Close encounters

And don't forget to read the runners up!

In our first mini-essay contest, U.S. Catholic readers find many presences of Christ at Mass in many ways, expected and unexpected.

For more than 40 years, U.S. Catholic has been proud to host the conversations of American Catholics. In our signature Sounding Board and Reader Survey departments and in the lively letters to the editor in You May Be Right, readers are ever eager to discuss how our faith meets the issues of the modern world. This month we begin a new feature called Meditation Room featuring mini-essays on “How do you encounter Christ in the Mass?”

We editors were not surprised at the passion, the thoughtfulness, and the profound faith that ran through all of the submissions, and we only wish we had space to run more of them! Anyone who wonders whether the Mass since Vatican II is spiritually feeding Catholic men, women, and children need only read these responses to get their answer.—The Editors

In the joyful noise
David Geiger
Wayne, N.J.

I am not an emotional man, but I still seek to find God, the living Christ, and I meditate upon what I have found along the way. Where I have found him is in the music at Our Lady of the Holy Angels Catholic Church in Little Falls, New Jersey. It is the sound of angels. As the congregation and the musicians make music together and the celebration of the Mass progresses, I find myself drawn into that celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ.

I had always wondered what heavenly singing would sound like with so many of us “tone-challenged” people singing among the many throngs of heavenly hosts. This, I think, might be it. There are, however, no paid soloists or professional musicians. So what accomplishes this effect? I must say that it is that the assembly sings from the heart. They, too, it seems, have experienced the living Christ.

“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” wrote William Congreve. And here I have discovered that Christ is found in the joyful noise.

Sometimes I tremble
Father Burke Masters
Joliet, Ill
It was at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Illinois that I first encountered priests, nuns, Mass, and the Catholic Church. I was intrigued by my theology classes and found myself drawn to this person of Jesus Christ. I was very intrigued by the Catholic teaching about the Eucharist. How could Jesus be truly present in bread and wine?

Then one day I was at a Mass with only about 20 people present. We were all gathered around the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer. And instead of going to the priest for Communion, he began to come to each person and said, “The Body of Christ” as he placed the Eucharist on the tongue. As I opened my mouth to say, “I’m not Catholic,” the priest placed the Eucharist on my tongue before the words could escape my mouth.

At that moment I felt the most powerful presence of Jesus in my body that I had ever felt until that point. I remember thinking, “Now I understand what they have been trying to teach me.” I began to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It was this desire to receive the Eucharist as often as possible that spurred me to join the Catholic Church. With my parents’ blessing, on May 26, 1985, I was baptized, received my “Second Communion,” and was confirmed.

Twelve years later I entered the seminary because I wanted to share the gift of the Eucharist with as many people as I can. I was ordained a priest in 2002, and now it is an incredible privilege to share the gift of the Eucharist with the People of God. I sometimes tremble as I hold the Body of Christ in my hands during the Mass.

Take me out to the ballgame
Ted Rosean
Wilmette, Ill.
At Mass recently my thoughts kept drifting to baseball, to a game I’d recently been invited to by a very dear old friend. In the late innings at Wrigley Field, we stood with 40,000 screaming fans as Derek Lee came to the plate with two on and two out, hoping to bring the Cubs back from behind. All 40,000 of us were united, eyes fixes on the pitch. Forget class differences, political leanings, or sexual orientations—at this second baseball drama was transcending each of us beyond our differences to a higher place where we were one. Then Lee struck out . . . and we all sat down.

To find oneself in communion with a bunch of other people, even for just a moment, offers a glimpse of human harmony that reveals our Creator—who made us in his image. We spend so much of our lives focusing on that which distinguishes us: “You’re Republican so you must think this”; “You’re a blue-collar union guy so you won’t like him”; “You’re against abortion so you’ll never get along with her”; and so on. Then something happens—something extraordinary and often beautiful—and we stop looking at our differences and look at each other as part of one body. We see a bit of God.

That’s what happens for me at Mass. Of course I experience the reverence of the consecration, and the readings enlighten me. But the greatest encounter with the living Christ comes from the contact with the people gathered, whether I know them or not.

When I’m out of town and feeling homesick, a visit to the local church and the familiarity of our Mass brings immediate comfort. I share something with these out-of-town strangers. Catholics everywhere are sharing this experience around the world. I belong to a body—and not just any body. The stakes are much higher at Mass than at a baseball game. This is communion with the Body of Christ.

Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who signed Jackie Robinson, said, “Baseball points the way to our salvation.” I think I understand what he might have meant.

Toughing it out
Mary Lynn Delfino
Dayton, Ohio

At a retreat with nearly 100 high school students, in a serene place tucked away in the rolling mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, I was seriously questioning my faith and the relevance of the institutional church. Our conservative-leaning diocese had begun to implement directives outlined in a new document from the Vatican, one that frowned upon holding hands during the Our Father, prohibited extraordinary ministers from going to the tabernacle, and listed a host of other “no-no’s.” Add in the renewed focus on the practice of eucharistic adoration and other traditional devotions, and there you had the source of much of my unease.

The angrier I became, the more I challenged myself and God with a battery of questions, chief among them why I should stay at the retreat and why I should remain a member of a church that was clearly out of touch with young adults. I brought these questions to God where I felt most at home: outside in the fields, sitting on the dock, breathing in the fresh country air.

My “aha” moment happened ironically enough at Mass, in front of the tabernacle, the source of so much of my angst. On the last night family and friends packed the chapel for the closing Mass. At Communion the priest motioned for all the students to gather behind and around the altar after receiving to make room for others to receive. After Communion I returned to my spot in the back of the chapel, amazed to see the Body of Christ before my eyes, not in two species, but in three: bread, wine, and human. Gazing upon this mass of joyful students, I joined them in singing a familiar refrain, “We are one body, one body in Christ. And we do not stand alone . . . .” And at that moment I knew that God had not abandoned me, even if I was feeling a bit rebellious. What I began to comprehend was that no church document could dictate where and how I met Christ, that Christ was on the faces and in the hearts of each of us, especially these young people.

Today, when I struggle with the messiness of the institutional church, I draw strength and hope from that experience that renewed my belief in the Real Presence of Christ.

Christ behind bars
J. R. Rabago
Corcoran, Calif.

I have been incarcerated for 11 years and have a few more years to serve before I am released. Daily I am confronted with the challenges of prison life, the mundane existence of a system geared to tear down, not rehabilitate. As proven by the great saints of the past, trials and burdens can translate into spiritual growth, should we desire it.

Experiencing Christ, not only at Holy Mass but wherever I happen to be, has become a very intimate and personal time for me. When we are able to celebrate the Holy Mass, I enjoy just sitting quietly before the Lord to prepare myself to receive the Eucharist. When unable to attend Mass due to institutional security, I find the same Spirit as I lie upon my bed meeting the Lord in spiritual communion.

I envision Jesus lovingly welcoming me into his arms; not to chastise or rebuke, but simply to bathe me with his presence. In his arms, as I hug the Trinity, my sins and shortcomings make my heart ache with shame. At the same time I sense a tremendous, unconditional love.

I cannot boast of great visions or revelations, for there have been none. Instead my normal mundane day in the life is replayed, shortcomings and impure thoughts brought to mind. However, before long my blessings take center stage. Prayer needs grab my attention. The needs are great in my prison environment; they can be overwhelming. I strive to unite myself with the communion of saints, taking comfort in the myriad of fellow intercessors. I am not alone.

My needs somehow take a back seat. God allows me to reach out to other prodigals. Even the smallest of gestures is multiplied and the kingdom is advanced. Sinful man though I am, I have a peace I would not trade for all the riches and gold. Perhaps my life is not so mundane after all.

Need a hug?
Mary Best
Erie, Penn.

One bitterly cold January day, I was fighting a blustery wind as I made my way to Chicago’s St. Peter’s Church in the Loop for an early Mass before work. In my misery I cried out, “Lord, see how much I love you.” Inwardly I heard his response: “You’re not going to Mass because you love me. You’re going because you know there is Someone there who loves you.” How true that was.

Being single and working 500 miles away from my parents and siblings was lonely at times. At Mass I felt I belonged, that I was loved and cherished in a way not found anywhere else. It’s like the hug I received one Christmas when I couldn’t make it back home. I was delivering parish dinners to shut-ins, feeling very much alone and desperately in need of a hug. My last delivery was around 2 p.m. The lady who opened the door was so grateful to see me, she surprised me with a hug that about cracked my ribs.
That’s what Mass means to me—Jesus welcomes me with a hug so hard it about cracks my ribs. In the silence after Communion, wishing I could love him more, I lean on the Lord’s heart like John at the Last Supper and return the hug. There is, indeed, Someone there who loves me.

