Catechesis of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin

“The Church Is a Family in Which We Receive and Learn Communion”

QUEBEC CITY, JULY 11, 2008 ( Here is a translation of the July 17 catechesis given by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, at the 49th International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec. The June 15-22 congress reflected on the theme: “The Eucharist, Gift of God for the Life of the World.”

The address is titled “Memory and Offering.”

* * *


At the beginning of the celebration of the Eucharist, before even making the sign of the cross, the priest bows to venerate the altar. That gesture, so simple and immediately clear, plunges us into the abyss: No one can be equal to the event about to be celebrated. Because this altar, on which I have just placed a kiss, is at the same time the table of Holy Thursday, the cross of Good Friday, and the tomb from which the Resurrected Lord emerged victorious and free on Easter morning. In each Mass, indeed, we are made contemporaries of Jesus’ entire Pascal Mystery. I imagine that any priest, when he makes this gesture, feels, as I do, exceeded by the adventure on which he sets out with the assembled community.

The Eucharist and the Pascal Mystery

How can we bring this to life, convey it in all of the liturgical action (prayer, preaching, songs, animation, and various symbolic gestures) at the same time, the joy of the Pascal meal, the drama of Golgotha and the mystery of the morning of Resurrection?

— We are truly at Jesus’ side, like those who surrounded him on the evening of Holy Thursday. It is a marvelous moment of friendship and sweetness. After having washed his disciples’ feet, the Lord explained to them: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13:15).

Yes, humility is the queen of all the virtues, and those who take part in the Mass understand, by contemplating the model given by the Servant, that their vocation is to serve, whatever may be their state in life. They also feel that the Church’s environment is that of a family.

— But the Eucharist also makes us contemporaries of Good Friday. It is the hour of the supreme sacrifice, when the Lord shed his blood on the cross, for the remission of our sins. The Apostles did not have courage to follow him, despite their promises of fidelity. And even if we are no better than they were, and while remembering the tears of bitterness that appeared on Peter’s face after his denial, we ask for the grace to remain faithful to Christ, even in times of darkness.

— Finally, the celebration of the Eucharist is above all the mystery of Easter morning. God’s love triumphs over hatred and injustice, and the body of Jesus, living and resurrected, is held before us. He still bears the marks of his wounds. The doors of the Kingdom open, and the Holy Spirit has given to us as a strength and a source of forgiveness. Although he has returned to the presence of the Father, Jesus assures us that we will never again be without his presence: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age”� (Matthew 28:20).

Memory and Presence

From the Jews, we inherited the concept of memorial. That word, in the Bible, does not evoke just a memory of the past, like those monuments that we see in our cities, like the “I remember”� that is Quebec’s motto, or like the “day of memory,” instituted by a nation so that new generations do not lose the memory of the events of its history. For the Jews, a memorial (zikkaron) is an act of faith in the active presence, the action of God who saves us today as in the past. One reads in the Talmud: “From generation to generation, each one of us has the duty to think of himself as if he himself had left Egypt. … It was not only our Fathers who the Holy One, blessed be He, delivered, but He delivered us too”� (Mishnah Pesahim 10,5).

The “memorial” of the Bible makes its way into the New Testament and reaches its summit when Jesus uses this word in the institution of Eucharist: “Do this in memory of me” (1 Cor. 11:24). The event of the Pascal Mystery occurred in Jerusalem, at a given moment in the history of the Jewish people and the Roman Empire, but it also transcends history. It crosses continents and centuries, and it comes, as an eternal act, to “touch”� each place where the Eucharist is celebrated, as a “memorial” of the Lord’s Passover.

Thus, even if the Pascal Mystery of Jesus took place 2,000 years ago, Christians believe that with each Mass, they are like the Apostles brought together around the Lord for the Last Supper. They are like Mary, at the foot of the cross, with some faithful women and the disciple who Jesus loves; they are like the witnesses of Jesus’ Resurrection appearances. They believe, but some also are beset by doubts, and Jesus takes the time to strengthen their faith by showing them the truth of his Resurrection, in the same way that he did with his disciples, by showing them his wounds or by offering them something to eat.

It is right that we teach children to say in their hearts, at the moment of the Elevation, the exact words of St. Thomas, finally pronouncing his act of faith before the Lord, eight days after Easter: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). It seems that in certain countries, they say these words aloud. Perhaps by considering the division of Chapter 20 of the Gospel according to St. John into two parts, feminine and masculine, we could teach girls to say in their hearts the “Rabbouni”� (John 20:16) of Mary of Magdala, and teach the boys the words of St. Thomas.

