Thomas Howard on the Eucharist and Conversion

Sees the Blessed Sacrament as the Center of the Church’s Life

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MANCHESTER, Massachusetts, JUNE 3, 2003 ( The Holy Thursday release of John Paul II’s encyclical “Ecclesia de Eucharistia” has prompted the Church to reconsider the role of the Eucharist in its daily life.

As part of a series of spiritual reflections from Protestant converts to Catholicism, Thomas Howard describes the role of the sacrament in his life and the life of the Church. Howard is the author of “Evangelical is Not Enough” and “On Being Catholic.”

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A Note on the Eucharist
By Thomas Howard

I was received into the Church at the age of 50, after a long pilgrimage, which drew me from the earnest and biblically zealous world of Protestant evangelicalism, and thence to the Anglican church and finally home, to full obedience to the apostolic Church.

To say that the Eucharist “played an important part” in my pilgrimage would be to falsify things. It did not play a part at all: It was there, and insofar as I came to the Church, I came to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not a component part of the Church, along with any number of other items. It is the Center, and all of the Church’s disciplines, teaching, piety and hierarchy draw us to this Center.

As an Anglican, I had become accustomed to the idea of sacrament, and of the liturgy. In fact, the particular sector of Anglicanism where my wife and I had located ourselves was the so-called catholic wing of that church. Hence, we were accustomed to the vocabulary of “the Mass” and “the Blessed Virgin,” and also to the practices of confession, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the liturgical year — all of which are quite unknown in plain Protestantism. So, in making my obedience to Rome, I was already “catholic” in many ways, at least in appearance. But …

The morning after I was received at the Easter Vigil, I began assisting at Mass in the Catholic Church, and I made it my habit to do so daily, from then on. The liturgy was a simple matter — a “Low Mass” (although that term is no longer used), held in a tiny chapel in the rectory of my parish. There was a peculiar sense in which I found that I had to climb down — from the great pomp, elegance and high ceremonial of the Anglican High Mass to which I was accustomed.

But this “climbing down” brought me home. It was rather like arriving at Bethlehem, from a great, bustling, glittering city. Bethlehem: so small, so unobtrusive, so quiet: But God is there. I felt like one of the shepherds (I am not a Magus). Here is Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the very flesh and blood. “How silently, how silently, The wondrous gift is given….”

When I find myself in the little chapel at the rectory in our parish, in the minutes before Mass begins, it sometimes strikes me that my situation is not altogether unlike a death.

That would seem, at first glance, to be a very strange idea — surely the Eucharist is, if it is anything at all, life for us? How can we possibly liken it to a death?

When we approach the “altare Dei,” we are summoned into the very Divine Presence. We meet Our Lord face to face. In another way, to be sure, but nevertheless just as truly, at our death we will find ourselves in his presence.

The Church has always prayed, “From sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us.” Why? Because we all hope, most earnestly, that we will have time to collect ourselves, examine ourselves, repent, make a good confession, and be shriven. Or, even more, that we will have time to amend our ways, and live the rest of our time here in sobriety, godliness and charity.

Well, surely this is an attitude most appropriate for us as we approach the altar of God? That altar which is also a table, to which Our Lord invites us, as he invited his disciples on that Thursday evening in the week of his passion.

Who of us will wish to be found having rushed in, heedlessly and carelessly, distracted and preoccupied, full of ourselves, and stained with all the venial sins of the day before? If we have a difficult time finding any such sins in ourselves, we might try using St. Paul’s litmus-test in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offence, and is not resentful; … it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes.”

Alas! How do I show up under that burning light — and it is the Light of the Divine Charity. How shall I dispose myself, so that I may say with joy and confidence, “Et introibo ad altare Dei”? Well again: the Lord to whom we come in the Eucharist is the one who said to us all, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And, through his apostle John, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.”

The sacrament of reconciliation? Yes. Indeed. As often as is practicable for us. But on those mornings “between times,” must I come in fear and guilt? No. The Lord who welcomed those disciples on that Thursday evening is the same one who welcomes me. Ah. So. I may come to him with joy, and pray, also with joy, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.”

And now, 18 years later, with my wife, who was received eight years ago, I find myself day by day at this altar, this table, at which the faithful have gathered ever since that Holy Thursday evening 2,000 years ago.

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