I was converted by Haitian Eucharistic hymns.
Of course, there is a good deal more to the story than that, but the statement is nonetheless true – especially if one considers the conversion process (which never really ends) to contain many conversions, big and small, along the way. And my first conversion in relation to the Catholic Church was the gradual realization that something bigger than I knew was going on in the liturgy, and particularly in the Eucharist. It was the hymnody that first drew me to that Catholic parish in rural Haiti starting on its feast day (which I’ve written about here), and after several months of singing those communion hymns about the real and living presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I found to my surprise that I believed them.
This realization came to a head on the feast of Corpus Christi, which in the francophone world is known as “Fête Dieu.” More literally (and somewhat awkwardly), this can translate as “God Day,” a moniker that had me confused until I heard the priest say that it was the feast of the body and blood of Christ. That day, I participated in a Eucharistic procession before I had even heard the term. The town’s many Catholic households had decorated their cactus fences with colorful drapes, and certain houses along the way had altars set up for adoration. As we alternately processed through town and knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, we sang literally every Eucharistic hymn in the book. I found the whole thing very moving as I pondered this vast mystery I was discovering, brought out in these songs mostly composed by Haitian priests and containing some pretty substantial sacramental theology. I remember in a particular moment, when we had stopped at one of the decorated houses, being newly struck by a line I had heard before about being gathered by Christ into one family and one race. Outside of that context, this may sound like a bit of a cliché, but in a place where my own racial distinction was being called to my attention multiple times a day, it meant something – especially as it was consistent with my experience of the liturgy and even outside it among those who were being fed by it: I was human there; I was a member of the Body; I was (at least in that hour) one of them.
That line that struck me then came from one of my favorite of those communion songs, with multiple verses that build up thematically like a well-structured homily: the first several verses make up a sort of faith statement about the nature of the Eucharist as Christ’s living presence, then there are several more verses about its implications for how we live in community, and the last few verses convey beatific and eschatological hope. Another memorable one repeatedly evokes images of the Eucharist as food for the journey, along with a few prefiguring Old Testament images (Isaac on the altar, manna in the desert, the Paschal lamb), with each verse culminating in the one-line refrain, “Jesus in the Eucharist, it is you who give us strength.” Another has verses talking about a bread that gives life, which is Christ’s body, and our hope in its transformative power in us, all around a refrain saying, “You show us how to live with all our brothers who have nothing, that they may feed themselves every day.” One lively hymn that I only ever heard at wakes says that approaching the Eucharistic table as Christians reminds us how love is the greatest force that exists.
Even after experiencing a graduate-level mystagogy in which I encountered all kinds of heavy-duty Eucharistic theology from Karl Rahner to Thomas Aquinas to the earliest liturgies of the ancient Church, I am all the more amazed by the well-developed and well-rounded sacramentality I still see in those Haitian communion hymns that first introduced me to Christ in the Eucharist. Maybe because I find certain things easier to believe when sung, these songs that were substantial enough to speak to my rational mind also proved to be an accessible in-road to a sacramental theology that was new to me. I couldn’t have found a better catechesis if I’d tried.