Who Celebrates These Mysteries?

I would like to point out the Lord’s teaching, in his farewell discourse: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you”� (John 15:16). In fact, that sentence has a considerable range of meaning. It reaches the whole of our vocation as disciples of Christ, and it can be heard in a precise way in connection with each sacrament:

— Marriage: Because, even if it represents an essential decision in the life of a man and a woman, it is not they who will unite themselves, as if by a contract; it is God who will unite them, by sealing their union in his new and eternal Covenant.

— The Sacrament of Reconciliation: Even if Christians are accustomed to saying: “I am going to confession,” it is not we who gain the victory against our sins by confessing them; it is the Lord who forgives them, and who gives us back the holiness of our baptism. While a person makes three or four steps — which cost him, certainly — to go to the meeting with God, the Lord makes 10,000 steps to descend into our darkness, in order to heal us and save us.

— Confirmation: Often, we hear young people say, “I want to confirm the commitments that my parents made at the time of my baptism.” How blessed they are for the beautiful testimony that they give in undertaking such things! But that is not what is most important. Jesus explains to the Apostles, before Pentecost, that it is God who will confirm them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (cf. Acts 1:8).

We can see how that applies to the sacrament of the Eucharist. He who says: “I am going to Mass,” expresses a free and deliberate decision. He offers testimony to his membership in the Church and his fidelity. But the truth of this sacrament is that God invites us into his house to teach us by his word, and to his table, to feed us. The Eucharist is at once bread for the journey, and an invitation to the feast of the Kingdom.

Thus, when priests and the faithful feel exceeded by the celebration of the Eucharist, may they not lose faith! The true celebrant is Jesus himself. Paraphrasing St. Paul who writes: “It is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), the priests could say: “It is not I; it is Christ who celebrates this Eucharist.” Admittedly, we celebrate Mass each day, we know the Missal and the rites, which we try to respect as well as possible.

But, at the same time, we will never get used to it! The celebration of the Eucharist is an adventure that will always overcome us, a truth that we will never understand. It is also a place where I am sure not to be misled, because it is Christ himself who invites us to live with him and in him the sacrifice that he offers to his Father.

What Is a Sacrifice?

Many expressions are used to speak about the Eucharist. Some bring to mind the meal of Holy Thursday (the Last Supper, the synaxis), others evoke Easter Day (the banquet of the Kingdom, sacrament of the real presence), and still others place us at the foot of the Cross (the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass). In different eras, the Church Fathers and the theologians, and various spiritual families have emphasized one or another of these three principal moments, but the important thing is that we keep a certain balance among them, and that the Resurrection is always expressed as most important, because it is the heart of our faith.

We must also delve into each panel of this triptych, and, in this catechesis, ask ourselves the question, “But what is a sacrifice?” We have often introduced and sometimes confined this word to suffering and deprivation. However, sacrifice does not exclude joy; it evokes an interior attitude of offering that is lived as much in moments of light as in hours of darkness. In the Bible and the liturgy, we encounter just as often expressions such as “the sacrifice of the broken and contrite heart”� or “the sacrifice of praise,” “the offering of our lips,” which indicate that praise and sacrifice do not necessarily belong to two different universes.

The characteristic of sacrifice, in reality, is love. It is about an offering given to someone out of love. People initially offered to God in the Temple sacrifices and holocausts as a sign of worship. Certainly, at times, the prophets became angry against these formalistic and demonstrative practices, emptied of the purity of their origin: “I hate, I spurn your feasts. … Your cereal offerings I will not accept. … But let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:21-24). This warning from the prophets is also addressed to us. We cannot be sure of avoiding hypocrisy or the demonstrative spirit in our manner of offering the Eucharistic sacrifice. Our guarantee is that the great priest, the sole celebrant, is Jesus himself who presents to God the perfect sacrifice.
<br>In following Christ, let us look at the logic of this love to better understand it: It is like an inner and free obligation that moves us to seek how to express our trust and our recognition in him to whom we owe everything. Here, the obligation certainly has nothing to do with a constraint. In French, as in several other languages, the words of duty and obligation (“I am obliged to you”�) have kept this interior implication of gratitude. We do not hesitate to sacrifice time or money to bring joy, “to make the sacrifice” of an activity we enjoy in order to provide a service to someone of whom we say, according to the beautiful expression of present day language: “I owe him that much.”