Go in peace
Theresa M. Scholand
Fredonia, N.Y.

I discovered that the time I most experience the living Christ is at the concluding rite of prayer, blessing, and dismissal. The word “mass” comes from the Latin missa, which means “send.” After being challenged, nourished, and blessed, I am being sent forth “to love and serve the Lord,” to link the Liturgy of the Eucharist to the liturgy of life. That’s quite an overwhelming assignment for a weak human like me. But the good news is I don’t have to go alone. Jesus Christ within will energize, enable, empower, and inspire me to be the hands and feet of Christ, to see with Christ-eyes and hear with Christ-ears, to love with the heart of the Shepherd.

Oh, I’ll still be human and may not do so well when Monday mania hits and all those other days when needy people and difficult situations cross my path. But I know that nothing is impossible with God and because Jesus prayed for me in John 17: I pray for them . . . my life is on display in them . . . guard them as they pursue this life . . . in the same way that you gave me a mission in the world, I give them a mission in the world. I know there’s a chance that some of the time God’s grace will prevail.

Besides that, Christ dwells in those with whom I have worshiped as we go forth together, having been renewed and strengthened in prayer and Trinity-blessed to go make a difference in the world.

At this awesome thought, I can only say, “Thanks be to God!”

Circle of life
Barbara Miller
Wayne, Ill.

In 1999 our faith community built a new worship space; it is an architectural dream that presents me with the assurance of watching Christ every time I am at liturgy. We describe our space as “antiphonal”—almost “in the round”—one large circle of pews with the table, ambo, and baptismal font in a straight line right down the middle of that circle. Looking at one another, we are always visible praying and singing. The Body of Christ faces Christ across, sideways, and around; I am surrounded by Christ.

For three decades I have prayed with the community, so I well know the people and their stories. At every Mass I see faces like the senior widow who recently had to put her old dog to sleep; she is crying. I look at another senior—the high-school genre—holding hands with her new beau. Starry-eyed, she occasionally looks at him. I smile when I see them praying the Creed together. There is the recently divorced dad who this weekend has with him his two young children. As he listens to the Eucharistic Prayer, he gently places his hands on their shoulders. And over there I see a bright red scarf that covers the bald head of the one who smiles at me; she knows that I am praying for her remission. I catch sight of the children and appreciate their initial clumsy attempts at the Sign of the Cross, their patience, or lack of it. They, too, are the church!

In my heart I bear the sadness of the woman with her three children waiting with hands open for the gift of the Eucharist. A victim of a handgun crime, she survives as a single parent. I feel the anxiety of a husband and wife coming to take the holy sustenance that will help them as they anxiously await the homecoming of their son, completing a third deployment in Iraq.

At every celebration of the Eucharist the Spirit dances in a circular fashion, and breathes energy and the light that shines from the faces, the people, Christ!

Through a child’s eyes
Mary Elizabeth Adler, age 7
Gig Harbor, Wash.

When I come into Mass I see Christ standing by me. I see him watching Mass. He looks at me when I look at him. I greet him and he greets me back. When people read, Christ is by them. At Communion the Eucharistic ministers are handing out bread. Christ is by them. When the priest is talking, he asks about Christ. Christ is explaining it to me. Christ is with me all the time—I feel it in my heart. When I am singing, he is singing with me. Christ is at every Mass. I see him every time I go. When Mass is over, I see Christ reading the gospel or saying a prayer. When Christ is finished, he goes up to heaven. This is how I encounter Christ at Mass.

Meditation Room Runners-up

Even in the mess
Erin Boulton
Berkeley, Calif.

About 12 years ago I began the process of becoming Catholic and from the start the Mass fascinated me. What I found then led me all the way through and keeps me returning every week.

It is in the words that I hear and the words that I say, these prayers that have been repeated across time and across place, no matter the language or the changing customs. There is something in that the Mass is both private and public. I hear my voice, and also the combined voice of the people assembled.

I have gone to Mass angry and resentful at the world and God, praying that God will give me some balm for my life. I've gone joyous and grateful, wanting to praise God for being steadfast when I was not. What I continue to find is people living in relationship with God just as I am. The people of God are faithful, hoping, loving, afraid, and tired. I have felt all this and have seen that those around me are living that as well. It is not always beautiful, not always even spiritual. There was a particular Mass when the normal flow had been disrupted and it was taking time to get everybody together for communion. The man next to me muttered: “This is a train wreck.”

