Eucharistic Theology

Eucharistic Communion and Seeing Those in Need

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that receiving the Eucharist “commits us to the poor” (1397). Why is this so?

Receiving the Eucharist means that we enter into union with the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. And being in Holy Communion with Jesus himself means something profound. Let’s consider one facet of this great mystery.

The Eucharist is Jesus himself. He is the Eternal Word, living in Trinitarian communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But out of love for us, in order to save us from sin and death, the beloved Son of the Father chose to take upon himself a radical poverty: the weakness of the human condition of his beloved creatures.

How Jesus Identifies Himself with the Poor

And so, as described by Bishop Robert Barron in his Palm Sunday homily last year, God’s own Son “plunged” from the infinitely broad expanses of the heights of heaven down into the narrow confines of the human situation. We can see this downward plunge quite clearly in how this movement is described in Philippians 2:6–8 in Paul’s description of Christ Jesus: “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” In the Incarnation, the Blessed Son of the Eternal Father took upon himself the human condition, the condition of a lowly creature, a slave, and descended “all the way down” into death itself. He suffered the death reserved for a base criminal, allowing himself to be executed under the cruelty of Roman crucifixion. And, by taking upon himself such abandonment and destitution, he delivered us.

People worshiping in a dim adoration chapel with a spotlight on the monstrance

In his mysterious life of divine condescension, our Lord Jesus was born in a stable and died naked upon a Cross. And in all the time between, he was so close to the poor that he identifies himself as uniquely and mysteriously present in them (see Mt 25:31–46).

This self-emptying love of the Father’s Son is made present to us today in the Blessed Eucharist. While bread and wine are biblically rich images, any Mass-goer is aware of the simplicity of what we see presented on the altar. Indeed, the God of the universe takes the lowly position of becoming substantially present in earthly stuff that appears utterly ordinary. This is yet another poverty, undertaken out of love for us.

The Poverty of Spirit We Need

If we are to see him properly in the Eucharist, there is a certain poverty of spirit needed on our part. We must empty ourselves of the self-referential thinking with which we are plagued, but we must also rid ourselves of the delusion of our own self-sufficiency. In fact, receiving the Eucharist requires our own self-emptying love and an awareness of our need for God. Many years ago, a confessor described for me how, before the Eucharist, each of us must become a “holy beggar” with our need for Jesus before us, leaning into a deeper dependence upon him. Frequently these days as I stand in line waiting to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, I am training myself to pray, “Jesus, I need you” over and over again. Repeating these simple words helps bring me into my own stark poverty before the infinitely generous gift of our Lord.

The wrinkled hand of an elderly woman raised in worship

In receiving the Eucharist, then, we must see the poverty of the One who has emptied himself on our behalf. And we must ourselves seek to be poor in spirit. In this poverty, we open ourselves to truly receive the One who brings healing and new life. Such an encounter is meant to change us, to crystallize in us a new way of seeing. We become more capable of seeing others in their need and seeing Jesus as he is present, as St. Teresa of Calcutta would say, in his most “distressing disguise.” This new way of seeing people, most especially those in need, is indeed a consequence of entering into Eucharistic communion with the Poor One who is love itself.

Of course, our Lord is clear that our final judgment will depend on how well we are able to see and serve him, deeply present in those who are in need. For he will say to each of us when our earthly life has come to its end: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).

Dr. James Pauley is Professor of Theology and Catechetics at Franciscan University and author of two books focused on the renewal of catechesis. He also serves on the USCCB’s executive team for the Eucharistic Revival.