Saturday, July 13, 2024

Conference Rekindles Religious Educators to Invite Students into a Relationship with the Real Presence

The presenters at this year’s Catechetical Conference reminded religious educators that they don’t teach facts or things; they give students an opportunity to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

From presentations on missionary discipleship, the Mystery of the Eucharist, teaching the doctrine on the Real Presence, the kerygma as a key to the Eucharistic Revival, and Jesus’ power over death, speakers took catechists to the Last Supper, to Golgotha and to the empty tomb during the conference, “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Christian Life.”

Gathered in-person and virtually through a livestream from the Diocesan Conference Center in Harrisburg on Saturday, November 12, parish religious educators, youth ministers and teachers began the day with Mass celebrated by Bishop William Waltersheid, a native of the Diocese of Harrisburg and current Auxiliary Bishop of Pittsburgh.

Bishop Waltersheid also served as the keynote presenter, speaking on “The Way to Holiness for Missionary Discipleship: The Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

“We who profess our faith in Our Lord’s presence [in the Eucharist] do that not just in an intellectual way, we do it with our hearts,” he said. “If we really believe that, why then are we not on our knees before Him? Why are we not saying to other people, ‘Come and experience a love that you can’t even possibly imagine.’”

Jesus and Mary “are the way to holiness,” he told the catechists.

As the God-bearer, the Blessed Mother defeats the forces of evil because, when she comes to us, she never comes alone, he said.

“Mary is the woman of the Eucharist – she was present at the Cross when Jesus laid down his life. She still leads us. She still brings us close to His heart pierced for us, so that we can learn what true love, true mercy and true sacrifice look like,” Bishop Waltersheid remarked.

He said he often pictures Mary standing at the door of the church and beckoning us to come inside to experience Jesus’ love.

“She is the one who prepares us to be missionary disciples to bring Jesus into a world that so needs him – to bring a message of hope, of grace, of mercy, of healing, of peace. To a world that is often violent and bloodied and divided, she brings Him and encourages us to go to Him, especially by going to the altar as often as possible and receiving His Body and Blood,” he said.

Reflecting on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Bishop Waltersheid spoke of several Eucharistic miracles, including one in Sokolka, Poland, in 2008, when a consecrated host transformed into heart tissue, as confirmed by pathological studies.

“God gives us these signs to reinforce the faith of the Church,” he said. “From the time of that first Holy Thursday evening, when Jesus gathered with His disciples…He gave the greatest gift we could ever imagine” – the gift of Himself in the Eucharist.

“The Bread of the Angels comes down from heaven and longs to have a personal relationship with each one of us,” Bishop Waltersheid said. “Sometimes, we think that God looks down at us and says, ‘Oh, look at them all down there. I love them so very much.’ But God doesn’t just love us generally. He loves us individually because He made each one of us in his image and likeness, and He knows what we need – the grace to be able to grow in love of him. He gives us the source of all grace every time we come to Mass.”

Because the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s life, everything it is involved in – from education and healthcare to evangelization and serving the poor – must begin at the altar, Bishop Waltersheid said.

“That’s why we need, in a concerted effort, to bring people back to the altar again. It’s not just for priests and clergy and religious to do – it’s for everybody to do,” he said.

“The remedy that we need is not another program, it’s not another idea, it’s not another thing – the remedy is the person of Jesus Christ,” he said.

‘This Holy and Living Sacrifice’

In his presentation at the conference, Bishop Ronald Gainer spoke about the Mystery of the Eucharist as a Holy and Living Sacrifice that is re-presented at every single Mass.

“Over the course of the centuries, many of the Lord’s commands have been disobeyed, taken lightly, disregarded: ‘Love your enemy,’ ‘Turn the other cheek.’ However, there is one commandment through the centuries that has been consistently and faithfully obeyed: ‘Do this in memory of me,’” the bishop said.

“It’s clear that, despite our human failures, our sins, all of the distractions that have plagued the Church through the ages, Christians have realized that the life of our souls depends upon the Holy Eucharist. Just as our physical life depends on food, so we do what Jesus told us to in remembrance of Him,” he said.

However, the word “remembrance” means something more than just a memorial or commemoration when considered in the liturgical and spiritual sense, the bishop said. Instead, it is a re-presentation in the current moment, the bishop said.

“In order to being to grasp fully the Mystery of the Eucharist, it is imperative to understand the real meaning of this word, ‘remembrance,’” which is translated from the Greek word anamnesis, the bishop explained.

“When you and I speak of a memorial or a remembrance or a commemoration, it suggests the person or the event that we’re remembering or commemorating is past and absent. Anamnesis is the opposite. It is an act in which and by which the person or the event commemorated is actually made present, brought into the realm of the here and the now…. What is remembered is re-presented in the present moment,” he said.

Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the empty tomb and the Mystery of the Resurrection are ever-present in the Eucharist, the bishop said. “To understand this is absolutely essential if we are to begin to appreciate the Mystery of the Eucharist.”

‘Did Jesus Mean What He Said?’

When it comes to teaching students about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, Kristine Hammar, Chair of the Religion Department at Delone Catholic High School, encourages catechists to consider the “soil” on which their words are falling.

