A couple of weeks ago, Father Seamus Kelly, Parish Priest of Ballinascreen/Draperstown, phoned me: “The diocese of Derry is celebrating a Eucharistic Congress”.  “Would I come and concelebrate Mass on one of the days” he asked. I had no hesitation in saying ‘yes’, for a number of reasons. This Congress is yet another example of the very great preparations that are taking place all over Ireland for the International Congress taking place in Dublin in June.

But, I had another, more personal reason.  Father Seamus and I were students together in the Irish College, Rome in the 1960s.  We were young then but we had to spend most of the year, including Christmas, away from our families.  This could be difficult, especially in times of sickness.  Lectures were in the Italian language which could also pose its own problems and yet, I regard those as among the happiest days of my life.  Yes, it was exciting to be in Rome – one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but the real reason for our happiness was the bonds of friendship that were formed.  Cut off from home and homeland, we were forced to rely, not so much on ourselves but on each other, and also, of course, on the Lord Jesus – for, after all, the reason we were there was to study and train to become priests in the service of you, the people of our native dioceses.

We formed those bonds of friendship and communion as we walked back and forth to the university together, went sightseeing together, dined together and played together.  But, above all, those bonds of friendship and interdependence were formed when we prayed together, especially at the celebration of daily Mass in the College Chapel.  
There we learned from experience that the Eucharist was, indeed, the source and summit of our spiritual life.  There we met in the most personal way Christ himself. There we experienced him to be the sublime cause of both our sharing in the divine life and of our unity among ourselves.

Those were the days of the Second Vatican Council – it was then that the Mass began to be celebrated in English, Ministers of the Word and Extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist were introduced and a new emphasis began to be placed on the offering of Prayers of the Faithful in the Mass.

That is why I am delighted to know that today in this Eucharistic Congress Mass there are many Ministers of the Word and of the Eucharist present as well as Prayer Guides from all over the diocese.  It allows us all the opportunity to reflect on the vital part you play in the celebration of the Eucharist in the life of the Church. By being Ministers of the Word or Ministers of Eucharist, you remind us that at Mass we are nourished both by the Word of God and by the Bread of Life – the Body and Blood of Christ. As we focus attention on the Reading of the Word we realise how important it is to actually hear the word.  Faith comes from hearing of course and St Paul said:  ‘If Christ be not risen, then our faith is in vain’.  We could add:  ‘if we do not have faith, then our celebration is in vain’.  When Jesus first promised the Eucharist he said:  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you”.  Some said ‘This is a hard saying and who can listen to it’.  Some walked away.  But Jesus did not change or withdraw a word of what he had said in an attempt to have them change their minds’.  

Pope Benedict has declared a Year of Faith to begin next October.  He says: ‘The door of faith is always open for us – leading into a life of communion with God.  But how do we enter it? By hearing God’s word and allowing God’s grace to change our hearts.  

Today I thank all Readers of the Word here present.  I thank you for the faith and love which you bring to the sacred task entrusted to you.  I thank you for your careful preparation and determination to read well and to be understood by everyone in the congregation.  Yes indeed faith comes from hearing God’s word.  So thank you for helping to have that word heard and understood.  For the fact is that in the Eucharist, the presence of the Body and Blood of Christ can only be grasped by faith and faith comes from hearing.

To respond to the invitation of Christ to eat His Body, we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment.  I thank the Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist for helping us to prepare to receive communion by the reverence and respect and joy which they bring to the distribution of the Most Blessed Sacrament.  

I thank all Ministers of the Eucharist who, with their great sense of reverence, remind all of us of the sacred act we perform at Mass.  St. Paul – writing less than thirty years after the Last Supper, warned the Corinthians against eating the bread or drinking the cup in an unworthy manner – lest they be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.  The Church has always taught that anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Holy Communion.

The sense of wonder and reverence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament is brilliantly captured by St Thomas Aquinas when he wrote:

“Godhead, here in hiding, whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art”.

I remember once being very struck by the reverent way the altar servers knelt down to make their thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion in a parish in south Co Derry.  I asked who had taught them to do so.  They answered:  “the Sacristan”.  So I gladly salute the work of Sacristans and Choirs and altar servers, and of all who do so much to instil, in all of us, proper devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.  

