VATICAN CITY, MAY 29, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the homily Benedict XVI gave today in Italian during the closing Mass of the 24th Italian National Eucharistic Congress, in the esplanade of Marisabella.
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“Glorify the Lord, Jerusalem, Zion praise your God” (Responsorial Psalm). The psalmist’s invitation, made also in the sequence, expresses very well the meaning of this Eucharistic celebration: We have gathered to praise and bless the Lord. This is the reason that has led the Italian Church to meet here, in Bari, on the occasion of the National Eucharistic Congress.
I also wished to join all of you today to celebrate with particular prominence the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ and, in this way, render homage to Christ in the sacrament of his love, and reinforce at the same time the bonds of communion that unite me to the Church in Italy and its pastors. My venerated predecessor, Pope John Paul II, would also have liked to be present at this important ecclesial event. We feel he is close to us and, with us, glorifies Christ, good shepherd, whom he can now contemplate directly.
I greet all of you with affection who participate in this solemn liturgy: Cardinal Camillo Ruini and the other cardinals present, the Archbishop Francesco Cacucci of Bari-Bitonto, the bishop of Apulia and the numerous bishops who have come from all over Italy; the priests, men and women religious and the laity, in particular, those who have cooperated in the organization of the congress. I also greet the authorities who, with their presence, emphasize that Eucharistic congresses are part of the history and culture of the Italian people.
This Eucharistic congress, which comes to a close today, intended to present Sunday again as a “weekly Easter,” expression of the identity of the Christian community and center of its life and mission. The theme chosen, “We Cannot Live without Sunday,” takes us back to the year 304, when Emperor Diocletian prohibited Christians, under pain of death, to possess the Scriptures, to meet on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist and to build premises for their assemblies. In Abitene, a small village in what today is Tunis, 49 Christians, meeting in the home of Octavius Felix, were taken by surprise on a Sunday while celebrating the Eucharist, defying the imperial prohibitions. Arrested, they were taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the proconsul Anulinus.
Significant, in particular, was the response given to the proconsul by Emeritus, after being asked why he had violated the emperor’s order. He said: “Sine dominico non possumus,” we cannot live without meeting on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would not have the strength to face the daily difficulties and not succumb. After atrocious tortures, the 49 martyrs of Abitene were killed. Thus, they confirmed their faith with the shedding of blood. They died but they were victorious; we now remember them in the glory of the risen Christ.
We, Christians of the 21st century, must also reflect on the experience of the Abitene martyrs. It is not easy for us either to live as Christians. From a spiritual point of view, the world in which we find ourselves, often characterized by rampant consumerism, religious indifference, secularism closed to transcendence, might seem such a harsh wilderness as that “great and terrible” wilderness (Deuteronomy), of which the first reading spoke to us, taken from Deuteronomy.
God went to help the Jewish people in difficulty with the gift of manna to make them understand that “man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). In today’s Gospel, Jesus explained to us for what kind of bread God wanted to prepare the people of the new covenant with the gift of manna. Alluding to the Eucharist, he said: “This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever” (John 6:58). The Son of God, becoming flesh, could become bread and in this way be the nourishment of his people journeying toward the promised land of heaven.
We need this bread to cope with the toil and exhaustion of the journey. Sunday, day of the Lord, is the propitious occasion to draw strength from him, who is the Lord of life. The Sunday precept, therefore, is not a simple duty imposed from outside. To participate in the Sunday celebration and to be nourished with the Eucharistic bread is a need of a Christian, who in this way can find the necessary energy for the journey to be undertaken. A journey, moreover, that is not arbitrary; the way that God indicates through his law goes in the direction inscribed in the very essence of man. To follow the way means man’s own fulfillment, to lose it, is to lose himself.
The Lord does not leave us alone on this journey. He is with us; what is more, he wishes to share our destiny by absorbing us. In the conversation that the Gospel just recounted, he says: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:56). How can we not rejoice over such a promise? However, we heard that, in the face of that first proclamation, instead of rejoicing, the people began to argue and protest: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52).
To tell the truth, that attitude has been repeated many times in the course of history. It would seem that, deep down, people do not want to have God so close, so available, so present in their affairs. People want him to be great and, in a word, rather distant. Then they ask themselves questions to demonstrate that in fact such closeness is impossible.