Some students may be receptive to it, others might consider it totally unbelievable or closed-off to this truth.

“I ask myself, ‘How can I not only teach the doctrine of the Real Presence, but also cultivate the soil to create minds and hearts that are receptive to the teachings of the Church?’” Hammar said in her presentation, “Teaching the Doctrine of the Real Presence through the Bread of Life Discourse.”

One way is by using Scripture, and presenting it in a way that students can understand, she offered. In her presentation, Hammar reviewed the Bread of Life Discourse as she presents in her classroom – using what she calls “plain talk” and constantly asking the question, “Did Jesus mean what He said?”

When Jesus said “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life,” he was speaking very plainly.

“This saying was hard to believe, and it can be hard for students, too,” Hammar said. “The word Jesus used for ‘eat’ was a word that means to gnaw or chew on. For Jesus to say, ‘Eat my flesh’ was offensive to many. It was so offensive that many of his disciples left and went back to their former way of life. Jesus could have called them back and said, ‘I didn’t mean it like that; I was speaking symbolically.’ But He didn’t, because He wasn’t.”

“It comes down to believing that what might seem impossible on an earthly level, what might not make logical sense, does make sense in the heart and in light of everything Jesus said and did, and who He was,” Hammar remarked.

“Each of us is met with this question as well: Did Jesus mean what he said? He absolutely meant what He said, and that’s the point I’m always hoping to take my students to,” she said.

‘God Loves You’

Positioning himself in the middle of a conference room filled with catechists, Deacon Scott Root began his presentation with a direct message for each of them: “God loves you.”

“God loves you. Not the generic, general ‘you;’ God loves you. God loves me. Our kids, our families and our parents need to hear this,” he said in his two-part presentation on the Kerygma, the proclamation of the Good News – and how it is key to the Eucharistic Revival.

“God so loved that he wanted to share it with the material world…. The whole story of Creation is that God loves you,” said Deacon Root, Campus Minister at Trinity High School. “The problem is, humanity in general throws God’s love back into His face. We sin. We contradict God’s love and say, ‘I don’t want your love, I don’t need your love, I can do it on my own.’

“People want to know why there is suffering in the world. The answer is that we reject God’s love. God loves us and he wants us to love him back. There is a choice to love God or not love God…. Because of our fallen nature, we choose not to love God. When we choose not to love God, sin and suffering enter the world,” he said.

Jesus comes to restore humanity by offering Himself on the Cross, and the Kerygma is the telling of the story of that salvation in its simplest form: God loves, sin enters, Jesus saves, and we respond.

“The Kerygma is not a dumbing down of the faith, but rather putting the faith and the doctrine into a proper context because it is an invitation into the covenant of love,” Deacon Root said.

He offered several tips for teaching the kerygma: be authentic and joyful; avoid using “Churchy” words; use resources like holy water, the Rosary, liturgical art and music, and visits to the sanctuary; and don’t assume that students have heard the message, or that they don’t need to be reminded of it.

“We spend a lot of time talking about doctrine and dogma. We present a lot of facts and a lot of big ‘Churchy’ words, but it all needs to be pointed to putting people in a relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ,” Deacon Root stressed. “We don’t teach things, we don’t teach facts; we give opportunity for relationship.”

“Our catechesis has to be Kerygma-oriented. We have to be evangelistic at every moment in our catechesis to reach our students and their parents and the people around us. We need to have them see Christ in us, and we need to see Christ in them,” he said.

Death Has No Dominion

In the final session of the day, Father Edward Connolly, pastor emeritus of St. Joseph and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in the Diocese of Allentown, gave a presentation entitled “Death Shall Have No Dominion,” – a relevant topic for November, which is the month of the Holy Souls.

“I don’t like death. I hate death,” Father Connolly said, relating stories of illness and death in his own family. “Who has not been affected by it, or the prospect of your own?”

God does not delight in death, either, he said. Death is a result of Original Sin. When God made man, He made us immortal, Father Connolly remarked, and we would have been assumed into Heaven instead of dying at the end of our earthly lives.

Sin and the devil changed that, when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree.

God was disappointed, and so He sent His Son to “enter into the domain of death” and conquer it for us, Father Connolly said, referencing 1 John 3:8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”

“Jesus had to suffer and die in order to enter into hell and overthrow Satan’s power over us,” he said.

“At the Last Supper, Jesus came up with a remedy: that He would infuse Himself into the bodies and the souls of the believers by taking bread and declaring that it is His Body, and taking wine and declaring that it is His Blood,” he remarked.

“Jesus tells us, ‘He who eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood has Everlasting Life, and I will raise him up on the last day,’” Father Connolly said.

“I don’t like death, but don’t blame God for death,” he said. “Death is the work of the devil, and Jesus has come in order to undo sin in us.”

The Catechetical Conference’s focus on the Eucharist was in tandem with the three-year Eucharistic Revival underway in the Church in the United States, which aims to deepen the faithful’s understanding and love of the Eucharistic Lord. The conference is an annual event hosted by the Diocesan Office of Catechesis, within the Secretariat for Education.

(Photos by Chris Heisey and Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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