It is like a debt of love and recognition, giving thanks. All of that, even if it costs us much, seems little to us compared to what we have received, and works to increase our joy. A characteristic of this offering is freedom. Jesus offered himself because he wanted to do so. “In oblations,” St. Irenaeus states, “appears the distinctive mark of freedom.”

This offering of love is sometimes lived in joy, but suffering does not stop it. Allow me to offer a moving example, which I witnessed in my priestly life. A mom had organized a beautiful birthday party for her son’s fifth birthday. She had dedicated to it, we could say sacrificed, much time, attention and money. Many children had been invited. They played, sang and danced. The treats were wonderful, and everyone understood without difficulty the maternal love behind such a celebration. A life given, a life offered for a child’s happiness leads obviously to all these acts of caring and tenderness.

Then, six months later, the child was stricken with leukemia. And we saw the same mom taking a leave of absence from her work, giving up all of her usual activities, her friendships and her recreation, exhausting herself running to consultations with doctors to fight like a lioness concerning her child. She gave up and sacrificed everything, especially a good part of her sleep, to be with the child in his fight, to be constantly at his side and to try to win against the disease. Was this a sacrifice? She did not even think about it, and it was still the proof of her motherly love that led her to be there, present to the point of exhaustion. From a human standpoint, it was madness, or at least excess, but there was no question of stopping her, or even reasoning with her.

Clearly, it was with the same inner attitude of love that she lived the sweetness and joy of that birthday celebration and that final fight that, unfortunately, she did not win. In watching her in those dramatic hours, when a priest never knows well enough how to be with someone, but he must remain there, I thought of the verse that solemnly begins the account of the Pascal Mystery: “Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end,”� to the extreme, to madness (John 13:1).

What the Lord lived among us is nothing other than the expression in a human heart of the offering that he, the eternal Son, lives within the Trinity while returning to his Father all that he receives from him. The Eucharistic sacrifice has its source in the Trinity. It is this same movement that we live in turn by making our offering in the thanksgiving: “To you, Lord, belongs this life that we received from you.”�

Presence, Sacrifice, Communion

Following the chronological order of the events in the Gospel accounts, we find three key words that summarize the Eucharistic mystery and all our Christian faith. Holy Thursday shows us that the Church is a family in which we receive and learn communion. Good Friday turns our eyes toward Jesus crucified; his sacrifice is the salvation of the world. And Easter Sunday shows us the presence of Jesus. Death did not get the better of him; it did not hold him captive. God has resurrected him from among the dead. In the liturgy, however, we live these moments differently. We could say that the theological and liturgical order is the opposite of the chronological order.

Permit me to explain. The center and pillar of our faith is Resurrection. Without it, as St. Paul said, our message is empty, our faith is empty (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:14). The whole journey of our Christian life is founded in it, because the presence of the resurrected Jesus, the certainty of his infallible assistance to his Church is for us a principal comfort, the foundation of that “assurance” (parrèsia) that strikes the Apostles, throughout the book of the Acts.

If I have the grace of faith, that is, the inner conviction that God’s mercy will always triumph in the lives of his children as in that of Jesus, the Beloved Son, I am ready to sacrifice everything to set out on the adventure of evangelization. To be a sower of joy in this world, to announce to people that they are saved, that it is enough now for them to open wide the doors of their life to Christ, as Pope John Paul II asked, that is a magnificent vocation, no matter what it has to cost us. Each one of us is ready to lose all in order to walk along that road.

Christ’s victory gives us courage to follow him in his sacrifice. “Lord,” said the disciple, “since I know that your Father did not abandon you to the power of death, then I too am ready to go to the extreme of love.”� A young person who thinks of the commitment of his whole life wonders, confusedly, what it will cost him, because love is a devouring fire, a demand without end. And life then undertakes to make us find the experience.

Communion is the fruit, the result. When Jesus died on the Cross, those who had condemned him believed they had triumphed. They thought that this “affair” had come to an end. However, the opposite had happened. Right before dying, Jesus saw the doors of the Kingdom opening. At last, communion became possible between God and man, even for the last of the criminals. He, Jesus, “the pure in heart,”� saw that the good thief also was going to become a beloved son: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

At the same time, communion is the result of the redemptive work of Christ (finally, the children find their Father’s love) and all the work that remains for us to do in the depth of ourselves, to obtain interior peace, and around us, to carry it into the world, as “artisans of peace.”

