ROME, Italy — Last month I went to St. Peter’s Basilica to pray for a friend’s daughter who was getting married. Near the basilica, I was surrounded by hundreds of elementary school children. Looking around I saw a crowd of thousands. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I felt as if I had fallen into a Catholic Munchkin Land. I said my prayer from the square and wound my way out through the maze of smiling young people.
Later, I learned that Pope Benedict XVI had invited all the young people who had received their first Holy Communion to the basilica for a rally. It was one of many events and festivities that have marked the Year of the Eucharist, which ended in October. Now that there is time to process them, we can reflect on the lessons we learned.
In the Diocese of Charleston, we saw many parishes hosting eucharistic adoration and study groups on sacramental documents, and instituting a greater application and ordering of the liturgy and its ceremonies. Bishop Baker led a procession of the Blessed Sacrament through the streets of Charleston. He also promulgated and publicized his first pastoral letter, “The Redemption of Our Bodies.” The letter emphasizes the dignity of our bodies and the call Christ gives us to offer them as living sacrifices, with his own eucharistic sacrifice. So that the graces of the Eucharist do not remain hidden, Bishop Baker and Father Benedict Groeschel authored the book, “Lord, When Did We See You?” It stands as a call to all Christians to see in the suffering body of the poor and forgotten the very body of Christ.
On the universal level, there was Pope John Paul II’s very personal and heartfelt encyclical, “Ecclesia de Eucharistica,” and the Synod of Bishops. We witnessed World Youth Day in Cologne and many other joyful events, such as the First Holy Communion Rally.
All of these events, documents, insights and celebrations point to the greatest lesson of the Year of the Eucharist: the end and destiny of the human body. We’ll never forget this lesson. It was unexpectedly given in the final suffering and death of Pope John Paul II. In his public illness and final days, we saw his body slowly failing. In his death, we saw the body’s corruption and earthly end. Who will ever forget the wooden casket shown to the world at the conclusion of the funeral Mass? Without embarrassment, we were shown the body’s full and sometimes unnerving reality.
Through Pope John Paul II’s death and funeral, the world was given the Year of the Eucharist’s greatest lesson, which is Christianity’s most basic: our bodies are destined for greater things. In the mystery of the Eucharist, we see ordinary bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ; ordinary earthly things becoming extraordinary heavenly things. In death, we see a soul go to its eternal reward and await its glorified body. Through the resurrection of Christ, the body shares in our redemption. It has dignity. Whether unborn, disordered, disabled, weak, sick, or broken, it must be respected.
This is the encompassing lesson of the Year of the Eucharist. It’s the last one explained by Pope John Paul, the great teacher of our faith. It’s the one we’re challenged to accept and integrate. It’s our source of hope and joy.
Jeffrey Kirby is a seminarian of the Diocese of Charleston studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.