The Necessity of Mystery

By Nicholas Soellner

Connecting Faith and Life

Of all the marvels throughout history, there is nothing quite like the Eucharist. If we take Catholicism seriously for what it claims, there are no true alternatives to the “Source and Summit” of our faith. Consequently, we must also conclude that the secular message, that all religions are equally viable options for living out a spiritual life towards the same ultimate end, is simply untrue. Different religions make distinct, and often, conflicting claims about who God is, who we are, humanity’s intended destiny, and what God has revealed to be true. If God is love, then it is rightfully understood that when Jesus claims to be “the bread of life,”(Jn. 6:35) “the way, the truth, and the life,” (Jn. 14:6), and “the spring of living water” (Jn. 4:13-14, Cf. Jer. 2:13) that God does not intend to keep us at a distance but to draw all people to himself (Cf. Jn. 12:32) and to teach us himself the way to live forever with him; as “is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God’” (Jn. 6:45, Cf. Is. 54:13).

At the heart of all that is Catholic, lies the gift Christ gives his beloved Church: The sacrament of the Eucharist. This is Christ’s gift of himself to his bride (Cf. Eph. 5:25-27, Rev. 19:6-8). The union of Christ and his Church, of heaven and earth itself, is re-presented at every Mass throughout the world. But how can this be? As St. Paul says, “This is a great mystery.” (Eph. 5:31) 

One of the remarkable things that we often take for granted in life is our ability to experience mystery. Mystery grips us, holding us tightly between the tension of what we can know and put back into words, and that which we cannot. This dissonance is the same reason why no other topic in history has more songs written about it than love. But a troubling recent trend of attempts to reduce mystery to mere natural phenomena endangers our view of mystery. Some in the world argue love is not real, but only a combination of neurochemicals and subconsciously processed pheromones contained within a specific time and place. Modern atheism often attempts also to apply this line of reductionism to religion as well. Only a few years before he was elected Pope in 2005, the late Benedict XVI wrote, “When mystery no longer counts for anything, then politics necessarily becomes the religion.”

In our oldest biblical manuscripts, “mystery” and “sacrament” use the same Greek word, “mysterion” (μυστηρίῳ), which was translated to the Latin sacramentum by St. Jerome. Sacraments are described as “visible signs of invisible grace” or “signs that actually do what they symbolize.” The mystery, most plainly stated, is that we don’t immediately feel or observe the spiritual reality of the sacrament. The mystery is not that the sacraments are nonphysical, in that they only affect our spirit, but metaphysical, in that because we are our bodies — since we are unity of body and soul — the sacrament affects the whole person. This is why Jesus does not say “This is a symbol of my body” or “I will raise his spirit on the last day,” but rather, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven … and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Whoever feeds upon my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (Jn. 6:51, 54-55).

To apply Benedict’s quote concretely, if the Sacrament of the Eucharist and its supernatural character no longer count for anything, then politics will necessarily become the religion. Politics – American politics in particular – have been particularly divisive in recent history. In a time in the Church where upheaval, controversy, and political outrage are regular mainstays in Catholic news circles, the need for a Eucharistic Revival is undoubtedly apparent. The Eucharist is unifying in its nature; that’s why it’s also called Communion!

Markers such as fame, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, which have historically divided humankind throughout history are not determinants at the Mass. There are no castes, sponsored or segregated seating, or group-specific church services in the Catholic Church. From the beginning of the Church, the Eucharist has been the unifying element that revealed the dignity present in all people and calls each of them towards heaven through Christ. The world desperately needs the Eucharist. Let us all pray for the courage to invite our brothers and sisters back to Mass every week and to give witness to the same Christ whose Spirit we bear.

Nicholas Soellner is program manager for the Diocese of Evansville Office of Catechesis.