There’s faith, there’s supernatural faith, and then there is the Mysterium Fidei — the Mystery of Faith.
The Gospel reading for tomorrow’s liturgy is about the demands of our faith in the Mystery of mysteries, the Mystery of our Faith, the Eucharist. What does it mean to believe with supernatural faith?
What is a mystery?
50% of Catholics actually know the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This means that if the person sitting, standing, or kneeling next to you in Mass understands the meaning of the word “transubstantiation,” chances are you don’t.
Out of those Catholics who know the Church’s teaching on Christ in the Eucharist, 9 out of 10 say that they believe in the Real Presence. How many Catholics who receive the Eucharist on a given Sunday believe that they are actually receiving the Body and Blood of Christ? Do they not all respond “Amen!”?
You might find these stats hard to believe. If you think about it, though, the reason behind the ignorance and detraction is really no mystery. After all, Christ’s followers found it hard to accept his teaching on the Eucharist. When he explained it to them, they murmured to one another, “This teaching is hard! Who can accept it?” The more Jesus persisted with this teaching, the more it repulsed them, until all but about 12 of them left. Those who stuck around grasped the mystery.
The Greek word “mysterion” means something that lies hidden, as behind a veil. The Body and Blood of Christ are veiled under the aspects of bread and wine. The true sense of the word mystery, in the context of faith, does not mean utterly unattainable truth or some dogma that we must simply accept with blind faith. Rather, it means inexhaustible. The human intellect can get it. It just can’t fathom all of it… ever.
When we contemplate a mystery in prayer, we can always journey deeper, deeper, and deeper into the depth of what we are considering and always find more meaning, more truth, and more fruit for our lives. The human spirit can penetrate the mystery, yet it will never exhaust the mystery completely, nor will it ever exhaust its capacity to gain more, and more, and more… and more from the mysteries of faith. It will only intensify in faith through the contemplation of mystery.
The Mystery of our Faith is The Eucharist.
When I taught Latin, some 10 years ago, I enjoyed having the students translate the Eucharistic Prayers. Actually, I appreciated the fact that the translations in the Missal were far from perfect for two simple reasons. First, the students could not “cheat” by looking at the English translation; if they tried, they would soon realize, “That’s not what it actually says!” Second, when we would translate the texts in class, we could focus more intently on the true meaning of the text, i.e., the meaning of the Mass that many of them would celebrate every day as future Catholic priests.
In every Eucharistic prayer, right after the words of consecration, the priest pronounces, “Mysterium Fidei.” The students all noted that this should be translated as “the Mystery of Faith,” not “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” Why should that make any difference?
The first thing the priest says after pronouncing the words that make Christ present on the altar in his body, blood, soul, and divinity are “The Mystery of Faith,” referring to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The people of God then respond (according to the chosen formula) in that same faith.
The supernatural faith, by which we believe, is a gift from God.
In the ordinary sense of the word, belief simply means willful assent to things that are not objectively evident. I believe that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid died in that final shoot out at the end of the movie. However, I cannot know that for sure, because in the very last frame of the film they are still on their feet with their eyes wide open. So although I am absolutely certain that they both deserved to be shot full of holes (Okay, maybe that’s just my humble opinion), I cannot be 100% sure that they didn’t miraculously survive and that there won’t be a sequel — I just pray that there won’t be one.
Belief and faith are often used synonymously. When we use these words in a religious sense, we mean supernatural faith, which is an unmerited gift from God. Christians understand faith in this sense as one of three theological virtues — faith, hope, and charity — infused virtues by which we stay united to the vine and bear fruit with our lives. This is the faith of St Peter, when he confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus told him, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but it was my Father in Heaven.” Peter was taught by God, as the prophet Isaiah said, “Your children shall all be taught by God.”
Supernatural faith, as opposed to human faith, kept the apostes faithful to Christ, even when others would abandon him; even after they themselves abandoned him. Christ knew his apostles had this faith when he told Peter:
“I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.”
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus revealed himself to his apostles in the Eucharist: “This Is My Body;” “This Is My Blood.”
In the Eucharist, Christ, the one true teacher of all mankind, gives us grace, strengthens our faith, and reveals himself to those who receive him worthily.
In the Eucharistic Celebration, Christ himself is present among us in his body, blood, soul, and divinity. Once this occurs, the priest pronounces the words: “The Mystery of Faith.”
When we receive this grace into our souls in communion, we truly ought to respond, “Amen!”