“No,” I thought, “this is the Eucharist, this is God made human. Jesus is with us just as he promised, even in the mess."

We come on purpose to a particular place at a particular time for celebration, solace, promise of redemption, community. We have shown up, listened and prayed, and joined hands because we know we are not always what we want to be, but we believe we can be, with the grace of God and help of each other.

Christ is there, in every person whatever is in the heart, in every word said and sung, in every gesture from the ordinary to the most elevated. Christ is there because we are willing to stand up, with nothing but ourselves to offer, and hold out a hand to receive, so we can say: Yes, I believe this, that God enters into our world and into our lives. Christ in there in me, here in me, even in the mess.

Diverse faces
Sister Agnes Cunningham, S.S.C.M.
I am a member of a parish where the Sunday liturgy, from beginning to end, is an “encounter with Christ.” There are “Spirit-filled homilies,” uplifting music of a choir wearing robes made by indigent women in our sister-church in Calavera, El Salvador, and everyone’s readiness to reach out to the needy in our midst.

However, I experience a special encounter with Christ at Communion time because of the multicultural, diversified nature of our parish family. This characteristic was brought home to me, recently, when 12 youngsters received the Eucharist for the first time. There were two Hispanic, one African American, two Caucasian, and seven Korean children: a wonderful, realistic reflection of our parish family.

Once I have received the Eucharist, I surrender to the rhythm of voices that proclaim, “the Body of Christ . . . the Blood of Christ.” I delight at the sight of those who seek to become what they eat and drink, as St. Augustine encouraged his people to do. I see babies and toddlers blessed by the eucharistic ministers; children and teenagers; parents and grandparents; laborers, artists, and artisans; university faculty members and students; the active, the retired, the elderly. I hear “Amen!” affirmed in accents that reflect another mother-tongue, more often than not recalling the seed planted in a far-away land by St. Andrew Kim and his martyred companions. I know the communicants whose hearts are heavy and those filled with gratitude for blessings they have received.

So, is this what a woman religious ought to be doing after she has received the Body and Blood of Christ? Curious and distracted from attending to the Sacred Presence within her? My answer to such questions comes from one of the saints in whose legacy of faith I stand: the prayer of an “everywhere” encounter with Christ!

Christ behind me, Christ before me/ . . . Christ beneath me, Christ above me/ . . . Christ in the hearts of all that love me/ Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger. (“The Lorica of St. Patrick,” trans., Francis Cecil Alexander)

Looking to be fed
June C. Kowalik
Dunellen, N.J.

I am an 82-year-old convert to Catholicism. I encounter Christ at Mass through the priest who brings Jesus to me in word and sacrament. From my Protestant background, I find that a good sermon or homily is crucial. It is also a difficult thing to find! I must have a motivating message. If I am not fed in the homily, the rest of the Mass doesn’t hold my interest.

I have been told it isn’t what you get out of the Mass but what you bring to it. I say “balderdash” to that! I go where I am fed as long as I am fed, and I am not a spiritual glutton. If necessary, I move on.

I actually can hardly wait to see which parish priest in which parish celebrates my funeral liturgy!

The gift of Jesus
Rebecca Jensen
Portland, ME.

I often find reflections of God and reflections of Jesus throughout the Mass, both in the familiar order of events and in the people gathered to share these events. Some days he is in the voice of the cantor or in the silence preceding the preparation of gifts. Other days he is in the core of the homily, in the very words coming forth from the pulpit, or in the shining face of the woman who shakes my hand lovingly during the Sign of Peace. It is fitting, good, and comforting to recognize the reflections of Christ’s divine light in God’s church and people.

It is the Eucharist though that makes the difference. Reflections are signs of God’s presence, but the Eucharist is Jesus’ body, physically present before our eyes. If I come to Mass unprepared, sullen or depressed about my own tiny world, the Eucharist is my “do-or-die” moment. When anxieties or indifference keep me from recognizing Jesus around me, he meets me face to face. I offer my spiritual flatness to the Lord, and the next thing I know Jesus’ Body is in my hand. What can I do but internal cartwheels over the sudden realization that Christ is allowing me to encounter him so intimately?

Surely God deserves infinite praise for his divine mercy, and Jesus for the selfless and humble gift of his life, himself. These are the thoughts that cross my mind during Communion. Christ offers himself wholly at each Mass. He empties himself until there is nothing left but the Father’s will. Witnessing love made flesh in this manner helps me to do everything I can to let go of myself and make room for Christ.

All active news articles