This is an excerpt from his essay on the Eucharist in the forthcoming collection, Signatures of Grace (edited by Thomas Grady and Paula Huston; E. P. Dutton; a Catholic Book Club selection). I first received Christ in the Eucharist in 1955. It was Dec. 8, the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and my brother Rob and I were celebrating our eighth birthday. And because of that, or because we were such gosh-darn cute twins, we were given the honor of leading the 60-child procession of second graders to the altar rail of Holy Angels Church in Omaha, Neb. We wore new shoes, navy blue slacks, white shirts with red cufflinks and white clip-on ties. We’d slicked down our hair with Wildroot Creme Oil. We felt spiffy.
I have no recollection of the Mass or of the homily preached by Msgr. Patrick Aloysius Flanagan, the younger brother of Boys Town’s founder. But my memory is helped by Kodachrome snapshots that were taken of our procession toward the high altar, our hands folded and fingers steepled, our faces solemn, reverent and way on the other side of cool and insouciant. We’d been catechized to feel awe for the mystery of Christ’s presence in the sacrament we’d receive, but we’d heard from older kids on the playground that the host tasted horrible; Rob was afraid he’d hate it and yet be punished with hellfire if he spit it out. And I was full of childish wonder about the changes Jesus would make in me. Would I be a Superman, a holy man, a healer? Would homework now be easier? Would I be a whiz? Or would I be jailed in piety, condemned to sinlessness, obedience and no fun?
We knelt at a polished marble altar railing and, lest the Blessed Sacrament fall onto our unconsecrated hands, hid them under the drapery of a railing-long linen cloth. I peeked at Monsignor Flanagan sidling along, holding up the host to my classmates as he recited Latin and laid the thin round wafer on their tongues.
Then Monsignor was in front of me, in his gold-embroidered white vestments, a seemingly towering figure, as stern and intimidating as the destroying God of Abraham. I felt the cold touch of the paten against my throat as a cynical eighth-grade altar boy in black cassock and white surplice held it under my chin, and with humility and childish worry I stuck out my drying tongue like a toddler being fed from a spoon. Watching the host, I heard Monsignor say as he made the Sign of the Cross with it, "Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen." "May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto life everlasting. So be it." And in spite of my unworthiness, he gave me first Communion.
I hesitated, then stood, huddling a little as I walked back to my pew under the smiles of my father and mother and the ever-wary gaze of Sister Mary Evans, my second grade teacherstill feeling the wafer like plastic on the roof of my mouth, but not disliking the taste. Then I knelt heedfully upright and mentally prayed as we’d been instructed to do, some scared and scientific part of me assaying myself for chemical reactions or a sudden infusion of wisdom while fancying Christ now sitting dismally in my scoundrel soul, my oh so many sins pooling like sewer water at his sandaled feet. But soon I saw that I was still me; there would be no howls of objection, no immediate correction or condemnation, no hint that I was under new management, just the calming sense that whoever I was was fine with Jesus.
It was a grace I hadn’t imagined.
With about 15 other classmates, Rob and I became altar boys in sixth grade. There were no altar girls then, and we were not acolytes, as in other religious denominations. For in Roman Catholicism, with its hints, always, of incense and cowls and medieval cathedrals, the designation of acolyte formally belongs just below that of deacon and is the highest ranking of the four minor orders, above exorcist, lector and porter, or doorkeeper.
To become an altar boy, we’d had to pass an oral exam on the pronunciation and memorization of the Latin of the Tridentine Rite on a four-page booklet of Mass responses, and a walk-through exam on our suave reverence in serving the priest: genuflecting to Christ in the tabernacle without tilting or grunting, shifting the Roman Missal from the epistle side to the Gospel side of the altar with such effortless silence that the book seemed to have been spirited there, trickling wine into the chalice at the Offertory with all the seriousness of a sommelier at a four-star restaurant, ringing the handbells at the Consecration for just the length of a "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph."
At that jaunty and guileless age I had no inkling of the queasy stage fright I’d feel at my first weekday 6:30 a.m. Mass, when I walked out to the high altar in my cassock and surplice with an older altar boy and the holy terror of Monsignor Flanagan, nor of the seeming 30-minute agony of reciting in halting and arduous Latin my first Confiteor, nor of the fear and panic that would roost in my chest as I failed to predict one after another of the Monsignor’s extremely particular expectations.
