A number of Catholic and Protestant churches in the Woonsocket area have celebrated Lenten Scripture services weekly for a number of years, thanks largely to the inspiration and coordination of the late Father Edward St. Godard. Episcopal, Lutheran, Congregational, Baptist, Four Square Gospel, Polish National Catholic, and Roman Catholic communities have regularly participated. Song, prayer, Scripture, and sermon have been the traditional offerings in the several venues. Once the Polish National parish led the participants in the Stations of the Cross. The Roman Catholic contribution this year was happily celebrated at St. Charles Borromeo Church, Woonsocket’s first Catholic Church and one of the few consecrated churches in the diocese. Although St. Charles church still has its impressive raised pulpit complete with sounding board, the focal point of the church’s interior is definitely the original main altar which now forms a splendid backdrop for the more recent free-standing altar, both brilliant in white marble.
Often in Protestant churches, the pulpit catches the visitor’s eye as the central piece of furniture in the sanctuary. And rightly so, since the Scriptures are the heart and soul of the Reformation communities. The pulpit at the Central Congregational Church in Providence is large enough to support a full stage production! How appropriate it is then that the Catholic altar, resplendent in itself, minimally encumbered, should draw the eye, and the attention, and the awe, of the pious visitor. Just as Protestant pulpits make a statement about the Reformation churches’ respect for Scripture, so Catholic altars indeed make a statement about the Roman Catholic community’s respect for adoration of the Eucharist.
With this in mind, the Lenten Ecumenical service celebrated at St. Charles Borromeo church this Lent was the traditional Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Since each Lenten ceremony should be truly ecumenical, there is no need for a Catholic parish simply to duplicate a Protestant Scripture service. Ecumenism demands the mind be open to all varieties of Christian religious experiences. Welcoming some ecumenical Protestants into a Catholic Church and then celebrating Mass in their presence might be a bit contentious. But reverently exposing the Blessed Sacrament in a worthy monstrance, honoring the Body of Christ with glowing candles, surrounding the Sacred Species with the aroma of incense, celebrating the Bread of Angels with song and prayer, and then preaching, coram Sanctissimo, a worthy sermon on the meaning of the Eucharist in Catholic life would be truly ecumenical, enlightening for the Protestants and reassuring for the Catholics.
In gratitude for the fresh start after the flood waters receded, Noah offered a fitting sacrifice to God as a sign of adoration and commitment. When Abraham was sealed as the forebear of many nations and father of all believers, he too made a sacrifice to God as recognition of the covenant that began Jewish history. Jacob twice sacrificed to God at Bethel in gratitude for God’s favors toward him. Moses joined the Jewish people in their first Passover sacrifice celebrating their release from Egyptian slavery. King David and his son Solomon and their descendant Josiah insured that the prescribed sacrifices offered daily in Jerusalem’s temple would endure even up to the time of Jesus Christ.
The adoration and atonement that were celebrated by Jewish sacrifices for centuries in sign and symbol were brought to fulfillment through the effective sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the wood of the Cross. “We adore thee, O Christ, and we praise thee! Because by thy holy Cross thou hast redeemed the world!” These words of St. Francis are held dear by all Christians. Believers have indeed been washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb sacrificed not in Jerusalem’s Temple but outside the city gates on Calvary’s hill. Happily Jesus not only suffered and died for mankind, he wisely left the human race a memorial of his saving death in the Eucharistic meal, His Sacred Body and Precious Blood, the food and drink that Catholics recognize on their altars and Protestant see on their Communion Tables. So precious is this Eucharistic gift recalling Christ’ sacrifice that Catholic Christians chose not only to receive the Sacred Body and Precious Blood at Mass but, on solemn occasions, to gather as a community simply to gaze on the Sacred Species, the hallowed Bread, through which Jesus Christ is made truly present in the midst of his believing brothers and sisters.
Gazing on the consecrated Host, the faithful make their own the hopeful words of the poet: “Grant that when the veil is riven, We may see at last in heaven, Thy countenance divine.” Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a tribute of song, prayer, ritual, and awe before Christ truly present but indeed hidden under the appearance of bread.