However, the words Christ pronounced specifically in that circumstance retain all their graphic clarity: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Facing the murmur of protest, Jesus could have backed down with tranquilizing words. “Friends, he could have said, don’t worry! I spoke of flesh, but it is only a symbol. What I wish to say is only a profound communion of sentiments.”
But Jesus did not take recourse to such sweeteners. He maintained his affirmation with firmness, even in face of the defection of his own apostles, and did not change at all the concrete character of his discourse: “Will you also go away?” (John 6:67), he asked. Thank God, Peter gave an answer that we also assume today with full awareness: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
In the Eucharist, Christ is really present among us. His presence is not static. It is a dynamic presence, which makes us his, he assimilates us to himself. Augustine understood this very well. Coming from a Platonic formation, it was difficult for him to accept the “incarnate” dimension of Christianity. In particular, he reacted before the prospect of the “Eucharistic meal,” which seemed to him unworthy of God. In ordinary meals man becomes stronger, as it is he who assimilates the food, making it an element of his own corporal reality. Only later did Augustine understand that in the Eucharist the exact opposite occurs: the center is Christ who attracts us to himself; he makes us come out of ourselves to make us one with him (cf. Confessions, VII, 10, 16). In this way, he introduces us into the community of brothers.
Here we are faced with a further dimension of the Eucharist, which I would like to touch upon before concluding. The Christ whom we encounter in the sacrament is the same here in Bari, as in Rome, as in Europe, America, Africa, Asia, Oceania. He is the one and same Christ who is present in the Eucharistic bread everywhere on earth. This means that we can only encounter him together with all others. We can only receive him in unity.
Is not this what the Apostle Paul said to us in the reading we just heard? Writing to the Corinthians, he affirmed: “Because there is one bread, we who are
many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). The consequence is clear: We cannot commune with the Lord if we do not commune among ourselves. If we wish to present ourselves to him, we must go out to meet one another. To do so, the great lesson of forgiveness is necessary. We must not allow the destructive larva of resentment to take hold of our spirit, but open our heart to the magnanimity of listening to the other, of understanding, of the possible acceptance of his apologies, of the generous offering of our own.
The Eucharist, let us repeat, is the sacrament of unity. But, unfortunately, Christians are divided precisely on the sacrament of unity. All the more reason, therefore, that, supported by the Eucharist, we must feel stimulated to tend with all our strength toward that full unity that Christ ardently desired in the cenacle. Precisely here, in Bari, the city that keeps the bones of St. Nicholas, land of meeting and dialogue with Christian brothers of the East, I would like to confirm my wish to assume as a fundamental commitment to work with all my energies in the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all the followers of Christ.
I am aware that to do so, expressions of good sentiments are not enough. Concrete gestures are required that will penetrate spirits and stir consciences, inviting each one to that interior conversion that is the premise of all progress on the path of ecumenism (cf. Benedict XVI’s Address to Representatives of Christian Churches and Communities and of Other Non-Christian Religions, April 25, 2005). I ask you all to undertake with determination the path of that spiritual ecumenism, which in prayer opens the doors to the Holy Spirit, the only one who can create unity.
Dear friends who have come to Bari from several parts of Italy to celebrate this Eucharistic congress: We must rediscover the joy of the Christian Sunday. We must rediscover with pride the privilege of being able to participate in the Eucharist, which is the sacrament of the renewed world. The resurrection of Christ took place on the first day of the week, which for the Jews was the day of the creation of the world. Precisely for this reason, Sunday was considered by the early Christian community as the day in which the new world began, the day in which Christ’s victory over death the new creation began. Coming together around the Eucharistic table, the community was taking shape as the new people of God. St. Ignatius of Antioch called Christians “those who have attained new hope,” and he would present them as persons “who live according to Sunday” (“iuxta dominicam viventes”). From this perspective, the bishop of Antioch wondered: “How will we be able to live without the one whom the prophets expected?” (“Epistula ad Magnesios,” 9, 1-2).
“How will we be able to live without him?” We hear the echo of the affirmation of the martyrs of Abitene, in these words of St. Ignatius: “Sine dominico non possumus.” Our prayer arises from here: may today’s Christians again become aware of the decisive importance of the Sunday celebration so that we be able to draw from participation in the Eucharist the necessary drive for a new commitment to proclaim Christ “our peace” to the world” (Ephesians 2:14). Amen!
[Translation by ZENIT]