The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that Jesus in the Eucharist is meant to be the “source and the summit of the Christian life.” In other words, for a life to be truly Christian, Jesus in the Eucharist is meant to be not merely a part of a person’s existence but the reality from whom everything in his life flows and the goal toward whom everything in his life goes.
Following the same line of thought, Pope John Paul II in his 2003 encyclical on the Holy Eucharist said that the Church as a whole, and faithful Christians in particular, must live off the Eucharist.
If we seek to be a good, faithful Catholic, then, we need to determine whether we are really living off Jesus in the Eucharist, whether Jesus is really the alpha and the omega of our life. But that begs the question: What does it mean to live a truly Eucharistic life? Is it enough for us to be coming to Mass on Sunday and worthily receiving him?
I think the easiest way to determine whether we are genuinely living off Jesus in the Eucharist is to determine what our reaction is when we do not receive him. If we’re truly living off of Jesus then it would follow that we would feel spiritually dead if we were not, for whatever reason, able to receive Jesus.
One illustration of those who lived a Eucharistic life is often cited by Pope Benedict: the martyrs of Abitene. In 304, the local Roman governor warned Christians in what is modern day Tunisia that the emperor Diocletian had ordered that if Christians came together for the Eucharist, they were to be arrested and executed. Defying the orders, 49 Christians convened early Sunday morning to celebrate Mass. They were arrested and sentenced to death. When the governor asked why they had defied the emperor’s orders and his admonition, one of them, Octavius Felix, responded, “Sine Dominico non possumus,” which translated means, “Without the Lord on Sunday, we can’t make it.” They couldn’t live without Jesus in the Eucharist, and chose to die physically rather than suffer spiritually.
Helping Catholics learn to live a truly Eucharistic life is the aim of the Church and the goal of parish priests.[Last week] we described the indefagitable efforts of St. John Vianney to get his parishioners to return to Sunday Mass. After several years of prayer, penance, preaching, and personal persuasion, the patron of priests succeeded in getting almost all of the residents of Ars to show up for the three hour Mass at 8 am each Sunday. But he didn’t stop there. He knew that attendance at Sunday Mass was merely the first, not the last, stage on the road to a truly Eucharistic life. Now that almost all of his parishioners were present on Sunday, he would finally have the chance, in his hour-long homilies, to help them advance on the Eucharistic path to happiness, holiness and heaven.
A month ago [August 2009], at a night of recollection at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Acushnet to celebrate the 150th anniversary of St. John Vianney’s birth into eternal life, Msgr. Gerard O’Connor gave a superb talk on the three other stages of the holy Cure’s Eucharistic pastoral plan. I summarize what he presented.
Once they had returned to Sunday Mass, his next goal was to help them understand what the Mass really is. He was convinced that if his people truly understood the Mass, they would be filled with such amazement that they would not only hunger to attend every week but open themselves to receive far more of the Mass’ infinite graces. He patiently catechized and preached on how Mass is our participation in time in Jesus’ eternal loving self-sacrifice from the Last Supper and Calvary. He described the miracle of transubstantiation, how the “tongue of the priest, and a piece of bread, makes God!” which is described as “greater than creating the world!” He explained how valuable the Mass was, stating, “All the good works taken together do not equal the sacrifice of the Mass, because they are the works of men and the holy Mass is the work of God. The martyr is nothing in comparison, because martyrdom is the sacrifice that man makes to God of his life; the Mass is the sacrifice that God makes for man of his body and blood.” He passed on his own wondrous recognition that at Mass we receive a greater privilege than the elderly Simeon in the Gospel: Simeon just held the baby Jesus in his arms; we have a chance to receive him within and truly become one with him.
Once his people began to grasp how important the Mass was, he passed on to a third stage: to help them to grow in appreciation — not just intellectually but existentially — of the Lord’s real presence in the Eucharist. He preached about Christ’s real presence first by his example, through his genuflections, his reverence after the consecration at Mass, and his kneeling in prayer before the tabernacle. He eyes would tear up when he spoke about this gift of Jesus. He would often only be able to point to the tabernacle and repeat, “He is there!” At times he would say, “How beautiful it is! After the consecration, the good God is there, like he is in heaven. If man knew this mystery he would die of love.” With candid wonder, he exclaimed, “If we had one favor to ask of Our Lord, we would never have thought to ask him that!,” meaning, to ask the Father to send his Son first to die for our sins and then to become our spiritual food and constant companion.
He described that Jesus is in the tabernacle “waiting for us,” and he therefore urged his parishioners to come to him with their loving adoration, friendship and prayerful petitions. “If you are passing before a Church, enter to greet our Lord,” he encouraged his flock. “Could you pass the door of a friend without saying hello?”
Once he had them contemplating how they could and should respond to the Lord’s abiding presence in the tabernacle, he could pass to the fourth and final stage of the curriculum of a truly Eucharistic life: to help them desire and come to receive him worthily in Holy Communion as frequently as possible, even every day. He helped them to see Jesus in the Eucharist as their daily manna, as the response of God the Father to our prayers to give us each day our super-substantial “bread.” He described the power of the Eucharist to make them saints. He used an unforgettable image: “Next to this sacrament, we are like someone who dies of hunger next to a river, just needing to bent the head down to drink; or like a poor man next to a treasure chest, when all that is needed is to stretch out the hand.” All we needed, he said, to advance on the path to holiness and heaven was to come thirsty to Mass to receive the Living Water and poor to receive the world’s greatest treasure. He tried to get them to “upgrade” their faith from weekly communicants to daily. He lamented how many good people remained merely good: “What a shame! If they communicated more often, they would be saints.”
His entire plan was based around his, and the Church’s conviction, that “attending Mass is the greatest action we can do.”
The people responded to the loving appeals of their saintly pastor. Eventually St. John Vianney rejoiced that every morning the 7 am Mass was packed with Catholics who were receiving the Lord as the source and the summit of their life. Visitors to Ars soon began to be amazed not just with the holy Curé of Ars but with the holy Catholics of Ars.
St. John Vianney’s pastoral plan to help his parishioners become saints is the Church’s pastoral plan in every age.
This article originally appeared in The Anchor’s “Putting Into the Deep” on September 4, 2009.
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