At the "Hanc igitur," when it was time for the consecration, we two servers humbly ascended the three plush, carpeted steps of the high altar to kneel beside Monsignor Flanagan, the older boy on the right side handling the ringing of four joined bells. The red-lettered rubrics of the Sacramentary called for the priest to pronounce the words of Consecration, genuflect, adore the host for a moment, rise, elevate the host for all the congregation behind him to see, replace it on the paten and genuflect once again. We held the hem of his knee-length chasuble so Monsignor could do all that without interference. I was wholly focused on doing it right, and grateful that I wasn’t also in charge of ringing the bells, when the old white-haired priest hunched forward and, holding the host in his index fingers and thumbs, slowly, softly and reverently recited the Latin translation of Christ’s words at the Last Supper, "Hoc est enim Corpus meum." "For this is my body." And a little later, Monsignor hunched over the tilted chalice, speaking into it as he slowly and scrupulously recited, "Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni testamenti: mysterium fidei: qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum." "For this is the chalice of my blood of the new and eternal covenant: the mystery of faith, which shall be shed for you and for many unto the forgiveness of sins." "Haec quotiescumque feceritis, in mei memoriam facietis." "As often as you shall do these things, in memory of me shall you do them."
I was in awe. My theology of the real presence was that of a sixth grader, and my Latin was in its infancy, so large parts of the history and lore of the sacrament were going way over my head, but I felt privileged to be there and observe from up close the mystery in which Christ’s body and blood were somehow actually confected from ordinary bread and wine. If my own faith had not confirmed the fact of that event, Monsignor Flanagan’s faith in it surely would have. All you have heard, he seemed to be saying, is true.
And when on other days I would glimpse Monsignor in the priest’s sacristy before Mass, kneeling with arthritic pain on his prie-dieu, solemnly adoring Christ in the tabernacle, I would understand that if it was all true, if Jesus was really there, you’d be insolent and vain to do other than what the old priest so reverently did.
Reading the Gospel stories of Christ’s meals with his followers, I often have been struck by how wanting in fun and food and relaxation those dinners seemed to be. Jesus is constantly quizzed or critiqued or compelled to act as a mediator in the four Gospel accounts, but there must have been thousands of meals with friends and hospitable strangers during his three-year public ministry, with graciousness, good food and wine, and maybe even hilarity like that in my family’s noontime dinners on Sundays.
Eight a.m. Mass would be just a memory and the Omaha World-Herald would be scattered about the living room as we sat down to my mother’s pot roast, boiled potatoes and canned vegetables, or chicken, green vegetables, mashed potatoes and salty gravy with cake, pie or canned fruit cocktail for dessert. Dad would retell comic incidents from his job as an electrical engineer for the Omaha Public Power District. My three older sisters or Rob would talk about what our teachers said at school, or what chums did to annoy them or what their schemes were for the afternoon. Mom would talk about the content of phone calls or letters she’d gotten from old friends or relatives. Reaching for a second helping, I’d probably spill my glass of milk. And in that serene, good-natured, Ozzie and Harriet setting we each got a sense of where we’d been, who we were and what we hoped to become. It gave us our identity, not just as a family of two parents and five children, but as unique individuals within that grouping.
Jesus was doing that in all his meals, singling out his hosts and guests as highly individual children of God, admonishing, praising or helping them as they needed, and yet generalizing in ways that are instructive to us even today. And that is never more true than in his ascent to Jerusalem and the stunning climax of his Last Supper. There a new paschal mystery is introduced, that of Christ "passing over" to his Father and redeeming creation through his life, death, resurrection, ascension and exaltation. As presented in Luke, the supper is a liturgical event in which Christ offers thanksgiving to God and shares the matzo with his friends, connecting those actionsthrough the metonymy "body"with the affliction he will suffer on the Cross.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," and as the concept of the eucharistic mystery developed over the centuries, the frequency of its celebration increased from weekly assemblies to include the occasional memorials of popular saints, which in turn, through proliferation, led to daily Mass. And through the influence of the religious orders in the Middle Ages, courtly affectations, courtesies and gestures of homage, such as genuflection, processions and incensing of the sacrament gave rise to cultic practicesand, in primitive societies, superstitionsthat the Reformation would ridicule and try to halt.
