Recently a Pew Research study determined that approximately sixty percent of Catholics do not believe in the True Presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine in the Eucharist. This has caused a stir and some consternation among the faithful, priests, and bishops. The Eucharist, according to Lumen Gentium no. 136, is the “source and summit of the Christian life.”
In other words, it is a really, really big deal. Why? Because the Eucharist isn’t an “it”—the Eucharist is a WHO. And the “who” is Jesus Christ, in all his body, blood, soul, and divinity. This magnificent mystery, given to the Church on Holy Thursday, is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church this way:
At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.’CCC 1323, Sacrosanctum concilium, 47
Jesus first spoke about the Eucharist as recorded in the Gospel of John during what is typically called the “Bread of Life Discourses.” The Catechism explains:
The first announcement of the Eucharist divided the disciples, just as the announcement of the Passion scandalized them: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” The Eucharist and the Cross are stumbling blocks. It is the same mystery and it never ceases to be an occasion of division. “Will you also go away?” the Lord’s question echoes through the ages, as a loving invitation to discover that only he has “the words of eternal life”1 and that to receive in faith the gift of his Eucharist is to receive the Lord himself.CCC 1336, John 6:22-59
Just as the very first mention of the Eucharist divided those closest to Jesus, this radical and scandalous truth divides the church even today. So while it shouldn’t be shocking that there are a number of Catholics who say they do not believe in the real presence of Jesus, it should be a reminder to us all that our work in spreading the good news of the Gospel, and in explaining the beautiful truths of our faith is far from done! Thankfully, we have the help and example of many saints to assist us as we catechize, and even re-catechize those whom we encounter!
St. Tarcisius is a brave saint with a funny name, but there is nothing funny about his love for our Eucharistic Lord. A young boy during the reign of Roman Emporer Valerian, Tarcisius was an alter server. One day he volunteered for a dangerous task—to secretly carry the Eucharist to the sick and those in prison, waiting their martyrdom. Tarcisius knew this was very dangerous, yet he eagerly offered. On his way, he carried Our Lord close to his heart and clasped firmly and tightly in his hands, but was soon surrounded by other boys and men who demanded to see what “treasure” he wouldn’t release. Tarcisius refused and the boys began to beat him. Crying out to Jesus, his attackers realized he was a Christian, and they beat him all the more. Tarcisius never let go of the Eucharist, and when he was later found (some accounts say by the Bishop who sent him, and some say by a Christian Soldier) he was discovered to still be holding tightly to Our Lord, his body curled around his hands holding the Eucharist. Tarcisius is the patron of altar servers and first communicants, a martyr of the Eucharist.
St. Clare of Assisi is another saint who loved the Eucharist. When she was old and frail her convent and town were under siege by Saracen Moors. As they tried to breech the walls of the monastery she placed a Monstrance in their view and then lay prostrate and prayed, “Behold, my Lord, is it possible You want to deliver into the hands of pagans Your defenseless handmaids, whom I have taught out of love for You? I pray You, Lord, protect these Your handmaids whom I cannot now save by myself.”According to the biographer of St. Clare, Tommaso da Celano, this is what happened next:
Suddenly a voice like that of a child resounded in her ears from the tabernacle: ‘I will always protect you!’ ‘My Lord,’ she added, ‘if it is Your wish, protect also this city which is sustained by Your love.’ Christ replied, ‘It will have to undergo trials, but it will be defended by My protection.’ Then the virgin, raising a face bathed in tears, comforted the sisters: ‘I assure you, daughters, that you will suffer no evil; only have faith in Christ.’http://www.realclearreligion.com/index_files/5466e850745a629df5a92fc7d9d02ef2-360.php
Upon seeing the courage of the sisters, the Saracens took flight and fled back over the walls they had scaled, unnerved by the strength of she who prayed. And Clare immediately admonished those who heard the voice I spoke of above, telling them severely: ‘Take care not to tell anyone about that voice while I am still alive, dearest daughters.’”
