With so many things out of control during the pandemic, Joe Oczkewicz has found refuge in school conversations about the Eucharist.
“These discussions are a great way to remind us of our active role in the Eucharist and church community,” said Oczkewicz, a senior at Pope John Paul II High School in Lacey. “We can take back our lives through religion.”
In Monday morning classes at JPII last fall, Gabriella Ybarra began to realize something important about her faith: “The Eucharist unites us together with Christ, but it also unites us with the rest of the church.”
During Mass, Ybarra said, she tended to focus on herself and her personal relationship with God. Then her religion teacher, Jacob Hayden, introduced materials written for the Year of the Eucharist, based on Archbishop Paul D. Etienne’s pastoral letter The Work of Redemption.
For six weeks, Hayden’s students — in the classroom and joining from home via videoconferencing — had discussions about the Eucharist. After reflecting with her peers, Ybarra realized the Eucharist is “a group thing. It’s not just me receiving the Eucharist.”
Helping students reach a deeper understanding of the Eucharist was among Hayden’s goals when planning his theology curriculum for the year. The Year of the Eucharist reflections available from the archdiocese helped start the conversation each week.
The students “do a really good job of breaking open the words and applying them to their own lives,” Hayden said. The discussions also have allowed students to engage with the church in a broader way and practice having conversations about their faith, not always an easy thing to do.
“It’s good for them to hear one another,” Hayden said. “When we share our faith, we want people to be listening.”
All of the discussions have been fruitful, but the reflection on unity really resonated with students, Hayden said.
As Karena Meinhardt, a junior, explained, “The Eucharist is a physical form God has sent down to us to connect us to him. We’re all collectively taking God within ourselves,” she said, but at the same time, “the Eucharist ties us to those around us.”
During the pandemic, she said, “we need to be reminded that yes, we may be apart, but we’re still connected.”
Oczkewicz said the class discussions have changed how he thinks about community. He’s come to realize if he can’t be physically present at Mass, participating via livestream is important.
“For those of us at home, to still be involved actually matters,” he said. “The church itself is a community. If we stay apart from that, then we’re missing out on what Jesus taught us.”
Hayden said he is in a “privileged space,” walking with more than 90 students on their spiritual journeys, hearing them reflect on the archbishop’s words.
“The way they see Jesus reaching out in the Eucharist to their own lives, and the desire to go deeper in that relationship, gives me hope the Holy Spirit is working in their lives,” Hayden said.
Their conversations also help him engage with the words and grow in his own faith and relationship with Jesus. “That probably would not be happening in my life without being a teacher,” Hayden added.
The students say their discussions have revealed the depth of the liturgy.
“What we do in church has meaning behind it,” Ybarra said. “It’s not just routine.”
Oczkewicz, who spent many years as an altar server, has always paid attention to the priest’s words and movements. But the discussions with his classmates helped him realize that the physical movements during Mass help participants “build a bridge into the whole other side of our brain.”
And he has started approaching Mass more thoughtfully, from reading the Year of the Eucharist reflection before Mass, discussing it on the Monday after, and building on it throughout the week.
Meinhardt, who doesn’t attend Mass that often, already understood that “we can connect to God through the liturgy.” But when she goes to Mass, her tendency is to “hear it, take it in, digest it, and move on.” From the discussions, she has learned others “take it in, hold on to it and add on,” and has come to realize that “what we give to the liturgy, it gives back to us.”
The discussions are just the beginning for these students as they continue on their spiritual journeys.
“Each week has opened a new door in my head in the way I think about my faith,” Meinhardt said.
Ybarra is looking forward to lifelong learning. “We’re always learning new things about the Eucharist,” she said. “We’ll never understand it fully.”
Ways to celebrate the Year of the Eucharist
Archbishop Paul D. Etienne declared a Year of the Eucharist in the Archdiocese of Seattle from June 2020 to June 2021. Here are some ways to take advantage of this year of special focus:
- Read the archbishop’s pastoral letter The Work of Redemption.
- Pray for a deeper understanding and experience of the Eucharist.
- Spend some time with the Lord in eucharistic adoration.
- Learn more about Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist by watching Presence on Formed.org.