We live in a time of confusion and controversy over what it means to be a Catholic Christian. Many diverse and dissonant voices tell us that our faith is old-fashioned and out of touch. Especially on matters involving human sexuality and the dignity of human life, Church teaching often is portrayed as repressive or intolerant. At best, our culture tends to regard religious teaching and practice as optional. At worst, those who take their faith seriously are regarded as a threat to ideologies that define the status quo.
It was not so different 1,600 years ago. Controversies raged over the divinity of Christ, about the meaning of the sacraments and over the lifestyles of former pagans who had embraced Christianity and been baptized.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-387) was a bishop who wrote extensively on what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ in uncertain times. He was not always understood or accepted. He was accused of heresy, and he was exiled three times over the course of 20 years.
We are blessed to have nearly two dozen "catecheses" of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. These contain his reflections on the prerequisites for baptism, conversion from pagan morals, the Sacrament of Baptism, the dogmatic truths contained in the creed, the Body and Blood of Christ and the eucharistic liturgy. All are intended to serve as a form of systematic catechesis in the Christian faith. Taken as a whole, these instructions seek to overcome the controversies of Cyril's time and clear up any confusion about what it means to live an authentic Christian life in the fourth century (and the 21st century as well).
It's fascinating to read what St. Cyril had to say in the early years of Christian history about the principal doctrines of our faith. His writing is clear and uncomplicated and has become a model for all catechisms, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The truths that are the foundations of Church teachings do not change. We may come to understand things better (in a new light), or we can mature in our ability to express what we believe, but as the catecheses of St. Cyril make clear, the teaching we received from the apostles remains constant and unchanging even as new questions and controversies arise to challenge our most cherished beliefs and traditions.
Catholic teaching on the holy Eucharist is an excellent example. What Cyril taught the catechumens, elect and newly baptized in the fourth century is exactly what we teach today. Before the invocation of the Blessed Trinity in the Eucharistic Prayer, the bread and wine are simply bread and wine. But after the celebrant invokes the Trinity, the elements are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ: "Take this, all of you, and eat it: This is my body which will be given up for you...Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood..." The technical term "transubstantiation" was not known in the fourth century. That was a later development -- a fuller understanding -- of the doctrine. But the foundational teaching is clearly articulated by St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his catechetical instruction.
How clearly do we present this teaching today? Is it understood -- in spite of all confusion and controversy -- that the Lord is truly present in the Eucharist? (See Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; John 6:53-56; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25.) The Real Presence of Christ in the form of bread and wine is one of the most powerful truths of our faith. We should teach this with unqualified clarity and we should meditate on this great mystery in our daily prayers and especially in our adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
From the very beginning of Christian history, holy men and women have reflected on Christ's presence in the Eucharist and have taught that the sacred transformation that occurs in the eucharistic liturgy is a sign and a cause of the transformation that should occur in the lives of all those who receive this great sacrament of Christ's love.
Let's cut through all the confusion and controversy to the heart of the matter. In the Eucharist, Christ gives Himself to us really and truly. He enters into our world once again and becomes one with us -- body and soul, mind and heart -- in a perfect communion of divine love.
One thing is clear. There can be no greater gift.
Reprinted with permission from The St. Louis Review, official newspaper for the Archidiocese of St. Louis.