Our church calendar was checkered with them: monthly Benediction, in which the host was enshrined in a golden monstrance for what was once called "ocular Communion," and was used to solemnly bless the congregation at the conclusion of a liturgical service; the Forty Hours devotion, in which the Blessed Sacrament was venerated to commemorate the night and day of Christ’s passion; the yearly festival of Corpus Christi, a celebration of eucharistic piety in which parishioners were urged to increase their active participation in a Latin liturgy they could follow only in the English translation of their Saint Joseph Missal. Monsignor Flanagan went still further by instituting at Holy Angels perpetual adoration. The church was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with one or two parishioners continuously there, praying before Christ in the tabernacle. There were many nights when, on a wander near the neighborhood and in some state of crisis and desperation, I went inside the near-dark church for a "visit" and saw one or two adorers haloed by the glow of their reading lamps, silently kneeling on prie-dieux near the altar railing, generously giving up an hour of their day to say the rosary or page through their prayer books in a vigil that still strikes me as poignant and chivalrous.
My family were happy parishioners in an old, American-Irish Catholicism, when the church and school and social hall of Holy Angels filled our days with lessons, novenas, rosaries, meetings, choir practice, the major sports, pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners, bake sales, dances and other activities, and it was not unusual to get there for Mass before eight in the morning and leave after eight at night.
We were ever aware, though, that it was the Mass that was central. An old visiting priest once harangued us schoolchildren in his homily, "If you truly believed what is going on here," and he gestured toward the high altar and tabernacle, "you’d be here every day!" And we looked to each other in puzzlement: We were there every day; it was the first thing we did before going to the classrooms for religion and the five other, lesser subjects.
The holy nuns who were our teachers taught us to see the Mass as the occasion where the hunger of our heart would find satisfaction. In fact, it came to seem there was a hole in the day when, on vacation or for some other reason, we did not go to church. I feel that way still.
Even in my rebellious youth, I discovered that when I did not go to Mass I missed it. I felt serenity there, even joy, it seemed to make things good and right; and as my attendance at Mass increased in frequency, my sense of the rhythm, history and logic of the liturgy also grew. Weather, busyness and the doldrums could still hold me at bay, but for the most part I was hooked. A daily.
Often now when I find myself in a city of strangers, I find a local Catholic church and go to the first morning or noontime Mass. And in the familiar structure of the eucharistic rites and the faith I presumably share with the assembly, I have a feeling of commonality, of long-lost family, of home.
I was a lector at Mass for many years before I became a eucharistic minister. I was a college professor, after all, and had read my own fiction in public hundreds of times, so it was not particularly daunting to stand at the lectern, or ambo, and read aloud the Hebrew scriptures, the responsorial psalm, the epistle. Words were familiar and safe. To hand Christ’s body and blood to the congregation at Mass, however, seemed such a staggering and godly thing to do that I felt too unworthy to try it.
Then I realized there was an important theological point in that: I am, as we all are, a sinner; but in Christ I am as loved and forgiven as the good thief on the cross; in him my faith and worthiness are sufficient.
And so at noon Mass in the old California Mission Church of Santa Clara, I have the courage to go up to the tabernacle, genuflect before it just as Monsignor Flanagan would, and get out a ciborium I would not have dared touch in my childhood. And I stand where a railing used to be, holding the consecrated elements of either bread or wine, giving Christ to those holier than I, who walk up with such reverence, simplicity, seriousness and childlike vulnerability that my eyes sometimes film with tears. It is a gift to me, that giving; it’s the glorious feeling I have when I am writing as well as I can, when I feel I am, in ways I have no control over, an instrument of the Holy Being; for I have just an inkling of what Jesus felt when he looked on his friends in mercy and aching love, and I have a sense of why, just before he died, he established this gracious sacrament of himself.
Ron Hansen teaches at Santa Clara University. His novels include Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus and Hitler’s Niece.