Another saint with a deep love for the Eucharist is little Blessed Imelda Lambertini. This young girl literally died of love for the Eucharist when she was just 11 years old! Too young to receive her first communion, but desperately desiring to receive the body and blood of Christ, one day Imelda was praying at Mass. The sacristan noticed an unearthly light above her head and notified the priest. The priest, influenced by the Holy Spirit, felt compelled to give her Holy Communion right then and there. Which he did. Imelda returned to her seat, elated and joyful and finished Mass. She remained afterwards to pray and was later found kneeling upright with a smile on her face, her soul already in Heaven having fled her body in the joy of receiving the Eucharist.
Most likely none of us us are going to die from the joy of receiving the Eucharist. Much more likely is that while we look to the saints for their intercession and example, we also hope for some earthly help in our quest to spread the truth about the Eucharist and to set a good example in our own reverence towards Jesus’ Body and Blood.
Hopefully we need look no farther than many of the holy priests, bishops, and faithful in our own parishes and dioceses. But if we need some extra encouragement and instruction, we can count on Cardinal Robert Sarah. Cardinal Sarah has his own stories about Eucharistic saints, namely Pope St. John Paul II and Mother Teresa. Cardinal Sarah says of John Paul II:
The whole of the life of Karol Wotyla was marked by a profound respect for the Blessed Eucharist. Much could be said, and much has been written about this. Today I simply ask you to recall that at the end of his life of service, a man in a body wracked with sickness, John Paul II could never sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. He forced his broken body to kneel. He needed the help of others to bend his knees, and again to stand. What more profound testimony could he give to the reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament than this, right up until his very last days.https://www.tldm.org/news34/cardinal-sarah-st-john-paul-ii-forced-his-broken-body-to-kneel-before-eucharist.htm
Cardinal Sarah gives us some very concrete and practical ways that he says will help to foster reverence for Holy Communion and will communicate the awesome mystery of the true presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist.
First, he suggests receiving the Eucharist on the tongue, and not in the hand. Speaking of Mother Teresa, he remarked, “She knelt and prostrated herself before Jesus in the Eucharist. And she received him, like a little child who is humbly nourished by his God. She was saddened and pained to see Christians receive Holy Communion in their hands.” He continues:
“[Receiving kneeling and on the tongue] is much more suited to the sacrament itself. I hope there can be a rediscovery and promotion of the beauty and pastoral value of this manner. In my opinion and judgment, this is an important question on which the church today must reflect. This is a further act of adoration and love that each of us can offer to Jesus Christ.”
Communion in the hand, he points out, “involves a great dispersion of fragments” of the Host, which, although small, are still the body of the Lord. Failure to respect this can cause people to lose their belief in the Real Presence, leading Catholics to think: “If even the parish priest does not pay attention to the fragments, if he administers the Communion so that the fragments can be dispersed, then it means that Jesus is not in them, or only ‘up to a certain point’”.https://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2018/02/23/cardinal-sarah-communion-in-the-hand-part-of-diabolical-attack-on-eucharist/
Secondly, he suggest priests move towards celebrating Mass ad orientem, or facing liturgical east. When the priests does this, he faces the Crucifix and the altar during the “most important parts” of the Mass, such as the consecration, and leads the faithful in worship. Cardinal Sarah explains that this action communicates deep reverence for what is happening on the altar. He explains:
What is this turning to the east and beholding Christ face to face? It is the very life into which the new member of the Church has been initiated. It is the ecclesial worship of Christ, our Lord and God: the Sacred Liturgy. Standing together with his or her brothers and sisters in an attitude of worship and adopting a common and profoundly meaningful physical posture (facing east) the neophyte takes his or her place as a Christian, as a part of the ecclesia at worship.
Lastly, he urges the faithful to kneel before the Eucharist, following John Paul II’s example. With both saintly and earthly help we can and will see a resurgence of reverence for the Eucharist and a re-catechizing and new understanding of one of the basic truths of our faith!