Dozens of candles flickered and melted together on the cobblestones while we gathered in front of a small table. Conversations in English and Spanish mixed with plenty of laughter as participants in the Casa de la Solidaridad program, Salvadoran scholarship students and the staff of Casa settled onto the pillows lying on the ground. Together, we prepared to celebrate the Eucharist.
Of all the beautiful memories I have from my semester abroad, these celebrations of community and faith are some of my most precious. Our group had traveled from numerous colleges and universities in the United States as well as communities all across El Salvador, each bringing unique experiences and beliefs. But as we sat under the branches of a big old tree, uniting our voices in song, reflection and prayer, those differences were overwhelmed by love and grace, forging us into one community and one body in Christ. Now, thousands of miles and many months removed from those liturgies, I have come to understand even more clearly how the universality of the celebration of the Eucharist can be a powerful depiction of true love and community.
Universal celebration of love
There is an incredible amount of theological weight to the concept of the Eucharist as a celebration of God’s universal love. The Catholic Catechism teaches us that Christ is really, truly and substantively present in the Blessed Sacrament. And when we receive the body and blood of the Eucharist, we become one in the body of Christ.
But it is not theology that draws me back to the Church week after week; it is a feeling. The same feeling I recall so fondly from my time in El Salvador, the feeling of love and community. I grew up with the Church. When I am home I still visit the same parish where I went to CCD classes and took my first communion, but my faith and my Church has grown far beyond that one place.
Eventually I went off to college in New York City, found myself traveling across Europe, and finally, spent a semester in El Salvador. But wherever I went the Church was waiting for me. Even if I did not understand or necessarily agree with what the pastor had to say in his homily, I always found a sense of peace in the celebration of the Eucharist. Right now, across the world, there are millions of voices in hundreds of languages praising God in the same way. When I sit, kneel and stand with these diverse communities I feel at home, even if I am 10,000 miles from where I grew up in Massachusetts. That sense of home has kept me in the Church through all of my struggles and it is a feeling I hope everyone in the pews next to me can enjoy as well.
Challenge to be universal
Still, no two masses are the same. Every community brings its own voices, style, language and creativity to their celebration. Our Casa program masses in El Salvador, for instance, would alternate between English and Spanish, incorporating reflections, prayer petitions and songs from the many traditions of those who were there. The Church as a whole has an incredible amount of diversity and each person, bringing their unique culture, language, race, sex, sexual orientation or perspective on faith, can expose a new way of understanding and relating to Christ. Personally, I am convinced that God would have it no other way. Christ invites us all to join him at the table and implores us to treat each other the same way.
This diversity, however, is not always welcomed with love into our communities of faith. All too often we forget that everyone is part of the body of Christ, not just those who we are comfortable with. For me, this is the greatest challenge in our celebration of the Eucharist. Christ calls all of us to his table and when I remember the diversity of people at our celebration of the Eucharist in El Salvador, I can see how much grace and beauty is available to us if we respond to the call to welcome everyone equally, even if it is difficult. Knowing this, I am always looking for opportunities to celebrate mass in a new community. Even if it is uncomfortable or foreign to me at first, time and time again I have come to know Christ in a whole new way once that anxiety subsides.