Our Holy Father's recent encyclical on the Eucharist reminds us that this central mystery of our Faith has a foot in both worlds, and calls us to be, at the same time, citizens of heaven and citizens of earth. "Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of "new heavens" and "a new earth" (Rev 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. I wish to reaffirm this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n.20).
This is one of the most practical and important lessons in Catholic spirituality, and is often summed up succinctly in the phrase, "in the world but not of the world." But why is it that the one who awaits the world to come should not just sit and wait? Why is our effort to improve this world not what a Jehovah's Witness once told me, "like washing windows on the Titanic?"
The reason is beautifully explained in Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), n. 39. While we are not to confuse earthly progress with the growth of God's Kingdom, we are also not to see them as disconnected. Through our cooperation with God's grace, we are able to bring about some good in this world. We can work for a more just society, for racial reconciliation, for better working conditions, and for the defense of unborn children. We can elect public officials who respect life and work for peace with justice.
The full flowering of God's Kingdom is not in an endless increase of these fruits of our labor; it is, rather, in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. At every Mass we say, "we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior." Yet when He does come, the good we have worked for on earth will not disappear. Rather, it will be taken up and purified by Christ,, and made into a lasting element of the world to come.
The prayers of each Mass help us avoid the two extremes of thinking we build heaven on earth, or just sit back and wait for heaven to replace earth. At the offertory we pray, "Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made, it will become for us the Bread of life." In other words, we don't make the Body of Christ, but we do make the bread. We don't sit back and wait for the Body of Christ to be dropped on the altar from the sky. Rather, we present to God the work of human hands, and then his Spirit transforms it.
Similarly, we work to renew the earth, and his Spirit transforms the fruits of our work at the end of time.
In short, we are called to exercise Eucharistic citizenship!