I am glad to hear of the Prayer Guides here today.  I know that in your prayer with the Word of God you help so many people to grow in their awareness of the presence of Christ in their lives.  When we see that Christ is truly risen and active in our lives – really great things can happen.  Take the example of Peter.  The Readings we have just heard describe a couple of key moments in the life of Peter after the Resurrection of Jesus.  

The First Reading describes how the Scribes and Pharisees tried to intimidate Peter into silence and prevent him from speaking of Christ, risen from the dead.  But Peter and John are defiant:  “We cannot be silent about what we have seen and heard”.  

But you may ask: Could this possibly be the same Peter who denied three times, with an oath, to a servant girl – that he even knew Jesus?  Could this possible be the same Peter who, despite having been to the tomb and seen the empty grave, was still upbraided by the Lord later that same Easter day for his lack of faith?  Yes it is.  So what is the explanation?  Let us take a moment to chart the journey.  It began when Jesus looked at him after his third denial and Peter went out and wept bitterly.

That was a start but not enough to give him the courage to go to Calvary.  The appearance of the Risen Christ to the eleven, including Peter, was another important stage.  His first words were ‘Peace’ then Jesus breathed the Spirit upon them and gave them the power to forgive sins.  (He knew that they would need it).  Finally, he told them to go and proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth.  What a marvellous vote of confidence in his friends and brothers, on the part of Jesus despite their dismal performance of the previous few days.  

So Peter’s new-found assurance and courage in the face of huge and powerful opposition can be attributed to two things:
    his belief that Christ was truly risen and, secondly,
    his having been anointed, by the Holy Spirit, and sent to bring Good News.  

But, of course, the greatest vote of confidence was given by the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene.  Jesus chose her to go and tell his brothers that he was risen.  They did not believe her, of course, because the news seemed too good to be true.  She wasn’t the first woman not to be believed at first, but she is an icon for so many mothers who have been chosen to bring the Good News of faith to their often unbelieving and sometimes stubborn menfolk.

The Eucharist is the heart and summit of the life of the Church.  The changing of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood is due to the Word of Christ and to the action of the Holy Spirit.  Christ continues to pour out his Spirit among the members of the Church to continue His work in the world today – in other words – on you and me, on all of us.

We have already spoken of your part in nurturing faith through your reading and praying of Scripture.  But the Spirit also comes to organise the members of the Church – the Body of Christ – in their various functions and roles in the Church – choirs; collectors; servers and Readers.
The Spirit comes to heal hurts and divisions and to forgive sins – in the Sacrament of Confession.  The Spirit of the Risen Christ gives new life and sends out missionaries to those who have strayed.  Finally, the Spirit comes to unite the believers to the offering which Christ made of himself on the cross and to his prayers for the saving of the world.  This is important for all of us but especially for the sick.  By uniting our suffering and prayers to that of Christ on the Cross, they grow in value.

This takes place supremely in the Mass.  In the Mass Christ associates and links his Church and all her members with his sacrifice and thanksgiving.  He offered that sacrifice, once and for all, on the Cross.  

Every Mass is sacred and precious because it makes present the sacrifice of Christ and in it Christ pours out the graces we all need to be saved.  

One of the fruits of the Mass and of receiving Holy Communion is that it commits us to the poor.  When we receive, in truth, the Body of Christ, which was given up and nailed to the Cross for us, then we are committed to recognise Him in the poorest of the poor.

Tomorrow the Medical Missionaries of Mary gather in Drogheda to celebrate the 75th anniversary of their foundation.  It is a story where each decade brought its own huge, immense, challenges but also its own vast achievements.  But you can be absolutely sure that Jesus, in the Eucharist, was always central to their work.  For example, two years ago the Sisters left Ethiopia after 50 years of work – because they are assured that the work can continue there without them.  It was a painful farewell – they had covered thousands of miles by jeep and mule.  They often had to remain away from their base mission for more than a month at a time, living among the tents in the villages.  But they did it – nourished by the Word of Life and the Bread of Life.
I hope that the Eucharistic Congress, held here in Derry, will help us all to understand better God’s glorious plan to save us through His Son Jesus Christ and how the Blessed Eucharist is indeed at the heart of the plan.