The Logic of the Eucharistic Celebration

Have you noticed that after the Liturgy of the Word, the course of the Eucharistic prayer is organized according to this logic? When we listen with faith to the account of the Institution, we know that the resurrected Jesus is there, in the midst of us, and, after the Consecration, we proclaim his presence in the anamnesis. The Eucharist is above all the sacrament of the real presence, of the eschatological victory.

Then comes the time of the sacrifice. Previously, one called the presentation of the gifts the Offertory. Now, since the liturgical reform, the Offertory is the moment that follows the Consecration. Christ’s presence did not solidify anything; he is offered then to his Father and is delivered for us. He presents his life to God, and all of our lives in his. And in the Eucharistic prayer, we ask God to “Look with favor on your Church’s offering,”�seeing in it that of his Son. We also offer ourselves to be integrated, carried into Christ’s Eucharistic movement: “May he [the Holy Spirit] make us an everlasting gift to you.” No one should not take part in the Mass without entering internally into the spirit of “this holy and living sacrifice,” to live “this holy and perfect sacrifice.”�

Led by Jesus to the encounter with the Father, we pray with confidence, taking up again the words of the Our Father. And we are invited here to take a place at the communion table, to eat the living Bread descended from heaven. We form one sole body, we who eat the same bread.

Thus let us summarize the whole of this movement in one clear formula: Presence, Sacrifice, Communion. Since Christ resurrected remains present in the midst of us, we go forth with assurance. We unite ourselves with his sacrifice, so that the world may be saved. And communion is the result of that sacrifice which will never leave us at rest. All children of God must be able to find interior unity, to be at peace with themselves, and to enjoy in their families a harmonious social life and a peaceful political situation. Such is the logic of communion and our unending mission as “artisans of peace” in this world.

A Light for the Life of All Disciples of Christ

As I explain that, each one of you knows that this is rightly the general orientation of his life, the ultimate truth of his existence. Let us reconsider the words by which Jesus presents his sacrifice: “This is my body given up for you. … This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.”

Taking an active part in the Mass is saying in return to the Lord the words that we have just heard: “Yes, Lord, because your life is entirely offered for us, know that we too are offered for you and others, in the sacrifice of the new and everlasting covenant.” Entering into the movement of the Mass is living, each one for us, and all together, the inner attitude of the sacrifice of Jesus.

However, these words, which summarize the life of Jesus, correspond to the most important thing that each member of the assembly lives. Let us begin with the priest. When he pronounces the words of the Institution, he speaks in the name of Christ, but he could well say the same of the essence of his own life too. That priest is there in front of you, and his life is entirely given to serve you. The commitment to celibacy required in the Latin Church gives more power and truth to the words: “This is my body given up for you.” Like You, Lord, that priest is a life given up, a living word for his brothers and sisters.

It is beautiful then to look across the whole assembly and see that these words also express the heart of what each group lives within it. For some, all is joy; for others, these words suggest a fight or awaken a suffering. But for all, the Eucharist corresponds to the great adventure of love, of offering, of the gift of their lives.

Let us look at that expectant mother who repeats with her child the words of the Lord, “This is my body given up for you.”� And let us think of the child who, indeed, from within his mother, takes all that he needs to form his body, to strengthen his life and to progress toward the day of his birth.

Let us then turn our eyes towards the married couples who live the Mass side by side. With what intensity, no doubt, they hear this sentence which brings their marriage to mind, that sacrament by which God gave them to each other. In Christ’s offering they understand increasingly, as the years go by, to what extent “to love is to give everything.” The Eucharist helps them to give their lives on this foundation.

I want to think now of the young people who have not yet chosen their course in life. They know, thanks to these words of Christ, that the day of the gift of their body must correspond to the gift of their whole life, with a husband or a wife if they are intended for marriage, or to the Lord if they are called to the priesthood or consecrated life. We know that it is for them a wonder and a fight. We measure the strength that they need in the present day world, to be faithful to this call of Christ, to chastity, and we assure them of our prayer so that they may prepare with love, from their youth, the offering of their whole life. The young people of the new generation await a clear and motivating testimony from the Christians of their age.

We should not forget those for whom these words of offering and love are a suffering: The people who would like to marry and who have not yet had that grace, those who doubt their body and do not know to whom it could be given because it is disabled by a handicap or for another reason. Widowers and the widows, as well as all those who were forsaken, also suffer much. Through the years, they lived the Mass with a spouse … who is not there anymore! And they no longer know to whom their body is now given.

