines its ability to process natural food.  This is a truth we all understand, but probably don’t think about too often.

I was reminded of it the other day, when a man came to the rectory to ask me to go and anoint his mother, an elderly woman in one of our local nursing homes whose health was deteriorating pretty rapidly.

He also came by to ask me what the Church teaches about end of life issues.  For example:  When is a person morally obligated to undergo a certain medical treatment, and when is it morally permissible to say no to that same treatment?  What’s the difference between extraordinary and ordinary means of maintaining or restoring health?  Are we morally obligated as Catholics to do everything we can to stay alive, even if there’s little or no reasonable expectation of recovery (barring a miracle)?

These were some of the questions I tried to address with this man during my conversation with him that day—along with the very important topic of nutrition and hydration.  Back in 2007, the Bishops of the United States asked Rome to clarify whether or not feeding and giving water to a sick and dying person were to be considered extraordinary or ordinary means of care.  (That’s a very important issue because we’re only morally obliged to use ordinary means.)  The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith answered by saying that food and hydration are ALWAYS to be considered ORDINARY MEANS.


This means it is never morally permissible to withdraw food and water from someone, EVEN IF THOSE THINGS HAVE TO BE ADMINISTERED BY ARTIFICIAL MEANS—unless the dying person’s body is shutting down, and is no longer able to process them (which does happen when a person is very close to death).

That’s a crucial teaching for us to be clear about, because, in all honesty, I think some doctors withdraw these things much too quickly these days—such that the person’s death certificate should actually read that they died of “malnutrition and dehydration” and not from whatever illness they had.

Let me read to you now what it says about this in our diocesan end of life guidelines booklet: “Food and fluids should always be provided until it is found that the organs can no longer assimilate them, a sign of the onset of natural death.”

I share this with you today, not to give a full-blown teaching on end of life decision making, but rather to illustrate the truth I stated at the beginning of my homily: The health of a body determines its ability to process natural food. 

When our bodies are in good health, natural food has its proper effect: it nourishes us and makes us strong.  But when a person is seriously ill and very close to death, their bodily systems begin to shut down, and natural food—even the best natural food on the planet—has no positive effect.  Because the person is so sick, their body can no longer process the nourishment—even if it’s given artificially through a feeding tube.

Not surprisingly, there’s a spiritual parallel here, which relates directly to the Holy Eucharist.  St. Paul reminds us of the reality of the Eucharist in today’s second reading when he says, “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

St. Paul makes it very clear there: the Eucharist is NOT a symbol!  After the words of consecration are spoken by the priest at Mass, the bread and the wine, become, substantially, the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

That’s what every Catholic is supposed to believe.

And yet, people have very different experiences when they receive the Blessed Sacrament, don’t they?  For some, it’s a deeply spiritual experience that strengthens them to live the gospel more faithfully in the world; but, for others, sad to say, it’s an experience that means little or nothing.  They’re no better—no more loving, or patient or forgiving or compassionate—after they receive than they were before they received.  And many people have an experience that’s somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

Why the difference?  Why do some people experience such incredible blessings through their reception of the Eucharist, and others experience very few blessings or none at all? 

I would explain the difference by saying that what’s true of the body is also true of the soul.  As I said a few moments ago, the health of a body determines its ability to process natural food.   Well, by the same token, the health of a soul determines its ability to process spiritual food (i.e., the Eucharist!).  A healthy soul is open and receptive to the graces of Holy Communion; a sick soul is not.

This means that the level of our spiritual health ultimately determines our ability to profit spiritually (and even physically and emotionally) from our reception of the Blessed Sacrament.

For example, if we’re in the state of mortal sin because we’ve missed a Sunday or a holy day Mass without a good reason, or because we’ve committed a serious sexual sin, or because we’ve committed some other serious offence like harboring intense hatred for another person, then it profits us nothing to receive Holy Communion.  In fact, by receiving in that spiritual condition we’re actually committing another serious sin—the sin of sacrilege!

This is why St. Paul said, in 1 Corinthians 11: 28, “A man should examine himself first; only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”

But it even goes beyond this.  The level of our spiritual health at the time we receive Holy Communion is also determined by the quality of our relationship with God—a relationship that we’re supposed to develop and work on every day. 

It’s likewise determined by whether or not we approach the altar with expectant faith—believing that Jesus really is present and will give us the graces we need for our daily lives.

And it’s determined by what we do after we receive!  If we walk right out of church, or if we don’t pray and pray fervently, then we should not expect to experience many blessings through the Blessed Sacrament.  To use a biblical expression, we will “squander what we have received.”

Some of you will recall the acronym I shared a few years ago which can guide us in our post-Communion prayer.  I heard this once from another priest and thought it was really good.  The acronym is ALTAR.  The “A” in altar stands for ADORATION: we should spend some time after Communion adoring Jesus—praising Jesus—from our heart.  The “L” in altar stands for LOVE: we should then tell the Lord that we love him, and that we want to love him more.  The “T” in altar stands for THANKSGIVING: we should then spend some time thanking God for all the blessings he has given us (and he has given us all many graces and blessings!).  The second “A” in altar stands for ASK (which is the only thing some people do when they pray)—but actually asking should come only after we’ve given the Lord praise, professed our love for him, and spent some serious time thanking him.  That brings us to the final letter in the word altar—the “R”—which stands for RESOLUTION.  At every Mass we should make a resolution: a resolution to be better—to be different—to be more faithful to God in some way—through the grace we receive in the Blessed Sacrament.

Remember, just as the health of a body determines its ability to process natural food, so too the health of a soul determines its ability to process spiritual food (i.e., the Eucharist!).

Today, therefore, we should pray at this Mass for good health—good health for ourselves and for one another: good physical health, yes—but even more importantly, good health for our souls, so that we will all be greatly blessed EVERY time we receive Holy Communion.