For all, in joy or sorrow, the memorial of the Passion of the Lord is a sacrifice of love, an offering of our lives.

To the Extreme

At the time of the supreme sacrifice, Christ Jesus “gave testimony under Pontius Pilate for such a noble confession,” said St. Paul (1 Timothy 6:13), that we cannot forget all of our Christian brothers and sisters, in many countries, who still today live this love to the extreme.

I would like, in conclusion, to speak about our brothers and sisters, the Christians of Algeria, and particularly about the monks of the Cistercian Monastery of Tibhirine, assassinated in the spring of 1996. Their presence was an offering, simple, discrete and understood by all. And their sacrifice touched the whole world. To present Christianity without the cross, or to speak about the Eucharistic sacrifice without saying where it can lead us, would be a lie.

Last year, Archbishop Henri Teissier of Algiers came to preach the retreat for the priests of the Diocese of Lyon. He gave us a talk on “The Eucharist and Martyrdom,” while speaking about the 19 victims who the Church of Algeria knew during the dark years of the great Islamist violence. Certainly, he spoke about others, the assassinated nuns, brother priests or monks. But we understood well by listening to him that he also has known, for more than 15 years, that his life is in danger daily. It is in this spiritual climate that he celebrates the Eucharist each day. The Christian martyrs of Algeria gave their lives because of an Evangelical fidelity to a people who God sent them to serve and to love.

The prior of Tibhirine, Father Christian de Chergé, had written, “If I one day happen to become a victim of terrorism, I would like for my community, my church, and my family to remember that my life was given to God and this country (Algeria).” We imagine that he must have often thought about the Algerians, when he pronounced the words of the Consecration, “This is my body given up for you.”�

The death of the monks of Tibhirine makes me think of these words of St. Irenaeus concerning the martyrs of the primitive Church: “Unceasingly mutilated, the Church at once increases its members and finds its integrity.”

They had all learned Arabic. Brother Luc, monk and doctor, the oldest of the community of Tibhirine, looked after the sick in the region without charge. When the environment became dangerous, they chose to remain. It is what Bishop Pierre Claverie of Oran had explained, shortly before being assassinated in the fall of that same year 1996: “In order for love to overcome hatred, it will be necessary to love to the point of giving one’s own life in a daily fight that Jesus himself did not leave unharmed.”

After his assassination, no nun, no priest, and no layperson left his post in the Diocese of Oran. And that was quite in conformity with what he had one day written: “Here, we have formed bonds with the Algerians that nothing will be able to destroy, not even death. In so doing, we are being disciples of Jesus, and that is all.”

When someone loves a people, he continues to serve them even if things go badly. There is the truth about love: It always involves this dimension of offering and sacrifice. This attitude of the Disciples, 20 centuries later, helps us to understand the Lord’s Eucharist. Jesus drew crowds, when he healed the sick and multiplied the loaves; the people hung on his words when he taught each day in the Temple (cf. Luke 19:48). But nothing stopped the movement of his love, neither adversity, nor refusal, nor plots and jealousy that wound up leading him to the wretched death of the Cross.

The Good Shepherd remains when the wolves or the brigands enter the sheepfold. He gives his life for his sheep. The strength of his love tore down all obstacles. In his contemplation, St. Paul summarizes the whole of Christ’s life by these words: “Jesus Christ was not ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but ‘yes’ has been in him.”� (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Overwhelmed by the death, so unjust, of this Innocent One on the Cross, the Disciples were even more disturbed by the Resurrection. Here is the answer that God gives to men’s sins; He opens the doors of the Kingdom to his Beloved Son, and promises us that we are also awaited in that dwelling place for which Jesus left us “to prepare a place” (John 14:2). And, in each Eucharist, indwelt by this hope, “we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”


“As the Father loves me, so I also love you,” said the Lord in the discourse after the Last Supper (John 15:9) that we read like his spiritual will. We can put that sentence in parallel with the one that Jesus said to the Apostles in the appearance on the evening of Easter: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The verbs “to love” and “to send”� are interchangeable in these two sentences and in all Christian thought. The truth is that when God loves us, He brings us into the great adventure of the salvation of the world. Our mission is to love. That is what we learn from the life of the Lord, and most particularly from the sacrifice of his Eucharist.

[Translation used with permission of Teresa Polk, author of Blog by the Sea]

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